Arizona's Golden Past (Part 1)

 (Arizona is a land of great contrasts and, at times, great beauty.)

Arizona's gold mining history is rich and varied. In fact, it's about as varied as the gold locations and types of gold found in the Grand Canyon State. Arizona still exerts a strong draw on small-scale gold prospectors and miners, most of whom are still following the elusive dreams of the early Spanish explorers who ventured into the great American Southwest in their search for untold riches.

"All men will dare death for gold." This succinct analysis was uttered by an unknown Jesuit priest who accompanied one of the early Spanish expeditions into what would first become part of Spain, then Mexico, and finally the United States. The Arizona Territory (as it would eventually be known in the 1800s) was rich in the yellow metal and its companions, silver and copper. But the path to finding and recovering that wealth was long and sinuous, and as that Jesuit priest suggested, it often led to the death of those seeking it.

 (Arizona gold.)

The Myth of Cibola

In 1539 Antonio de Mendoza, the Viceroy of Spain's new colony of Mexico, became intrigued by some of the tall tales circulating at the time about fabulous cities made entirely of gold far to the north. One of the most loquacious of these yarn spinners was a black Spaniard (Moor) whom history recalls simply as Estevan. The Viceroy dispatched a small expedition north to locate the Seven Cities of Gold or Cibola, as it was then called. Acting as both guide and escort, Estevan enjoyed a position of great prominence in the expedition which found no great cities made of gold, only hard-scrabble Indian pueblos constructed of adobe mud and wood. Estevan and the Spaniards wandered aimlessly searching for the magic city of Cibola until Estevan himself was killed by Arizona's Zuni Indians and the expedition unraveled. This unsuccessful foray by the Spanish was soon followed up by another, larger expedition led by Francisco Coronado. The reason for this new expedition was two-fold: 1) find the golden riches that lay to the north, and 2) conquer the Zunis. Coronado succeeded in the second part but, like Estevan, failed to find Cibola. What Coronado didn't realize at the time however, was that his expedition passed over or near some of the richest mineralized ground in the Southwest. Despite his failure to find fabulous riches in what would eventually become Arizona and New Mexico, Coronado did pave the way for the Spanish expeditions that would follow.

 (Searching for the Seven Cities of Gold.)

"Many Good Veins..."

Some forty years later in 1598, a wealthy mine owner in Zacatecas, Mexico funded his own expedition north. Don Antonio de Espejo knew gold and silver. He knew how to prospect for precious metals and how to get them out of the ground and cast them into ingots and Spanish silver reales and gold escudos. Unlike Estevan and Coronado, the de Espejo expedition did find rich silver veins in an area near Arizona's San Francisco Peaks but the difficulties and hardships of mining that ore were too great, and included sporadic attacks from hostile Yaquis and Apaches. In 1598, Capitan Marcos Farfan (who'd been with Don Juan Onate's expedition to New Mexico) decided to follow up on de Espejos silver find and find out what other mineral resources Arizona held for the Spanish. Although no mining operations were conducted by the expedition, Farfan was able to report that the lands of Arizona held great possibility for mineral wealth. Eighty-seven years later in 1691 the famed Catholic priest, Padre Kino entered Arizona. Although Kino's primary mission was bringing Arizona's Indian tribes into the fold of the Catholic Church he had an eye for precious metals as well. In his memoirs he wrote of Arizona: "There are many good veins and mineral lands here bearing silver and gold." Surprisingly, the first organized mining efforts in Arizona were conducted by Jesuit priests who often employed local Indians as erstwhile miners as well as experienced hard rock miners from Mexico.

 (Padre Kino statue in Tucson.)

Gila City Booms

The first big gold strike in Arizona occurred east of present-day Yuma at Gila City in 1858. Would-be placer miners rushed to Gila City and three years later there were more than 1,000 miners at the diggings. The fact that this many gold miners were still working in and around Gila City 36 months later gives a good indication of how rich the gold finds were there. Most miners at Gila City were making between $25.00-$130.00 dollars a day at the dry diggings when the price of gold was running around $20.00 USD per troy ounce. That means even on the low end miners at Gila City were pulling an ounce of gold a day and some as much as 6.5 troy ounces during the same 24-hour period. Like many Western boom towns, the first business structure erected at Gila City was a saloon which was soon followed by a jail and a church, a dry goods store, and even a Chinese restaurant! Undoubtedly, a few "ladies of the night" were also available in Gila City. You see, "respectable" women were rare in Gila City, just as they were in other Western "boom and bust" mining towns and camps.

 (Old foundation near Gila City.)

Perilous Activities

Much of the mining and prospecting activity died down in the Territory with the advent of the U.S. Civil War. Prospecting and mining became extremely perilous activities in Arizona once Federal troops were withdrawn and sent back east to fight the Confederacy. This safety gap allowed the Apaches to go on the warpath unhindered along with various and sundry groups of murderous renegades who dodged back and forth across the Mexican border to commit or escape their crimes which included, robbery, rape, and murder.

There's more to come on Arizona's golden past, so stay tuned.

(c) Jim Rocha 2016

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