I’m a sucker for a good treasure hunt, and that’s what I got when I went searching for the Thoen Stone last spring. I can blame my wanderlust at the time on the pandemic. It was March of 2021, and I hadn’t traveled in over a year. The Black Hills sounded like the perfect place for a treasure hunt.
I wasn’t hunting treasure in the literal sense but in the research sense, which was almost as much fun. I’ve always loved history, and if I can incorporate it into a mystery, even better. It adds another avenue for my imagination and writing.
What is the Thoen Stone? It’s a piece of sandstone that was found at the base of Lookout Mountain, near Spearfish Canyon, SD, in 1887 by the Thoen brothers, who were ironically (coincidently?) stone masons. On one side of the stone are the following words (all errors and slurs original):
“came to these hills in 1833
seven of us
all ded but me Ezra Kind
Killed by Ind beyond the high hill
got our gold June 1834“
The other side reads:
“got all of the gold we could carry
our ponies all got by the Indians
I hav lost my gun and nothing to
eat and Indians hunting me”
According to the legend, Ezra Kind carved these words on the stone before he was killed by Native Americans, who left the gold buried in the Black Hills. Did a band of prospectors really come to the area 40 years before General Custer, though, or is the Thoen Stone a hoax, a stone carved by the Thoen brothers themselves for notoriety?
For some reason, answers never entice me as much as questions. However, I found one book-length work on the legend, The Thoen Stone: The Saga of the Black Hills, that provides some ideas if not concrete answers. First, I must say it’s evident the author, Frank Thomson, felt strongly about the subject and dedicated much of his life to researching the Black Hills. While it’s impossible to summarize an entire book here, I believe its strongest piece of evidence comes from the descendants of the prospectors themselves, which proves the gang did come to the area even if it doesn’t prove they struck gold. According to Thomson, who found descendants near the Black Hills, the original gang might have relocated from Georgia and been skilled in placer mining, an expertise that would have made retrieving the gold possible.
If the men left behind family members who knew their story, they might have left behind friends, too, and this is one idea in Mining for Murder. I imagine what might have happened had the real Ezra Kind written to a friend, encouraging him to come and, if not join him, eventually find his lost gold. What a great adventure for his friend, and me, and hopefully readers, too!