by Mike Smith
Not far northeast of the granite crags and wooded slopes of the Sandia Mountains, another range, the Ortiz, lies burnishing in the sun. Its rocks are black and brown, and they rise low like a stony scab from the desert surrounding it. Sagebrush and rabbitbrush grow blue-green and pale-yellow around the mountains’ foothills, while junipers and piñons grow here and there higher up. More than anything, though, there’s rock—rock and sky colliding with each other in a hazy explosion of clear desert light. Everything so still, every sound held as if in amber in the desert’s epic silence. Nearby congeal the lumpy majesties of the Cerrillos Hills and the San Pedro Mountains. The entire world is dirt and rock.
But if you look closer, you’ll see evidence of human impact on this harsh and beautiful land. On the slopes of the Ortiz Mountains, ancient mining equipment rusts back into the ground, mine entrances become just caves. In the San Pedros, railroad ties that once held up tunnels splinter into mulch, and the glass of old bottles turns purple in the heat. Before the Spanish arrived, Native Americans worked small mines in these stony hills, and in the surrounding areas.
After the Spanish arrived, they worked the hills even more, as slave labor. Lead and silver may have been mined in the area by Felipe de Escalante, who first arrived in the region while on the 1581 Chamuscado-Rodriguez expedition and then came back with Don Juan de Oñate in 1598. Oñate’s nephew, Vincente de Zaldivar, mined silver around 1600, near the present-day town of Golden. Enslaved Native Americans continued to be used to work the mines into the 1700s; one document, from 1714, shows that a punishment for disobedient behavior was two years hard labor working on an ore crusher.
In 1822, gold was found in the Sierra de San Lázaro—the collective name for what would later become the Ortiz and San Pedro ranges. A community named Oro, later renamed Dolores, grew significantly as a result of this discovery. By 1825, one of Oro’s residents, a woman best known as Doña Tules, was being fined for running a gambling parlor in a mining camp there, so things must have been somewhat bustling.
The Santa Fe Trail brought American goods to the area, and much of those goods were paid for with Ortiz
Mountain gold. Spanish, then Mexican, then American, miners were drawn to the area. Claims were staked. Camps were established. Towns bloomed like impossible wood-and-adobe flowers from the red-and-yellow dirt.
Entrance to one of the larger mines in the area just east of Golden.
Note: These mines can only accessed via private land, therefore permission from owners.
Placer miners, who scoured streambeds for precious metals, worked through the winters, melting snow with hot rocks and using the water to sift gold from gravel. Locals were enlisted as hired hands—sifting at placer mines, or digging into lode mines—paid with a percentage of whatever of value they helped discover. This was long ago, but walk around and traces of those times are still everywhere—pickax marks on sandstone; names carved in rock; glass and metal glinting forgotten; open mines like the mouths of the land, calling out wordlessly. The Gold of the Ortiz Mountains: A Story of New Mexico and the West’s First Major Gold Rush, by William Baxter, is an excellent guide to the area’s gold-rush history, and a primary source for this article.
Two mining camps in the area, El Real de San Francisco and Placer del Tuerto, were eventually absorbed into a newer, more-Anglicized settlement, the town still known as Golden. Located on the Turquoise Trail halfway between San Antonito and Madrid, Golden today is about half ghost town, but back then it had saloons, a church, a school, many active mines, many businesses, and a newspaper, the Golden Retort, almost the entire run of which can be read today preserved on microfiche. The Retort was run by local curmudgeon R.W. Webb, who often used it as a means to rant against other newspapers, Spanish land-grant holders, and the weather. The paper is a fascinating record of a little-known time and place, which once boomed not only with mining activity but also with everyday events and the lively comings and goings of everyday people.
“A bunch of wild turkeys was seen in the Ortiz Mountains this week,” reported the Retort on April 20, 1883. “But they were very shy.”
“That was a cruel joke the boys played on a San Pedro young man last Sunday who came to Golden and took a young lady out riding,” it continued, in another column of text, that same day. “Underneath the buggy seat was a paper sack filled with choice oranges which, while the young man was in the house awaiting preparations by the young lady for the ride, was slipped out, the oranges removed, the bag filled with potatoes and returned to its place. The situation must have been embarrassing to the would-be ‘benedict’ and amusing the ‘tall but’ bewitchingly graceful young lady at his side, as he passed the paper of fruit with ‘Try some of these luscious oranges, please,’ and discovered that his golden spheres had turned to dirt-begrimed, knotty and warty potatoes. The young lady has not yet quit laughing over the occurrence.”
It’s wonderful to read the Retort, and to read this area’s history, and to read the land itself—the rocks, the plants, the burrows, the mines, the remains of human lives. All of it is a way of exploring, of reminding ourselves that things have happened here—many of them significant, as large as the West’s first major gold rush, many of them small but nonetheless clues in the epic mysteries of what it means to be human, to be in a place, to want something, to seek something, to be disappointed, and gratified, and then, at last, to go away.
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