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Oregon gold-country legend: The solid-gold snuff can

Is there anything to the story of the Native American man who came out of the woods every few years with a snuff can full of gold dust? Maybe.

An old can of Swedish moist snuff, a brand popular with loggers in the
1930s. This is the type of can the Indian in this legend used to fill up with
fine gold from somewhere in the woods near McKenzie Bridge — so the
story goes. This can is from antiquemystique.com, an on-line
retailer that's a particularly good source of tobacco-related collectibles.

The Cascade mountains of Oregon are gold country for sure — but the McKenzie River Valley area is not exactly its hottest area for prospectors. Which is why I tend to think the legend Don Churchill told me about may have some truth to it.

Like many longtime Oregonians, Don is a consummate rockhound. He’s got a shed full of old lapidary equipment and slabs of stuff like volcanic hailstones, thundereggs and moss agate, which he’s collected over the years. And, of course, he’s spent some time looking for gold as well.

Those of you who know your gold-country legends will probably recognize the story he told me. I’ve heard and read it about a couple other places as well — down Jacksonville way, for instance, or out in northeast Oregon. But this may be the original.

The story dates back to the 1920s and 1930s, before World War II. The way Don tells it, for many years a Native American man was a regular visitor to the Deerhorn Ranch, up the McKenzie River. He would drive up the river in his old Ford Model T and spend the night there. The next morning, he would hike into the mountains. He’d be gone just until around dusk. But when he came back, he’d be carrying a snuff can — the round kind, like Copenhagen comes in — packed with gold dust.

The next morning, back down Highway 126 he would go. The can of gold would last him usually two to three years; after that, he’d drive his Model T back up and do it again.

Naturally, this attracted some attention from folks who would have liked to, to use a kindergartener’s euphemism, “share” the gold with him. Many times people tried to follow him into the mountains. Each time, he slipped away and came back with his can of gold.

Then, without fanfare, he simply stopped coming. No one knew if he’d died, or depleted his cache of gold, or what. But no one ever figured out where the gold was coming from.

In other places, there would be a very likely explanation: The Indian would have been an old miner, working in a commercial gold mine, who had managed to smuggle some dust out of the mine each day — perhaps in a special hollow spot in his pick, maybe in his shoes or underwear, or somewhere else — and had cached it someplace for later retrieval. The fact that it was always gold dust — an eminently smuggle-able form of the stuff — supports this theory.

But there were no working commercial gold-mining operations up the McKenzie. And if there were known sources of loose gold (dust) up there, I haven't been able to learn about them.

Another possibility would be that a prospector had struck it rich up there somewhere, and then — before he could bring his findings to market — something had happened to him. Perhaps then the Native American stumbled across his remains, along with his gold.

Or perhaps this is just another gold-country legend, augmented with a few specific facts to make it play better around a campfire late at night.

True or not, it’s a great story, and it’s fun to think about the possibilities.

(Source: Donald Churchill of Springfield, Ore.)

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