The Cossatot River begins in the Ouachita Mountains southeast of Mena, Arkansas. The river flows through the Ouachita National Forest and then in a generally southerly direction until it empties into Gillham Lake. Cossatot comes from an Indian term which translates roughly to “skull crusher.” The Cossatot is known as a difficult whitewater stream to canoeists and kayakers.
Over time, the Cossatot has relentlessly carved its way down through the overlying layers of sandstone and shale, forming canyons and gorges, and shaping the landscape of the Ouachita Mountains. As a result of the removal of sedimentary rock deposits, exposing the underlying granite, some of which contains a vein of gold.
This vein was discovered by Spanish explorers under the command of Hernando de Soto, who arrived here centuries ago in search of riches. They mined the gold, digging a shaft that extended well over one hundred feet into the ground. For reasons unknown, the Spaniards abandoned the area while the mine was still productive. Some have suggested it was the result of constant Indian attacks, others believed they were called back to Spain to help defend their homeland from its numerous enemies. The mine was found by early settlers, and then lost again.
During the late 1860’s, Dr. Ferdinand Smith drove his family and belongings in a wagon from Frankford, Missouri, to the remote and sparsely settled country of Sevier County along the Cossatot River. Some had written that Smith was looking for a piece of land to farm. Others maintained he was driven from Missouri as a result of the mysterious deaths of some of his patients. Whatever the circumstances, none of this information was known to the few residents of Sevier County, all of whom welcomed the physician. Up until then, they had no access to a doctor and treated their ailments with folk remedies and potions. Smith became popular in a short time, making himself available to the sick and injured, and accepting payment in livestock and produce.
Smith learned of a fascinating tale of a lost gold mine located some distance upstream of his farm on the Cossatot River. Eventually, Smith learned even more details of the lost mine from Choctaw Indians who had settled in the Cossatot area. Several years before the Choctaws moved to the region, a trading post had been established at the site known today as Lockesburg. The post stocked food, tools, clothing, guns, and ammunition, most of which was exchanged for pelts. The post was also a gathering place for local trappers and hunters.
Once a month, a blond, fair-skinned woman arrived at the post on a white horse, accompanied by four young Indians. The woman was described as being clothed in garments of leather and adorned in gold jewelry of rustic design and manufacture. She would purchase foodstuffs and other items, all of which she paid for with gold. The nuggets were described as being of a remarkably high quality. On the few occasions the woman spoke, it was in Spanish. When asked how she had come by the gold she and her Indian companions refused to answer. Several attempts were made to follow her after her visits to the trading post, but she always managed to elude her trackers.
From time to time, someone would encounter the woman and her companions returning from the trading post along the trail that has since become known as the Old Fort Towson Road. Following one particular trip to the post, she was seen entering Pig Pen Bottoms, a snake and wild hog–infested patch of briars in the dark woods on the floodplain of the Cossatot River. When the observer told friends at the trading post what he had seen, a small expedition was organized to enter the bottoms in search of the source of the woman’s gold.
The party had a difficult time finding a way into the forbidding area. Once there, they became lost, wandering for hours before making their way out. One man suffered a bite from a water moccasin. They finally returned to the trading post around midnight, exhausted, scratched, and unsuccessful. The incident apparently put the strange woman on guard, for she was never seen again.
In time, Dr. Smith purchased a parcel of land south of Rolling Shoals Ford on the Cossatot River. Pig Pen Bottoms was located between the ford and Smith’s land. The large, dense thicket appeared impenetrable and resisted all of Smith’s attempts to enter. He hired a group of men to clear the area and when most of the tangle of briers and vines had been cut and burned, an entrance to an old mine shaft was discovered in an outcropping of rock. The shaft was nearly vertical. Judging from the piles of rock adjacent to the entrance, it had been extensively worked. Peering into the shaft, Smith spotted several old, rotting timbers that served as bracing. Smith, along with several of his employees, attempted to enter the shaft, but it was almost entirely filled with water.
For several years the shaft remained inaccessible because of the standing water. Smith could only dream of the riches that might lie at its deepest recesses,. Before he was able to enter the mine, Dr. Smith passed away, his hopes of retrieving gold from the old mine unfulfilled.
During the early 1920’s, a severe drought struck the area and the Cossatot River dried to a mere trickle. Someone noticed that the water level in the old Spanish mine in Pig Pen Bottoms had receded. A group of men decided to make an attempt at entering the shaft. Using ropes, two men were lowered into the mine. Each carried a lantern and a shovel. As they descended into the mine, they noticed rotting timbers all the way down that had once served as mine supports. Undoubtedly, a considerable amount of work had gone into the excavation of the shaft. During his descent, one of the men found a large, heavy hammer that had been lodged between the wall of the shaft and a timber support. It was later identified as having been cast in the town of Seville, Spain, during the early part of the sixteenth century, thus providing greater evidence of the presence of Spaniards there.
At nearly one hundred feet into the shaft, the two men encountered water and were forced to return to the surface. Following two more descents into the mine, it was determined that it would be impossible to reach the bottom unless the water could be removed. In early 1927, another drought struck the region, and the water table was even lower than it had been during the earlier dry spell. Yet another group of men familiar with the tale of the lost gold mine made plans for a descent. This time when they reached the bottom at 120 feet, there was no water. They did, however, encounter a deep layer of sediment that had been deposited by floodwaters during previous years. Believing the sediment was far too deep to penetrate in order to reach the vein of gold, they abandoned the project. Thus, the deepest recesses of the shaft remained unexplored.
As the drought continued, a group of boys who had heard the story of the lost Spanish gold mine decided to make an attempt to reach the bottom of the shaft. After descending 120 feet into the mine, they encountered the deep layer of silt. For days, the boys labored to remove the silt, hauling bucket loads to the surface at every opportunity. As they carried the fill to the surface and worked their way deeper into the shaft, they noticed that it grew narrower, suggesting they were nearing the vein of gold. By this time they had excavated several tons of dirt. In the process they found more old Spanish mining tools, thus fueling their optimism that a fortune in gold was near at hand.
Then the rain began to fall. The excavation of the shaft was halted as the boyswere forced to wait out the weather. Luck was not with them, however, for the rains did not abate for days. In fact, it was the beginning of a series of thunderstorms that struck most of the state of Arkansas that year, eventually giving rise to the Great Flood of 1927 that placed much of Arkansas and Louisiana underwater. The Cossatot River, carrying a heavy burden of sand and silt, rose and overflowed its banks, spilling over into the floodplain where the mine was located.
When the rains finally abated and the floodwaters retreated, the boys returned to Pig Pen Bottoms. The flood deposits obliterated all traces of the shaft, and it was only after several years of searching that the entrance was finally found again, located beneath two feet of alluvial deposit. During successive years, several parties attempted to re-excavate the sediment-filled shaft, but none were successful. Water in the shaft remained the ongoing problem. No sooner would some progress be attained relative to removing the tons of silt than the spring rains would arrive, bringing more floodwaters. In addition, for years the local water table had been rising, causing the shaft to fill to within a few feet of the surface. All attempts at pumping the water out failed.
Today, the old Spanish gold mine lies undisturbed in Pig Pen Bottoms. Though the regrowth of briars and brush has partially concealed the location, a few residents of nearby Gilliam, Arkansas, claim to know where it is. There is little interest among the locals as they have seen and heard too much about the difficulties of previous attempts. They are also familiar with the unpredictability of the Cossatot River. Most of them are convinced that a fortune in gold remains at the bottom of the old mine. Some are optimistic that it can be reached using modern methods. Others, however, are certain that no one will ever get to the gold because the forces of nature will conspire to foil their quest.