Category Archives: Mining

It’s life Jim, but not as we know it

National Geographic has a photo of a worm discovered living more that three and a half kilometers underground. Apparently the critter, a kind of worm called a nematode, was first discovered in a gold mine. Kind of makes you wonder what other forms of life live in places we never thought to look for it.

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Oldest mine in the Americas

It looks like the article is not available online yet, so all I have to go on is this press release. Basically, iron oxide was being mined as a pigment in Chile as far back as 12,000 years ago. It doesn’t say if that date is calibrated or uncalibrated, but either way it’s a pretty impressive date for early mining, especially so far south.

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The oldest mine in California, part 3

Following on from part 1 and part 2. I’ve been using the words mine and mining in the colloquial sense, which excludes quarries for ordinary, non-precious stones unless they are underground workings.

Out in the Mojave desert of southeastern California, near Halloran Springs, are hundreds of small mines that are very possibly the oldest mines in the state. Many of them were worked by the Chemehuevi in early historic times, but the original miners were not California Indians at all.

Those ancient miners in the Mojave Desert were Anasazi, and the mineral they were after was turquoise. It is not widely known outside of archaeological circles, but Ancestral Puebloans established mining camps in the California desert some 1,500 years ago. The turquoise they extracted was traded widely, some of it traveling as far as Snaketown in Arizona. For around 200 to 250 years the Anasazi continued mining there before another group gained control of the deposits.

The newcomers were a different Pueblo group, which we know today as Patayan. Sometimes they are also called Hakataya, but both names refer to the same group. The Patayan continued mining turquoise until they were ultimately replaced by Chemehuevi miners, which appears to have happened sometime around AD 1200. Each of these groups left behind toolmaking debris and broken pottery, which is how we came to know who was working here and when.

California may be the golden state, but there was mining going on for a very long time before gold was discovered in 1842. Yes, that’s right, I said 1842, not 1848. But that’s another story, which I will reserve for another day.

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The oldest mine in California, part 2

(Continuing from part 1.) Before the arrival of the Spanish, cinnabar from the New Almaden area in Santa Clara County was traded by the Ohlone to as far north as the Walla Walla along the Columbia River. I have not seen anything indicating when mining was begun there, but the tunnel was roughly 100 feet long when American visitors first described it, suggesting that it had been worked for quite some time.

Farther north there was a flint (chert) mine on Table Mountain, near Oroville. Unlike most chert workings, this was a genuine underground mine, although a shallow one. The opening is quite narrow, but inside the mine was large enough for a person to stand upright. Ethnographic sources indicate that the Maidu miners would make an offering before mining, and would only take as much flint as could be detached by a single blow. It is likely that flint from this mine was used ritually, as it seems unlikely that such care would be taken for purely utilitarian tool stone.

Both of these mines were in use at the time the Spanish first arrived in California, having been worked for an unknown period of time. However, there are mines in Southern California that are known to have been worked as early as 1,500 years ago. These may well be the oldest mines in California. I’ll discuss them in my next post. Meanwhile, for anyone interested in researching this further, a good start would be Mines and Quarries of the Indians of California by Robert Heizer and Adan Treganza.

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The oldest mine in California, part 1

Mining in California means gold, right? Well, not necessarily. The earliest commercial (in the modern sense) mine to operate within the state of California appears to have been the New Almaden, and it produced cinnabar – mercury ore. It was mined as a pigment by Antonio Sunol and Luis Chabolla as early as 1824, but mercury reduction did not begin until 1846. That was still two years before James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill.

Both gold and silver mining in the nineteenth century depended upon mercury to recover the precious metal from the ore, and more than half the U.S. production (57%) of this vital metal up through 1893 came from the New Almaden. There is a great contemporary description of this mine in Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California, written in 1862 by James M. Hutchings. At this time Hutchings wrote the mine had been shut down by a court order, but it soon reopened. More information is available in Will Meyerriecks book Drills and Mills, Precious Metal Mining and Milling Methods of the Frontier West.

As it happens, however, Sunol and Chabolla were not the first people to mine cinnabar at New Almaden; the deposit was being tapped long before the Spanish even arrived in what would become California. And even at that, it may not have been the oldest mine.

More tomorrow.


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Old mines

I just discovered that both the BLM and the NPS have training programs for entering abandoned mines. This is something I will definitely look into, because as much as I would like to investigate the underground workings of important mining sites, I would also like to live long enough to report whatever I might find.

Abandoned mines are frequently time capsules, often with remarkably well preserved artifacts. Mines that closed suddenly, with the workers not being warned that they were losing their jobs at the end of the shift, are especially good candidates for this. In addition, the shape of the underground workings can reveal much about the decisions that were made by a company attempting to follow a profitable ore body.

Anybody doing much historical archaeology in the far west is going to be dealing with old mines from time to time. (And anybody doing much CRM in Nevada is going to be dealing with new mines, but that’s a topic for a different post.)

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