Mining was important in Spanish Arizona, but activity north of what is now the international boundary was sporadic and seasonal. The Apache pressure in this area was too heavy for serious and steady endeavors. South of the present line, the mines of Arizonac enjoyed great notoriety but even they were menaced by the Apache. Though the elder Anza himself was their strongest promoter, they were more myth than fact.

The mines of Cieneguilla, ninety miles south of the present border in the district of Altar, formed the focus of successful mining in Spanish Arizona. Social and cultural phenomena accompanying Spanish mining activities must be studied there. Many pioneer Spanish families of Tucson and the Santa Cruz Valley were attracted to the north by the Cieneguilla bonanza of 1771. A detachment of Spanish soldiers from the Cerro Prieto campaign accidentally discovered these fabulous gold placers in January of that year. The Cieneguilla operation had a sophistication a hundred years ahead of its time, including wealthy stockholders or accionistas in Mexico City and heavy gambling and riotous living in the settlement itself. When the American Argonauts passed through the desert and raided the settlement

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in June of 1849, the location was still famous, though long past its initial glory. Sporadic dry-placer mining is still carried on in the area today.

The following documents give an idea of the first years of the bonanza. Pedro Tueros, author of the first account, was the royal official in charge. The second report was made by the governor of Spanish Sonora.

July 23, 1772


This is my report on the gold placers of San Ildefonso de la Cieneguilla:

These placers are very rich. The whole area is producing gold in abundance. Only June and July are our slack months. There are two reasons for this. One is that the heat is so intolerable during those months that heavy work is almost physically impossible. Another is that the miners have to take these two months to plant and harvest their crops. Then, however, the mining resumes and continues without let up.

When the mining began about a year ago, the gold was quite close to the surface. Now they have to dig often as deep as ten to fifteen feet into the rock formations of the arroyos and ridges. There, however, the gold is more than plentiful and even runs in veins as in shaft mines. Some tunnels have been dug where the miners continue working night and day.

When the rains are heavy, the gold is flushed out of

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the rocks and congregates in the dips and depressions, where it can be easily separated from the loose sand and dirt. Lack of water, however, is our main problem. Where there is no water, we have to throw the dirt and sand into the air. The wind carries the loose material away, including the finer gold, and only the heavier particles fall back to the ground. A great deal is lost in this way. Since most of the placers are six to ten miles away from available water here at the settlement, it is not only difficult to carry the water but we have nothing to carry it in. In most cases we have to resort to throwing the dirt in the air, hoping that most of the gold will fall back into our wooden trays [bateas]. If we had water, we could double the gold we take.

These gold placers surround us on every side in a welter of arroyos and ridges dominated by seemingly endless low hills. The richest of the deposits lie to the west of us. As I have mentioned, our greatest problem is the lack of any water in the immediate vicinity of the placers. I have even tried to dig wells there. I have dug as deep as fifty feet and have found the ground just as dry as on the surface. I stopped at that, especially since many of the placers are on high ground.

This new settlement here is laid out, as formally as the terrain will allow, with streets and plazas. Here in the settlement, we have wells with water in abundance. Wherever a well is dug, there is always water aplenty. The little lake [cieneguilla] in our midst is always full of water even in the dryest seasons and even with the numberless pack trains that come and go and take their water there. Its springs were so abundant even in the month of April that the lake was overflowing.


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January 23, 1774.


I made a special trip to the royal mining settlement of San Ildefonso de la Cieneguilla, just as you requested, in order to make a more reliable and detailed report on such matters as population, government, condition of the placers, and security of the fifth that goes to the king.

The placers have deteriorated considerably during the past year, though production still runs close to 480 ounces of pure gold a week. The metal is still found quite easily within ten to fifteen miles of the settlement. This convinces me that, provided the Indians continue to help, not only will the placers continue productive for a long time to come, but there is a good chance that production will even increase, if the gold stays relatively near the surface, since there well may be even richer deposits as yet undiscovered in the area.

Due to the great distance of available water, the only workable mining method has been to separate the dirt from the gold by throwing the dirt up into the wind or blowing on it with makeshift bellows, thereby losing much of the finer gold. Wells have been opened to depths of go to 100 feet without striking water. I noticed, however, that these attempts have all been made on higher ground. I have arranged with the local merchants to finance the digging of one experimental well on lower ground nearer the placers. We have hopes that, if this succeeds, more wells will be dug and production may be doubled through the gold-washing method.

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Even while I was there, a new mine was discovered that assayed out very well with a vein running some 500 feet along the surface of the earth. The miners have learned, however, not to exaggerate their hopes, since such deposits as a rule do not run very deep.

The royal fifth is paid at Alamos to Pedro Corbalán, fiscal intendant of the province, and is carefully measured out at Cieneguilla by Pedro Tueros, the fiscal commissioner there who keeps everybody honest by frequently reminding them of the heavy penalties involved. To date, not one infraction has been discovered.

Your Excellency has a complete and detailed record of names and numbers of people here with the census that accompanies this report. The figure for the Indian population, however, is too low. Though I tried to gather them all together for the census, many failed to appear, especially those from the more distant placers. Though 1500 Indians are recorded in the census, a better estimate would be 2000. The majority of them leave the mines to tend their crops around the end of May and do not return until the beginning of October. Obviously, these turn out to be our slack months in production because of their absence.

As to government in the settlement, I found on my arrival an alcalde mayor who had been placed there as second-in-command to Pedro Tueros, the fiscal officer, by my predecessors, Mateo Sastre and Bernardo de Urrea. This seemed to me a bad arrangement. So I removed the alcalde from office. My action was justified also by the bad reports on this individual, particularly his grasping nature and self-interest. He was evidently causing grave problems for Pedro Tueros as well. This particularly

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distressed me, since Tueros is doing such an excellent job at maintaining efficient administration in the mines and law and order in the settlement. The settlers are more than satisfied with him and, most notable of all, he has commanded the respect and affection of the Indian population.

Governor of Spanish Sonora.7

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Desert Documentary by Kieran McCarty - Chapter 5
Tucson, Arizona: Arizona Historical Society, 1976.

© 1976 The Arizona Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.

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