Mining in New Mexico began in prehistoric times with turquoise mining by Native people. During Spanish rule, some mines were worked for gold, silver, copper and lead. Mining has continued through the present day for many minerals including coal, uranium,and molybdinum. By 1995, $1.8 billion worth of minerals had been mined/produced in New Mexico, and the state continues to be among the largest mineral-producing states in the nation. It is first in potash, perlite, and zeolites production, second in pumice and mica production, third in copper production, and tenth in coal and silver production.
The Spanish expedition of 1540 into what is now New Mexico was undertaken in search of gold (the Seven Cities of Cibola), but it found little more than salt and turquoise. Later Spanish expeditions went through the Rio Grande and Pecos valleys past ore deposits which would have made them all rich beyond their fondest dreams; however, they followed their Native American guides along streams and mostly avoided the hostile heights of the mountains.
It is evident that during nearly 300 years of Spanish rule, some mines were worked and there was much prospecting. Gold was found in small quantities along with silver, copper, and lead. Spanish diggings, ore samples, and smelters have been found around Pedernal, Cerrillos, and in the Sandia, Ortiz, Socorro, Manzano, Jemez, and Ladrone Mountains foothills. After the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, some of these mines were hidden by local Indian Tribes so successfully that they have not been found since. Few made any real profits. The Spanish preoccupation with mining is apparent from the discovery in 1867 that El Palacio (Governor’s Palace in Santa Fe) contained a smelting furnace worn from long and hard usage.
In 1850 near present-day Jicarilla, cowboys discovered placer gold in a gulch. During the years that followed, some $90,000.00 worth was mined which creating a rush for riches, and the towns of Jicarilla and White Oaks. The White Oaks Mining District 10 miles/16 km south of the Jicarrilla Mountains was centered on White Oaks Canyon, northeast of Carrizozo where the White Oaks ghost town is located. The mining district was created in 1880 by three prospectors; Harry Baxter, Jack Winters, and desperado John Wilson. They panned for gold in a gulch on Baxter Mountain at 7,801’/2378 m, which was named for Harry Baxter. Since Wilson was wanted by the law, he sold his shares to the others for nine silver dollars, a horse, and a gun. He lost out on the wealth as the mines, particularly at the Old Abe Mine, produced $3 million in gold. A rich vein in that mine was 1400’/428 m deep. Today Jicarilla is abandoned, and the small town sign recently disappeared from its post in front of one of the few remaining structures.
In the more recent past, coal, copper, and uranium mining have become major industries along with the enormous molybdenum mining near Questa. The New Mexico Mountains are dotted with abandoned mines and ghost towns built during the rush for riches at places like Shakespeare, Elizabethtown, Cerrillos, Hillsboro, Kingston, Monticello, and Kelly. These abandoned towns speak of the people who forged a living in harsh desert or steep mountains in spite of physical hardships. The mining industry documented from approximately 900 CE through the current time adds another layer of uniqueness to the history of New Mexico.