These Gold Rush guys — some Dutchman hunters, others regular prospectors — are wild cards. Not only are they secretive, they've got a long and sordid history in the Superstitions — they're known to be dangerous. There are a few stories about the grisly deaths of Dutchman hunters, like Adolph Ruth, a retired veterinarian from Washington, D.C., who went into the mountains searching for the mine in 1931, only to be found a few months later with what appeared to be two bullet holes through his skull.

"If he walked into someone's campsite at the wrong time, you never know. I wouldn't put it past them," Cooper says. "I've had reports from people saying some guy jumped out with a stick and was screaming at them. For years, I've had reports of people yelling at hikers to get out of an area, and they've e-mailed me and I've told them, 'Well, then don't go in that area. If that guy wanted to hurt you, he would have hurt you. Apparently he was protecting something he believes is his.'"

Did Capen run afoul of a violent prospector? Though it's possible, Cooper says, probably not. However, there are, as Yukon poet Robert Service wrote, "strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold."

Robert Cooper and his search team are combing rugged land within a half-mile radius of where Jesse Capen disappeared.
Jamie Peachey
Robert Cooper and his search team are combing rugged land within a half-mile radius of where Jesse Capen disappeared.
Jesse Capen
Jesse Capen

Suicide is another possibility, though Cooper has never seen someone do anywhere near this much work before offing himself. Usually, Cooper says, those who kill themselves leave their wallet and keys in the car, absolutely sure they won't need them anymore. Even then, the body is usually about a half-mile in, at the first place where the guy could find a nice view.

There's also some small chance Jesse faked his disappearance, though no reason for doing so has emerged. There was, however, a rental car with Colorado plates spotted at the trailhead within days of when Capen was reported missing. A coincidence, cops say, though Cooper mentions that he doesn't like coincidences.

Another serious possibility, the one searchers hate to think about, is that Capen set up camp, wandered off just before dark, and was unable to find his way back. Maybe he fell asleep halfway through his hunt for the tent, Cooper says, then woke up and continued walking. Under that scenario, he could've gone more than 20 miles into the wilderness.

All that uncertainty makes for a very, very long search. Of more than 2,000 search-and-rescue operations the team had done before Capen's disappearance, the longest was five weekends. As the guys make their way up the overgrown trail along Tortilla Creek, the search for Jesse is at seven weekends — and counting.

"This one has [few] clues," Cooper says. "The ones in the past, at least you had some clues that the person was in the area. Here you have his tent with all his belongings — and that's it."

Cooper supposes it's possible "that [Capen] dropped his belongings and left the state."

But, statistically speaking, Capen (or what's left of him) is within a half-mile of his camp.

On this beautiful Saturday, the team gathers just after dawn to work on slowly clearing every inch of that half-mile.

"We're not quitting until we find him. We never have," Cooper says. "I've been on the team since '94, and we've never not found someone we've started to look for. We have a perfect record."

This is the Lost Dutchman story that drew Jesse Capen to Arizona, stripped of disputed facts: An old German prospector named Jacob Waltz died in his modest Phoenix-area ranch house with a large pile of gold ore in or near that house, having told at least one person that the ore came from a gold-rich mine hidden in or near the Superstition Mountains.

The variations on that theme are the real heart of the legend, though. There is a seemingly unending list of added details — nearly a printed encyclopedia's worth of stories accompanied by enough crudely rendered maps to fill an atlas. They range widely in veracity. Some tack hard-boiled science onto that bare-bones Dutchman story; others are rooted in plausible but unprovable secondhand information; other bits revolve around curses enforced by mystical guardians.

But the talk of curses isn't taken seriously by many of those seeking the gold. After all, any serious Dutchman hunter would be foolhardy to pursue the treasure if he believed he might get an arrow in the back, fired by the apparition of a long-dead Apache warrior.

When all the minutiae are cast aside, there are two main camps of serious Dutchman hunters: Petrasch and Holmes (see the sidebar).

Helen Corbin, wife of former Arizona attorney general and avid Dutchman hunter Bob Corbin, breaks down the details of the two factions in her book, Curse of the Dutchman's Gold.

The Petrasch faction believes the dying Dutchman told the secret of his mine's location to Julia Thomas, a black woman who'd been his caretaker, and her adopted son, Reiney Petrasch. Holmes followers believe Waltz confessed the location to Dick Holmes, who'd previously tried to trail the Dutchman to his mine. The Petrasch faction tends to end up searching on the east side of the Superstitions, where their clues fit, while the Holmes supporters stick to the west.

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My brother, a friend & myself took a hike in the superstition mountains once back in 1971. we had barely started walking when we saw this rocket ship @ the top of a cliff (we thought, a space ship - someone must

b playing a joke). We left the trail & headed 4 the base of the cliff, hoping that once there we'd find a way up. At the point directly below the ship we found a hidden waterfall (no way up at all). The waterfall was spilling into a circle of small river rocks. And going immediately underground. There was no pooling of the water @ all. We didn't touch it or walk on the rocks. We were so spooked we took off back to our car. When we could we looked back to c if the rocket was still there. It was not. I would love to hear of others experiences in those mountains. I have never been able 2 forget what happened to us & have never been back there.


Great article. I have been lucky enough to have been taught by knowlegable freinds how dangerous these mountains are.


This is a very interesting article but the idea that the Superstition area is a particularly dangerous one is silly. There is a certain romance associated with the range which some find important to nurture. The stories of stick-weilding miners and squatting prospectors are, of course, apocryphal, as are the tales of the lost mine itself. Likewise, the danger from the exceedingly sparse population of mountain lions in the range is by all measures nonexistent and anyone who packs a firearm into the wilderness against the advent of a shootout with one is either ignorant or operating a couple of raisins short of a fruitcake. I have hiked extensively in the Superstitions and I have often seen these pistol-packing nimrods. I suppose one should allow them to indulge in their adolescent Wild West fantasies, but they still leave me rolling my eyes a little. Nothing is sillier (even squatting prospectors or lurking mountain lions) than a paranoid, Stetson-wearing nudnik shivering with fear and packing a six-shooter in this rugged but friendly wilderness.

Jonathan  McNamara
Jonathan McNamara

How is looking for a lost gold mine any different from the constant search for material wealth modern society seems to place us all on?

C W Williamson
C W Williamson

There is a certain pity I feel for people as ignorant as you who think that nothing bad will ever happen to them. What happens when you or your dauhter are hiking with a couple of girlfriends and you come upon some maniac squatting out there? You would be really wishing you had a gun at that point, because chances are the maniac DOES have one. And guess what, there are no police out there either friend!

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