A KINNICONICK LEGEND
THE LOST SILVER MINE
One late summer day, not long after acquiring Shabomekaw, I found myself exploring a short distance downstream from the Swirl-hole, and since it was the dry season and the creek was low, I discovered a layer of shale and slate in the bed of the creek. These metamorphic rocks were laid down before sedimentary sandstone covered them and date back some 450 million years.
Before you begin to think that I know something about geology, let me assure you that I’m just as bewildered as the next guy about how the earth’s crust was formed and shaped over the millennia. I do recall learning in high school, however, that there are three kinds of rock: sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous. Igneous rock is molten lava from deep in the earth. As this lava reached the surface of the crust it formed veins. You can imagine my surprise when I found a vein of rock, perhaps six inches in diameter, running through the slate. It was an igneous vein.
I raced back to the tool shed and found my sledge hammer, returned to the creek and cracked into the vein. A piece of it, about six inches in length and four inches thick, was at my feet. When I looked at the color and the metallic composition I thought …….SILVER !!
Now we go back a lot further in time, all the way back to 1775. A Frenchman by the name of DeBruttes was a missionary who had traveled down the Ohio River to a Shawnee camp somewhere near the mouth of Kinniconick. While ministering to the “savages” the cleric supposedly learned about a vein of silver the Indians had discovered, up on Kinney near the mouth of Laurel Creek. DeBruttes enlisted several French compatriots and opened a mine which contained rich deposits of silver. No maps or records exist to prove the existence of the mine and the mystery may have ended with the death of DeBruttes.
The legend of the lost mine persisted however, and then The Portsmouth Times reported a story about one Andrew Beatty who had rediscovered the old French dig and smelter in 1812. The rumors swirled up and down the valley for years, and then in June of 1841 a backwoods Kentuckian by the name of Josiah Sprinkle was arrested and charged in Lewis County Court. Mr. Sprinkle was in possession of a great number of counterfeit silver dollars, sacks full, and folks began to wonder if the coins were made from the pure ore of the lost mine. Years later, in 1895, the New York Times published the following article after several of Sprinkle’s dollars turned up in Grayson, Kentucky.
As late as 1972 a descendant of Henry “Jaybird” Liles claimed to have proof that Sprinkle minted his coins on his great-uncle’s farm, along the banks of Kinniconick. If you’ve read previous chapters of this blog you may recall my visits to Liles Eddy. In chapter two, “The Shawnee of Kinniconick”, I described the meadow below Field Stafford’s house where many Indian artifacts were unearthed and where Field believed the Shawnee had spent summers encamped on the creek. The mouth of Laurel Fork is less than a mile away from that encampment. If there was a silver mine or smelter near Laurel Fork in 1775, and if the Shawnee led the French to the spot near their camp on the eddy, and if Sprinkle later extracted ore and minted coins on Liles Eddy, then someone, someday, may solve the mystery of The Lost Silver Mine of Kinniconick.
The map below is not a treasure map drawn by “Jaybird” Liles I’m sorry to say. This is my own sketch of middle Kinney where I canoed and fished a long time ago.
Now, back to my discovery of an igneous vein of rock in the creek-bed at Shabomekaw. At that time I knew nothing about the legend of the lost mine, but the color of the ore was certainly silver. Back home, I contacted the Geology Department at the University of Cincinnati and asked for help, and soon I learned that my specimen was made up of zinc, mica and iron pyrites. When iron pyrites are yellow they’re called “Fool’sGold”. My strike was “Fool’s Silver” because the pyrites looked like grains of silver and are called arsenopyrites. It is a geologic fact that real silver and gold do occur in igneous veins containing zinc and pyrites, so it is not unreasonable to believe that silver may someday be discovered in Kentucky, but current experts agree that it is unlikely.
The Sprinkle story, however, is supported by fact. The man had some source of silver and minted his coins for many years. If there is not a lost mine up at Laurel Fork, could there be a cave where the Shawnee hid a hoard of silver? After all, one derivation of the name Shawnee is “those who have silver”, and one of their chiefs referred to a “great cave” up in the mountains, a cave that may look like the one pictured above. (Incidentally, I found that photo on the internet and cannot identify the source or location.) The Shawnee may have traded their loyalty to the French, back in 1775, for stacks of silver bars; or the French may have built a smelter on land that would become the Liles farm, in order to melt down some bars and create artifacts for the Indians.
My vein of igneous ore emerged from a hillside below the cabin, so Shabomekaw may be sitting atop a mother lode of silver. But what is more precious? A place of natural beauty, with big trees and a meandering stream, or an ugly hole in the earth’s crust? An unknown and anonymous poet said it best:
Silver will not buy happiness,
Wealth lies within your soul.
Reach down and grab it,
Live a life that’s full.