The Gold Prospector's Burro: an Indispensable Companion

Updated on January 16, 2018
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John prospected for gold in Arizona 8 years. His experience taught him to deal with the terrain, heat, and gold fever. He makes many tools.

Synonyms for Equus africanus asinus: donkey, ass, jenny, burro
Synonyms for Equus africanus asinus: donkey, ass, jenny, burro | Source

Pots and Pans Jingling and Jangling

When I think of burros, I always have a mental picture of grizzled old Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, leading his donkey on a dusty trail in Mexico in pursuit of gold treasure. In the 19th century, the burro was frequently described as the most important prospecting tool of the trade, and for very good reason. Prospecting involved back breaking physical labor. It involved journeying over rugged land, panning, sifting and outcrop investigation, searching for signs of mineralization. Another major factor for favoring burros was the fact that they did not startle the way horses do. The mining endeavor was suited perfectly for the pack animal of choice, the donkey, also known as the burro.

Ancient History

Asses have been domesticated since 3000 BC and have spread throughout the world. The Spanish brought the first burros to Mexico in 1528 with religious orders, and then probably crossed the Rio Grande in 1598 with conquistadors. In Mexico, they were mainly used at silver mines. In the American Southwest, they were used for bearing loads to and from gold and silver mining activity.

The origins of the donkey track to Egypt thousands of years ago.
The origins of the donkey track to Egypt thousands of years ago. | Source

Origins of the Burro

Originally from Africa, donkeys (a name traditionally used east of the Mississippi, burro to the west) because of their sure-footed hardiness and strength, were extremely highly valued for the loads they could carry. Indeed, early hieroglyphics in Egypt (where some contend the donkey, or wild ass, began) depict men leading burros with large baskets strapped to their sides.

If a human loses 10% of his weight in water dehydration, immediate medical attention should be sought. A burro can lose 30%. Humans require a day to re-hydrate, but a burro can re-hydrate in 5 minutes. This hardy nature makes them the perfect match for an arid climate.

Burros range throughout all of the North American deserts.
Burros range throughout all of the North American deserts. | Source

19th Century Gold Boom

By the 19th century, the burro had won its place as a beast of burden
for early prospectors all over the western United States. When the boom in placer mining ended many burros were simply let loose. Of course, while miners were exploring Arizona for gold and silver, it wasn't unknown for burros to meander away due to the difficult areas they traversed. If the burros' confines were not tight, they would often just wander off. The Apache Indians favored donkey meat, and burros were captured for food. Other reports from the Army stated that the Indians cherished them for their utility and only ate them in times of famine. It was also noted that burros were used during celebrations, particularly when honored guests were present.

It was also the circumstance where a gold prospector would die of starvation, thirst, or exposure and his burro wound up loose.

Arizona wild burros, the progeny of 16th - 19th century prospectors, are perfectly adapted to desert conditions.
Arizona wild burros, the progeny of 16th - 19th century prospectors, are perfectly adapted to desert conditions. | Source

Desert Animals

Wild burros in the North American deserts pretty much stay within 10 miles of water. They eat a variety of vegetation common to the arid spaces. They are great at rooting out food in desolate locations. In Arizona, they eat grass, Palo Verde, Mormon Tea, and forbs (flowering plants that are not sedge, grass, or rush). They pretty much browse, eating a variety of plants. If you want to see them in the summer, travel in early morning or evening when they forage throughout. I try to get to their pastures in Arizona by 8 am or earlier to see them.

On my last trip to Yavapai County, Arizona to do some gold panning, I encountered the burros in the photos early in the morning. If you encounter burros in Arizona, chances are that the area they reside in was once active with prospectors seeking their fortune in gold.

The wild burros who inhabit the area where I prospect go down to Lake Pleasant to drink and then return to the desert hills. There are some burros to the south of the lake, but most live to the north. Many times they just stand motionless and watch as trucks go by. Some of these burros approached my truck as I took photos, looking for food. They are docile and have a reputation for being stubborn. Since they are such survivalists, perhaps the stubbornness has benefited them. I managed to pet them on the snout, but they have been known to nip occasionally.

Named after William and Isaac Bradshaw
Named after William and Isaac Bradshaw | Source

Physical Characteristics

The average burro has long ears, a short mane, and at the shoulders can be up to 5 feet. Their weight can range widely from 180 to 1,060 lb. Average weight of a wild burro seems to be around 350 pounds. Some burros can live up to 30 years in captivity while the average life span in the wild is about 25 years. Some burros have actually lived up to 50 years.

In terms of color, a burro can be any blend of grey, black or brown. It has lighter shades on the face and belly.

Donkeys have large ears, which may pick up more distant sounds, and may help cool the donkey's blood.
Donkeys have large ears, which may pick up more distant sounds, and may help cool the donkey's blood. | Source

Bradshaw Gold Mining History

Brothers William and Isaac Bradshaw were searching for gold in 1863. They found gold (up to an ounce per day), but it took time for the news to spread, as the reputation of the area as dangerous gave the brothers plenty of time to mine. After the Bradshaw Indian War ended in 1873, a gold rush ensued. Just about all of the washes emanating from the mountains have some placer gold - it is the most plentiful placer area in Arizona. Of all the claims I have prospected, the ones in Yavapai country are the ones I enjoy the most. More gold has been produced in Yavapai County, Arizona than any other of the state's counties. Here are the totals of commercial gold production through 1965: Total 3,476,150 lode and 266,804 placer. There are still many small operators and recreational prospectors in the area. These totals do not take into account the 1 ounce of gold I have taken out.

What was really golden to the Arizona prospector was his burro.
What was really golden to the Arizona prospector was his burro. | Source

The Burro Population

As of 2016 there were an estimated 4000+ wild burros in Arizona, more than any other state. The burro has become a symbol of the Old West in Arizona. Tourists visit burro sites and are amazed at how tame they are and that they have a good disposition. They are often characterized as "cute." It is no wonder that with all of the 19th century prospecting activity and the evidence of old mines and mining camp remains in the area, the burro was left to fend for himself, and fend he did!

A Partial List of Mines in the Bradshaw Mountains

Del Pasco Mine
Lincoln Mine
Crown King Mine
Oro Belle Mine
Tiger Mine
Gazelle Mine
Bulton Mine
Paxton Mine
Boaz Mine
Pacific Mine
Humbug Gold Mine

Which Arizona animal do you favor watching?

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References:

The Wild Burros of Lake Pleasant, from CaptainZipline.com, 2005-2014, Retrieved from http://www.captainzipline.com/about-us/5-tour-overview/lake-pleasant-arizona/41-burros-and-captain-zipline.html

Wild Burro Equus Asinus, from DesertUSA, Retrieved from http://www.desertusa.com/animals/wild-burro.html

Wild Burros of the Mojave Desert Southwestern United States, by the Equine Sciences Academy, retrieved from http://www.tribeequus.com/burros.html

Western Apache Material Culture, The Goodwin and Guenther Collection, edited by Alan Ferg, The University of Arizona Press, copyright 1987, 222 pages, retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=qQh37jpEnL0C&pg=PA45&lpg=PA45&dq=Apache+food+of+burro&source=bl&ots=luIpwtHLca&sig=lYFNh5aCBUcSHsXEEfGkJM1CFUc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiEsYDU0v3TAhXCF5QKHdIJCGgQ6AEISDAK#v=onepage&q=Apache%20food%20of%20burro&f=false

Donkey, from Wikipedia the free encyclopedia, 109 references, last edited 19 May 2017

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    © 2017 John R Wilsdon

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