Loreta’s Civil War: The gold fever

Gold and silver fever swirl around Velazquez, and her husband is not immune. She marvels at the different schemes employed to swindle the desperate settlers who share her aspirations for a new and better life.

Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart shared edited excerpts from the extraordinary memoir of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who chronicled her adventures throughout the Civil War — either as herself, as a Confederate spy, or in disguise as Confederate Lt. Harry T. Buford. She fought and led men in terrible battles, fell in love, bore and lost children, and traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe, ultimately fulfilling her childhood dream of a rich and adventurous life.

You can read the entire 1876 memoir online here. Learn more about Velazquez (and the incredible documentary film Maria Agui Carter made about her) here.

Read previous chapters of her incredible story here.

Part 67: Gold and silver fever swirl around Velazquez, and her husband is not immune. She marvels at the different schemes employed to swindle the desperate settlers who share her aspirations for a new and better life.

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Shortly after my marriage I made a flying trip to New Orleans, for the purpose of seeing my brother and some of my relatives. Immediately a rumor was started that I had run away, and when I returned I found that all kinds of stories had been set afloat about me. My reappearance, however, set them all at rest, and, as my husband and myself zealously attended to our own business and let that of other people alone, we were permitted to dwell together in peace.

When I got back from New Orleans, we purchased a snug little stone house, and I devoted myself to advancing my husband’s interests as much as possible and to making our home comfortable and attractive.

My husband, for a time, prospered in his mining operations, and, although there were some envious people who spoke ill of him and of me, we succeeded in gaining the esteem of such of our neighbors as were worth knowing and did not disturb ourselves about what might be said of us by those who were disposed to speak evil.

The city of Austin, which is near the center of Nevada, at this time (1868) contained from fifteen hundred to two thousand inhabitants, most of whom were in some way connected with the mines. There were about a dozen stores, one hotel, four or five lodging-houses, half a dozen restaurants, more drinking- saloons than I ever undertook to count, Catholic and Methodist churches, a Masonic hall, and five quartz crushing-mills — only one, however, of which was in operation.

There was any amount of speculation in mines and mining stocks and any amount of the worst kind of swindling going on all the time. Some of the mines were good ones but others were mere pretences and were worth nothing at all. Many of these bogus mines were sold to eastern capitalists by experts, who made a specialty of working frauds of this description.

It was while residing in Austin that I first heard the expression “salting” applied to mines and learned what it meant. Salting, however, was only one of a number of frauds that were practiced every day.

It grieved me greatly that my husband should be compelled to associate and to transact business with such scoundrels as the men about him. His partner, especially, was as worthless a scamp as there was in the district, and, as I felt certain that he would in time be held responsible for some of the doings of this fellow, I persuaded him to give up mining and to seek a home in some locality that offered greater advantages for living, as decent people ought to live, than Austin did.

My husband accordingly sold out his interest in the mines, and we removed to California, where we purchased a lovely place in the Sacramento Valley. This was just such a home as I had always sighed for, and I was perfectly happy in the idea of settling down and living a quiet, contented life for the rest of my days.

It was not to be, however. My husband had the gold fever, and he found it impossible to be satisfied with what would have satisfied most reasonable people. He was restless and irritable and was all the time anxious to be off to the mines again.

We had not been settled in our new home more than a few months, when, to my infinite regret, he insisted on starting off for the new Eldorado in Utah. He then passed a year prospecting in Bingham Canyon, Camp Floyd, Eureka, and Tintic, and expended all his money without achieving anything. He was then compelled to accept the foremanship of a mine in the Lucine district, and after he had been working in that capacity for some time was promoted to superintendent.

One of the members of the firm by whom my husband was employed was a gentleman, and was honest, as honesty went in that region. The other was a drunkard and a fraud of the worst kind. This man, some time before this, had started a settlement which he named after himself and had built a smelting furnace, all for the purpose of selling some bogus mines. He also perpetrated an infamous swindle on some English capitalists, in relation to a mine in Nevada.

The way the thing was done was this, and it will serve as an illustration of the kind of swindles that were constantly being perpetrated in connection with mines. He sent to Virginia and purchased some rich ore from the Comstock mine for the purpose of salting the mine which he wished to sell. This was a silver-bearing lead, but there was not enough metal in the ore to pay for getting it out. It was necessary, however, in order to effect a sale, to give the impression that it was very rich. The smelter, therefore, run out about three thousand bars, which were supposed to be silver, but which were in reality half lead.

These were hauled to the depot, where the persons who proposed to purchase could see them but after dark they were taken back to the mine, and the next day the teams took them to the depot again. This was done for three successive days, and the Englishmen, seeing such enormous amounts of metal, became greatly excited and offered a million dollars for the mine. The speculator refused, and then they offered a million and a half. This offer he closed with, and a day was set for the inspection of the mine.

The “dumps” were thoroughly salted, and arrangements were made for the assayer and mining expert to be in attendance. The proposed purchasers had their expert with them, a German professor from Freiburg. This professor had a large sack with him in which to put samples of ore, and when going down into the mine he gave it to one of the men to carry for him.

The speculator had on a large blanket-coat with immense pockets in it, which were filled with rich ore. The man with the sack was also provided with a small quantity to be used in case of emergency. Every time the professor put a piece of ore in the sack, so soon as his back was turned the speculator or his man would drop in some of the rich ore. The result was that when the assays were made, they rose from three thousand to fifteen thousand dollars to the ton.

The Englishmen were in ecstasies and insisted on the contract being drawn up immediately. Part of the purchase money was then paid down, and the rest was to be forthcoming in thirty days. When the thirty days expired the purchasers took possession, only to find that they had been duped in a most outrageous manner. By the time the discovery of the fraud was made, however, the swindlers had fled, and the Englishmen had nothing to do but to return to London with empty pockets.

One of them, however, tried his luck again in Little Cottonwood, in the Wellington district, but with no better success.

My husband was at this time superintendent of one of the Wellington mines, and I consequently had ample opportunities to study mining life and to become acquainted with the numerous frauds that were going on. I was also thrown in a good deal with the Mormons and was able to study their characters and manners.

Little Cottonwood Canyon is about twelve miles long, is very narrow and very deep. A stream runs down the middle of it, which is very swift in the months of June and July, when it is full, on account of the melting of immense quantities of snow in the mountains.

Tannersville is a town or settlement named in honor of a woman who kept a hotel or stage-station there. There was a mill and smelter at that place at the time of which I am writing.

Alta City, at the foot of the two canyons — Big and Little Cottonwood — is a town of rather more importance. When I was there it had three stores, a hotel, a couple of lodging-houses, a livery stable, and a large number of drinking-saloons. The dwelling-houses were mostly very small and were entirely invisible in winter, being covered by the snow. The snow usually commences to fall about the middle of September, but I have seen it in August. During the winter many parts of the canyon are impassable, except by the use of sledges and snow-shoes, and there is constant danger from avalanches, which carry everything before them.

The Wellington mine lost its foreman and a miner through an avalanche while I was there, and many men have lost their lives in this canyon, their bodies remaining buried beneath the snow until spring.

I doubt whether many of the mines in this district will ever be successfully worked. The Emma is one of the best, and I think could be made to pay if judiciously operated. This mine is situated in the side of the mountain and is almost perpendicular. On looking at it, it is impossible not to wonder how the owners ever reached it or are able to work it. I believe that there is an immense lead of silver here which will yet be unearthed.

This part of the country offers a rich field for the botanist and naturalist. The flowers are in the greatest profusion and are of every imaginable hue. They grow from the mouth of the canyon to some of the highest points on the mountains.

The wild cherry, the whortleberry, the serviceberry, the thimbleberry, and the dewberry are very abundant.

On the very summits of this immense range will be found clear blue lakes, filled with spotted trout. How they have managed to get there is more than I can tell.

When the highest points are reached, if one looks aloft the broadwinged eagle may be seen wheeling in the air, while upon the ground are the beautiful mountain squirrels, busily engaged in gathering their winter stores. I have often sat for hours and watched these nimble little animals. There are as many as six different varieties of squirrels, some of which are not larger than mice, while others, the size of the common gray squirrels of the Eastern states, are beautifully striped and vary in color from light gray to dark brown. The greatest enemies of these harmless animals are the eagle and the mink.

Large rats abound in the woods, as do also the brown weasels. These last-named animals are about eighteen inches in length from the nose to the tip of the tail. The head is small, and the eyes, which are very prominent, are of a soft, lustrous black. The weasels are very cunning and are especially destructive to the mice and squirrels. I have seen two old ones kill as many as six or eight mice in a day in my home and carry them, one at a time, across the ravine to their young in the woods. While carrying a mouse, however, should a squirrel appear, the weasel will throw down the mouse, and go after this fresh game, and then come back and get the mouse.

Loreta’s Civil War: Playing a desperate game

Her mission accomplished, Velazquez returns to Washington to check in with her Union supervisor. He is impressed with her, while she worries that he may find out how she is manipulating him.

Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart shared edited excerpts from the extraordinary memoir of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who chronicled her adventures throughout the Civil War — either as herself, as a Confederate spy, or in disguise as Confederate Lt. Harry T. Buford. She fought and led men in terrible battles, fell in love, bore and lost children, and traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe, ultimately fulfilling her childhood dream of a rich and adventurous life.

You can read the entire 1876 memoir online here. Learn more about Velazquez (and the incredible documentary film Maria Agui Carter made about her) here.

Read previous chapters of her incredible story here.

Part 41: Her mission accomplished, Velazquez returns to Washington to check in with her Union supervisor. He is impressed with her, while she worries that he may find out how she is manipulating him.

******

On my return from Canada, I went first to New York, where I delivered such matters as had been committed to my care for my associates there, and after a conference with them, hurried on to Washington for the purpose of seeing Col. Baker.

It was not without many apprehensions that I concluded to face the colonel again, for I did not know how much information he might have about me by this time, and it really seemed like walking into the lion’s den. That his officers were aware of some of my movements, as they were following me up rather too closely for comfort, was certain but whether they had yet succeeded in identifying the rebel spy and secret-service agent with the woman whom Baker had employed to go on a confidential mission to Richmond was not so clear. Taking all things into consideration, I concluded that Baker and his men must be rather in a mist about me, for the detective, whom I had met on the cars, was evidently working somewhat in the dark, which could hardly have been the case had his chief suspected me of playing a double game with him. If Baker, however, had the least suspicion with regard to me, the fact of my very prolonged absence would, I knew, be liable to increase it, although under ordinary circumstances there would have been no difficulty in explaining this to his satisfaction, for he well knew that the errand he had sent me on was a difficult as well as a perilous one and that it was not to be accomplished quite as easily as a trip between Washington and New York.

Making all allowances for the probabilities in my own favor, however, I confess that I experienced some trepidation at the idea of facing the colonel, and I wondered not a little what he would do with me in case he did happen to know who I really was. It was of such great importance, however, that I should gain immediate admittance to the military prisons, and I knew that such admittance could be gained by going there as one of Baker’s corps, whereas it might otherwise be impossible, that I determined to take all the risks, so far as my own safety was concerned, and to try and have the colonel my ally in making the preparations for what … would be one of the most brilliant episodes of the war, so far as the Confederates were concerned, and that would not unlikely have the effect of bringing the contest to a speedy termination.

The idea of being able to use the chief of the Federal detectives for the advancement of the Confederate cause was one that gave me enormous satisfaction, and I more than once fancied what a capital good joke it would be for me, after I succeeded in getting beyond Col. Baker’s reach, to inform him how badly he had been taken in and to ask him what he thought of me and of my performances from a professional point of view.

While on my way to Washington for the purpose of meeting him and of making a report of my Richmond trip, my prospective interview was anything but a joking matter. The thing had to be done, though, so, stifling my fears, I, on my arrival in Washington, walked boldly into the colonel’s presence and announced myself as having just got back from Richmond.

Baker received me with proper cordiality and congratulated me on my safe return. There was nothing whatever in his manner to indicate that he had the slightest suspicion of me. This was reassuring, still I could not be quite certain but that, having once got me into his power, he intended to find out what I had to say for myself before beginning a less agreeable conversation.

I, however, did not propose to commence saying disagreeable things if he did not, and so, presuming that he imagined me to have just returned from the Confederate capital, I proceeded to make such a report of my doings as I thought would suit him.

I told him that I had obtained the name of the spy whom he was anxious to discover, and such a description of him as would enable me to identify him without any difficulty, if I could get to see him. The information I had obtained with regard to him induced me to believe that he was at Johnson’s Island, but of this I could not be certain.

I then went on to say that it was understood in Richmond that arrangements were being made for a grand stampede of the rebel prisoners, and that this spy, in some way, found means to communicate with the Copperheads and the rebel secret service agents. This was the story which it had been arranged between my confederate and myself I should tell Baker, for several reasons. There was the least bit of truth in it, and, in endeavoring to throw a detective like Baker off the scent, a little truth mingled with the fiction would be likely to accomplish the object better than a story which was all fiction.

As there had been rumors more than once of attempted stampedes of the prisoners, it was concluded that Baker would not be likely to regard this one as of any very great importance, especially if he had no inkling of the grand raid which was to take place in connection with the release of the prisoners, while at the same time he would be anxious to find out whether a stampede was really to be attempted, and if I managed right, would most likely employ me to make the investigations for him.

This explanation is worth making, for its own sake, as it will give the reader an idea of my method of working, and at the same time will serve to show that I was not revealing to the colonel any secrets which it was my duty to keep from him.

Baker fell into the trap just as innocently as if he had been a young man from the country instead of the chief detective officer of a great government which was engaged in a gigantic contest. On my suggesting my willingness to follow the thing up by visiting the prisons for the purpose of finding the spy, and if possible discovering the facts with regard to any conspiracy that might be on foot, he did not give me any definite answer at once but said he would think about it — but I saw plainly that he considered the idea as rather a good one and did not doubt that he would speedily make up his mind to send me.

When we had finished talking over this matter, I proceeded to give him a detailed account of what I saw and heard in Richmond. I said that the rebels were very strict and very suspicious and would not allow anyone to go to the front or to visit the prisons or the public buildings. I was, however, able to pick up quite a number of facts that might be useful and then went on to tell him a well-connected story, partly true and partly false, about the way things looked, and the way people talked, what the forces in the field and their locations were, how the blockade-runners managed to get in and out of port, what I had seen and heard on the road as I was going to and fro, and so on. None of the real facts that I gave the colonel were of any importance, although I magnified them as much as I could, but they served to give an air of plausibility to my narrative and to convince him that I was quite an expert spy. …

Baker asked me numerous questions, which I answered to the best of my ability, so far as was consistent with the good of the Confederate cause, and when we had concluded our conversation he praised me very warmly, said that I was a plucky little woman, that he had thought I had vim enough to go through if anyone could, that I had done a good service to the country, and a variety of other nice things, which had the effect of making me feel quite pleasant and quite at my ease with him again. … Baker also remarked [that] he had been getting somewhat uneasy about me, to which I replied, by telling him how and why I had been detained, and the explanation appeared to be entirely satisfactory, for he said no more on that point.

I was curious to know exactly how well he was informed with regard to my real movements and had half a dozen questions on the end of my tongue which I wanted to ask him. I concluded, however, that this would be going rather too far, and would do no good, while it might have the effect of exciting suspicions where none at present existed. I did, however, venture to inquire whether he had told anyone that I was attached to the corps.

“No, no,” he replied, “certainly not, and I don’t want you to tell any one either. If I employ you for anything, it will be for strictly confidential business, which must be between ourselves. I would rather that even my own people should not know anything about you as a secret-service agent.”

Having finished our business talk, I asked for my friends Gen. A. and Capt. B., and was informed that the captain was in the field but that the general was in the city and would doubtless be glad to see me.

On reaching the Kirkwood House, where I had taken a room, I sent my card to the general at Willard’s Hotel, and he came immediately to see me. While we were chatting, in came Baker, who, I judged by his manner, had something which he wanted to say to me and surmised that it was a consent that I should visit the prisoners.

“Ah, general,” said he, “I see that you are bound to continue your attentions to our little friend here. She hasn’t been in Washington many hours and you have found her out already. I guess, however, that she likes me better than she does you, for she came to see me as soon as she arrived.”

The general looked a trifle surprised at this, and said, “Why, Baker, you must be getting to be a lady’s man! I didn’t know that you were particularly inclined that way.”

Baker laughed at this, and said, “She is a first-rate little woman, and I wish there were more like her. She has just made a very successful trip to Richmond and has brought me some important items.”

“Is that so?” said the general. “Why, I did not know that she belonged to your corps.”

“Neither does she in a regular way but as she knew a good deal about Richmond and was acquainted with a number of people there, I thought I would let her make a trip, especially as she was extremely anxious to try her luck.”

The general congratulated me on my success and then proposed that we should all three go that evening to Ford’s Theater. Baker assented, and I was quite willing, as I thought an evening’s entertainment in witnessing a good play would brighten me up a little. Besides, I was anxious to cultivate the acquaintance of these two men and was especially solicitous to have all possible opportunities of conversing with the colonel, with a view of inducing him to accede to my proposition for a visit to the military prisons. Baker and the general then said goodbye … and went away together.

About seven o’clock in the evening the general returned alone, and as he was escorting me to the carriage I asked where Baker was. The general replied that he had been compelled to go unexpectedly to the Executive Mansion on some business but would probably join us in the theater.

This aroused all my apprehensions of danger again, and I became fearfully uneasy lest all the colonel’s fine words should merely have been intended to draw me out and conceal some sinister designs towards me. I stifled my fears, however, as well as I could, and after we got to the theater tried to converse with the general in an agreeable and natural manner. I was startled by the least sound, however, and was unable to avoid turning around to look every time anyone came in, almost expecting every moment that Baker or one of his officers would appear for the purpose of arresting me.

My fears proved to be groundless. Baker did come in soon after the play commenced, and, taking a seat beside me, made an apology for not joining the party sooner, but [begged] to be excused, as he had been compelled to go up to the White House for the purpose of having a talk with the president and the secretary of war. There was nothing in his manner then or afterwards to indicate that he was suspicious of me, and both he and the general … were apparently greatly absorbed in what was occurring on the stage.

As for myself, I found it impossible to get interested. I was uneasy for my own safety, knowing that I was playing a desperate game, and was even more anxious lest the grand scheme which I was endeavoring to promote should fail through any fault or misdirection of mine. My thoughts, too, wandered to our brave men in the field and to the sufferings of the poor prisoners. I almost reproached myself for even making an appearance of indulging in an evening’s recreation in company with two Federal officers while so many thousand Confederates were enduring so much but consoled myself with the reflection that I was not doing this for mere pleasure but was engaged in the performance of an important task, which might be greatly promoted through my acquaintance with these men. Finally, to my great relief and satisfaction, the play came to an end and the curtain dropped for the last time.

As we passed out, the general proposed that we should go to the Grand Hotel and have some supper. I did not care to do this, but thought it best to accept the invitation.

We had a really superb repast — one of the finest I had ever sat down to, and, as I was hungry, I ate quite heartily. In the way of drinkables, I confined myself to lemonade but the gentlemen took wine. The general, who was quite fond of his toddy, drank rather more than was good for him and soon became very talkative and a trifle noisy. He was one of those men, however, who never forget to be gentlemen, and he neither said nor did anything offensive. Finally, he began spinning some long yarn, during which Baker took an opportunity to whisper to me that he would probably want to see me in the morning. I nodded assent, although my fears began to rise a little but I hoped that instead of demanding a different account of my doings from that which I had already given him, the colonel would give me my commission for a trip to the West.

After we had finished our supper, we returned to the Kirkwood, where I bade them good night, at about a quarter before twelve, at the drawing-room door, and as soon as they were gone hastened to my own room to obtain the rest of which I stood in so much need, for I was tired out with the fatigues of travel and the excitement and anxieties of the day.