Legends of Lost Silver Mines in Pennsylvania?

Legends of Lost Silver Mines in Pennsylvania – could they possibly be TRUE?

Stories of lost mines, ledges and glory holes full of precious metals are rather pervasive, most every area has at least one such story. One of the poorest parts of North America for such stories is the Keystone state.

The geology of Pennsylvania is not of the right sort for the discovery of rich veins of gold and silver, great wealth in coal, oil and even such mundane mineral products as limestone have been the rule. Yet the state is not utterly devoid of gold or silver either; in the southeastern part of the state one mine produced almost all of the known gold production for the entire state, mostly as a byproduct of copper mining, and a couple of silver mines produced a little silver. Enough nickel was also mined to be used by the US Mint to make the now obsolete three cent nickels, so if you are lucky enough to own a three cent nickel, chances are it has Pennsylvania nickel in it. Not one of the three cent silver pieces of course.

Even so, despite the wrong sort of geology over most of the state, why then do we find there are indeed several stories of long lost silver mines? Pure hogwash, made up to earn a free beer in a tavern, or entertain the children, or cover up some illicit activity like making moonshine, perhaps? Perhaps, but there is evidence and documentation to support the fact that there are indeed several lost silver mines scattered across the state. Not massive veins like the famous Comstock mind you, but small deposits and these are not against the rules of geology by any means.

The actual records from the colonial period show that these mines were known to the native tribes that lived in and contested over the land. There is even some suggestion that two of the mines were known to the French, whom were secretly mining them and slipping back to Canada to convert the silver into cash.

Silver medallion struck from silver mined out of the Wheatley silver-lead mine in Chester county PA

PA Silver Wheatley Medallion

PA silver medallion from the Wheatley mine

A bit of study in the field of geology would help any treasure hunter or prospector setting out to look for one of these lost silver mines. Silver does not often occur in nature in the pure form, because of the fact that it is much more chemically reactive than gold or platinum, yet it does occur in native (natural) form, often alloyed with a little gold and – or copper. The ores of silver quite often do not look anything like silver, and then too some silver minerals do look silvery and metallic, like galena. Galena is mostly lead, but very often in nature some or almost all of the metallic lead in the matrix has been replaced by silver. Galena is silver colored and cubic in form, and rather heavy. You can find small pieces of it in many streams around the state, and while in many cases the presence of this metallic mineral in such a place where no metallic minerals ought to be can be explained by the actions of glaciers, which broke off the minerals from a distant location (generally to the north) and transported it to the south where it then deposited it when the ice finally melted away, to leave us puzzling as to how this out of place mineral ended up where we find them.

Most ores of silver are black, grey or brown in color; usually tending to be heavy and often sooty, so could be mistaken for a low grade coal vein from a distance. Silver can also occur in a quartz matrix just like gold or copper does, or uncommonly in the form of a heavy, sticky blue or bluish clay. The famous Comstock mine in Nevada was discovered first as the blue clay, which was giving the gold miners headaches by clogging up their sluice boxes. Only when some prospector finally had the blue clay itself tested by fire assay did the secret come out, that it was loaded with silver. The blue clay may be what the ore decomposes into, but I am specularing on this point.

Silver ores are commonly found intruded into limestone rock, showing up by the stains it makes in the surrounding rock; sometimes it will form a stain on the surface of the rock without the actual ore showing on the surface, and the staining is commonly called a “gossan” in prospecting parlance. I will return to the prospecting tips in a moment.

From what the stories tell us, these lost Pennsylvania silver mines are not going to be easy to find. In several instances, the Indians went to some lengths to conceal the very existence of the mines, so well that in one case, even though several colonists had seen it and been to the mine, after it was concealed they could not locate it again. Silver, unlike gold, does not usually form a placer downhill and downstream of the host rock. When rock containing native gold is worn down and decomposed by nature, the tiny bits of gold get transported down hill and then down stream by the actions of nature, allowing the prospector to be able to take his gold pan and take samples along the streams and then hillsides, and thus pinpoint the location of the gold vein. No so with silver! Except in very rare instances (I know of only two such in all of North America) due to the fact that silver will react with other minerals chemically, as the host rock decomposes, the silver forms chemical bonds and is invisible so to speak. It can be there and not be visible in a gold pan. What can a prospector do?

Don’t throw out the gold pan, it is possible that you might find tiny specks of native silver in some stream that could conceivably lead you to the vein; at least one of the lost silver mines of Pennsylvania had native silver in it , and silver is quite a dense metal. I am using the term ‘dense’ to refer to the fact that it is quite heavy, about the same as lead, this density is usually termed by prospectors as specific gravity; that is how heavy any particular element or mineral is when compared to an equal volume of water. So gold has a specific gravity of around 19 (it varies due to the other metals commonly alloyed with gold in nature, usually silver and copper) lead is a bit over 11, while native silver usually runs 10.4 to 10.6. This natural heaviness (when compared to water and many other materials) is helpful for panning, for most country rock and sand, while heavier than water, are much lighter in comparison to silver. So you could find a silver vein by testing with the ancient tool known as the gold pan – and don’t let anyone fool you, the gold pan is still used by prospectors, geologists and mining engineers today for it works very well.

As these silver mines were covered up and concealed in the colonial period, there has been plenty of time for nature to help with the concealment; trees would have had over 200 years to grow right over top of them, the natural erosion and deposition of soils would further assist in erasing the traces of the mine. If the mine were originally a shaft sunk into the rock (as one actually was, more in a moment) it is quite possible that nature has entirely filled in the shaft with earth by now and could even have a huge tree growing out of it. A tunnel could have caved in, leaving no trace except for a slight depression on the flank of a mountain, and unfortunately the hills of Pennsylvania have a great many wrinkles to help hide them.

Don’t let this discourage you! A careful search, using the tools of prospecting, geological reports, satellite imagery, research of the colonial records and even family histories, stories told around the campfires or even something seen by a hunter could be the key to lead you to finding a silver mine!

Now suppose you have found a suspicous looking vein or lense of rock, that is dark or grey and heavy; how can you test it for silver without having to break off a sample, crush it to quarter inch size or smaller and send it off for a fire assay? A fire assay is the best bet and highly accurate, but they cost money and you certainly can’t afford to send off every rock you find to have it assayed, for if you are that wealthy you would not be out hunting for a long-lost silver mine in the first place! Fortunately there are some simple ways you can test for silver without having to spend a lot of money.

One trick is to grind up your sample to a powder, then take a piece of copper that you have rubbed until it is shiny clean, and then rub that piece of copper around in the powdered ore sample. A copper wire will do, or a piece of soft copper pipe (don’t use the hard copper pipe as it is alloyed, and may not work as well). Very often, if silver in present in the sample, it will turn the copper white. If this occurs, then take another sample and get a fire assay done.

Another way is to try primitive smelting, if you have a bellows or a charcoal forge, in which case you would again want to grind the sample to a powder and heat it on a shovel or other iron receptable to nearly a white heat; any silver that can be extracted by heat alone will melt out before the shovel will melt because silver has a lower melting point than iron or steel. One more method is to put a hunk of the ore sample on your shovel, heat it very hot and then drop it into a bucket of water; supposedly if silver is present in the rock, it will form a grey scum on top of the water; however personally this method has never worked well for me but it might work for you.

Lastly, make sure you get permission of the landowners before you start looking for the lost mine, for most of Pennsylvania is private land and you don’t need to get arrested for trespassing, or worse a load of rock salt in your breeches! Just kidding but do ask permission before you search and it will save a lot of problems. Don’t be surprised if you get chuckles from a non-treasure hunter if you explain what you are looking for, for most people think that anyone who would go looking for lost mines or buried treasures is a little loopy, but with a little luck, and a lot of diligence, you may well have the last laugh. Besides, the search is an experience that those who live inside of boxes and never step off pavement can never know.

Nice photos of some silver ores http://nevada-outback-gems.com/prospect/gold_specimen/Silver_ores.htm

A free online book on prospecting for gold and silverhttp://books.google.com/books?id=CPZDAAAAYAAJ&dq=prospecting%20for%20silver&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false 

Historically, the Wheatley mine and the Pequea mine both produced some silver, the Pequea silver mine near Conestoga in Lancaster County was worked from before the Revolutionary War to 1875. A minor amount of mining was done about 1900. The ore is silver-bearing galena in the Cambrian Vintage Dolomite. Production is unknown. The Wheatley mine started operation in 1851. Primarily a lead mine, for economic reasons Wheatley billed the operation as a lead and silver mine. Concentrations of silver in the galena ore were assayed at between 15 and 120 ounces per ton. That would be pretty valuable ore today, so get out there amigo and find some silver!


PS – one other thing about using that gold pan in your search, don’t be surprised if you find some GOLD in there too for those glaciers brought down gold from the north, as well as DIAMONDS!  If you see a shiny, greasy looking pebble that will scratch your knife blade there is a good chance it is a glacial diamond, over 50 of them have been found in PA over the years, and a brassy yellow metal needs no further explanation.  Good luck and good hunting, I hope you find the treasures that you seek.

Online museum of Pennsylvania minerals, including silver;


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~ by oroblanco on January 19, 2012.

2 Responses to “Legends of Lost Silver Mines in Pennsylvania?”

  1. Hello Oroblanco,

    I think your writing of the lost silver mines of Pennsylvania is excellent. I add that I did some research on the subject myself, and if they are the same mines, they are reported to be on the Pennsylvania-New York border, but in New York. I used to work in Geneseo, New York as a mining engineer….we were building a new underground salt mine…. I was fascinated with the history there. Geneseo was the capital of the Seneca Nation….one of the 6 Iroquois nations. It used to be called Chenesee Castle (yes, the Iroquois had log forts). Well, during the Revolutionary war, General George Washington sent thousands of troops across part of Penn and into New York to do nothing but burn the crops of the Seneca. The Seneca had been paid by the British to terrorize the rural families so the American troops would abandon their posts. This was called the Sullivan Expedition. The Senecas buried their dead in the ground and would fill in and cover the body with cedar bark. It was learned by Sullivan’s troops that the Seneca had massive amounts of silver, so much so that they would make farming implements out of it! And, the Seneca would bury their dead with silver. So guess what the troops did?………they dug up every grave they could find as it was such an easy task with only cedar bark to move. I have a book dated 1879 called the Sullivan Expedition and there are several passages about the Seneca Silver in there. Also, I believe the book the “Frontiersmen” by Alan Eckert had mention of it. Eckert is one of the finest authors and researchers that has ever been.

    Dan Welch

    • Greetings Dan,
      Thank you for the story! I have never found any instances of Sullivan’s soldiers deliberately digging up Indian graves, but nothing much would surprise me.

      I am certain these are not the same mines you are referring to. If you read the complaint filed with the Penn government about the man stealing silver from the Indians mine, it is clear that the Indians are not Iroquois but Delawares; the man named is a Swede with a trading post set up near Tioga PA and he went down river to the mine with his canoe. The other Indian sources place that mine somewhere on the Lackawanna river, within a few miles of it at most. One source states it is two miles up the river from the mouth on the Susquehanna.

      Another of the PA mines is the lost Lead mine which is right on Wyalusing creek, near Wyalusing; the mine itself was within sight of the creek, but like the silver mine of the Lackawanna, was covered up by the Indians before ever leaving it. Prior to the French and Indian war, French explorers were mining lead at this particular mine but after 1763 never returned. No one knows where it is today.

      Still another PA silver mine is located in south eastern PA, not far from the Maryland border, and was reportedly found again in the late 1890′s but is lost again today as far as I know. Another one located in Northwestern PA was by a falls in a particular creek, I don’t have the book handy but it was definitely in PA and not further north in NY. Then there is the gold mine, located in a hidden spring – this was seen by a captive during the Revolutionary war shortly after the Wyoming massacre, on the way up the river from the Wyoming valley but before reaching Tunkhannock, the Indians stopped at a spot with a huge standing stone, lifted a large flat rock and under it was the secret spring. The method of “mining” it was to set up a bark funnel into a cloth sieve, stir up the water in the spring and let the muddy spring water run into the cloth, where the gold collected. The captive lived to tell the story and hunted for the mine himself but it was so well hidden that no one has ever found it again.

      Anyway just wanted to point out that the mines I was referring to are definitely within PA, there are no doubt lost mines in New York state as well as New Jersey – in particular a gold mine in NJ was found by Dutch colonists whom were mining it for some time, even after the Revolution but by the mid-1800′s the location seems to be lost, somewhere not far from the Delaware river on the NJ side is a rich gold mine!

      There are dozens of other lost mines in PA, most are silver (only two gold mines I ever found reference to that are lost) scattered over the state. Most every state has at least a couple of lost mine legends, and the skeptics who don’t bother to ever research them are quick to dismiss them all but in reality most (if not all) of these lost mines have a basis in fact. I don’t have a figure for how many there are in NY state but it would not surprise me if there are not even more than in PA. After all, even the geologists are still puzzled as to why that gold belt which runs up the Appalachian mountains from Alabama through Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland then seems to skip PA and NY state, with gold also being found in New England. Why did the precious metals skip those two states? I don’t believe it did, just not in large, easy to find type of deposits. Up in the area where you are working, I would not be surprised to find diamonds too!

      Good luck and good hunting to you Dan, thank you again and I hope you find a lost mine!

      PS I don’t know if this will be of any help to your research but some of the journals and diaries of officers and men in the Sullivan expedition are available online:

      {If that doesn’t work, here is the link address just cut and paste http://www.usgwarchives.org/pa/1pa/1picts/sullivan/sitetoc.html}

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