Thomas “Pegleg” Smith was a notorious Wild West fur trapper, gold prospector, horse thief, and slaver whose legacy is best remembered for the supposed gold jackpot that he claimed to have found and lost until the day he died. So prominent is this aspect of his life that today a liar’s contest exists in his name at a spot that asks visitors to do something incredibly dumb.
After losing his leg around 1827 while on a fur trapping expedition, Pegleg made his way towards California where he claimed he came across a butte that was covered in black pebbles which were in fact pure gold underneath. Leaving his prize find behind, Pegleg took to selling American Indian children to Mexican haciendas, before moving on to a lucrative horse thieving career. All the while telling tales of his hidden desert jackpot.
It wasn’t until the California Gold Rush of 1849 that Pegleg finally decided to fully capitalize on the supposed hoard. His horse theft operation having been stopped by the authorities, Pegleg began mounting expeditions to find the golden butte, but none of them were successful. Despite the very real possibility that the butte never existed, Pegleg continued selling maps to his legendary gold until the day he died.
In 1947, a monument to Pegleg was created in Borrego Springs by artist Harry Oliver. Oliver erected a sign stating,”Let those who seek Peg Leg’s gold add ten rocks to this pile.” The strange act of good luck (and hucksterism) soon created a large pile of stones that continues to grow to this day. Later a register was also added, and now the site is home to the annual Pegleg Smith Liars Contest which sees people gather around the monument to swap hokum and celebrate the charlatan in each of them.
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