How To Salt A Gold Mine

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The equipment in an assayer’s office—crusners, mortars, crucibles, and the like—could also be doctored, sometimes without the assayer’s collusion, but more often with it. Furthermore, an occasional assayer was a friendly soul who liked to report pleasantly high values in order to keep business coming—and some miners, like some health-seekers, will keep looking for a diagnostician who will tell them what they want to hear. Mark Twain, in Roughing It , described how one such assayer at Virginia City, Nevada, was exposed when suspicious rivals sent him a fragment from a carpenter’s grindstone; the assayer said he found both silver and gold in it. More than half a century later, a skeptical, well-read California engineer trapped a fraudulent assayer in San Diego by exactly the same device—chips from a grindstone that the assayer declared to be worth fifteen dollars a ton in gold.

According to experienced engineers, salting cannot be absolutely prevented; the most a prospective buyer can hope for is that he will detect the fraud in time. One way is to invert the process by placing dummy sacks of barren rock among the legitimate samples. If the worthless specimens suddenly blossom with gold or silver, something is amiss and the buyer is well advised to quietly drop his options. In such cases there is not much use in trying to prove fraud against any particular individual. The best one can do is to sit tight, growl though he may. Perhaps that is why the following tale from Yreka, California, is so gratifying.

In the old days, Chinese were often barred from California placer operations until after the whites had moved on. Then, with extreme patience and endless labor, the Orientals managed to rework the sifted ground at a profit. Hence, they were willing to pay for claims that showed any trace of gold at all. Hearing that a certain Chinaman was shopping around Yreka for claims, and was talking in terms of $5,000, two salters rushed to their abandoned holdings, sprinkled five hundred dollars’ worth of gold dust in the gravel, and let the Oriental test it. He admitted to finding color, but asked for time to make up his mind. The extension was granted, but at its end the buyer did not appear. The light began to dawn, and the would-be sellers hastened to their property. Sure enough, the scoundrel had carefully washed their five hundred dollars’ worth of salt out of the gravel and had vanished—perhaps to pull the trick on over-eager swindlers somewhere else.

Would You Believe Salted Salt Water?