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Does Death Valley Conceal an Ancient Subterranean City?: The Legend of Shin-Au-Av.

historical landmarks | October 15, 2018

Death Valley National Park California United States Of America North America. (Photo by: Francesco Vaninetti/ClickAlps/REDA&CO/UIG via Getty Images)

California’s Death Valley is one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. Average temperatures are well over 100 degrees, water is almost non-existent, vegetation is scarce and the whole area is situated below sea level. It certainly earned its name. Could it be that there is more to Death Valley than dangerous heat and dehydration? Could it be that there is an ancient, hidden, underground city deep below Death Valley? According to numerous people and Native American lore, there is. This is the legend of Shin-Au-Av. 

Paiute Indians Spoke of the Kingdom of Shin-Au-Av

Just because Death Valley doesn’t offer the ideal habitat doesn’t mean that humans haven’t inhabited the area for thousands of years. Among them were the Paiute people. The Paiute Indians have told stories about a vast underground city for centuries. They call this place the Kingdom of Shin-Au-Av, meaning “Ghost Land” and they consider the subterranean city to be portal to the underworld. The legend of this hidden city is full of details. 

The Paiute Chief Followed His Dead Wife Into the Underworld

In the Paiute story of Shin-Au-Av, the wife of an Indian chief died and the grief-stricken chief, certain he could not live without his beloved wife, decided to follow her to the land of the dead. Led by the spirits of deal Paiute braves, he traveled through a network of underground tunnels, battling beasts and evil spirits along the way, until he finally spotted a warm, glowing light. It was an underground sun that bathed a subterranean world in sunlight. But to reach this place, the Chief had to cross over a narrow, rocky bridge over a bottomless canyon. It was a dangerous crossing but he finally arrived in the Spirit Land where he was greeted by the daughter of the great Shin-Au-Av. She led him to a spot where thousands upon thousands of dead people who were all dancing happily amid the joy and bliss of the Spirit Land. 

(David Penfound)

The Chief was Instructed to sit and wait for his wife to Dance by.

The Chief was given instructions to patiently watch the dancers and wait until his wife danced by. Once he saw her, he was to carry her away, leaving across the bridge and through the underground passages until they reached the surface world again. But neither one of them could look back as they left. The Chief waited and waited for several days and then, at last, he saw his beloved wife. Just as he was told to do, he ran to her and took her hand. Together, the happy couple ran across the valley to the treacherous bridge and began to make their way across it. The Chief couldn’t help himself. He took one quick glance back at the beautiful Spirit Land. In a flash, his wife was gone and he was left all alone on the bridge. Regretfully, the Chief returned to the surface world and told everyone he met about his adventure in the Kingdom of Shin-Au-Av. 

(Eugene Carsey III)

The Kingdom of Shin-Au-Av may be more than a Legend.

A more recent story about the possibility of a subterranean city under Death Valley surfaced from 1931. According to this story, a retired Cincinnati physician, Dr. F. Bruce Russell, moved to the dry climate near Death Valley to try to improve his health. Joining him was a friend, Dr. Daniel S. Bovee, who had experience working at archaeological sites in Mexico. Dr. Russell and Dr. Bovee claim to have accidentally discovered a maze of catacombs underneath the desert sands. Russell had heard of mining operations in Death Valley and decided to try his hand at unearthing riches. While sinking a mine shaft, the bottom suddenly caved in and he found himself in a complex of tunnels. 

Saber-Tooth Tiger

Russell and Bovee Found Strange Mummified Remains.

The two doctors set out to explore the tunnel system. Soon, they came upon the mummified remains of three giants, men who were reported to be between eight and nine feet tall. They were wearing odd clothing that was made from the hides of an unknown animal. Surrounding the mummies were peculiar carvings in the rock. Dr. Bovee believed that some of the carvings were Native American symbols while others looked like Egyptian hieroglyphics. In subsequent tunnels and chambers, Russell and Bovee said they saw more carvings, as well as the preserved remains of many animals, including tigers, elephants, and dinosaurs. It has been thought that the gentlemen mistook the remains of prehistoric mammoths and saber-tooth tigers for modern day elephants and tigers. 

Whatever Happened to Drs. Russell and Bovee?

Despite their failed efforts to get archaeologists to join them in excavating the hidden city beneath Death Valley, Dr. Russell did find a group of investors willing to finance a dig. However, Russell was unable to find his way back to the mine shaft and the entrance to the underground city. He was determined to find it again. Then he disappeared, along with Dr. Bovee. Several months passed by before Russell’s car was discovered broken down in a remote spot in Death Valley. Did the men succumb to the harsh conditions of Death Valley? Or did they discover the hidden city of Shin-Au-Av and decide to stay there? 

Did a Prospector Find the Underground City in the 1920s?

The story of the subterranean tunnels told by Russell and Bovee seems far-fetched, but they are not the first to claim to have discovered odd tunnels and mummified human remains deep beneath Death Valley. In the 1920s, an old prospector named White said that he was searching for gold neat the Wingate Pass in the southwest region of Death Valley. He went into an abandoned mine shaft and the floor of the mine gave out from his weight, plunging him into a labyrinth of underground tunnels. As he explored the tunnels, he discovered chambers that were lit with a greenish-yellow glow. He was unable to determine the source of the light, but he did find hundreds of mummified human remains, all wearing odd leather clothing. White says he made two trips back to the caverns, one with his wife and another with his mining partner, Fred Thomason. 

Did Tom Wilson’s Grandfather also find the City?

After the old prospector’s story hit the news, Tom Wilson, a Paiute Indian, came forward with his own tale. According to Wilson, his grandfather often spoke of finding a hidden city under Death Valley and his account sounded similar to White’s. Wilson’s grandfather, he stated, had entered the tunnel system via a cave. He followed the passages for several miles until he came upon a subterranean city populated by a group of fair-skinned people who wore strange leather garments and spoke an unknown language. He claims that the entire city was illuminated by greenish-yellow lights that didn’t need to be lit by fire. He also said the inhabitants of the city offered him food, the likes of which he had never seen before. When he returned to the surface to tell his tale, very few people believed him, but when Wilson heard of White's story and he noticed the similarities, he started to believe that his grandfather had found the hidden city years ago. 

Panamint Mountains

A 1932 Book by Bourke Lee Also Contains an Account of the Hidden City.

In Bourke Lee’s 1932 book, Death Valley Men, there is an account of two men named Jack and Bill who have an experience similar to that of Wilson’s grandfather and the prospector, White. According to Lee’s book, Jack and Bill were near the Wingate Pass when one of them descended into an old mine shaft and fell through the bottom. The other immediately followed. The pair found themselves in a passageway, which they followed for more than twenty miles. Throughout the tunnel system, the two came across several chambers filled with mummified human remains, rooms filled with treasures and tunnels lit with an odd glowing light. They described huge, heavy stone doors that were perfectly balanced and would easily swing open. At some point, the tunnel started pointing upward and Bill and Jack exited the cave system half-way up the eastern slope of the Panamint Mountains. Like the others, the two were never able to find their way back to the entrance to the hidden tunnels. 

Is the Hidden City Real?

No one knows if the accounts of people stumbling upon a subterranean city beneath Death Valley are hoaxes or exaggerated tales and Death Valley is certainly not the place for amateur explorers to go poking around. But it is strange that all of the stories have similar elements to them. And what better place to hide a hidden city than underneath one of the most uninhabitable places on Earth. 

Tags: death valley, california, ancient city, legend of shin-au-av

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.