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Ready for a Ghost Story?

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

First off, I want to apologize for missing the deadline for sending out the newsletter last month. I will say that it was a rough month for many reasons I don’t need to go into now, but I want to assure your that I am getting back on track with writing/editing.

In the previous newsletter, I told you about some of the things I saw on our trip across the country and what they meant to me personally from a genealogical perspective. If you missed that one, you may find it here. I thought I would continue to share a bit more of the history of the west with you this month.

Like the 1861 Homestead Act that I discussed in the last newsletter, the 1872 Mining Act, allowed prospectors to survey and claim public lands in the western territories. Prospectors were required to invest $500 worth of labor (the equivalent of five years of holding and mining the land) before filing the patent. Claimants could also apply for up to five acres of non-mineral land, to be used for mining and milling activities. This additional land did not have to be adjacent to the original claim.

Mining in the Black Hills began in 1874 but didn’t reach its peak until 1876-77. The Treaty of Laramie, signed in 1868, recognized the Black Hills as belonging to the Sioux. Despite this, Americans were increasingly interested in the gold-mining possibilities in the Black Hills region and began encroaching on Sioux land. In 1874, a U.S. Army Expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer was given orders to travel the previously uncharted Black Hills looking for a suitable location for a fort, to find a route to the southwest, and to investigate the potential for gold mining. They found gold in French Creek, near the present-day town of Custer, named after the expedition. News traveled fast and suddenly the Black Hills Gold Rush began.

The gold near Custer ran out quickly, but a much more significant source of was found in Deadwood Gulch, which took its name from the numerous dead trees that lay in the canyon. Loose pieces of gold mixed with rock and dirt, known as “placer gold,” was found in Deadwood and Whitewood Creeks leading prospectors to search for the source of this gold in quartz and rock outcroppings around the area. Brothers Fred and Moses Manuel and their partners Hank Harney and Alex Engh discovered a sizeable vein on April 9, 1876. They staked a claim, naming it the Homestake Mine. The following year, they sold it to a group of out-of-state investors, including George Hearst, for $70,000, not knowing that it would become the largest gold vein in American history. Over the next 125 years, it would yield over 40 million ounces of gold valued at more than $1 billion and supplying 10% of the world’s gold resources.

Gold mining has continues in the Black Hills up to this day and the Bureau of Land Management is still taking claims. It is unclear when my great-grandmother’s brothers, Worlie and Willie Heater, obtained their claim, but it seems that they were still working it in 1911, the year my grandmother, Marian, was born on the farm in Woonsocket, South Dakota.

Thinking about mining in the Black Hills and with the impeding Halloween, I am reminded of a story my mother told me when I was a young girl, most memorably in the black of night to group of skittish junior high girls bedded down in a rustic cabin in the wooded mountains of northern Arizona.

I recently discovered that the basic plot in the following tale (though my mother added many of her own embellishments) is an American adaptation of a folktale spanning multiple cultures and being passed down orally for over 200 years. Apparently, Mark Twain used this folktale to instruct others in how to tell a story. I am sure that the famous author did a fine job telling this tale, though, I am not convinced he could have done better that my mother did on that dark, stormy night….

The Man with the Golden Arm

Once upon a time, there was a man who worked a gold mine deep in the mountains surrounded by a dense forest. He lived alone in a crude log cabin near his mine. One day, as he was working the mine, the tunnel collapsed, and his arm was caught under a large pile of rocks.

There was no way that he could pull his arm out and there was no one for miles around to hear his cries for help. So, to save his own life, the miner took a knife from his belt and cut off his own arm. Later, he fashioned a golden arm to replace the one he lost.

Rumor soon spread about the man with the golden arm. Other prospectors staked out claims nearby in hopes of also finding gold. In time the man died, and his neighbors buried him near his cabin. But the mines nearby did not produce the large quantities of gold that the old man had discovered.

One night, one of his neighbors remembered the man with the golden arm. He thought, “Why should the golden arm lay buried with the old miner. He doesn’t need it anymore.” So he went back to the gravesite, dug up the man, and took the golden arm. He reburied the old miner and returned to his cabin feeling smug. He placed the arm under his cot and went to sleep.

That night it was very dark. The wind howled and the windows rattled. Then he heard a squeak as the door to his cabin opened. He sat up and called out, “Who’s there?” No one answered. “I must be hearing things,” he thought and laid back down.

A floorboard creaked. Again, he called out, “Who’s there?” Again, no one answered. He pulled the covers up to his chin.

Then he heard something moving across the floor – clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp. A voice called out, “I want my golden arm! Who’s got my golden arm?”

The thief huddled in the bed and tried not to make a sound. He could hear the clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp coming closer and the voice getting louder. “I want my golden arm! Who’s got my golden arm?”

The sounds were starting up the stairs. Clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp. “I want my golden arm! Who’s got my golden arm?”

The thief pulled the covers over this head. He was shaking with fright. CLOMP, CLOMP, CLOMP, CLOMP. “I want my golden arm! WHO’S GOT MY GOLDEN ARM? … YOU’VE GOT IT!”

At this point, my mother, who had been quietly moving closer to one of the bunk beds, grabbed one of the girls, who immediately started screaming hysterically. Camp leaders came running from all the cabins around us and burst into our cabin. They flipped on the lights to discover, the poor victim continuing to scream uncontrollably and the rest of us girls, laughing so hard we were crying.

My mother calmly apologized to the other leaders, explaining what had happened, and they left shaking their heads and chuckling. To this day, I have not heard a better ghost story!

Normally, I send out a newsletter on the first Friday of the month, but since I was so late in sending out this one, I will not send out the next one until December when, I will delve into the Black Hawk War and some interesting, ironic, and eyebrow-raising tidbits I have recently uncovered. In the meantime, I wish you all a fun All Hollow’s Eve and a meaningful All Soul’s Day.

If you have any comments or stories you would like to share with me, I would love to hear them, simply reply to this email.

Take care. I will reach out again in December.

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