COMMERCE OF THE PRAIRIES, by Josiah Gregg: Volume I



The Mines of New Mexico Supposed Concealment of them by the Indians Indian Superstition and Cozenage Ruins of La Gran Quivira Old Mines Placeres or Mines of Gold Dust Speculative Theories as to the original Deposites of the Gold Mode of Working the Placeres Manners and Customs of the Miners Arbitrary Restrictions of the Mexican Government upon Foreigners Persecution of a Gachupin Disastrous Effects of official Interference upon the Mining Interest Disregard of American Rights and of the U. States Government Gambucinos and their System Gold found throughout N. Mexico Silver Mines Copper, Zinc, and Lead Sulphurous Springs Gypsum, and Petrified Trees.

     TRADITION speaks of numerous and productive mines having been in operation in New Mexico before the expulsion of the Spaniards in 1680; but that the Indians, seeing that the cupidity of the conquerors had been the cause of their former cruel oppressions, determined to conceal all the mines by filling them up, and obliterating as much as possible every trace of them. This was done so effectually, as is told, that after the second conquest (the Spaniards in the mean time not having turned their attention to mining pursuits for a series of years), succeeding generations were never able to discover them again. Indeed it is now generally credited by the Spanish population,


that the Pueblo Indians, up to the present day, are acquainted with the locales of a great number of these wonderful mines, of which they most sedulously preserve the secret. Rumor further asserts that the old men and sages of the Pueblos periodically lecture the youths on this subject, warning them against discovering the mines to the Spaniards, lest the cruelties of the original conquest be renewed towards them, and they be forced to toil and suffer in those mines as in days of yore. To the more effectual preservation of secrecy, it is also stated that they have called in the aid of superstition, by promulgating the belief that the Indian who reveals the location of these hidden treasures will surely perish by the wrath of their gods.

     Playing upon the credulity of the people, it sometimes happens that a roguish Indian will amuse himself at the expense of his reputed superiors in intelligence, by proffering to disclose some of these concealed treasures. I once knew a waggish savage of this kind to propose to show a valley where virgin gold could be 'scraped up by the basket-full,' On a bright Sunday morning, the time appointed for the expedition, the chuckling Indian set out with a train of Mexicans at his heels, provided with mules and horses, and a large quantity of meal-bags to carry in the golden stores; but, as the shades of evening were closing around the party, he discovered that he couldn't find the place.

     It is not at all probable, however, that the


aborigines possess a tenth part of the knowledge of these ancient fountains of wealth, that is generally attributed to them; but that many valuable mines were once wrought in this province, not only tradition but authenticated records and existing relics sufficiently prove. In every quarter of the territory there are still to be seen vestiges of ancient excavations, and in some places, ruins of considerable towns evidently reared for mining purposes.

     Among these ancient ruins the most remarkable are those of La Gran Quivira, about 100 miles southward from Santa Fe. This appears to have been a considerable city, larger and richer by far than the present capital of New Mexico has ever been. Many walls, particularly those of churches, still stand erect amid the desolation that surrounds them, as if their sacredness had been a shield against which Time dealt his blows in vain. The style of architecture is altogether superior to anything at present to be found north of Chihuahua being of hewn stone, a building material wholly unused in New Mexico. What is more extraordinary still, is, that there is no water within less than some ten miles of the ruins; yet we find several stone cisterns, and remains of aqueducts eight or ten miles in length, leading from the neighboring mountains, from whence water was no doubt conveyed. And, as there seem to be no indications whatever of the inhabitants ever having been engaged in agricultural pursuits, what could have induced the rearing of a city


in such an arid, woodless plain as this, except the proximity of some valuable mine, it is difficult to imagine.

     From the peculiar character of the place and the remains of the cisterns still existing, the object of pursuit in this case would seem to have been a placer, a name applied to mines of gold-dust intermixed with the earth. However, other mines have no doubt been worked in the adjacent mountains, as many spacious pits are found, such as are usually dug in pursuit of ores of silver, etc.; and it is stated that in several places heaps of scoria are still to be seen.

     By some persons these ruins have been supposed to be the remains of an ancient Pueblo or aboriginal city. That is not probable, however; for though the relics of aboriginal temples might possibly be mistaken for those of Catholic churches; yet it is not to be presumed that the Spanish coat of arms would be found sculptured and painted upon their favades, as is the case in more than one instance. The most rational accounts represent this to have been a wealthy Spanish city before the general massacre of 1680, in which calamity the inhabitants perished all except one, as the story goes; and that their immense treasures were buried in the ruins. Some credulous adventurers have lately visited the spot in search of these long lost coffers, but as yet none have been found.*

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* In the same vicinity there are some other ruins of a similar diameter, though less extensive, the principal of which are those of Abo, Tagique and Chilili. The last of these is now being resettled by the Mexicans.


     The mines of Cerrillos, twenty miles southward of Santa Fe, although of undoubted antiquity, have, to all appearance, been worked to some extent within the present century; indeed, they have been reopened within the recollection of the present generation; but the enterprise having been attended with little success, it was again abandoned. Among numerous pits still to be seen at this place, there is one of immense depth cut through solid rock which it is believed could not have cost less than $100,000. In the mountains of Sandia, Abiquiu, and more particularly in those of Picuris and Embudo, there are also numerous excavations of considerable depth. A few years ago an enterprising American undertook to reopen one of those near Picuris; but after having penetrated to the depth of more than a hundred feet, without reaching the bottom of the original excavation (which had probably been filling up for the last hundred and fifty years), he gave it up for want of means. Other attempts have since been made, but with as little success. Whether these failures have been caused by want of capital and energy, or whether the veins of ore were exhausted by the original miners, remains for future enterprise to determine.

     The only successful mines known in New Mexico at the present day, are those of gold, the most important one of which is that originally incorporated as El Real de Dolores, but generally known by the significant name of


El Placer. This mine lies in a low detached spur of mountains, at a distance of twenty seven miles south of the capital. In 1828, a Sonoreno who was in the habit of herding his mules in that vicinity, being one day in pursuit of some that had strayed into the mountains, happened to pick up a stone, which he soon identified as being of the same class that was to be found in the gold regions of Sonora. Upon a little further examination, he detected sundry particles of gold, which did not fail to occasion some degree of excitement in the country. Although the amount procured from these mines, was, for the first two or three years, very insignificant, yet it answered the purpose of testing the quality of the metal, which was found to be of uncommon purity. A market was therefore very soon opened with foreign merchants.

     The quantity of gold extracted between the years 1832 and '35 could not have amounted to less than from $60,000 to $80,000 per annum. Since this time, however, there has been a considerable falling off; some seasons producing but $30,000 or $40,000. It is believed, notwithstanding, that the entire aggregate yield since the first discovery has exceeded half a million of dollars. The reduction in profit during the last few years has been caused more by want of energy and enterprise, than by exhaustion of the precious metal, as only a very small portion of the 'gold region' has as yet been dug; and experience has shown that the 'dust' is about


as likely to be found in one part of it as in another. All the best 'diggings' in the immediate vicinity of the water, however, seem pretty well excavated: in some places the hills and valleys are literally cut up like a honey-comb.

     It has been the impression of some persons, that the gold of this region was originally accumulated in some particular deposit, and that it has thus been spread over the surface of the country by some volcanic eruption.

     The dust and grains obtained at this mine, are virgin gold, and, as before remarked, of very fine quality, producing at the United States Mint an average of at least $19 70 to the ounce troy after melting, or about $19 30 gross. It was at first bought by the traders at the rate of fifteen dollars per ounce, but in consequence of the competition which was afterwards excited among the dealers, its price was raised for a short time above its maximum at the Mint, although it has since settled down at about $17 30 per ounce troy.


     During the process of these excavations, when such a depth has been reached as to render a ladder indispensable, a pole ten or fifteen feet long is cut full of notches for that purpose, and set diagonally in the orifice. In proportion as the pit becomes deeper, others are added, forming a somewhat precarious zigzag staircase, by which the agile miner descends and ascends without even using his hands to assist himself; although with a large load of earth upon his shoulders. It is in this way that most of the rubbish is extracted from these mines, as windlasses or machinery of any kind are rarely used.

Gold-washing     The winter season is generally preferred by the miners, for the facilities it affords of supplying the gold-washers with water in the immediate neighborhood of their operations; for the great scarcity of water about the mining regions is a very serious obstacle at other seasons to successful enterprise. Water in winter is obtained by melting a quantity of snow thrown into a sink, with heated stones. Those employed as washers are very frequently the wives and children of the miners. A round wooden bowl called batea, about eighteen inches in diameter, is the washing


vessel, which they fill with the earth, and then immerse it in the pool, and stir it with their hands; by which operation the loose dirt floats off; and the gold settles to the bottom.

     In this manner they continue till nothing remains in the bottom of the batea but a little heavy black sand mixed with a few grains of gold the value of which (to the trayful) varies from one to twelve cents, and sometimes, in very rich soils, to twenty-five or more. Some attempts have been made to wash with machinery, but as yet without success; partly owing to the scarcity of water, but as much perhaps to a lack of perseverance, and to the arbitrary restrictions imposed upon foreigners who, after all, are the only persons that have ever attempted any improvements of the kind. An instance or two will fully illustrate the embarrassments and disadvantages to which foreigners are subject, in embarking capital, in mining enterprises in this country.

     When the Placer was in its greatest bonanza yielding very large profits to those engaged in the business the 'mining fever' rose to such a tremendous pitch among the New Mexicans, particularly the government officers, that every one fancied he saw a door opened for the accumulation of a princely fortune.

     About the commencement of this gold mania, a very arbitrary and tyrannical measure was adopted in order to wrest from a persecuted Gachupin* his interest in a mine, in

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* A term used to designate European Spaniards in America.


which he had made a very propitious commencement. This mine, different from the rest of the Placer, consisted of a vein of gold in a stratum of rock, which it was necessary to grind and separate with quicksilver; and as it belonged to a native named Ortiz who knew nothing of this operation, the latter formed a partnership with Don D'amaso Lopez, the Gachupin before alluded to, who had some experience and skill in mining, operations and the extraction of metals. The partners went vigorously to work, and at the close of the first month found that their net profits amounted to several hundred dollars, consisting in a few balls of gold. At the sight of these, Ortiz was so overjoyed that he must needs exhibit his valuable acquisitions to the governor and other officers all magnates of the capital, who, with characteristic cupidity, at once begrudged the Gachupin his prospective fortune. A compact was thereupon entered into between oficiales and the acquiescent Ortiz, to work the mine on their joint account, and to exclude Lopez altogether. This they effected by reviving the old decree of expulsion (spoken of in another place), which had virtually become obsolete. The unfortunate victim of this outrageous conspiracy was accordingly ordered to the frontier, as the patriotic officers alleged that they "could no longer connive at his residence so near the capital in contravention of the laws."

     The new company now commenced operations with additional zeal and earnestness.


     But they were destined to expiate their ill conduct in a way they had least anticipated. The ores collected during the first month, had been ground and impregnated with quicksilver, and the amalgamation being supposed complete, all the partners in the concern were summoned to witness the splendid results of the new experiments. Yet, after the most diligent examination, not a grain of gold appeared! The fact is, that they were all ignorant of mining operations, and knew nothing of the art of separating the metals from the ores. The mine had therefore soon to be abandoned, and Ortiz found himself prostrated by his losses a victim to the unprincipled rapacity of his new associates.

     Lest foreigners generally should share the wealth which was being developed in these mountains, an order was subsequently issued prohibiting all except natives from working at the mines. Some who had commenced operations at the Placer, and incurred considerable expense, were compelled suddenly to break up, with an entire loss of all their labor and outlays.

     Acts of political oppression like these have discouraged Americans from making any further attempts, although the decree of prohibition has ceased to be enforced. Could any dependence be placed in the integrity of the government, I have no doubt that, with sufficient capital and the aid of machinery (such as is used in the mines of Georgia and Carolina), the old mines of this province might be reopened, and a great number of the pla-


ceres very extensively and profitably worked. But as New Mexico is governed at presents there is no security in an enterprise of the kind. The progress of a foreign adventurer is always liable to be arrested by the jealousy of the government, upon the first flattering bonanza, as the cited instances abundantly demonstrate. Americans in particular would have little to hope for in the way of redress; for our government has shown itself so tardy in redressing or revenging injuries done its citizens by foreign states, that they would be oppressed, as they have been, with less scruple because with more impunity than the subjects of ally other nation.

     The gold regions are, for the most part, a kind of common property, and have been wrought chiefly by an indigent class of people known familiarly as gambucinos, a name applied to petty miners who work 'on their own hook.' Among these one very seldom finds any foreigners; for according to the present simple method of working, the profit is too small and too precarious to entice the independent American laborer, who is seldom willing to work for less than a dollar a day clear of all expenses, while the Mexican gambucino is content with two or three reales, most of which is required to furnish him food. Therefore these poor miners lead a miserable life after all. When short of means they often support themselves upon only a real each per day, their usual food consisting of bread and a kind of

Page 174 NEW MINES.

coarse cake-sugar called piloncillo, to which is sometimes added a little crude ranchero cheese; yet they seem perfectly satisfied.

     To prevent collisions among such heterogeneous multitudes as are to be found at the mining places, some municipal provisions have been established, in pursuance of which any person may open a labor or pit on unoccupied ground not nearer than ten paces to another, and is entitled to the same extent in every direction, not interfering with prior claims his labor being confirmed for a small fee by application to the alcalde. But if the proprietor abandon his labor for a certain time, any one that chooses may take possession.

     Besides the Placer of which I have already spoken, others have lately been discovered in the same ledge of mountains towards the south, one of which is now extensively worked, being already filled with retail shops of every description, where all the gold that is extracted, is either sold or bartered. The gambucinos being generally destitute of all other resources, are often obliged to dispose of their gold daily and very frequently in driblets of but a few cents value. Placers of gold have also been discovered in the mountains of Abiquiu, Taos and elsewhere, which have been worked to some extent. In truth as some of the natives have justly remarked New Mexico is almost one continuous placer; traces of gold being discoverable over nearly the whole surface of the country. The opinion formerly entertained that gold is only to


be found in southern climates, seems fully confuted here; for at a point called Sangre de Cristo, considerably north of Taos, (above the 37th degree of latitude), and which from its location among the snowy mountains of that region, is ice-bound over half the year, a very rich placer has been discovered; yet owing to the peculiarly exposed situation in which it lies, it has been very little worked.

     For the last century no silver mines have been in successful operation in New Mexico. A few years ago there was discovered near the village of Manzano, in the mountains of Tome, a vein of silver which bid fair to prove profitable; but when the ore came to be tested, the rock was found to be so hard that the pursuit has been entirely abandoned.

     In addition to gold and silver, there are also to be found, in many isolated spots, ores of copper, zinc, and lead; although the latter is so mixed up with copper and other hard metals, as to be almost unfit for ordinary purposes. The copper obtained in the province has frequently been found to contain a slight mixture of the precious metals, well worth extracting. Iron is also abundant.

     Besides the mines of metals which have been discovered, or yet remain concealed in the mountains of New Mexico, those of Salt (or salt lakes, as they would perhaps be called), the Salinas, are of no inconsiderable importance. Near a hundred miles southward from the capital, on the high table land between the Rio del Norte and Pecos, there are some ex-


tensive salt ponds, which afford an inexhaustible supply of this indispensable commodity, not only for the consumption of this province, but for portions Of the adjoining departments. The largest of these Salinas is five or six miles in circumference. The best time to collect the salt is during the dry season, when the lakes contain but little water; but even when flooded, salt may be scooped up from the bottom, where it is deposited in immense beds, in many places of unknown depth; and, when dried, much resembles the common alum salt The best, however, which is of superior quality, rises as a scum upon the water. A great many years ago, a firm causeway was thrown up through the middle of the principal lake, upon which the carretas and mules are driven, and loaded with salt still dripping with water. The Salinas are public property, and the people resort to them several times a year, in caravans, for protection against the savages of the desert in which they are situated. Although this salt costs nothing but the labor of carrying it away, the danger from the Indians and the privations experienced in an expedition to the Salinas are such, that it is seldom sold in the capital for less than a dollar per bushel. On the same great plain still a hundred miles further south, there is another Salina of the same character.

     While I am on this subject, I cannot forbear a brief notice of the mineral springs of New Mexico. There are several warm springs (ojos calientes), whose waters are generally


sulphurous, and considered as highly efficacious in the cure of rheumatisms and other chronic diseases. Some are bold springs, and of a very agreeable temperature for bathing but there is one in the west of the province, which does not flow very freely, but merely escapes through the crevices of the rocks, yet it is hot enough to cook any article of food. It is a curious phenomenon, that, within a few paces of it, as in the case of the hot springs of Arkansas, there is another spring perfectly cold.

     New Mexico affords many interesting geological productions, of which the most useful to the natives is yeso or gypsum, which abounds in many places. Being found in foliated blocks, composed of laminae, which are easily separated with a knife into sheets from the thickness of paper to that of window glass, and almost as transparent as the latter, it is used to a great extent in the ranchos and villages for window-lights, for which indeed it is a tolerable substitute.

     In several places about the borders of the mesas are to be found some beautiful specimens of petrified trees. One lies between Santa Fe and the Placer, broken into blocks since its petrifaction, which shows every knot, crack and splinter almost as natural as in its ligneous state. It is said that there are some of these arboreous petrifactions in the vicinity of Galisteo, still standing erect.

southwestern-style woven rope chain

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