Adapted from Twilla Van Leer
Was Thomas Rhoads the richest man in Utah Territory? Did he and his family have fabulous gold mines in the Uinta Mountains and private information about gold caches abandoned by Spanish miners who antedated Escalante and Dominguez? Was he a substantial contributor to the Deseret Mint, underwriting almost single-handedly Utah Territory’s beginning financial ventures?
Some of the stories about Rhoads seem a bit apocryphal, but there is evidence that the early LDS convert did help to jump-start the territorial mint with gold he brought from the California fields. And several sources confirm that he was made privy to information about gold hoards in the possession of the Ute Indians.
Rhoads (variably spelled Rhoades, Rhods, Rhodz and Roads) was born in Kentucky and fought in the War of 1812. He later moved to Illinois and there joined the infant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1835, sharing in its early persecutions.
When talk about a westward migration became serious after the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Rhoads and a band of Saints asked permission to scout the territory west of the Rocky Mountains. The party set out in May 1846, a year before Brigham Young and his band of pioneers were ready for the trek.
At that juncture no one, not even President Young, was certain where in the West the Saints would set down roots. Rhoads and his party overshot the Salt Lake Valley and continued on to California. Their wagon train was just ahead of the unfortunate Donner party, which suffered terrible hardships in the Sierra Nevada Mountains after a late-season start. One account of Rhoads says members of his family were among those who went to the Donners’ rescue.
The Rhoads contingent arrived in California in October 1846, and Thomas acquired a large tract of land on the Cosumnes River in the Sacramento Valley. He became a friend and employee of John Augustus Sutter. Sutter’s name flared into lasting fame when gold was discovered at his mill site, triggering the California gold rush of 1849. The Rhoadses reportedly were paid in gold dust while they worked for Sutter, and they also took gold themselves from placer mines in the area.
Rhoads and other Saints who had gone to California, including members of the Mormon Battalion, had begun to settle comfortably into their new lives when President Young determined that Salt Lake Valley was “The Place.” He sent letters to Rhoads and other church members advising them to return to Zion. Some did, some preferred to remain in California. In August 1849, Rhoads and Samuel Brannan organized a wagon train to make the journey back to Utah.
How much gold Rhoads had when he retraced his steps is not known, but in a talk given by Brigham Young on Sept. 6, 1850, he commented that “the wealthiest man who came from the mines, Father Rhoades, with $17,000
. . . ” The gist of President Young’s speech was to convince the Saints that California’s gold fields were not a good alternative for them. Nevertheless, the colonizing prophet was happy to accept the gold the California wanderers brought to the territory to fuel a mint that provided pioneers a badly needed medium of ex-change.
On Oct. 9, 1849, according to church records, Thomas Rhoads deposited $10,826 in the mint’s account, a sizable fortune for the time. The amount of his donation merited a separate account in the mint records.
Western historian George A. Thompson, who authored several articles about Rhoads, conjectured that he was one of the contributors who helped the mint produce far more gold coins than could have been accounted for by the small donations of the general church membership, most of whom were destitute when they arrived in the valley.
The Rhoads family enjoyed a degree of affluence beyond that of many pioneers. Thomas built “the finest home in the valley” a block south of Temple Square, and he provided elegant homes for each of his four wives and their families – nearly three dozen children in all (his first wife had three sets of twins.) He was named Salt Lake County treasurer and was a lieutenant in the Nauvoo Legion.
His adventures with gold were not behind him, family records indicate. In 1852, he was commissioned by President Young to salvage hidden gold known to Ute Indians. Chief Walker (Wakara) who had been baptized a member of the church, reportedly agreed to reveal the location of the gold as long as it was used exclusively for the benefit of the church. The site of the mines was called “Carre Shin Ob,” or “There dwells the Great Spirit,” Thompson recounted. Indians had no particular interest in the gold beyond their basic needs and harbored old resentments against Spanish overlords who had mined the metal at the expense of their race, he said.
Walker’s conditions were that only one person at a time know where the mines were, that Indian surveillance be constant and that only as much gold be brought out each trip as the individual could carry. The death penalty was to be executed immediately if the secret got beyond the chosen person. President Young demanded in turn that Walker, whose loyalties were known to be chancy, take an oath upon the Book of Mormon to hold up his end of the bargain.
According to the family account of Gale R. Rhoads, a grandson, Thomas made a number of trips into the mountains with an Indian guide. The gold supposedly was from mines abandoned by Spanish entrepreneurs who were in the territory before the 1776 Domin-guez/Escalante explorations.
Each of Rhoads’ trips took about two weeks, and the first load of gold, the family records say, weighed about 62 pounds. The Deseret News frequently reported his comings and goings, without details regarding gold, if any.
In the summer of 1855, Thomas had a severe illness and a son, Caleb, signed the oath and took over the job of recovering the Indian gold. When Thomas was well again, father and son took several trips together. Walker himself died in late 1855.
The Rhoads records say that the statue of the Angel Moroni atop the Salt Lake Temple was overlaid with the Indian gold, as were some of the trimmings inside the temple.
In December 1855, Rhoads obtained a land grant from the Territorial Legislature for a huge area known today as Kamas Valley. Family writings say, again, that Father Rhoads and Caleb worked gold mines on this land. Thomas also found “black minerals” in the area – coal that became part of the church mining properties.
Caleb reportedly became the largest tithe payer and one of the most generous members of the church in his almsgiving. Many eyewitnesses said they had seen his gold at various times.
After Walker’s death, his brother, Arapeen, took over Ute leadership and continued to allow Caleb Rhoads to harvest gold from the tribe’s secret store. But Arapeen’s successor, Chief Tabby, denied access.
Caleb made several covert trips to the site after this, family records say. He also petitioned the U.S. Congress for a land lease and agreed to pay the national debt in exchange. He was frustrated in part by a Utah representative to Congress, George Q. Cannon, who said Rhoads was “only an ignorant prospector and not capable of handling a $100 million deal.” In the end, the petition was denied, and the federal government eventually chartered other companies to mine in the Uintas. Government-paid geologists scouted the area and reportedly found many Spanish artifacts, smelter ruins and other signs of ancient mining. But they never found the fabled Rhoads Mine.
Caleb claimed the deposits were in unique formations not usually associated with gold. He said the geologists were looking in the wrong place. Thomas was called in the late 1850s to settle Minersville and help develop silver mines in that area. He died there in 1869.
Legendary stories about Spanish gold and speculation about Rhoads family successes in Uinta mines have inspired many gold-seekers to scour the area for clues. In some cases the ventures have led to disastrous results, Thompson writes, leading to claims of a lingering curse. He himself discounts the curse but concludes that “Mormon money and Rhoads gold: They are one and the same.”
The Deseret News July 2 1996