New Mexico Art Tells its History

History/Text: Mining the Land

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, a Spanish explorer searching for gold, traveled the region that eventually became New Mexico in 1540–1542. One of Coronado’s first encounters with north American native tribes was with the Zuni Pueblo of Hawikuh. A battle broke out between the Zuni people and, though Coronado is wounded, he continues his expedition looking for gold. Still believing the myth of the “7 cities of Gold”, he eventually lands in Cibola, and instead finds a small dusty village . In 1598 the first Spanish settlement was established on the Rio Grande River by Juan de Onate. Santa Fe was founded in 1610 and made the capital of New Mexico. The US acquired most of New Mexico in 1848 and granted it statehood in 1912, making it the 47th state.

Although Coronado did not find his gold in New Mexico, there was gold discovered in the Ortiz mountains in the 1820s. As thousands of men from all over the world flocked to California, 1849 became the legendary year for leaving home in search of gold. These men were dubbed 49ers, and the name is still commonly referred to today. While New Mexico could never rival the gold found in California, it may well be that New Mexico experienced the first true gold rush during the 1820s in the Ortiz Mountains just north of Albuquerque.

Mining for copper, lead, zinc, and gold continued over next 150 years, adding uranium to the list in the 1950’s. Some of these mining sites are still open, mining primarily copper, molybdenum, gold, and silver. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management, there are an estimated 3,000 abandoned mine land sites in the state of New Mexico. Not only do these sites pose the sometimes obvious danger of open deep wells, but there is also the concern of toxic chemicals being leached into the land. It is estimated that 1,100 abandoned mine lands are located on the Navajo reservation.

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