Why do so many Frenchmen lose their mines?

Why do so many Frenchmen lose their mines?

Second only to those forgetful Dutchmen, whose numerous lost money pits seem to speckle the globe, the French have a way of looking treasure in the eye and then nonchalantly strolling away.

Frenchman Louis Belfils was different. He had an excuse.

Setting up shop in 1855 Jacksonville, the 25-year-old watchmaker was ambitious. When business was slow, he'd saddle up a mule and make the rounds of all the lucrative mining camps, where hard-living prospectors were even harder on their pocket watches.

Early in 1856, returning home from another profitable trip to Sailors Diggings, in today's Josephine County, Belfils was plodding up the old American Indian trail that wound its way around Tannen Mountain, just north of the Oregon-California border.

Suddenly his mule stiffened and stopped, ears pricked forward, eyes wide and frozen on the nearby brush.

Whoosh! An arrow missed Belfils' nose by inches, thumping into the tree behind him.

Instantly his heels pounded into the mule and somehow he got the animal into an awkward, strutting, westward gallop, but in his haste, he lost the trail.

Lucky for Louie, the Indians were on foot and couldn't catch up.

He pulled his lathered mule to a halt and got off to figure out where he was. Fighting Indians wasn't that appealing, so going back wasn't an option.

Belfils rushed west, riding all night without food or sleep.

When dawn broke, he found himself high on a steep ledge topped with a grove of live oak. He sat down for a cold meal, his worried eyes scanning the country below.

Sitting there and thinking, he began tossing a heavy rock in the air. When it fell from his hands he reached down to pick it up. That's when he saw it.

Gold! High-grade quartz, shot with wire gold, and not just one rock; the ledge was littered with glittering chunks of stone.

But the Indians were back, climbing toward him. He put a rock in his pocket, got on his mule and headed west across the top of the Siskiyous until he reached the well-worn Happy Camp Trail along Indian Creek, where he turned south to safety in California.

Returning to Jacksonville, Belfils showed his specimen to Cornelius Beekman, soon to be the town's banker. Beekman gave him $100 for the stone and, for a half share, agreed to stake Belfils' search for the claim.

For the next three years Belfils wandered the mountains looking for his ledge of gold. His mind held a clear picture of the mountain ridge, the grove of live oak and the scattered chunks of gold ore, but he could never find it again.

He moved away, leaving the legend of the Lost Frenchman Mine to the campfire tales of miners and to the treasure hunters of the world.

Some say it was rediscovered in 1904 on a claim nearby, but the evidence says that if it ever existed at all, Belfils' gold is still out there, shining in the morning sun.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com.