History in Focus: Diamonds and Geologists | CraigDailyPress.com

History in Focus: Diamonds and Geologists

After the Civil War, the West was a rollicking and wide open land, a place of limitless opportunity and where anything could happen.  At the same time the federal government sponsored several geologic and geographic surveys of the vast West to discover and bring order to the development of the region.  These somewhat opposite strands of Western history dovetailed together during the Great Diamond Hoax of 1872 that was centered in the northwest corner of today’s Moffat County.

In November of 1870, two bedraggled prospectors, Philip Arnold and John Slack, appeared off the streets of San Francisco at a local bank and revealed to the clerk a pouch full of various diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires they needed to deposit for safekeeping. 

In no time at all rumors were swirling about a possible diamond strike somewhere in the West.  In an era of frantic gold rushes in California and Colorado, diamond strikes in South Africa, and laissez-faire risk-taking capitalism, the chance to get rich quickly was a powerful temptation.

Arnold and Slack’s pouch of diamonds turned the heads of a group of San Francisco businessmen who eagerly formed the San Francisco and New York Mining Company.  They called upon Charles Tiffany, owner of Tiffany and Company, to appraise Arnold and Slack’s industrial cutting diamonds and second rate gems.  Amazingly, Tiffany erroneously appraised the stones to be worth millions of dollars!

At the behest of investors, Arnold and Slack agreed to take Henry Janin, a well-known and reputable mining engineer, to the undisclosed diamond field to verify its size and quality (just north of today’s Diamond Peak in Moffat County).  Blinded by the idea of diamond riches, Janin claimed the “salted” field was genuine and held millions of dollars of diamonds. 

With a stamp of approval from Tiffany and Janin, the hoax reached a fevered pitch and generated interest from investors far and wide.  Sensing their good luck was about to end, Arnold and Slack quietly relinquished their claims and made off with roughly $600,000. 

Coincidentally, one of four major surveys of the West had recently worked its way through the location of the hoax.  The Fortieth Parallel Survey covered a 100 mile wide swath of land from eastern Wyoming all the way to the Sierra Nevadas, encompassing both sides of the newly completed transcontinental railroad.  The lead geologist, Clarence King, was intrigued and alarmed by the news…if a massive diamond field lay within the boundaries of the survey, how did they miss it? 

With his reputation at stake, along with the entire notion of surveying the West, King determined he must investigate the rumor.  After some sleuthing and educated guesswork, King and his crew located Diamond Peak and traveled there in the bitter, windy cold of November 1872. 

Upon arrival,  even King and his men fell under the sway of diamond fever and frantically started to dig and scrape the earth with knives and shovels.  Sure enough…they discovered a host of diamonds and precious stones.  However, over the next few days King and his men soberly recognized the troubling signs of a hoax. 

First, diamonds and other gemstones were showing up in a geologic formation never known to produce such riches.  King also knew precious stones are created by varying geologic processes…yet they were conveniently sitting in a field side-by-side. 

In drainages where natural forces should have left dense deposits, no diamonds were found.   Nearby anthills showed clear evidence of rubies and diamonds having been pushed in by a stick, along with telltale footprints. Finally, even one diamond showed signs of the cutter’s chisel!

Without hesitation King exposed the hoax.  The reputations of Tiffany and Janin were tarnished, hopeful investors lost money, and the hoax faded into a unique footnote of American history.

Perhaps, it would loom larger in US history if investors had been tragically swindled of their life savings and western development slowed due to the shadow of uncertainty created by the hoax.  Instead, the Great Diamond Hoax is a less exciting, yet important, lesson about the positive role government and scientists had in bringing order and accountability to the development of our beloved “Wild West.”

James Neton teaches history at Moffat County High School and can be reached at netonjim@yahoo.com. Thanks to Dan Davidson, Director of the Museum of Northwest Colorado, for his assistance with information and sources. 

Sources:  Bartlett, Richard, A.  Great Surveys of the West. Univ. of Oklahoma Press. 1962.

Koster, John. The Great Diamond Hoax of 1872. Wild West Magazine. Oct. 2013.

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