Turquoise Mining History

By Homer Milford

This material was originally published
by the New  Mexico Abandoned Mine Land Bureau
Reports 1994 - 1 - November 15, 1995

Homer Milford is the former Environmental Coordinator of the Abandoned Mine Land Bureau, the State of New Mexico Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department

Acknowledgments: The following made major contributions to this effort: Joan  Mathien of the National Park Service, Robert Eveleth of the New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources, and Cordelia T. Snow who shared information and gave helpful comments. I would like to acknowledge the assistance of state librarians and archivists: Margaret Cordovano, Laura Holt, Al Ragensberg, and Orlando Romero.  Elise McLaughlin is also recognized for editorial assistance. However, the errors of this history are solely the author's responsibility.


Historical documents of the Mexican and early U.S. Period are as silent on the subject of turquoise as Spanish documents, as those writers also considered turquoise to be a worthless rock. It was ethnographic interest in the Navajos' turquoise jewelry that lead to the first U.S. Period mention of turquoise in 1858 by Blake. The fact that the Navajos had turquoise ornaments but did not mine turquoise led Blake to trace turquoise mining to the Pueblo Indians. They directed him to Mount Chalchihuitl in the Cerrillos Hills as the source of the turquoise. This is all Blake said about the turquoise trade.  He was very impressed by the large pit at Mount Chalchihuitl, and his paper made  the pit famous.  He observed or was told that Pueblos obtained their turquoise from the old mine waste dumps and made it into jewelry which they traded with other tribes. This led later authors such as Pogue (1915) to assume that at some point between the 1600s and 1850 the pueblos stopped mining turquoise and started just collecting it from the old mine dumps. However, it seems unlikely that the dumps could have supplied the demand for turquoise for more than a short time.

Contrary to an 1800s myth that Pueblo Indians were afraid of going into the mines,  there are late 1800s references to Santo Domingo and Cochiti Pueblo Indians going to the Cerrillos Hills to mine (Andrews, 1936 [citation pending]) as well as collect turquoise from the surface. In addition, Bandelier noted in his journal in 1881 that he saw two Indians mining turquoise with hatchets  (Lang & Riley, 1966).

With the coming of the railroad in 1881 and the development of tourism, a small new market developed for Pueblo turquoise jewelry. This market has had its ups and downs but is still a Pueblo industry today. By the late 1800s Pueblo Indians were getting most and eventually all their turquoise from traders who purchased it from the many new turquoise mines, or from the copper mining industry. Today the major sources of turquoise are natural turquoise mined in China, the synthetic material manufactured in Europe, and byproducts of some copper mines.

In the late 1880s Europeans began to value New Mexico turquoise for the first time in 300 years. This change in attitude resulted from an increase in turquoise prices as the ancient turquoise mines of Persia ran out of ore. In the 1880s, Cerrillos turquoise and other southwestern turquoise was promoted as the equivalent in quality to that of Persian turquoise. The acceptance of Cerrillos turquoise as a gemstone in 1889 raised its price to a level where its mining became profitable.

The "Old Castillian" Mining Claim of 1879 is the earliest European-American turquoise mining claim in the United States. (The name of this mine was eventually shortened to "Castillian" by 1890.) In 1880 a highly publicized effort was made to develop Mount Chalchihuitl as a gold and silver mine, but the mining company closed quickly after the stock was sold. The 1880-1881 mining on Mount Chalchihuitl, though in a turquoise deposit, was not for turquoise. Though turquoise mining was reported between 1880 and 1883 at the Castillian Mine (Lakes, 1901), the total yearly production for the country during these years estimated by the U.S. Geological Service (USGS) was only $2,000 (MRUS, 1882, 1883).  Three-quarters of the production was for mineral specimen collections, and only $500 yearly was for gem manufacturing.  Major turquoise mining did not start until the late 1880s. From 1889 until around 1893, turquoise prices rose until turquoise was more valuable than gold. Prices then declined as many new deposits in the southwest came into production. The American Turquoise Company associated with the big New York jeweler, Tiffany and Company, bought up the best mines on Turquoise Hill. Efforts to control production and marketing through monopoly agreements existed but have not been studied.

The price of turquoise declined in the late 1890s and collapsed between 1909 and 1912. The American Turquoise Company developed another turquoise mine near Hatchita in southwest New Mexico but it was closed prior to 1909. By 1912 an oversupply caused a crash in turquoise mining. The turquoise mine production reported to the USGS decreased by 50 percent every year from 1909 ($179,273) to 1910 ($85,900), to 1911 ($44,751), and in 1912 it decreased by 75 percent to only $8,075. By 1911 most of the turquoise mines in  the U.S. were closed, and only four locations continued in operation (MRUS, 1911, p. 1066). After about 1909 McNulty was only doing assessment work at the Tiffany Mine [(MRUS, 1911, p. 1070). Even the annual assessment work stopped with the  patenting of the claims, and thus a reasonable ending date for turquoise mining on the hills is 1912. Fine European-style turquoise jewelry went out of fashion with the collapse of turquoise prices and even the dramatic rise in demand in the second half of the 20th Century for Native American turquoise jewelry has not raised prices to the level of 1890. The mines of Turquoise Hill were worked occasionally by McNulty and a few other individuals but on a very sporadic and small scale after 1915. McNulty, who managed the mines on Turquoise Hill for the American  Turquoise Company, continued to live there and did occassional mining at the Tiffany for a later owner until the early 1920s.

The price of turquoise has never risen to what it was a century ago due to the large supply from other countries and due to copper mining. Native Americans operated turquoise mines in the southwest for almost a thousand years, but European operation of mines specifically for turquoise was confined mainly to a couple of decades when its price was high.


Native Americans worked the Cerrillos Hills turquoise centuries before the Europeans came to the area and they continue to value turquoise to this day. Europeans in New Mexico were not interested in the stone, considering it worthless. In the second half of the 19th Century, when Europeans first did become interested in turquoise, a large number of myths about turquoise mining gradually developed.  Fenderson's lead paragraph to his article, "Turquoise Mining in New Mexico", is as appropriate today as it was a century ago.

The early mining of turquoise in New Mexico is enveloped in a base of myth, tradition and superstition difficult to penetrate. The searcher for authentic history concerning this fascinating subject is confronted on the very threshold of his endeavors with fact and fiction so skillfully interwoven by the hand of Time and so generously amplified by myths long antedating the discovery of America that he is apt to view the segregation as a well-nigh hopeless task  (Fenderson, 1897).

The myths Fenderson refers to however, seem to be a creation of the second half of the 1800s. Most of the numerous articles written on turquoise before and since Fenderson are listed in Rex Arrowsmith's 1972 Rio Grande Press reprint of Pogue's 1915 classic book, Turquois. Good bibliographies are also found in Warren and Mathien (1985) and Levine and Goodman (1990).  Readers are referred to these if they are interested in the traditions and myths that surround the use and mining of turquoise.

English names for the two major turquoise deposits in the Cerrillos Mining District in the 1800s and today are "Turquoise Hill", the hills covered in this report, and "Mount Chalchihuitl", a deposit three miles [4.8 km] south and a mile [1.6 km] west of Turquoise Hill. Mount Chalchihuitl's large open pit attracted all of the early comments on turquoise mining in the Cerrillos District by American observers starting with Blake in 1858. In 1879-1880 Eastern stock promoters created a company to mine gold and silver at Mount Chalchihuitl. They promoted it as the most  important "Old Spanish" mine in New Mexico based on the old turquoise pit there and the legends associated with the pit. This company was successful at selling stock but failed at mining because as company officials surely knew, there was no gold or silver and very little turquoise there. However, it did establish Mount Chalchihuitl as the most famous or infamous turquoise mine in the United States.  Turquoise Hill did not come into prominence until later when turquoise prices rose and it became the site of all the important turquoise mines of the Cerrillos District, with the possible exception of O'Neil's Blue Bell Mine.

The Spanish word for turquoise, turquesa, has the same origin as the English word, "turkish stone", but the word turquesa was generally not used in New Mexico. The word Chalchihuite or Chalchihuitl, from the Nahuatl Indian language of Central Mexico was used in New Mexico by the Navajos and other groups for turquoise into the late 1800s.

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