2009 Update on Norris Colburn
The importance of traders to the development of the early American Southwest cannot be overemphasized. First and foremost, the early traders served as a "bridge between cultures". As they wandered the southwestern deserts, the traders provided the necessities of life to Indians, Mexicans, and Americans alike.
Traders appeared early in the American Southwest. Generally following on the heels of the explorers and mountain men, the traders were usually the first emissaries of civilization to settle in the new land. Many mountain men eventually turned to trading in their later years. Their knowledge of the various southwestern cultures served them well in their new careers.
The settlements of New Mexico were at the hub of several important trade routes and trails including the Old Spanish Trail, the ancient Chihuahua Trail which stretches southward to Mexico, and the famous Santa Fe Trail. All were frequented by early traders.
In 1739, the first French traders from Louisiana, Paul and Peter Mallet, reached the Spanish settlement at Santa Fe. In the period stretching from 1786 to 1793, Pierre Vial blazed a trail from Santa Fe to Natchitoches, Louisiana (the so-called San Antonio - Santa Fe road) and from Santa Fe to St. Louis, Missouri (the famous Santa Fe Trail). Pierre Vial was one of the most accomplished explorers and traders in the American Southwest during the latter years of the 18th Century.
American traders started showing up in New Mexico by the early 1800's. At first they were not welcome. In 1810, Joseph McLanahan, Reuben Smith, and James Patterson were arrested and jailed for two years in Chihuahua after arriving in Santa Fe with trade goods. The same thing happened to Robert McKnight and James Baird in 1812. But in 1821, the Mexican Revolution changed everything. Americans were now welcome in New Mexico. That same year, the famous Missouri trader William Becknell made his first trip to Santa Fe.
The early traders lived a life of monotony and tedium punctuated by periods of high adventure. Sometimes that life could be perilous and abrupt. A number of respected traders fell victim to hostile Indians, renegades, and outlaws. In 1843, the Mexican trader Antonio Jose Chaves was robbed and killed on the Santa Fe Trail by a company of Texans under Captain John McDaniel. Chaves was carrying over $10,000 in coins and gold bullion at the time. In 1846, the famous trader Norris Colburn was murdered by two Sac Indians near "Hickory Point", also located on the Santa Fe Trail. The following year, ill-fated William Tharp was killed and horribly mutilated by hostile Indians near Walnut Creek. Tharp was one of the most respected of the Indian traders. First cousin of Ceran St. Vrain, Tharp had traded at Bent's Fort, at the Pueblo and Hardscrabble settlements, and among the Cheyenne villages located near the immense cottonwood grove known as the "Big Timbers". (The Big Timbers were located along the Arkansas River in southeastern Colorado, some 25 miles east of Bent's Fort. They are gone now.) In 1848, the famous trader Charles Towne was killed by Apache Indians near Manco Burro Pass in the Raton Mountains. Three other traders lost their lives in the attack, but to make matters worse, two children were carried off by the Indians. Mary and James Tharp, ages 6 and 4, were on their way to Taos when the Apaches struck. Offspring of the deceased trader William Tharp, both were eventually ransomed from the Indians.
Of course, sometimes the trader's life could be quite rewarding. In 1821, after his return from New Mexico, William Becknell's bulging sacks of silver dollars stunned the silver-starved residents of Missouri. In 1846, some $350,000 in Mexican silver was brought back to Missouri by several trading parties which included Lewis Jones, Samuel Wethered, Francisco Elguea, Henry Skillman, Jame Magoffin, and Louis Yaulwager.
There are also many tales of traders receiving gold or silver nuggets from Indians during the early days of the Old West. Some of the most intriguing accounts of precious materials used as trade goods by the Indians involve the bartering of diamonds found somewhere in the hills of Torrance County, New Mexico.
For nearly 90 years (from 1786 to 1874), the Comancheros of northern and central New Mexico traded with the dreaded Comanche Indians. Most of these Mexican traders were legitimate, but of course, a few of them dealt with stolen goods and contraband. This was inevitable since the Comanches were a raiding people and acquired their goods by stealing them. The Comancheros also traded with other southwestern tribes for a variety of goods, some of them precious. It was rumored for many years that the Comancheros received raw diamonds in trade from the Indians who lived near the Pedernal Hills of central New Mexico.
Legend places the old Indian diamond mine somewhere in the Pedernal Hills of Torrance County, New Mexico. The mine was apparently worked by the Indians for many years and has even been chanced upon by white men during its history. One account in particular is of interest because of its description of the mine portal and the vertical shaft within. The chance discovery was made by a trader from Santa Fe who was forced to take shelter from a storm somewhere on the leeward side of the old Pedernal Hills, not far from the little village of Encino. While hunkering down from the storm, the trader noticed a small opening in the sheltered side of the hill. Just inside the portal was a man made 30-foot vertical shaft. Scattered around the cave entrance were a number of transparent crystals, some of them in matrix. The trader gathered up the finest samples and put them in his pocket. When the storm finally passed the trader continued eastward, eventually reaching Independence, Missouri. It was only then that the trader learned that his crystals were actually diamonds!
The history of mining in New Mexico surely begins with the original inhabitants of the land - the Native American Indians. The Pueblo Indians mined turquoise extensively and there is some evidence to suggest that they found and used placer gold and maybe even diamonds. Indians living near Pilar, located on the Rio Grande River just south of Taos, collected staurolite crosses from the surrounding hills. In many locations in New Mexico, 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.
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.) Spanish prospectors left their mark on virtually every mountain range in New Mexico. Early Spanish diggings, ore samples, arrastres, and smelters have been found in a number of locations including Tijeras and Coyote Canyons in the Sandia Mountains, the Mina del Tiro area near Cerrillos, the Ortiz Mountains near Dolores, the Socorro Mountains, and the Pedernal Hills. The southwestern slope of the Manzano Mountains (near Abo) has yielded pieces of pure silver in the slag piles of over 20 ancient Spanish smelters.
The Spaniards were followed by Mexican and then American prospectors during the middle of the 19th Century. In 1828, a Mexican sheepherder discovered extremely rich placer deposits of gold along the slopes of the Ortiz Mountains. The area became known as the Old Placers District and was famous for producing many fabulously rich pockets of placer gold. In 1839, equally rich gold deposits were discovered in the San Pedro Mountains, just east of Golden, New Mexico. This area was called the New Placers District. The two districts have collectively produced over $4 million worth of gold during their lifetimes.
In 1863, a soldier named Pete Kinsinger discovered a rich deposit of silver at Pueblo Springs, near Magdalena, New Mexico. This discovery proved to be the first of several important silver strikes in the state. Other important discoveries occurred at Georgetown in 1866, at Chloride Flat in 1871, at Lake Valley in 1878, near Kingston in 1880, at Black Hawk and in the Florida Mountains in 1881, and then again at Chloride Flat in 1902. Truly, New Mexico is a silver state!
The Pedernal Hills are located in Torrance County, close to the geographic center of New Mexico. Although some evidence of early Spanish mining activity has been found in the Pedernals, the area is devoid of any major mineral deposits. The closest mineral district of any kind is the Estancia Salt District, located 19 miles west of the Pedernal Hills. Here, the numerous salt lakes of the Laguna del Perro produce halite, gypsum, and epsomite. The nearest metal-producing district is the Villanueva area, located about 45 miles north-northeast of the Pedernal Hills. The Villanueva deposits consist of a fossil gold placer locked within a Permian-age sandstone that crops out northwest of the town.
The Pedernal Hills have served as a backwater region throughout New Mexico's mining history. As stated above, the Pedernals contain no major mineral deposits, but evidence of early Spanish mining activity in the area is intriguing.