Who can resist a good story, even if it might not be true?
After all, legends and tall stories have been part of our history since that cave-wife told her cave-husband to stop bragging with the boys and to get out there and hunt.
Around here, nothing seems to generate more questions from readers than stories about lost mines or gold strikes. Our pen pals even ask whether I know where the gold or the mines are. Really? One wonders what part of “lost” is open to interpretation.
Well, with all of that in mind, here comes another one.
Poor 44-year-old Jacob “Jake” Roudebush was on top of the world when he passed away in the summer of 1873. Jake apparently had a happy, 15-year marriage to his wife, Harriet, and had been elected Jacksonville town marshal by a single vote less than four months earlier. Best of all, he was still alive some three years after his doctor had diagnosed a severe case of consumption in Jake’s lungs.
It’s that diagnosis that’s at the hub of our story. Jake’s doctor said he could beat the disease by getting lots of rest and also taking long walks in the fresh air. The story says Jake took these three-mile and longer walks into the hills and forest surrounding his Sterlingville home.
While on one of these walks, Jake, who had been occasionally prospecting in the area since the mid-1850s, took a rest break near a canyon wall. According to his friend, John Saltmarsh, Jake noticed a glint of sunlight reflect off the rocks, prompting him to walk over and begin picking at the canyon wall with his knife. There he discovered gold ore scattered on the ground and what appeared to be a very rich vein of gold. He carefully hid the site to keep it secret and returned home.
What followed were daily trips to the canyon wall, pick in hand, where Jake filled canvas bags with the gold nuggets and ore he had hacked out of the wall. He stored his treasure in boxes under his bed.
Jake never told anyone about the gold except John Saltmarsh, and probably Jake’s wife. Neither of the two, nor anyone else, ever knew the location of the gold-filled canyon wall. Jake took that secret to his grave.
As with so many treasure legends, there are flaws in the story. One says Jake was bed-ridden for 100 days before his death, and yet, Jake managed a successful campaign for town marshal and won election during those very days. The stories will also tell you that Jake ultimately died of his consumption; tuberculosis in our day; however, the county coroner’s autopsy report said “congestion of the kidneys.”
Jake married Harriet Mulligan in 1858, and although the legend says she was a widow at the time, their wedding was actually four months after her divorce from Mulligan. And also notice, the legend never reveals what Harriet knew or didn’t know about Jake’s gold.
Jake Roudebush now rests in Jacksonville’s Historic Cemetery.
So there you go — the legend of the Sterling Creek Lode. I wish you luck, but please don’t ask me where to look. I haven’t got a clue.
Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,”a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or WilliamMMiller.com.