COMMERCE OF THE PRAIRIES, by Josiah Gregg: Volume II



Visit to the Mining Town of Jesus-Maria — Critical Roads — Losing Speculations — Mine of Santa Juliana — Curious mining Operations — Different Modes of working the Ore — The Crushing-mill, etc. — Barras De Plata — Value of Bullion —The Silver Trade — Return to Chihuahua — Resumption of the regular Narrative — Curious Wholesales — Money Table — Redundancy of Copper Coin — City of Chihuahua and its Peculiarities — Ecclesiastical Architecture — Hidalgo and his Monument — Public Works and their present Declension — Fete in honor of Iturbide — Illiberality towards Americans — Shopping Mania — Anti-Masonic Auto de Fe.

     BEFORE resuming my regular narrative, I trust the reader will pardon me for introducing here a brief account of an excursion which I made in the fall of the year 1835, to the mining town of Jesus-Maria, one of the most important mineral districts in the department of Chihuahua, situated about a hundred and fifty miles west of the city, in the very heart of the great Cordilleras.

     I had long been desirous of visiting some of the mining establishments of Mexico, and seeing a favorable opportunity of embarking in a profitable enterprise, I set out from Chihuahua on the 15th of October. My party consisted of but one American comrade — with


a Mexican muleteer — and three or four mules freighted with specie to be employed in the silver trade: a rather scanty convoy for a route subject to the inroads both of savages and robbers. For transportation, we generally pack our specie in sacks made of raw beef hide, which shrinks upon drying, and thus presses the contents so closely as to prevent friction. A pair of these packages, usually containing between one and two thousand dollars each, constitutes an ordinary mule-load on the mountain routes.

     The road in this direction leads through the toughest mountain passes; and, in some places, it winds so close along the borders of precipices, that by a single misstep an animal might be precipitated several hundred feet. Mules, however, are very sure-footed; and will often clamber along the most craggy cliff is with nearly as much security as the goat. I was shown the projecting edge of a rock over which the road had formerly passed. This shelf was perhaps thirty feet in length by only two or three in width. The road which leads into the town of Jesus-Maria from the west side of the mountain is also extremely perilous and steep, and seems almost to overhang the houses below. Heavily laden mules have sometimes slipped off the track, and tumbled headlong into the town. The place is even more pent up between ridges than Zacatecas: the valley is narrower and the mountains much higher; while, as is the case with that remarkable city, the houses are


sometimes built in successive tiers, one above another; the azoteas of the lower ones forming the yard of those above.

     The first mine I visited consisted of an immense horizontal shaft cut several hundred feet into a hill-side, a short distance below the town of Jesus-Maria, upon which the proprietors had already sunk, in the brief space of one year, the enormous sum of one hundred and twenty thousand dollars! Such is often the fate of the speculative miner, whose vocation is closely allied to gaming, and equally precarious.

A Mining Scene     The most important mine of Jesus-Maria at this time was one called Santa Juliana, which had been the means of alternately making and sinking several splendid fortunes. This mine had then reached a depth of between eight and nine hundred feet, and the operations were still tending downwards. The materials were drawn up by mule power applied to a windlass: but as the rope attached to it only extended half way down, another windlass had been erected at the distance of about four hundred feet from the mouth of the cavern, which was also worked by mules, and drew the ores, etc., from the bottom. On one occasion, as I was standing near the aperture of this great pit watching the ascent of the windlass rope, expecting every moment the appearance of the large leathern bucket which they employ for drawing up the minerals as well as the rubbish and water* from the bot-

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* Water has sometimes accumulated so rapidly in this mine as to stop operations for weeks altogether.

Page 108 — A MINING SCENE.

what should greet my vision but a mule, pulling and writhing, firmly bound to a huge board constructed for the purpose, and looking about as demure upon the whole as a sheep under the shears. On being untied, the emancipated brute suddenly sprang to his feet, and looked around him at the bright scenes of the upper world with as much astonishment as Rip Van Winkle may be supposed to have felt after waking up from his twenty years' sleep.

     The ore which is obtained from these mines, if sufficiently rich to justify the operation, is transferred to the smelting furnaces, where the pure metal is melted down and extracted from the virgin fossil. If, on the contrary, the ore is deemed of inferior quality, it is then submitted to the process of amalgamation.


The moliendas, or crushing-mills (arrastres, as called at some mines), employed for the purpose of grinding the ores, are somewhat singular machines. A circular (or rather annular) cistern of some twenty or thirty feet in diameter is dug in the earth, and the sides as well as the bottom are lined with hewn stone of the hardest quality. Transversely through an upright post which turns upon its axis in the centre of the plan, passes a shaft of wood, at each end of which are attached by cords one or two grinding stones with smooth flat surfaces, which are dragged (by mules fastened to the extremities of the shaft) slowly around upon the bottom of the cistern, into which the ore is thrown after being pounded into small pieces. It is here ground, with the addition of water, into an impalpable mortar, by the constant friction of the dragging stones against the sides and bottom of the cistern. A suitable quantity of quicksilver is perfectly mixed with the mortar; to which are added some muriates, sulphates, and other chemical substances, to facilitate the amalgamation. The compound is then piled up in small heaps, and not disturbed again until this process is supposed to be complete, when it is transferred to the washing-machine. Those I have observed are very simple, consisting of a kind of stone tub, into which a stream of water is made to flow constantly, so as to carry off all the lighter matter, which is kept stirred up by an upright studded with pegs, that revolves in the centre, while the amalgamated metals sink


to the bottom. Most of the quicksilver is then pressed out and the silver submitted to a burning process, by which the remaining portion of mercury is expelled.

     The silver which is taken from the furnace, generally contains an intermixture of gold, averaging from ten to thirty per cent.; but what is extracted by amalgamation is mostly separated in the washing. While in a liquid state, the gold, from its greater specific gravity, mostly settles to the bottom: yet it usually retains a considerable alloy of silver. The compound is distinguished by the name of oroche. The main portion of the silver generally retains too little gold to make it worth separating.

     Every species of silver is moulded into barras or ingots, weighing from fifty to eighty pounds each, and usually worth between one and two thousand dollars. These are assayed by an authorized agent of the government and stamped with their weight and character, which enables the holder to calculate their value by a very simple rule. When the bullion is thus stamped, it constitutes a species of currency, which is much safer for remittances than coin. In case of robbery, the barras are easily identified, provided the robbers have not had time to mould them into some other form. For this reason, people of wealth frequently lay up their funds in ingots; and the cellars of some of the ricos of the South, are often found teeming with large quantities of them, presenting an appearance of a winter's supply of fuel.


As the charge for parting the gold and silver at the Mexican mints, is generally from one to two dollars, and coinage about fifty cents, per pound, this assayed bullion yields a profit upon its current value of nearly ten per cent at the United States Mint; but, if unassayed, it generally produces an advance of about double that amount upon the usual cost at the mines. The exportation of bullion, however, is prohibited, except by special license from the general government. Still a large quantity is exported in this way, and considerable amounts smuggled out through some of the ports.

     A constant and often profitable business in the 'silver trade' is carried on at these mines. As the miners rarely fail being in need of ready money, they are generally obliged to sell their bullion for coin, and that often at a great sacrifice, so as to procure available means to prosecute their mining operations. To profit by this trade, as is already mentioned, was a principal object of my present visit. Having concluded my business transactions, and partially gratified my curiosity, I returned to Chihuahua, where I arrived November 24, 1835, without being molested either by robbers or Indians, though the route is sometimes infested by both of these classes of independent gentry.

     But, as it is now high time I should put an end to this digression, I will once more resume my narrative, where it was interrupted at my arrival in Chihuahua, on the first of October, 1839.


It is usual for each trader, upon his arrival in that city, to engage a store-room, and to open and exhibit his goods, as well for the purpose of disposing of them at wholesale as retail. His most profitable custom is that of the petty country merchants from the surrounding villages. Some traders, it is true, continue in the retail business for a season or more, yet the greater portion are transient dealers, selling off at wholesale as soon as a fair bargain is offered.

     The usual mode of selling by the lot in Chihuahua is somewhat singular. All such cottons as calicoes and other prints, bleached, brown and blue domestics both plain and twilled, stripes, checks, etc., are rated at two or three reales* per vara, without the least reference to quality or cost, and the 'general assortment' at 60 to 100 per cent upon the bills of cost, according to the demand. The varage is usually estimated by adding eight per cent. to the yardage, but the vara being thirty-three inches (nearly), the actual difference is more than nine. In these sales, cloths —

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* The Mexican money table is as follows: 12 granos make 1 real; 8 reales, 1 peso, or dollar. These are the divisions used in computation, but instead of granos, the copper coins of Chihuahua and many other places, are the claco or jola (1/8 real) and the cuartilla (1/4 real). The silver coins are the medio (6 1/4 cents), the real (12 1/2 cents), the peseta (2 reales), the toston or half dollar, and the peso or dollar. The gold coins are the doblon or onza (doubloon), with the same subdivisions as the silver dollar, which are also precisely of the same weight. The par value of the doubloon is sixteen dollars; but, as there is no kind of paper currency, gold, as the most convenient remittance, usually commands a high premium — sometimes so high, indeed that the doubloon is valued in the North at from eighteen to twenty dollars.


indeed all measurable goods, except ribands and the like, sometimes enter at the variage rate. I have heard of some still more curious contracts in these measurement sales, particularly in Santa Fe, during the early periods of the American trade. Everything was sometimes rated by the vara — not only all textures, but even hats, cutlery, trinkets, and so on! In such cases, very singular disputes would frequently arise as to the mode of measuring some particular articles: for instance, whether pieces of riband should be measured in bulk, or unrolled, and yard by yard; looking glasses, cross or lengthwise; pocket-knives, shut or open; writing-paper, in the ream, in the quire, or by the single sheet; and then, whether the longer or shorter way of the paper; and many others.

     Before the end of October, 1839, I had an opportunity of selling out my stock of goods to a couple of English merchants, which relieved me from the delays, to say nothing of the inconveniences attending a retail trade: such, for, instance, as the accumulation of copper coin, which forms almost the exclusive currency in petty dealings. Some thousands of dollars' worth are frequently accumulated upon the hands of the merchant in this way, and as the copper of one department is worthless in another, except for its intrinsic value, which is seldom more than ten per cent. of the nominal value, the holders are subjected to a great deal of trouble and annoyance.

     With regard to the city, there is but little to


be said that is either very new or unusually interesting. When compared with Santa Fe and all the towns of the North, Chihuahua might indeed be pronounced a magnificent place; but, compared with the nobler cities of tierra afuera, it sinks into insignificance. According to Capt. Pike, the city of Chihuahua was founded in 1691. The ground-plan is much more regular than that of Santa Fe, while a much greater degree of elegance and classic taste has been exhibited in the style of the architecture of many buildings; for though the bodies be of adobe, all the best houses are cornered with hewn stone, and the doors and windows are framed in the same. The streets, however, remain nearly in the same state as Nature formed them, with the exception of a few roughly-paved side-walks. Although situated about a hundred miles east of the main chain of the Mexican Cordilleras, Chihuahua is surrounded on every side by detached ridges of mountains, but none of them of any great magnitude. The elevation of the city above the ocean is between four and five thousand feet; its latitude is 28° 36'; and its entire population numbers about ten thousand souls.

     The most splendid edifice in Chihuahua is the principal church, which is said to equal in architectural grandeur anything of the sort in the republic. The steeples, of which there is one at each front corner, rise over a hundred feet above the azotea. They are composed of very fancifully-carved columns; and


in appropriate niches of the frontispiece, which is also an elaborate piece of sculpture, are to be seen a number of statues, as large as life, the whole forming a complete representation of Christ and the twelve Apostles. This church was built about a century ago, by contributions levied upon the mines (particularly those of Santa Eulalia, fifteen or twenty miles from the city), which paid over a per centage on all the metal extracted therefrom; a medio, I believe, being levied upon each marco of eight ounces. In this way, about a million of dollars was raised and expended in some thirty years, the time employed in the construction of the building. It is a curious fact, however, that, notwithstanding the enormous sums of money expended in outward embellishments, there is not a church from thence southward, perhaps, where the interior arrangements bear such striking marks of poverty and neglect. If, however, we are not dazzled by the sight of those costly decorations for which the churches of Southern Mexico are so much celebrated, we have the satisfaction of knowing that the turrets are well provided with bells, — a fact of which every person who visits Chihuahua very soon obtains auricular demonstration. One, in particular, is so large and sonorous that it has frequently been heard, so I am informed, at the distance of twenty-five miles.

     A little below the Plaza Mayor stands the ruins (as they may be called) of San Francisco — the mere skeleton of another great church


of hewn-stone, which was commenced by the Jesuits previous to their expulsion in 1767, but never finished. By the outlines still traceable amid the desolation which reigns around, it would appear that the plan of this edifice was conceived in a spirit of still greater magnificence than the Parroquia which I have been describing. The abounding architectural treasures that are mouldering and ready to tumble to the ground, bear sufficient evidence that the mind which had directed its progress was at once bold, vigorous and comprehensive.

     This dilapidated building has since been converted into a sort of state prison, particularly for the incarceration of distinguished prisoners. It was here that the principals of the famous Texan Santa Fe Expedition were confined, when they passed through the place, on their way to the city of Mexico. This edifice has also acquired considerable celebrity as having received within its gloomy embraces several of the most distinguished patriots, who were taken prisoners during the first infant struggles for Mexican independence. Among these was the illustrious ecclesiastic, Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, who made the first declaration at the village of Dolores, September 16, 1810. He was taken prisoner in March, 1811, some time after his total defeat at Guadalahara; and being brought to Chihuahua, he was shot on the 30th of July following, in a little square back of the prison, where a plain white monument of hewn stone

Page 117 — THE AQUEDUCT.

has been erected to his memory. It consists of an octagon base of about twenty-five feet in diameter, upon which rises a square, unornamented pyramid to the height of about thirty feet. The monument indeed is not an unapt emblem of the purity and simplicity of the curate's character.

     Among the few remarkable objects which attract the attention of the traveller is a row of columns supporting a large number of stupendous arches which may be seen from the heights long before approaching the city from the north. This is an aqueduct of considerable magnitude which conveys water from the little river of Chihuahua, to an eminence above the town, whence it is passed through a succession of pipes to the main public square, where it empties itself into a large stone cistern; and by this method the city is supplied with water. This and other public works to be met with in Chihuahua, and in the southern cities, are glorious remnants of the prosperous times of the Spanish empire. No improvements on so exalted a scale have ever been made under the republican government. In fact, everything in this benighted country now seems to be on the decline, and the plain honest citizen of the old school is not unfrequently heard giving vent to his feelings by ejaculating "Ojala por los dias felices del Rey!" — Oh, for the happy days of the King! In short, there can be no doubt, that the common people enjoyed more ease — more protection against the savages — more


security in their rights and property — more liberty, in truth, under the Spanish dynasty than at present.

     No better evidence can be found of the extensive operations which have been carried on in this the greatest mining district of Northern Mexico, than in the little mountains of scoria which are found in the suburbs of the city. A great number of poor laborers make a regular business of hammering to pieces these metallic excrescences, from which they collect silver enough to buy their daily bread. An opinion has often been expressed by persons well acquainted with the subject, that a fair business might be done by working this same scoria over again. There are still in operation several furnaces in the city, where silver ores extracted from the mines of the surrounding mountains are smelted. There is also a rough mint in Chihuahua (as there is indeed in all the mining departments), yet most of its silver and all of its gold have been coined in the cities further south.

     When I arrived at Chihuahua, in 1839, a great fete had just come off for the double purpose of celebrating the anniversary of the Emperor Iturbide's birthday (Sept. 27, 1783), and that of his triumphal entrance into the city of Mexico in 1821. It will be remembered, that, after Mexico had been struggling for independence several years, General Iturbide, who had remained a faithful officer of the crown, and an active agent in persecuting the champions of Mexican liberty, finding


himself; about the close of 1820, at the head of a large division of the royal army sent against the patriot Guerrero, suddenly turned over his whole force to the support of the republican cause, and finally succeeded in destroying the last vestige of Spanish authority in Mexico. How he was afterwards crowned emperor, and subsequently dethroned, outlawed by a public decree and eventually executed, is all matter of history. But it is not generally known, I believe, that this unfortunate soldier has since received the honors of the Father of the Republic, a dignity to which he was probably as much entitled as any one else — absurd though the adoption of such a hero as the 'champion of liberty,' may appear to 'republicans of the Jefferson school.' A grande fete d'hilarite takes place annually, in honor of his political canonization, which 'comes off' at the date already mentioned. To this great ball, however, no Americans were invited with the exception of a Mexicanized denizen or two, whose invitation tickets informed the honored party that the price of admission to this famous feast, — a ball given by the governor and other magnates of the land, in honor of the hero of independence, — was twenty five dollars.

     Balls or reunions of this kind, however seem not as frequent in Chihuahua as in New Mexico: and to those we hear of claiming the title of 'fashionable,' Americans are very rarely invited. There is, in fact, but little social intercourse between foreigners and the natives,


except in a business way, or with a certain class of the former, at the gambling-table. This want of hospitable feelings is one of the worst traits in the character of the Chihuahuenos, and when placed in contrast with the kind and courteous treatment those who visit the United States invariably experience from the lawgivers of fashion among us, their illiberality will appear a hundred fold more ungracious. These exclusive laws are the more severely felt in Chihuahua, because in that city there are no cafes, nor reading rooms, nor in short any favorite publicresorts, except of a gambling character, at which gentlemen can meet to lounge or amuse themselves.

     Besides the cock-pit, the gaming table, and the Alameda, which is the popular promenade for the wealthy and the indolent, one of the most favorite pastimes of the females generally is shopping; and the most fashionable time for this is by candle-light, after they have partaken of their chocolate and their cigarritos. The streets and shops are literally filled from dusk till nine or ten o'clock; and many a time have I seen the counter of a store actually lined till a late hour, with the fairest and most fashionable senoritas of the city. On such occasions it is not a little painful as well as troublesome to be compelled to keep a strict eye to the rights of property, not that the dealers are all dishonest, but because there never fail to be some present who are painfully afflicted with the self-appropriating mania,

Page 121 — AN AUTO DE FE.

even among the fairest-looking senoritas. This, with other purposes no less culpable, has no doubt tended to establish the custom of night-shopping.

     It may already be generally known perhaps, that the predominant party, in Mexico, (and particularly in the North), is decidedly anti-masonic. During my stay in Chihuahua I had an opportunity to test their antipathy for that mysterious brotherhood. This was evinced in the seizure of a dozen or two cotton handkerchiefs, which, unknown to myself, happened to bear the stamp of the 'masonic carpet.' These obnoxious articles having attracted the attention of some lynx-eyed friar, one day, much to my consternation, my store was suddenly invaded by the alcalde and some ecclesiastics. The handkerchiefs were seized without ceremony, and by an auto de fe, condemned to be publicly burned.

southwestern-style woven rope chain

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