A tale of gold nuggets found by people from a wagon train might be called the story that founded Idaho. Gold was discovered in north Idaho in 1860, but it was the detection of mineral wealth in Boise Basin in 1862 that set Idaho on track to becoming a U.S. Territory.
One of the prospectors who first found gold in the Boise Basin, Joseph Branstetter, told Eva Hunt Dockery of the Idaho Statesman how they were lured to Idaho:
This party left Auburn, Ore. in July ‘62 with a doctor named Turner, who had learned from immigrants that one of the tributaries of the Snake River was very rich in gold nuggets. The immigrants, the doctor said, not knowing at that time that these nuggets were gold, fastened a few on wagon tires and used them for sinkers for fish lines. He procured a map made by the immigrants and the party started out.
When what is now known as Sinker Creek, so named by Turner’s party, in Owyhee County, was reached, the doctor became greatly elated and thought that El Dorado had been reached, but, alas, no gold was found. It was later learned that the immigrants’ tale had not been a fabrication, however, and that they had obtained the nuggets from crevices in the bedrock along the shores of John Day River in Oregon, where gold was later found but the placers did not prove to be fabulously rich.
Part of the followers of Dr. Turner were so disappointed at not finding the golden sinkers that they turned back; the others, after their first disappointment, according to Mr. Branstetter’s story, crossed Malheur and Owyhee rivers in skiffs.
[They] came on to Boise River, … [where] they made a raft of willows and crossed about where the town of Middleton is now located and went up Dry Creek almost to the head, where they met a band of Indians. One of them, who gave his name as Bannock Jim, talked fair English and the prospectors made inquiries about the country to the northeast.
Following Bannock Jim’s directions, the gold seekers crossed over to the Grime’s Creek drainage. There in August 1862 they found plentiful signs of gold. They worked their way up the creek to Grime’s Pass, panning as they went to locate the richest area. Word of the find brought a stampede of miners and would-be miners that by August 1863 numbered over 30,000 people — which gained attention for Idaho in Washington, D.C. and won Territorial status in March 1863.
It is interesting to compare the story Dr. Turner was told with the legend of the Blue Bucket Mines, summarized by the W.P.A. Oregon Writers’ Project in 1940:
The Blue Bucket Mines, said to be located on a swift central Oregon stream that is literally pebbled with gold nuggets, have been sought for seventy-five years. Emigrants, camping for the night on a hazardous section of Meek’s Cut-Off, fished in the stream. Yellow pebbles, taken from the stream bed, and hammered flat on wagon tires, served as sinkers in the swift current. Children filled a blue bucket with the stones, but all were tossed aside as the train proceeded. [Meek’s Cut-Off was an alternate route through Oregon that avoided the Blue Mountains. One large wagon train attempted the route in 1845, which followed the Malheur River, passed through the Burns area, and returned to the main Oregon Trail at The Dalles. The journey was a nightmare for the emigrants. Twenty-five people died during the ordeal.]
As for Sinker Creek, it drains a portion of Owyhee County’s War Eagle Mountain that includes the noted Golden Chariot Mine of the 1860s and 1870s. It is possible that gold nuggets from the vein of ore the Golden Chariot Mine exploited had washed into the creek. Contrary to the account given to the Statesman, one member of the prospecting party claimed that some gold was found in Sinker Creek.

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