Mountain Passes: Panther Pass

Contrary to common perception, Europeans didn’t first occupy the land that became the United States in an east-to-west direction. The Spanish marched from south to north, establishing the town of Santa Fe in 1610, ten years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

French missionaries and explorers, on the other hand, moved through the new land from north to south, using the waterways of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River to establish contact with native tribes of what are today Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Arkansas. On the lakes and rivers, of course, the French encountered no mountains and no mountain passes.

The Spanish, moving across the land by foot and on horseback, did encounter mountains. So it should come as no surprise that they encountered mountain passes. (It’s said that the first European to discover a mountain pass in what is today the US was Coronado, who in 1540 marched through the pass called La Glorieta, southeast of Santa Fe, searching for legendary cities of gold.) One of the passes traversed by the Spanish was named after the mountain lions that roamed North America. The North American mountain lion goes by various names in different parts of the continent: cougar, puma, catamount, and panther.

In southwestern Texas the puma is called a panther. In the Chisos Mountains of the Big Bend area, the panther preys mainly on deer and javelinas (wild pigs). And although these large cats prowled throughout the Chisos Mountains, the place they were most often spotted was in a particular mountain pass. Naturally this pass came to be called Panther Pass. The Chisos Mountains, incidentally, are the southernmost mountain range in the US, and are also entirely contained within the boundaries of Big Bend National Park (1,252 square miles). 

Named after the giant turn the Rio Grande makes as it flows east to the Gulf of Mexico, the Big Bend area is spectacular. This is a land of wide variety: harsh desert, rugged mountains, bountiful river. It’s populated by shrubs, cacti, trees, reptiles, birds, and mammals, many of them found nowhere else in the United States. Mainly, though, the land of the Big Bend is desert. Until modern times only Indians native to the area could survive there. They knew which roots provided food, which plants provided moisture, which caves provided shelter. 

Panther Pass

Mountain Range: Chisos Mountains.
Elevation: 5,770 feet
Grade: 15% in some places
Location: In Big Bend National Park, southwestern Texas.

Although the desert was not suitable for farming, it was rumored to contain another kind of wealth: gold. And gold was a lure to the Spanish, who forced natives to mine both silver and gold. This new-world wealth was then loaded onto ships that sailed to Spain. 

Eventually mines are mined out or abandoned for some other reason. Then legends of lost mines spring up. Possibly because so many miners kept the location of their mines secret, the legends were believed. 

One of these many legends says that the Spanish forced prisoners to work in a fabulous mine north of the Rio Grande. This mine was located on what is today called Lost Mine Peak, in the Chisos Mountains. According to legend, the prisoners marched from the Spanish stronghold, Presidio [Fort] San Vicente, which sat on a bluff above the Rio Grande, through the desert, through Panther Pass, and into the dark mine. The gold mine was so rich, legend has it, that the Spanish  blindfolded the prisoners en route so that not one of them would never know its exact location.

Big-Bend-Lost-Mine-Trail2

Lost Mine Trail, Chisos Mountains

How does a gold mine get “lost”? Legends always have an answer. In the case of the Panther Pass gold mine, legend says that the Commanche, who did not want Europeans taking their silver, their gold, or their land, raided the mine and killed everyone in it. Then they sealed the mine entrance with rocks and covered it with brush so that nobody could ever find it again. 

But legends of lost gold mines always give hope to treasure hunters, and the legend of the Panther Pass mine is no different. Supposedly if a person stands in the chapel door of Presidio San Vicente on Easter Sunday, the sun’s first rays will shine on the exact location of the Lost Mine.    

Thousands of prospectors and treasure hunters have looked for the Lost Mine, but nobody has found it. Perhaps that’s because all that remains of Presidio San Vicente are adobe ruins. Or perhaps it’s because Easter Sunday falls on a different date each year. Or maybe it’s because the Earth wobbles on its axis as it rotates, so never again will the first rays of the sun on Easter Sunday strike exactly where they struck 300-some years ago. Or, perhaps . . . the entire legend is total fabrication.

Most likely nobody has found the Lost Mine because it never existed. As they move through the world, humans leave records behind: records of births and deaths, records of ownership, and records of profit or loss. Nowhere in Spain, Mexico, or Texas is there any kind of written record (ledgers, letters, deeds) of a gold mine just beyond Panther Pass. 

But don’t let that stop you. If you’re set on treasure hunting, you can drive or bike an asphalted road through Panther Pass, cross the Lost Mine Trail, and start looking.

Panther Pass

No lost gold
mine-yours-theirs,
there’s nothing where
the puma yowls
and prowls
the arid rocks.

________________

You can read Barbara Gregorich’s earlier blog on mountain passes, The Cumberland Gap.