Dennis Cassinelli: The legend of Montezuma Mountain
May 23, 2018
During the years when I traveled around the Great Basin while working for the Nevada State Highway Department, later known as NDOT, I occasionally crossed paths with some very interesting characters. One of these, who I'll call Danny, claimed to be an archaeologist and a self-taught anthropologist with strong opinions on a variety of subjects, including archaeology of the Great Basin. With dusty clothes and worn-out boots, the two of us met one evening at the Santa Fe Saloon in Goldfield where I was working on finaling out a construction project. It was there he told me an incredible story about a place near Goldfield named Montezuma Mountain.
Until just before Nevada became a territory of the United States, it was a part of Mexico. It was Danny who introduced me to his version of the legendary story of Montezuma peak, 8,353 feet high, just west of Goldfield. According to him, Montezuma Peak got its name when a band of deserters from the army of Hernan Cortez came north from Mexico with a stash of gold they had taken from Montezuma during the conquest of Tenochtitlan in 1519.
After several bloody battles with the Aztecs, Cortez and his army left Tenochtitlan on June 30, 1520. They had seven horses loaded with as much gold as they could carry. Danny's theory was several members of the expedition took part of the gold and deserted to the north. Cortez was so busy making his own escape under attack from the Aztecs, he decided not to pursue the deserters. The amount of gold taken by the deserters was nothing compared to what Cortez and his army took with them back to Spain.
Danny told me he had found a campsite on the slopes of Montezuma Mountain near Goldfield where the Spanish deserters had spent considerable time. He claimed to have found a rusted Spanish helmet from the period of the conquest and some gun flints, charcoal fire pits and a grave. He believed the deserters might have buried some of the stolen gold at the site. In fact, he spent considerable time searching and digging in the site.
It remains a mystery whatever became of the band of deserters. Danny surmised the band had heard the Aztecs speaking of their ancestral homeland called Aztlan, far to the northwest of Tenochtitlan. This was called their Place of Origin. It was described as a land of caves and marshes where, from an island, men went out to fish from boats. It's well known the Great Basin was once a vast area of lakes and marshes where we can still explore countless caves along the ancient shoreline.
This may have described the Great Basin at the time the ancestors of the Aztecs left this region, but climate changes had left it a land of deserts and mountains by 1520. The end of the trail appears to be Montezuma Peak. Jones never could find a trace of further travels of the band beyond Montezuma peak. He was convinced the deserters had come this far north at the suggestion this was the legendary Aztlan spoken of by the Aztecs. He believed Aztlan was indeed in the vast area that comprises the Great Basin.
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This is just one of many legendary stories of buried treasure from the time following the conquest of Mexico by Cortez in 1520. It seems several places throughout the Southwestern states claim to being locations of Montezuma treasure stories.
We do know there was trade interaction between people from the Great Basin and those of Mesoamerica. Donald Tuohy of the Nevada State Museum once showed me three different Mesoamerican figurines that resembled those made by Maya, Aztec or other Central American cultures. These were found at Pyramid Lake, Washoe Lake and Walker Lake.
Like countless other legendary stories, this one seems to have found an ending in the sands of the Great American Desert without a trace of the elusive gold ever being found. In 1902, one of the greatest deposits of rich gold ore in American history was discovered in Goldfield, within sight of Montezuma Peak. Further discoveries were later made in what's still known as the Montezuma Mining District.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis' books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.