Christopher Columbus claimed Puerto Rico for Spain in 1493, when he arrived on the island on his second voyage to the Indies. He saw the native inhabitants, the Taino, adorned their clothing with gold trinkets they found in the island’s rivers and streams. In English, Puerto Rico means “rich port,” named for the richness of the surrounding area.
Europeans did not settle on the island until 1508, when Juan Ponce de Leon was granted permission to explore the island by Queen Isabella. He established the first gold mining operation on the northern coast that same year.
Early Gold Mining
The first samples of gold from Puerto Rico were taken from the river Manatuabon (likely Maunabo River) by Ponce, who learned of the location from the natives during his initial exploration visit. During that expedition, the explorer found enough gold in the northern part of the island in the Coa and Sibuco Rivers to warrant establishment of his headquarters there.
It is estimated that in the first few decades of Puerto Rico’s occupation by the Spanish, the gold produced was valued at over $4 million in Spanish currency. During this time, the Spanish explorers were all throughout the Caribbean and Latin America in search of gold, and they were finding that gold was being used by nearly all of the civilizations that they encountered.
The Spaniards dealt with uprising from locals in many instances throughout the 16th century including in Puerto Rico. In some instances, the local villagers were enslaved to work the mines.
Streams in the area of San German, located on the southern coast of the island, proved to be equally rich. Rivers that have their sources in the mountains of Luquillo are auriferous, and include the Rio Prieto, the Fajardo, the Rio Grande, the Espiritu Santo, and particularly the Mameyes River.
During those first years, the production of gold fluctuated, but continued steadily until around 1530, when the placer gold deposits were beginning to become exhausted. In 1536, the Spanish king received his last portion of Puerto Rica gold.
Also Read: Gold Mining in the Dominican Republic
Some sources claimed there was no more gold to be found, others would say there was no one left to work the mines. During this time, the natives were susceptible to diseases brought over by the Spanish, and many of the local villagers that worked the mines died.
Some gold mines did remain in operation until the late 1500s. In 1538, crown officers in San Jan wrote that several veins of lead ore had been discovered that contained silver, but were not worked because no one had knowledge of the smelting process to extract the silver. Gold mining was not resumed in Puerto Rico until 1828, when a mine was once again established in the Central Highlands.
The first gold deposits worked by the Spaniards were the placer gold deposits. These placer deposits are associated with the major rivers that drain north from the Central Highlands, and were the easiest deposits to mine. Any of the rivers and streams that drain the Central Highlands will produce gold, and will still produce gold today. Although these were mined extensively during the 16th century, the early miners never get it all. Reworking some of the old placer ground may be productive for miners today.
Mining in Puerto Rico Today
While these deposits are much smaller now, it has been estimated that there could still be as much as one million ounces of gold still left in these placers. Of course, estimates like this are highly speculative. The main point is that there is most certainly still gold that can be found here today. Using modern mining methods that the early miners did not have could help a modern day gold prospector to recover gold in areas that have been mined in the past.
It is thought by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) that there is plenty of opportunity to find deposits of gold on the island as well as in the surrounding continental shelves. High gold prices have reignited an interest in gold prospecting on the island.
Hard rock sources of gold are largely underexplored in Puerto Rico. The sources of all the rich placers in the Central Highlands most certainly derived from eroding gold veins. While many of these lode sources have been mined, the early mining methods most certainly limited the ability to extract the gold from these ores. These locations still remained largely unexplored, unlike the rivers, riverbanks, and riverbeds which have been extensively worked since the days of the Spanish explorers.
Today, the mining industry in Puerto Rico is primarily targeting industrial minerals, and employs around 1500 people. A 2010 report estimated the non-fuel mineral commodities produced in Puerto Rico in 1995 was over $84 million, which did not include crushed stone valued at over $80 million, which is the island’s second leading mineral commodity. Cement is the most valuable mineral commodity, and lime, clay, sand, and gravel are produced in amounts equal to that produced in seven mainland states.
Read: Gold Mining in Cuba
There are mineral resources on the island in the form of deposits of silver, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, zinc, and other minerals in addition to the industrial minerals that are being produced today.
Gold prospectors in Puerto Rico should continue researching the areas on the island that were placer mined when the Spanish arrived there. Using modern gold mining equipment, it is very likely that considerable gold can be found here today. Metal detectors may help to locate gold nuggets and exposed gold veins in rock that were missed by the early miners.