Santa Rita del Cobre: A Copper Mining Community in New Mexico

Santa Rita del Cobre: A Copper Mining Community in New Mexico

by Christopher J. Huggard, Terrence M. Humble


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ISBN-13: 9781607321521
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 01/15/2012
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 8.85(w) x 11.26(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Christopher J. Huggard is a professor of history at NorthWest Arkansas Community College and has published extensively on the history of mining and the environment in the American West.

Terrence M. Humble was born in Santa Rita and and retired from Chino Mines as a diesel mechanic and foreman in 2001. He has been recording histories, saving documents, and participating in local preservation of Santa Rita since 1967, publishing several journal articles on his hometown's history.

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Santa Rita Del Cobre

A Copper Mining Community in New Mexico

By Christopher J. Huggard, Terrence M. Humble

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2012 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-249-8


El Cobre


In 1799 José Manuel Carrasco struck virgin copper. The retired lieutenant colonel had rediscovered the richest native copper deposit in North America. Taken to the lustrous outcroppings by a small group of Apaches he had assisted in hard times while serving as captain of the Presidio of Carrizal in northern Chihuahua, the Spaniard thought he had found the mother lode of copper deposits (see figure 1.1). But he knew he and those who followed him to this place would have to contend with the native peoples. The Spanish officer had spent much of the preceding thirty years pursuing and fighting the nomadic inhabitants of Apachería, the expansive territory of the Apaches. Located in the heart of the Chihenne band's homeland, the minas de cobre (copper mines) promised riches to the seasoned Spanish warrior. Or at least that was Carrasco's hope. Unlike Francisco Coronado in the 1540s, who pursued the myth of Quivira and the seven cities of Cíbola, this Spaniard found his treasure. Yet, as this story will reveal, like Coronado, he would experience disappointment and conflict, and the fortune he sought to glorify Spain and to enrich himself would never be realized. Still, six years later in testimony to the Deputacíon de Minería (Mining Bureau) in Chihuahua, he claimed "divine providence" had intervened to protect him from the risks of journeying into Apache country. God, copper, and glory, he believed, were at hand.

The massive outcropping of this nearly pure copper lay in a parched valley beneath an escarpment in a small range locals today call the Santa Rita Mountains. Like many of the Southwest's rich copper ores, the Santa Rita deposit was in the Mexican Highlands. Part of the northernmost range of the Sierra Madre Occidental originating in Mexico, these mineral-rich uplands exhibit the characteristics of the Basin and Range physiographic province of much of the interior American West. Jutting out of the foothills of what was later named Ben Moore Mountain, just south of the famed Gila wilderness country and southwest of the Black Range, the glistening metallic protrusion was exposed near the confluence of the intermittent Santa Rita and Whitewater Creeks. Part of the northernmost extension of the Chihuahuan Desert, the valley had little vegetation save desert grasses, scrub oak, juniper stands, and various desert wildflowers; Douglas fir and various pine species grew above 5,000 feet in the surrounding mountains to the north and east. Beneath the rugged arid terrain were the richest mineral veins of the future state of New Mexico. Erosion of Tertiary volcanic flows that had uncovered the raw copper had also exposed rich silver, gold, lead, zinc, manganese, and other ores that would by the 1860s begin to entice thousands of hopeful prospectors and miners. Soon thereafter, the Americans would establish the Central Mining District in the newly created Grant County. The Santa Rita copper ores were at the heart of what would become New Mexico's most productive mining district, which also included Pinos Altos, Hanover, Georgetown, Fierro, and many other mining camps (see map 1.1).

Sixty-two years before Carrasco's arrival at the site, Captain Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, a cartographer from El Paso del Norte, visited the area as a member of Spain's first major military expedition into Apachería. After additional exploratory trips on his own into the region, the skilled soldier-engineer produced in 1758 a crude, hand-drawn map of New Mexico that featured large sections of the Apache homeland. He plotted the copper outcroppings and christened them the "minas de cobre." He named the 8,000-foot-high range to the north the Sierra del Cobre Virgen, or Virgin Copper Mountains, penciling in their jagged features between the upper reaches of the Gila and Mimbres Rivers. Later map -makers used his map to plot the copper deposits and the mountains named for the coveted metal (see map 1.2).

In 1777, Miera y Pacheco wrote to King Carlos III with a proposal to settle Apachería. In his letter, he planned for three new hacienda-presidios, one on the Gila River, another at the copper deposits (where he would set up his command post), and a final one on the Mimbres River. Each would be in a new province he named Jila. Like Father Kino in Arizona and missionaries in California, this Spaniard hoped to "manage" the native peoples while simultaneously contributing to the Crown's coffers and his own wealth and glorification. Yet, rather than try to establish a mission at El Cobre, he wanted to create a fortified post, or presidio. A military presence would be necessary, he suggested, especially after the Marqués de Rubí's military inspection of the outposts of northern New Spain in the late 1760s revealed that native peoples, especially the Apaches, had subjected the inhabitants to attacks and other hardships.

Clearly, Miera y Pacheco, along with other officials in northern New Spain, hoped to develop the site, soon to be called El Cobre, to extract mineral riches for the declining empire. The corridor from Mexico City to El Paso to Santa Fe, used by Diego de Vargas in the 1690s to reconquer New Mexico, had not delivered the colonial treasures they had anticipated. Perhaps El Cobre could sate that desire. In the end, however, Spanish authorities rejected the proposal, fearing that the costs of maintaining the outposts in the dangerous Apache country would far exceed the benefits. The Apaches would remain supreme for some time to come.

At the time Carrasco made his first mine claims in 1801 at El Cobre, the Chiricahua Apaches dominated the region. Athapascan peoples originating from Canada, they traversed modern-day southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, and northern Chihuahua and Sonora, Mexico, beginning in the fourteenth century. Their diets consisted of game, such as turkey and deer, and edible plants like agave and piñon nuts, principally from the San Francisco to the Gila to the Mimbres river valleys of the Southwest. Their nomadic lifestyles precluded the establishment of permanent settlements and instead they constructed rancherías consisting of two or three small wickiups, or domed huts, per family that could be easily dismantled and rebuilt or abandoned altogether in times of crisis.

There were four Chiricahua Apache bands: the Chihennes, Bedonkohes, Chokonens, and Nednhis. The Chihennes were the main group in the vicinity of El Cobre. Their territory extended along an east -west axis from the Rio Grande to San Vicente Arroyo (later Silver City), with El Cobre at the center, and north-south from the Black Range to near Janos. Their cousins, the Bedonkohes, ranged from the same arroyo to the future Arizona border from east to west, and then from the Mogollon and San Francisco Mountains in the north to northern Sonora and Chihuahua in the south. The other two bands — the Chokonens, who lived in southeastern Arizona, and the Nednhis, who inhabited northern Mexico — made up the rest of the Chiricahua "extended family."

The Spanish, and later the Mexicans and Americans, interacted mainly with their dominant chiefs. El Fuerte (the "Strong One") was the most famous Chiricahua leader of the nineteenth century. Also known as Mangas Coloradas or Red Sleeves, he lived from about 1790 to 1863. As boys, El Fuerte and other future warrior-diplomats were taught about the importance of certain virtues that came to them, they believed, supernaturally. In their mythology, the deity Usen imparted virtues upon them and taught them to revere the gifts of nature as well as unseen mythical spirits. Mothers told them stories about the mystical Mountain People, who defended them from their enemies and other dangers and prophetically forewarned them of ominous times to come, a reflection of the growing presence of invaders in their territory.

To prepare for these difficult times, their fathers and uncles trained them to endure many hardships, including lack of food and water, having to travel great distances on foot, and bravely suffering through grave injuries. They also learned how to wield bows and arrows, slingshots, and firearms that they acquired in trade or after military victories. The men who would encounter the Euro-Americans also learned to be patient, humble, courageous, and generous. The encroachment of the foreigners, however, taught them the need to be strong physically, mentally, and spiritually. Displays of weakness could result in shame and demotion from chieftainship. Perhaps the two most problematic features of their lifestyles in their relations with the outsiders were their raiding practices and their societal belief in seeking revenge against their enemies. Those warriors who could quietly abscond with domesticated herds of cattle, horses, and sheep, for example, were believed to have been blessed with supernatural powers. On the other hand, seeking vengeance against their enemies was a common part of virtually all cultures and, unfortunately, would lead to countless acts of violence during the nineteenth century between the Chiricahuas and the Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans.

For at least two centuries, the Apaches had engaged in treaties with the Spanish, often agreeing to accept rations to supplement their often meager diets in return for peace. Their traditional dependency on game, however, often created conflicts with the Spanish as the Apaches regularly targeted the invaders' domesticated herds of cattle and sheep for harvest and trade. Considered stealing by the Spanish as well as the Pueblo peoples, Apache raiding regularly threatened the peace and resulted in fractious and often bloody relations. Persistent Spanish encroachment on Chiricahua territory also greatly heightened tensions. Carrasco himself was a principal figure in the testy relationship between the Spanish and the Apaches in Nueva Viscaya and Nuevo Mexico. His friendship with the men who directed him to the virgin copper after nearly thirty years of military pursuit of other Apache men is an example of this complex love-hate relationship. At El Cobre, diplomatic relations between the Spanish and the Chihenne band mirrored this contentious history. Likewise, the growing influx of European and mestizo peoples to this frontier region of northern New Spain encroached on the native peoples' territory, anticipating the borderland conflicts and migratory patterns throughout the colonial Spanish, Mexican, and early American periods. Only when the Apaches were concentrated on reservations in the 1870s did their resistance begin to come to an end.

Carrasco, probably a criollo born in 1743 at Julimes, Chihuahua, joined the Spanish colonial army in his mid-twenties, serving for three decades at three separate presidios: Carrizal, Buenaventura, and Janos (see map 1.2). Known for his heroism in battles with the Apaches and for recapturing many a horse herd, he earned a reputation for bravery and rose through the ranks, retiring in 1798 as a lieutenant colonel. In search of a lucrative retirement plan, he asked his Apache friends to take him to the site of the native copper deposits.

Like many prospectors then and later, Carrasco sought financial backing from a wealthy benefactor. In his case, he earned a grubstake from Pedro Ramos de Verea, a successful Chihuahua merchant who had supplied the various presidios of northern New Spain. Ramos de Verea offered Carrasco his mule train to freight the raw copper and unrefined ores from El Cobre to Chihuahua and on to Mexico City. He also promised the neophyte miner to file mine claims for him at the Deputación de Minería in Chihuahua and to deliver the copper to the royal mint in Mexico City. Further assisting the retired soldier was Pedro de Nava, commandant general of the Interior Provinces. Nava used his authority to put together a ragtag workforce made up of prisoners, a common centuries-long practice among Europeans, from the Chihuahua and Janos jails. Carrasco established a dual-wage system, paying Mexicans one peso a day and Apaches only one-half that. The dangers associated with mining in Apachería made it difficult to entice skilled miners to join Carrasco even at double the normal wage. Nava also sent a contingent of soldiers from the San Buenaventura and Janos presidios in fall 1800 and then again in spring 1801 to reconnoiter the Mimbres Valley and the Sierra del Cobre Virgen. The Spanish officer hoped to frighten away the Mimbreños (the Spanish name for the Chihenne band) in anticipation of Carrasco's arrival at El Cobre in April 1801, when he staked his initial claims and began mining the outcroppings of virgin copper.

By June, Ramos de Verea had registered for Carrasco two copper claims, El Corazón de María and El Corazón de Jesus (the Hearts of Mary and Jesus). Two additional claims, a silver mine, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe), and a gold mine, Santísima de Trinidad (Holy Trinity), reveal Carrasco's hopes for multimetal success. According to Spanish mining law, claimants did not actually own the deposits as was the case with land grants. The minerals by law belonged to Crown and country. Regardless, claimants could become wealthy from their mining endeavors. Claims ran about 275 by 500 feet and the government allowed claimants to stake up to three additional claims on a given vein. Development work required a trench of about five feet wide by thirty feet long to legally retain an individual claim. Authorities expected this assessment to be completed within ninety days or the claimants forfeited their rights to the deposit. The Deputación de Minería waived this requirement for Carrasco because of the difficulties of distance, the dangers of Apache depredations, and authorities' hopes for a rich recovery.

By July, Carrasco had sent eighty-four arrobas (approximately 2,100 lbs.) of native copper with Ramos de Verea's eight -mule train to Chihuahua on the Janos Trail (see map 1.2). After taxes and Ramo de Verea's share of the first load, which ended up at the royal treasury in Mexico City, Carrasco probably made little profit. Over the next two years, 1802–1803, his lack of mining experience and a series of obstacles — difficulty recruiting laborers, costly freighting charges, high taxes (10 percent for the king's portion and 6 percent for the royal treasury), limited access to refining and smelting technologies (much of the native copper contained a matrix of limestone and granodiorite rock), and costs to hire soldiers to protect El Cobre from Apache attacks — spelled certain failure for the retired officer. In his disappointment, despite a temporary tax waiver, Carrasco decided in late 1803 to sell his rights to the richest copper claims to a well-known Chihuahua entrepreneur and politician, Francisco Manuel Elguea.

Elguea had the means and the connections to introduce more sophisticated techniques at El Cobre. A native Spaniard, he included in his lengthy resumé a lucrative mercantile trade in Chihuahua that allowed him to acquire contracts with the Spanish government to supply frontier presidios as far away as Santa Fe with military accoutrement, farming and smithing tools, food and clothing, and fineries for the elites. He also served on Chihuahua's ayuntamiento (or city council), was a sub -delegate to the treasury, and completed military service in the militia corps, achieving the rank of lieutenant. The Chihuahua businessman owned a large ranch, Hacienda del Torreón, which provided the horses and mules necessary for his freighting enterprises. These positions, combined with his growing wealth, made him the ideal candidate to develop the minas de cobre.

In accordance with mining regulations, Nemecio Salcedo, commandant general of Chihuahua, appointed Diego Obeso as the superintendent of mines to oversee Elguea's new venture at El Cobre. Obeso, a native of Castile, Spain, and a clerk in Elguea's Chihuahua businesses, soon introduced underground mining to the nascent New Mexico copper industry. Salcedo, who quickly became the greatest advocate of the copper mines in northern New Spain, also gave Obeso the title of comisario de justicia. Similar to a justice of the peace, the new comisario had the authority to register mining claims and adjudicate disputes over them as well as to investigate crimes.

Soon after his arrival at El Cobre, Obeso directed the gambusinos (miners) to sink a shaft to find the richest veins. The miners soon dug tunnels and carved out stopes, pursuing the veins in an irregular pattern. Using techniques previously implemented at Río Tinto, Spain; Potosí, Peru; and Zacatecas, Mexico, El Cobre miners adopted similar underground strategies. Barreteros (pickmen) wielded thirty- to forty-pound iron barretas (bars) about six feet in length, wedging them in crevices and cracks to loosen the native copper and other ores. The barreteros also broke away the rich ores with sledge hammers, wedges, and picks. The barreteros or tenateros (muckers) then hauled the ore to the surface in tenatas (leather ore bags with thongs) or seronis (leather shoulder bags). The miners and muckers descended into and ascended out of the shafts on muescas, or what came to be known as "chicken ladders," stripped juniper or pine logs notched with steps. They also carried deer or buffalo hide toneles de agua (water buckets) down into the mines to quench their thirst and wash their nearly naked bodies (see figures 1.2 and 1.3).


Excerpted from Santa Rita Del Cobre by Christopher J. Huggard, Terrence M. Humble. Copyright © 2012 University Press of Colorado. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. El Cobre: Spanish and Mexican Mining in Apachería,
2. Frontier Mining: The Underground Years,
3. The Chino Years: The Open Pit, the Men, and Their Methods,
4. Santa Rita: The Company Town and the Community,
5. The Kennecott Era: Modern Technology and Big Labor,
Epilogue: Mining and the Environment,
List of Churn and Rotary Drills at Santa Rita, 1908–1996,
List of Chino Shovels, 1910–2008,
List of Chino Locomotives, 1910–1970,
Santa Rita Workforce: Numbers of Employees, 1910–2001,
Fatalities at Chino Mine Properties, 1881–2005,
Production and Profits at Chino, 1801–2005,
Daily Wage Rates at Chino, 1912–1996,

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