The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 20, Number 23, June 4, 2017, Article 27


Over the years we've had several references to "Panamint Balls" of silver, a purported tactic to thwart robbers by making silver ore too heavy to transport without the proper equipment and manpower. Bob Van Ryzin submitted these research notes - he believes the story may have been made-up or exaggerated. -Editor

I wonder if the story of the Panamint (Calif.) cannonballs of silver wasn’t made-up or exaggerated by its most prominent teller—Sen. William M. Stewart of Nevada, who owned mines there, along with Sen. John P. Jones, also of Nevada.

The first reference I’ve come across to the large Panamint balls, said to have been used in the 1870s by the Panamint mine owners to thwart highwaymen along the Panamint road, comes from Stewart. More than 30 years after the prime days at Panamint, Stewart said that five 750 pound balls were made, whereas period newspaper references say it was five 400+ pound bars, not balls.

The Oct. 15, 1875 issue of the San Francisco Weekly Stock Report and California Street Journal and the Stockton, Calif. Daily Evening Herald of Oct. 13, 1875 both relate the same thing—that a big shipment of silver had been received at the U.S. Mint and it was in the form of large bars.

The Stockton newspaper wrote:

“There was deposited in the United States Mint last week five bars of silver from Senator Jones’ Panamint mines, weighing over 400 pounds each, the five bars aggregating over a ton. The silver was run into these unusually large bars as a protection against robbers on the Panamint road.”

The Oct. 20, 1875 issue of the Pioche (Nev.) Daily Record had a slightly different take:

“When silver is shipped from Panamint nowadays, it is run into bars of four hundred pounds and ballasts the coach, thereby ontwitting [sic] the knights of the road. Every now and then a big bar comes rolling into San Francisco and creates a ripple of remark.”

That there were robbers along the Panamint road is evidenced by contemporary newspaper reports, but the general story nowadays is not of bars but of cannonballs of silver.

Wikipedia, for example, relates that “Because of Panamint City’s lawless reputation, Wells Fargo refused to open an office there. The senators [Jones and Stewart] solved the question of how to transport the silver bullion from the mines by casting it into 450-pound cannonballs, which were hauled to Los Angeles in an unguarded wagon.”

The first mention I’ve come across to cannonballs originated in the March 10, 1908 issue of the San Diego Union and was spread by its later appearance in the March 21, 1908 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, and further by Stewart’s 1908 book, Reminiscences of Senator William M. Stewart, where it appears with slight style changes.

Under the title, “Cannon Balls of Pure Silver: How Senator Stewart Got the Best of Ore Thieves in Early Days in Nevada,” the March 10, 1908 issue of the San Diego Union told of the beginning of mining in the Panamint region and the need for a clever solution to getting the silver safely to mint. The Union wrote:

“It seems that a company of outcasts had discovered veins of precious metal running across the edge of the ravine which terminated in their resort in Death Valley. Being too lazy to work the find themselves, the highwaymen sold the mines to Senator Stewart and several other capitalists.”

The article says Stewart explained, as part of his upcoming Saturday Evening Post article, that the highwaymen were very cordial while Stewart and his associates worked the mine, “and they seemed to like the locality so well they could not be persuaded to go away, but hung around and acted affectionate and sociable and kind. We were on such good terms with them that they did not hesitate to ask me when we expected to begin shipping bullion, and then I realized they had sold their mines, not with the intention of giving up the profits, but merely to save themselves the necessity of labor.”

Wells Fargo, he said, refused to set up an express office because of the road agents.

“We were stumped. We were getting out plenty of ore, but didn’t dare to run it into bullion, because the minute we did the property would change hands.

“Finally I hit on a scheme. I had some molds made in which a ball of solid silver could be run weighing 750 pounds. Then I began smelting the ore, and I ran out enormous cannonballs of the precious stuff that could have bombarded a battleship.”

He claims the highwaymen then complained, acting like he was cheating them out of their property, to which Stewart replied, “‘All right, said I, ‘business is business. If you haven’t genius enough carry this stuff off, why, you’ll have to suffer, that’s all. You can’t expect me to be sorry for you, can you?’”

The highwaymen “‘fairly sweated themselves trying to lug one of those silver cannon-ball off” and were “mad as hornets” when they couldn’t accomplish the task.

Later, they returned and a “Half a dozen of them pried, and tugged, and strained, and grunted, trying to hoist one of them on a mule; but that made the mule mad, and by and by he took a hand in the proceedings, and made those outlaws feel pretty sick. After that they gave it up, and while we were loading five of the silver cannonballs on an immense freight wagon they sat around disconsolate and solemn like pall-bearers at a funeral.”

The story is colorful, if nothing else.

To read the complete Saturday Evening Post article, see:
The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 180, Issue 3

Thanks! Now what do readers think? For fun, below is one more version of the tale -Editor

A bandit hollered: "Whoa! Hold it right there! Let's have the silver!"

"Help yourself", the driver said: "I'm haulin' cannon balls... they're all yours".

After pulling the load cover back, the bandits took one look and exclaimed:

"Damn it! Them ain't cannon balls!" They knew they had been out-smarted.

Sure enough, carefully secured in the bottom of the wagon were these large balls of metal weighing at over 400 pounds each! They were solid silver ingots that had been cast in the shape and size of wrecking balls. The balls of silver had been oxidized to turn black and were much bigger than any cannon ball. It would be impossible for the greediest of bandits to pick one up, let alone carry it away.

To read the complete article, see:
The Cannon Balls of Panamint (

To read the earlier E-Sylum articles, see:

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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