South Dakota's "Sydney Duck" Cache

By Jeff Ferguson
From page 28 of the April, 1977 issue of Lost Treasure
Copyright © April, 1977 Lost Treasure, Inc. all rights reserved

After a long, cheerless Pacific crossing, Geoffery Phillips first set foot on American soil in the San Francisco of the the late 1860's. No one, least of all Phillips, suspected that within a dozen years he would be the principal cause of $15,000 in gold being securely buried in South Dakota, where it remains unfound to this day.

Phillips had been a petty thief and all-around scoundrel until he was imprisoned in the New South Wales penal colony at Sydney. Released, he became one of many Australian emigrants, all anxious to escape the taint of their pasts, who journeyed to America. In derision, he was immediately tagged a "Sydney Duck" and, like many of his countrymen in the new land, found the going tough at best.

Phillips' hopes for a fresh start soon began to dim. Even so, he remained optimistic. Unlike many of his fellows, his stay in prison had worn his rougher edges smooth. He was determined to remain an honest man.

He worked for a few months in the city, putting aside as much of his earnings as he could. Then one day he headed north into the California gold country.

He outfitted with prospecting gear, most of it secondhand, consisting of a shovel, pick, gold pan, and an aged horse.

Phillips found the mines and placers overrun with mean characters. Robberies and killings were commonplace. At the last minute, he found an itinerant arms peddler and bought a Civil War Navy .36, a bulky cap-and-ball revolver. The old gun was pitted on the barrel and cylinder with rust, but it fired well enough to suit the Australian.

He drifted from one strike to another, finding most of the old placers worked out and the few paying claims already taken.

He headed south, passing through many of the 50 odd mining camps scattered between Stockton and Lake Tahoe. Many camps were deserted and Phillips rarely stayed in one place more than a month.

Time after time he hiked into the hills with his pack horse, hoping to make a find. But always he returned emptyhanded, more disillusioned than ever. He made a bare living at the bone-breaking chore of dry placering, but was soon a frustrated man, aging rapidly beyond his years.

In the middle 1870's, Phillips was hunting silver far to the south in Panamint City. He worked for the Hemlock Mine consortium for a while, spending his free time prospecting for himself.

Then one summer he was accused of stealing a rich man's pouch of silver. He was arrested and put in jail. Fortunately, the real culprit was caught before Phillips came to trial, and he was released. But his reputation as a "Sydney Duck" was even more muddled by the episode.

Within a few months he was again falsely charged with highgrading silver ore from the mine where he worked. He was fired and told to be on his way. From then on, whenever a small crime was committed, people pointed an accusing finger at Phillips. He was almost a public scandal.

Phillips was now more frustrated and disillusioned than ever. He had tried to be an honest man, but had wound up penniless and suspect for every petty crime imaginable. Bit by bit, he resolved to return to his old errant ways. If everyone thought he was a criminal, then why not behave like one, he reasoned.

Soon he was fraternizing with an assortment of shady characters. Before long he was active among the criminal element.

As a criminal, Phillips was dedicated, but inept. He and two partners, Frank Toliver and Miguel Sortiz, were convicted of robbery. They got five-year sentences.

While they were being taken from Panamint to Los Angeles, they overpowered their guard and escaped. They fled east where they wouldn't be recognized as wanted men.

Moving through Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, they finally settled in South Dakota. The Black Hills region was feeling a gold rush of sorts and the chaos of fresh settlement was perfect for the small gang's grandiose schemes.

Generally, the gang waylaid lone travelers, relieving them of gold dust and other valuables. Sometimes Phillips and his partners burglarized saloons and shops in the dead of night, taking whatever they could find of value and escaping to a hideout in the hills

While committing their crimes, the bandits concealed their identities by wearing gunny sacks over their heads, as had the infamous California highwayman, Black Bart. To townsfolks, Phillips and his two pals were just three more prospectors who sometimes came into town for supplies and a bit of high living.

Robbing individuals wasn't especially profitable. The gang rarely got more than $200 off a victim, usually much less. Sortiz began insisting they go after bigger loot. Finally Phillips hatched a daring plan to rob the Black Hills Stage and Express. This Cheyenne to Deadwood stage regularly carried large amounts of gold, and the three robbers expected several thousand dollars for their trouble.

Late one afternoon, in 1877, the gang rode into the forest outside Pluma, just south of Deadwood. The stage would be along soon and the bandits had learned it was carrying a chest of $15,000 in gold coins along with $500 in gold amalgam to be used in assay work.

Sortiz donned his sack mask and climbed down off his horse. He walked to the roadway and stretched out, pretending to be injured.

In about 20 minutes the coach came rumbling around a bend and headed down the road toward Sortiz. The driver got the stage halted a few yards from the outlaw's prone body.

Before the driver could make a move, Phillips charged out of hiding, leveling his bulky Navy .36 at the man's mid-section. Toliver rode up from behind the stage, his rifle cocked and aimed. Sortiz jumped to his feet waving a pistol and ordered the three passengers out. The driver froze. Unable to move, he stared blankly at the big-bored octagonal barrel aimed at him by Phillips.

Toliver dismounted and helped Sortiz lift the heavy strongbox from the stage floor. Then Phillips swung his gun toward the passengers, barking for them to empty their pockets.

The bandits had momentarily forgotten the driver. Suddenly, he reached down and whisked the sack from Sortiz' head, revealing his identity.

Sortiz whirled and fired point-blank at the driver, knocking him from the seat. Phillips and Toliver, caught by surprise, tried to stop Sortiz, but were too late. He turned again and shot all three of the passengers.

The robbers broke open the chest and filled their saddlebags with gold specie and amalgam. Then they mounted and rode to their secret camp in a small box canyon formed by a granite upthrust. A small waterfall splashed down the back wall of the gorge, trickling down the center as a small stream. The bandits hurriedly buried their saddlebags near the narrow fall's base in a stand of cottonwoods.

Meanwhile, two riders from Deadwood had come upon the grisly scene of the robbery. One passenger, suffering from a flesh wound in the chest, was still alive. The men helped him on one of their horses and then raced into Deadwood.

The sheriff listened to their story, including a description of the one bandit who had been stripped of his mask. But instead of forming a posse and riding out after the robbers, he decided to wait until one of the three "prospectors came into town for supplies, as he was pretty sure of their identity. He didn't have long to wait.

Three days later, Sortiz rode into Deadwood for flour, sugar and canned peaches. He was promptly arrested and presented to the one survivor of the holdup, who verified his earlier identification.

Sortiz broke down. He told of all the gang's robberies, labeling Toliver and Phillips as the real instigators. Hoping to save his own neck, Sortiz offered to lead a posse to the secret camp where they could capture his two accomplicews and recover the buried gold.

With Sortiz guiding, the posse made its way through the hills and woods to the mouth of the box canyon. Heavily armed, the men dismounted and crept up to the small, wood-frame cabin, quietly surrounding it.

The sheriff yelled for Phillips and Toliver to surrender. Phillips shouted back, denying his guilt, insisting the sheriff had made a mistake.

"Your partner confessed," the lawman yelled back, and he grabbed a pale and hesitant Sortiz, forcing him into the open where Phillips could see him.

Realizing he'd been betrayed, Phillips poked his rifle through a window and shot Sortiz dead. The posse riddled the cabin with a barrage of gunfire.

For a few moments, the posse was answered with the sharp crack of a rifle and the thundering boom of Phillips' ancient revolver. Then the gunfire from inside the cabin stopped.

Posse members burst into the shack. On the floor were the bodies of Toliver and Phillips.

The posse searched for the cache of gold or for some clue to its whereabouts, following Sortiz's vague instructions. They found the waterfall, but the entire area was a watershed forested with cottonwoods. There was no way to pinpoint the exact spot the gold was buried.

One week later, men from the stage line went up to the canyon to search for the stolen loot. They couldn't find it either.
T
here is no known record of recovery of the treasure. The "Sydney Duck's" rich cache of gold coins may still lie hidden high in a tree-shaded canyon outside Pluma, waiting to surrender only to the ping of a metal detector.