Sometimes a little luck can change your whole life. A group of 49er’s in 1860 by the names of Thomas Birch, Colonel Snivelty, and John Hicks were traveling the area when they decided to stop in Bear Creek for a drink from the stream. As they drank, Hicks, discovered that he saw gold beneath the water. This unleashed a mini gold rush that had effects on the entire area.
Over the coming months, Mimbreño and Chiricahua Apaches groups of the area had to endure the prospecting and settling of their land by hundreds of people. Just a month after the initial discovery, over 700 men were working to find gold and establish operations in the surrounding areas. After a couple of months, fifteen hundred men were out there which lead to the formation of an early settlement that came to be known as Birchville which later became Pinos Altos.
The Discovery & Early Life
Pinos Altos is located near Silver City, New Mexico on the southern end of the Gila National Forest. The closest major city is Las Cruces.
Making $10 to $15 a day in a time where the typical laborer made less than a dollar a day, lead to a very rapid growth in occupancy of Birchville.
One man, Thomas Mastin was the first to discover a quartz lode which he named Pacific Mine and became one of the most important mines in Pinos Altos´ history. In the following spring, no longer wishing to be involved in the production, he sold his mine to his dear brother Virgil. Virgil went on to become a prominent figure in Pinos Altos and was at the core of the developing town.
By 1861, Birchville had its own store for merchandise run by Samuel and Roy Bean, as well as a hotel run by two entrepreneurs, Buhl and Gross.
Early Day Hostility in the Mining Camps
Unfortunately, at the time there was much conflict between Native Americans and the miners who came in and took over the land. In December of 1860, and Apache band encamped along the Mibres River fought 30 miners from the Birchville encampment. This was the first of many battles between the two groups. The feud constant struggle lasted for year.
Recurring battles caused massive casualties on both sides and there was never a solution. This lead to a struggle that spread all across the southwestern New Mexico and the southeastern Arizona.
During this time, the US Army withdrew any support for the miners due to the growing conflict of the Civil war. The troops were needed elsewhere leaving the miners without much needed support, meaning that it was upon the miners to take care of themselves in this hostile region.
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During this period of a weakened miner’s encampment, the Apache natives in the region began a tactical assault on the miner´s forces. Under the leadership of the Apache Chief Mangas Coloradas, the natives brought about an almost absolute defeat of invading forces in the region. However, this was not the end of the conflict as neither side would give up. This all culminated in the Apache War of September 22, 1862 where Chief Cochise joined with Chiricahua Apaches with a total of over 400 men, worked to drive away the miners.
Many died during this war and during many more conflicts. This did not however prevent the miners from continuing to work the mines at least minimally. Finally, in January of 1863, Chief Mangas Coloradas went to the Pinos Altos base to petition for peace as he was aging and tired of so much war. Unsurprisingly however, he was met with hostility and was captured instead. He was taken prisoner to the Union Officer Brigadier General Joseph Rodman West at Fort McLane. Just after midnight on January 18th 1863, Mangas Coloradas was executed at the hands of his guards.
The next day, Manga’s troops, wife and child were caught off guard by a band of Pinos Altos miners and killed them all. Despite power struggles on both sides, after a few years that the region was mostly deserted with the exception of a handful of settlers.
Mining Conditions Improve
In 1866, Fort Bayward was established which allowed for safer conditions in the settlement. With a diminished threat from the Apache people, the miners were able to grow their labor force and mine for gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc.
Millions of dollars in minerals were discovered for many years. With what seemed like an indefinite amount of gold being produced, Senator George Hearst invested in the Pinos Altos mines. He also built a stamp mill and incorporated the Silver City, Pinos Altos, and Mogollon railroad in an attempt to connect his properties to his smelter company.
Rich Mines of the Pinos Altos Area
It wasn’t just gold that attracted miners to southern New Mexico. Gold, silver, lead, copper, zinc, and even turquoise deposits have all been found in this region.
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The largest mining area near Pinos Altos was Silver City just a few miles to the south. The others are Chloride district, known for its silver, Burro District for Turquoise, and Central which is composed of a variety of other minerals.
Because placer and lode gold were discovered in Pinos Altos, there were soon 30 mines in operation and was the core for mining in the area. The first and original mine, Pacific Mine was the biggest producer and remained in operation until 1995, a testament to the richness of the lodes that were found here.