Column No. 50

The Beginning of American Mining in Southern Arizona

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

Immediately after the Gadsden Purchase was finalized in 1854, Americans began exploring south-central Arizona. Surveyor William H. Emory came to the new territory in 1855 to confirm and clarify the new boundary between Mexico and the United States. Near Arivaca, Emory’s party found several large excavations, exposed metallic ore, and evidence of on-site smelting. The surveyors also reported the “the country is now full of prospectors from California.”

The first American prospectors started working old Spanish and Mexican silver mines in the mountains on both sides of the Santa Cruz River. For the most part though, these early efforts were small, operated intermittently, and never produced much.

There was no railroad in the new territory. Only horse or mule-driven wagons were available to bring in heavy, bulky mining equipment and supplies over non-existent, or at best, dirt trails and roads. There were no substantial local smelters to process the typically complex and refractory ore, and the lack of a railroad made hauling ore overland to faraway smelters very difficult and expensive.

At the time of the Gadsden Purchase, Tucson was the only community in what would become south-central Arizona. Tucson had begun as a Spanish presidio in 1775. Visitors described 1850s Tucson as a tiny, dirty, Mexican town with a population of fewer than 300 people. Many of those Tucson residents had abandoned their ranches, farms, and mines because of the unrelenting danger of Apache attacks, to move to the relative safety of Tucson and the protection of the troops garrisoned there. Most of the mining prospects in the region were at least 50 miles south of Tucson, further isolating would be miners and putting them in constant danger from the Apache.

The environment was harsh, hot, and arid much of the year. Lack of water in some areas became a critical problem.

However, the potential of new mining strikes did attract a few stalwart American adventurers to south-central Arizona. One of these adventurers was Charles Debrille Poston, who exemplified the pioneer spirit of early Arizona.

Charles Debrille Poston was born in 1825, on a farm near Elizabethtown, Kentucky, not far from the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. In 1853 Poston worked as a clerk in the U. S. Customs House in San Francisco. After hearing of the Gadsden Purchase, Poston left his job in San Francisco and came to Arizona to explore for mineral possibilities.

In 1856, Poston organized the Sonora Exploring and Mining Company, with headquarters in Tubac. Poston’s new mining company purchased two old Mexican land grants, the Arivaca grant in the Altar Valley and the Sopori grant in the Santa Cruz valley. These land grants provided the legal basis for mining in the new U.S. territory.

One of the first projects of the new Sonora Exploring and Mining Company was the Heintzelman silver mine, at Cerro Colorado, less than 15 miles northeast of Oro Blanco. The mine was “discovered” in 1856, opened in 1857, and named after one of Poston’s partners, Major Samuel P. Heintzelman, president of the Sonora Exploration and Mining Company. At about the same time, nearby to the east in the Santa Rita and Patagonia Mountains, the company located several other silver mines. All of these mines were actually relocations of earlier Spanish or Mexican workings.

Prospects for these mines were reported in the press as fabulous, but shortage of capital, labor problems, and ore smelting difficulties limited production. According to the Tucson Citizen, recalling the “remarkable conditions” under which Poston operated:

“The nearest railroad was at Texarkana, Texas, over 1,200 miles from the mine. All supplies from the east were hauled that distance in bull teams at a cost of 20 cents per pound in gold coin. All ore shipped was hauled 320 miles in freight teams to Guaymas, Mexico, and shipped from there around Cape Horn in sailing vessels to Swansea in Wales for reduction.”

Charles Poston went on to become a member of the First Arizona Territorial Legislature in 1864, Speaker of the House; U.S. Special Commissioner to Asia, Chief of the Government Land Office in Arizona, Head of the Agriculture Experiment Station in Phoenix, and Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Arizona. Perhaps most important, in 1862, Poston presented the plan for a separate Arizona territory to president Abraham Lincoln. For his key services to early Arizona, in 1899, the Territorial Legislature voted Poston “Father of Arizona.”

Charles Poston’s financial fortunes did not fare as well. The Court of Private Land Claims ultimately rejected Poston’s ownership of the Arivaca Land Grant. He never received clear title to the mining companies he helped establish. In 1902, he died in squalor, all but forgotten in a small rooming house in Phoenix.

Charles Poston may be remembered longest as the founder in 1884 of the “Society of American Pioneers,” which by Territorial legislation in 1897, became the “Arizona Pioneer’s Historical Society.” In 1971, the name was changed to the Arizona Historical Society.

To protect Americans like Charles Poston, exploring and settling in south-central Arizona, the U.S. Army established military garrisons on each side of the Santa Cruz River. These garrisons included Camp Moore at Calabasas, just north of Nogales, and Fort Buchanan, near the present day town of Sonoita.

The U. S. Civil War drew soldiers away from these military garrisons. This left the few American mines, e.g., Charles Poston’s Cerro Colorado silver mine, unprotected from the Apache and marauding Mexican bandits. Miners virtually abandoned their workings to the north and east of Oro Blanco.

Operations at Charles Poston’s Heintzelman silver mine ended in 1861, when Mexican bandits murdered Poston’s brother and two others.

While the Civil War was raging, the United States Congress granted Arizona territorial status, separate from New Mexico. This followed the plan submitted to Abraham Lincoln by Charles Poston. In 1864 the Arizona Territory established Pima County, which included both Tucson and the Oro Blanco area.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, the Army returned to Arizona. With higher prices for silver, miners came back to their diggings.

Communication and transportation infrastructures to support mining in the south-central Arizona Territory began solidifying after the Civil War. By 1869 the Southern Overland U.S. Mail connected Tucson with the East. Freighting services, first by mule-driven pack trains, then mule and horse-drawn wagons, grew quickly on a blossoming network of dirt roads. Regular stagecoach service from Tucson to Altar, Sonora started in the early 1870s.

While these developments were underway, the Apache regarded the returning miners and other settlers as intruders on their lands. The “Indian problem” continued to plague mining operations.

Besides the Apache, inadequate laws to regulate mining plagued mining developments in the west. Each mining area developed its own rules, operating under “customary laws,” that were often non-specific, unclear, or contradictory, and therefore difficult to enforce.

Finally in 1872, Congress passed a comprehensive mining act that provided for mining districts and defined regulations for “locating” mining claims and mill sites.

The Apache danger not withstanding, American mining in the Ore Blanco region would start in 1873.

(Sources: William H. Emory, Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey, 1857; C. L. Sonnichesen, Tucson, The Life and Times of an American City, 1982; Tucson Citizen; The Smoke Signal)
Accompanying Figure: Charles Poston

Charles Poston, the “Father of Arizona,” developed the first American mines in southern Arizona. (Courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society/Tucson, Photo 42042)

Next Time: Indians in Ore Blanco Country

Back to List of Columns