A Brief History of Mining in the Sierra Madre

Before the arrival of the Spanish, mining of metals was known to the indigenous inhabitants of the territory of what was to become Mexico; however, in the Sierra Madre area is hard to probe they went further than grabbing gold nuggets from placer deposits. The conquest of the Mexicas by the Spaniards in 1521, with their thirst for gold and silver, opened new exploration grounds for a culture that had the means, the necessary knowledge and the wanting to find and extract the mineral wealth from the ground.

It took only a few years for important mineral districts to be found and extensive mining developed in Mexico. From 1521 to 1525, the discoveries, in the center of the new territories, of El Chico, Sultepec, Pachuca, Tlalpujahua and Taxco were made at a fast pace; other important discoveries were made before the end of that century, further away from Mexico City,  as the colonization tightened its grip on the ground: Mazapil, Santa Barbara, Zacatecas, San Martín, Guanajuato, Cerro del Mercado, Fresnillo, Sombrerete, Cerro San Pedro, Charcas, Santa Eulalia and Mapimí.

The relative far distance from the cultural and economic expansion focused on Mexico City, and more importantly, the lack of good communication and trade networks imposed by the steep topography, prevented the swift development of mining centers for a long time in the Sierra Madre. Many mineralized sites were probably found early on, but few saw much production; as examples are Guanaceví and and Topia, both in Durango. Guanaceví saw small scale mining  since 1535, but Topia, further into the mountains, had its first mining leases granted on the early 1600’s, but little mining for two centuries. It wasn’t until 1628 that the Guazaparez district was significantly mined, followed by Urique in 1630 and Batopilas in 1632, all in the same region of Chihuahua in the Sierra Madre. It would take almost a century for another burst of activity to create the mining camps of Plomosas in Sinaloa (1722), Guaynopa (1728), Ocampo (1729), Uruachic (1732) and Chinipas (1734), the last four in Chihuahua. The reasons are for historians to elucidate, but this kind of clustering in time of discoveries and development of mining camps continues further on in the Sierra Madre. The rest of the 18th century only saw two more new districts, San Juan Nepomuceno (1745) and San Dimas (1779).

The 19th century began with a frenzy of activity in Chihuahua, with the discoveries of Los Tarros (1802), Guadalupe y Calvo (1807), Lluvia de Oro (1816), Palmarejo (1818) and Moris (1819). From that point on, several districts trickled on for the rest of the century: San José de Gracia in Sinaloa (1828), Baborigame (1837) and Monterde (1844) in Chihuahua, Dios Padre (1860) in Sonora, Topia (1870) in Durango, Pinos Altos (1871) in Chihuahua, La Fortuna (1884) in Durango, Concheño (1889) and La Bufa (1893) in Chihuahua.

The 20th century wasn’t the best for the Mexican mines, as on 1906 social unrest was to begin on the Cananea mine, seeding the ground for the Mexican Revolution. The armed conflict lasted the full second decade of the century, paralyzing for decades to come the work in many mining districts. The Mexico that emerged from the struggle was much more wary of foreign investment, and laws were established to prohibit less than 51% of firms on Mexican hands. That situation lasted until the 1990’s, when a shift in attitude from the government liberalized many industries, and raised again the foreign investment limit in mining to the previous 100 percent. New discoveries were just being made by that time, and the changes in the law brought a string of discoveries and the resurgence of long abandoned mining camps. The next is an incomplete list of these success stories: La Cienega in Durango (1971), Cieneguita  (1974) in Chihuahua, Gochico (1981) and Mulatos (1988) in Sonora), Metates (1988-1992) in Durango, Pinos Altos (1990’s) in Chihuahua, Santo Tomás (1990’s) in Sinaloa, Bolívar (1990’s) in Chihuahua, La Trinidad (1994) in Sinaloa, El Sauzal ~1994), Monterde (1994) and Dolores (1996) in Chihuahua.

On the present century, discoveries or new life to old camps include Ocampo (2000), San Miguel (2000’s), Orysivo (2004), Palmarejo (2005) and San Julian (~2008) in Chihuahua, La Silla (2002) in Sinaloa, La India (2004) in Sonora. From 2012 to the first quarter of 2016 exploration in the Sierra Madre took a serious hit, with dwindling activities almost everywhere, but now there are signs of recovery. This year the project Sandra Escobar in Durango reported high grade silver mineralization disseminated in a felsic tuff, adjacent to a rhyolitic dome. This discovery involves a new mineralization style in an old known district, opening a window to those that dare to look for the riches of the Sierra Madre, just like in the 1940’s movie “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”.  It is not just the allure of adventure, the Sierra Madre is the mining region in Mexico with more gold resources defined so far, and is host to sizable amounts of silver, lead and zinc.

In the picture below, high relief on Oligocene age ignimbrite units on the road to Batopilas, Chihuahua.


One thought on “A Brief History of Mining in the Sierra Madre

  1. excellent article with exceptional wealth of information on historical mining in Mexico. I think native mexic indians have a better understanding of ore search methods and usage for ornaments of silver , gold and base metals.

    Liked by 1 person

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