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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Gold-field bandits' stolen loot still hasn't been found

The Triskett Gang underestimated the citizens of Sailors' Diggins, which became a fatal error when they went on a shooting spree downtown. But the $75,000 they stole has never been recovered.

Cap-and-ball Colt revolver, .44 caliber, 1848 Dragoon model
The amount of shooting done in Sailors' Diggins by the Triskett Gang
suggests they likely were using the then-new cap-and-ball Colt revolvers
such as this 1848 Dragoon model. Remember, this incident happened
well before brass cartridges were invented; each shot had to be loaded
by hand with a ramrod. (Image: Hmaag/Wikimedia) [Larger image:
1800 x 847 px]
By Finn J.D. John — June 26, 2011

After a former Oregon farmer found gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848 and started the California Gold Rush, people from Oregon raced southward to start grubbing it out of the ground. The next year, people from the East Coast raced westward with the same idea.

By the year after that, it was getting to be hard to find a good patch of "pay dirt" that didn't already have a miner or two working it. New prospectors might spend years poking around little mountain creeks before finding one worth working, and prospecting was hard work.

Increasingly, people started to realize there were actually several different ways a fellow could work the diggin's:

One could look for gold the old-fashioned way, of course. But one could also go into business selling stuff, at inflated prices, to prospectors; many Oregon farmers got very rich this way.

There was another way, too. One could simply make a five-dollar investment in one of those new-fangled .44-caliber Colt Dragoon revolvers, then go find a successful miner and rob him.

Meet the Triskett Gang

There was one particular group of frontier rowdies who opted to follow this last path. They were known as the Triskett Gang. This name sounds a bit like a Disney movie from the late 1960s — maybe as a sequel to The Apple Dumpling Gang? — but in reality, these guys were anything but lovable. They were named not after a yet-to-be-invented Nabisco snack cracker, but rather after brothers Jack and Henry Triskett. In their little band were three other thugs: Fred Cooper, Miles Hearn and Chris Slover.

The story of the Triskett Gang's last day is a bit fuzzy. I haven't been able to track down a solid source for the details. A visit to the Josephine County Historical Society in Grants Pass might yield further details, but historians at the Historical Society have been looking into this for some time now without being able to confirm its details. It's possible — actually, it's rather likely — that the story has been exaggerated and distorted so much over years of retelling that it's crossed the line from "history" to "legend."

But folklore is itself a kind of history. And so, with that in mind, here's the gist of the legend of the Triskett Gang's Last Stand:

Desperados on the run

The town of Waldo in 1890.
The town of Waldo, f.k.a. Sailors' Diggins, in the 1890s. This image was
made well after the town's Gold Rush heyday, when the Triskett Gang
came through town and shot it up . (Image: www.oregongold.net)
[Larger image: 1000 x 647 px]

In early August of 1852, the Trisketteros were on the run. They'd robbed a few people in California, as guys like them are wont to do, and were heading north with some armed, angry citizens on their tails, trying to lose themselves in the wilderness for a while.

They arrived one afternoon in a little town called Sailors' Diggins, which today is a ghost town known as Waldo. About five miles north of the border with California near the present-day town of Cave Junction, Sailors' Diggins was essentially an overgrown mining camp, but it was booming; at a time when the entire state of Oregon had fewer than 10,000 occupants, Sailors' Diggins was home to several thousand. The mountains nearby were especially rich, and on that particular day, almost every able-bodied man was out working them.

Waldo/ Sailors' Diggins as it appeared in 1854.
When photographer Ben Maxwell visited Waldo (Sailors' Diggins) in
1954, he found not much remaining of the ghost town that once was one
of Oregon's largest towns . (Image: Salem Public Library, Ben Maxwell
collection) [Larger image: 1200 x 847 px]

The five bandits quickly found the saloon, went inside and started drinking their stolen gold. After a time, nicely sozzled, they wandered out onto the street. Probably they were contemplating the need to get out of Sailors' Diggins immediately; a town that size would be the first place the posse would check when trying to get a fix on them.

Maybe it was this thought that made Fred Cooper snap. Bandits aren't known for self-discipline. Maybe he wanted, more than anything, to hang around that saloon all afternoon, leisurely drinking and flirting and maybe hiring some female companionship for the evening — all those things that bad guys dream about doing with their ill-gotten gains. Maybe he was standing there outside that nice little saloon just getting madder and madder at having to leave, plunge into the woods and start poking around for a tree to sleep under.

Maybe. Nobody knows, really. What is known is that instead of heaving a heavy sigh and heading for the city limits, he pulled his pistol and, without a word, gunned down a random citizen who was walking down the street minding his own business.

Gunning down innocent bystanders

An abandoned building in Waldo, still standing in 1954.
One of the few buildings still standing in 1954 when Ben Maxwell visited
the ghost town of Waldo. (Image: Salem Public Library, Ben Maxwell
collection ) [Larger image: 1800 x 1367 px]

The rest of the gang leaped into action, if that's the right word. The five of them stormed down the street simply killing everyone they saw. (According to one account, at least two women were raped as well. This detail doesn't ring true, however, given the apparent haste with which the gang members were leaving town.)

As they were leaving town, they paused, hustled down to the assaying depot and cleaned it out — roughly $75,000 worth of freshly mined gold. This they loaded onto two stolen horses and left town.

A mob of angry citizens takes up the chase

Now, Sailors Diggins was right in the middle of the mining action. Many of the miners could hear the gunfire and knew something was very wrong. By the time the Triskett Gang was leaving town, they were starting to arrive, probably with loaded weapons in hand. The 17 dead bodies still bleeding in the streets were their wives, children and aged relatives. You can imagine how they reacted.

All it took was one well-hidden survivor to yell, "They went that-a-way!" and the chase was on.

Weighed down with almost 250 pounds of gold, the bandits weren't moving very fast, and the posse soon caught them up. The gang members must have been surprised by how quickly the angry citizens got on their trail. After a short pursuit, the bad guys turned at bay on the top of a little hill just outside O'Brien.

Gunfight to the death; but where was the gold?

I haven't been able to learn anything about the ensuing firefight. Presumably at least a few of the miners were killed; after all, the Triskett Gang were professional gunmen, and were able to pick the place where they made their final stand. I also don't know if the bad guys tried to surrender. It's certainly possible they didn't; all they had to look forward to was humiliation and hanging.

In any case, when the shooting stopped, four gang members were dead, one was dying — and there was no sign anywhere of the 250 pounds of gold dust they'd hijacked from the depot.

To this day, that gold has never been recovered — or, rather, if it has, whoever found it was remarkably discreet about it. Treasure hunters still come to the O'Brien area to look for it. Most of them assume the gang hid it somewhere on the hill where they made their stand.

But it seems far more likely, doesn't it? that they squirreled it away earlier, when they first realized they were being pursued? It's a lot harder to run from an angry posse when you're leading a pack horse.

If that's the case, it could be almost anywhere in the woods between Waldo and O'Brien, probably within a few dozen yards of the road.

The stash would be worth about $5.5 million today.

(Sources: http://www.gwizit.com/treasures/oregon.php; http://www.josephinehistorical.org; Marsh, Carole. Oregon's Unsolved Mysteries (and their "Solutions"). Peachtree City, GA: Carole Marsh Books, 1994; Friedman, Ralph. In Search of Western Oregon. Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1990)