Old Spanish records of New Mexico are filled with accounts of mining activities stretching back to the time of Coronado. (The Spaniards mined the Jemez Mountain calderas for sulfur in 1540). Early Spanish explorers scoured the mountains of the Southwest for mineral wealth; indeed, many legends and tales of lost mines date from this period. The legend of the fabulous quicksilver mines of La Sierra Azul motivated many Spanish explorers and prospectors in the last half of the 17th Century. Another Spanish legend said that "millions in gold and silver were taken out of the mines in the Taos Mountains near Arroyo Hondo, and that the Spaniards concealed a hoard of $14,000,000 in one shaft before fleeing in 1680”. When the Spaniards returned in 1692, they resumed their mining activities in earnest. Even today, one can still occasionally stumble upon the remains of old Spanish smelters and arrastres in the mountains of New Mexico. The southwestern slope of the Manzano Mountains (near Abo) has yielded pieces of pure silver in the slag of over twenty ancient smelters. Tijeras and Coyote Canyons (in the Sandia Mountains) have abundant evidence of old Spanish workings. But in many locations, the early Spaniards came across surprising evidence of prehistoric workings. Indeed, it now seems indisputable that the Indians were engaged in primitive mining activities well before the Spaniards entered the area. This is especially true with respect to deposits of turquoise in New Mexico. In fact, every major turquoise locality in the Southwest shows evidence of prehistoric excavation.
The most important deposit of turquoise in New Mexico occurs in the Cerrillos mining district near Mt. Chalchihuitl (Chalchihuitl is an old Aztec term for Mexican jade). This, by the way, is the oldest mine in the United States. After visiting the area, the famous mineralogist, Benjamin Silliman, was overwhelmed by the extent of the ancient workings. (The mines in the Cerrillos district appear to have been an important source of turquoise not only for the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, but for the Aztecs in Central America as well!) In 1582, Antonio Espejo visited the Cerrillos district and apparently came across veins of silver in the area. The Spaniards began to exploit the area but in 1680 they were driven out. In 1879, the Cerrillos district was rediscovered by a new wave of prospectors - the Americans!
One of the most significant of the early Spanish mining districts is located near Silver City in southwestern New Mexico. In 1800, Lieutenant Colonel Jose Manuel Carrasco learned of a massive copper deposit from an Apache chief, who showed him a sample of the ore. Carrasco named the location Santa Rita del Cobre. Four years later, in 1804, Carrasco sold the mine to Don Manuel Elguea. A long list of colorful characters either visited or worked the Santa Rita district throughout its long history. (James and Sylvester Pattie worked the mines for several years in the early 1820's. In 1828, Christopher [Kit] Carson was employed by Robert McKnight as a teamster at the Santa Rita mines.)
During that same year, a Mexican sheepherder discovered rich placer deposits of gold in the Ortiz Mountains, near present-day Delores, New Mexico - the so-called Old Placers. (The Spaniards had visited the area in 1540 but apparently overlooked the gold!) Five years later, in 1833, gold-bearing quartz veins were discovered about ½ mile above Delores on land belonging to Jose Francisco Ortiz. The venerable Ortiz Mine, one of the oldest hard rock mining operations in the United States, was developed on the richest of these gold-bearing veins. And then, in 1839, rich gold deposits were discovered in the San Pedro Mountains, just east of Golden, New Mexico. This district was called the New Placers. Prospectors scoured Lazarus Gulch and the tributaries of Tuerto Creek for color while miners poured over the mountain slopes in search of the source of the placer gold – the elusive “Mother Lode”.
The year 1866 witnessed the discovery of rich copper ores near the top of Baldy Mountain by W.H. Kroenig and William H. Moore. They named their claim the Mystic Lode. (Kroenig and Moore had learned of the outcrop from an Indian at Fort Union.) That same year, rich deposits of placer gold were discovered in the northern Moreno River valley. Nearly every ravine and creek bed west of Baldy Mountain yielded color. (Some of the richest included Grouse Gulch, Humbug Gulch, Pine Gulch, Anniseta Gulch, and Spanish Bar.) In 1867, Mathew Lynch and Tim Foley discovered gold-bearing quartz veins on the east slope of Baldy Mountain - the Aztec Lode. In that same year, the mining camp known as Elizabethtown (or E-town) was founded. By 1870, E-town was the largest town in New Mexico!
In 1871, a significant silver strike was made at Chloride Flat. This discovery caused a flurry of excitement in New Mexico. Prospectors now poured over the mountains in search of silver ore. In 1878, the fabulous silver deposits at Lake Valley were discovered. A few years later, the famous "Bridal Chamber" was opened up. (The "Bridal Chamber" was a vug of extremely rich silver ore - it was said that "pure silver could be melted off the walls of the chamber with a candle”.) The last two decades of the century would see silver strikes at Kingston (in 1880), in Black Hawk (in 1881), the Florida Mountains (in 1881), and again at Chloride Flat (in 1902). New Mexico was indeed a silver state!
In the early 1880's, the Mora and El Porvenir mining districts of northeastern New Mexico were founded. During that same period, the complex copper/zinc/lead ores of the Pecos Mine were discovered, but it wasn't until 1916 that the deposit was commercially exploited. A year later, in 1917, the rich molybdenum deposits of Questa and Red River were located, resulting in formation of the Red River mining district.