Disturbing the Dragon: Rescuing 19th-Century Mining Camps in the Warren Historic Mining District
Payette National Forest, Idaho, 2001 by Kathleen Prouty, FS Archaeological Technician
Gold fever comes in many guises. In the historic mining district of Warren, Idaho, gold fever has caused many casualties. Treasure hunters looking for antique bottles and artifacts have systematically targeted historic ruins on public lands. They have pulled up the floorboards of 100-year-old cabins and toppled the walls of 19th-century Chinese mining camps. Using metal detectors, they have riddled the historic landscape with potholes. In response to this crisis, our PIT volunteers came forward once again to salvage the past.
Since 1982, Payette NF archaeologists have been documenting gold rush historic properties in the Warren Historic Mining District in partnership with several universities and PIT volunteers. In July 2001, 22 PIT volunteers came to work from as far away as Florida, Ohio, and Hawaii. The youngest was 7 years old, and the oldest was 87. They came with a wide variety of experience and backgrounds. The volunteers worked at three different gold rush mining camps that dated from 1870 to 1891. One of our tasks was to find out what kind of information a heavily looted site can produce. Most of the new finds were small objects that are often overlooked by looters. These small pieces, however, revealed important details about the camp’s wooden buildings and the miners who lived in them. With these pieces, we were able to define architectural styles and learn about the occupants’ nationalities, domestic habits, social lives, and patterns of consumption.
The PIT program also created a presence in the area, reminding local residents that these historic sites are a valuable public resource for everyone and not a source of personal gain for a few. The town of Warren attracts many travelers interested in the history of the area, but looters destroy much of what brings them here. In response, a group of Warren residents has formed a committee to start a museum in the local historic schoolhouse. Actions such as these are necessary to preserve local history.
In response to the recent resurgence of looting, Payette NF Heritage Program Manager Larry Kingsbury has encouraged local residents, FS employees, and volunteers to monitor the historic sites and report any disturbances to forest law enforcement officials. Information and exhibits about local history are on display at the Warren Guard Station, the Chinese Cemetery, and a Chinese homestead called Ah Toy’s Gardens. Signs have been placed at remote sites to let visitors know that it is illegal to disturb historic sites. The Salmon River chapter of the Idaho Archaeological Society has funded a reward for information leading to the conviction of looters of historical properties in the Warren Historic District. It is hoped that all these measures will help to slow the destruction of these important cultural resources.