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The History of Silver City, Part 1
Before there was a Silver City

Erica and Jim Parson

Although the following narratives will focus on Silver City, it is necessary to give some account of the years prior to its founding. Silver City "happened" because of people and events. The people did not just appear out of the void; the events did not occur in isolation, independent of any outside factors. Everything has a cause and an effect. Here we take a brief look at "before there was Silver City", beginning in 1860 when New Mexico, as a Territory of the United States, had been in existence for a scant 10 years, having been part of Mexico until 1848. In 1860, this area of New Mexico Territory was in Doña Ana County.

The astute reader will notice that there is a distinct lack of information about Hispanic residents of this area in what follows. This is certainly not due to any bias on the part of the authors, but rather due to a dearth of information in early historical accounts as regards native New Mexicans and Mexican citizens who had settled in this part of New Mexico prior to and after the arrival of the early Anglo settlers. They were enumerated in the census, and often formed a majority in the populations of the various settlements, but little appears to be known about them. New Mexico is, perhaps uniquely so, the result of a melding of many cultures dating back many hundreds of years and no historical account would be accurate without recognizing this fact. We would be most grateful for any information on these peoples and their culture, social histories, areas of employment and verifiable family histories.

Pinos Altos

In 1860, three miners/prospectors, Jacob Snively, Henry Birch and John Hicks discovered gold just above the junction of Bear and Cherry Creeks near present day Pinos Altos. Reports are that this happened in May of 1860. By mid-August when the census was taken Pinos Altos was home to 604 people including Snively, a Pennsylvanian, Birch, a New Yorker and Hicks, a Canadian. Although some reports say that the settlement was originally called Birchville in honor of Henry Birch, the supposed finder of the first gold, in August of 1860 it appears on the census as "Pino Alto Gold Mines, Doña Ana County." (1) The settlement suffered almost constant attacks by Apaches, especially after the Bascom Affair in February of 1861. (See note i below) When troops of the California Column arrived in the area in the summer of 1862, Pino Alto was practically deserted, a small number of settlers on the verge of starvation were the only remaining citizens. (2) Just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, all United States military presence in the region had been withdrawn to the east, at least as far as Mesilla. This withdrawal left the settlers in New Mexico Territory at the mercy of the Apaches.

It was not until 1866, with the establishment of Fort Bayard, that the town now known as Pinos Altos could flourish in relative safety. At the same time the small settlement of Central City began to flourish. One of its primary functions was the "servicing" of the soldiers at Fort Bayard, with all that this implies. By 1870, Central City had a population of 89 souls and was the fifth largest settlement in Grant County, outnumbering Silver City by 9 citizens.(3)

The first Anglos at the Cienega

The earliest documentary references to what would become Silver City are found in the Grant County Mining Deed Book for 1868 - 1870. On January 1, 1869, William Milby and John Bullard of Pinos Altos preempted 320 acres of land "… situated and lying in the county of Grant about eight miles more or less in a Southerly direction from the said Town of Pinos Altos and commencing about four hundred yards more or less below the spring of water known as The San Vicente at the points of rock running thence one mile up the valley in a north westerly direction to a post and including all the land lying one quarter of a mile each way in a north eastwards and south western direction of (word unintellible) between the Points of Rocks and the post as above described and which land has not yet been offered at public sale and is this subject to private (?) entry … and we do hereby declare intention to claim the said tract of land as a pre emption right under the provisions of the act dated fourth of September A D 1841…" (4)

The Bullard/Milby claim was the land upon which the future Silver City would be built.

On the same day, James McGhee and Andrew Hurlbert, again both citizens of Pinos Altos, also preempted 320 acres "… commencing about four hundred yards more or less below the spring of water known as the San Vicente …" but running in a south easterly direction. (5)

This spring and the marsh, La Cienega de San Vicente, was located in the general area bounded by (present day) Broadway Street to the north, South Mill Road to the south, South Bullard Street to the west, and State Highway 90/ South Hudson Street to the east.

These two preemption claims served the individual interests of all the parties concerned. Bullard and Milby would raise cattle on the upper levels of the valley of the Cienega with the water source at the lower reaches of their claim while Hurlbert and McGhee would farm on their area. There was an ample supply of water flowing down the San Vicente Arroyo from the spring on the Bullard claim to irrigate crops on the Hurlbert claim. The "points of rocks" referred to in both preemption claims are likely close to the rock face found at the point where the present day "Big Ditch" arroyo makes a sharp turn to the southeast at the extreme southern end of Bullard Street. (See note ii below)

Incidentally, Hurlbert and Mc Ghee had had a previous association as members and stockholders in the Arizona Mining Company at Pinos Altos, which had accumulated debts of "…about two thousand dollars for goods, wares and merchandises …" supplied to them by the firm of Haneret (unclear) and Milby! (6)

McGhee and Hurlbert's preemption claim was entered into the Deed book on February 9, 1869, and Milby and Bullard's claim on January 27, 1869. Entering the claims into official records would have required a trip to Pinos Altos, at that time the County Seat. When the legislation that created Grant County was enacted on January 30, 1868, Central City was designated the County Seat. Pinos Altos, however, was quickly found to be a much more suitable location, being a far more substantial town, with a bigger population and better facilities, and in an Act approved passed by the Territorial Legislature on January 8 1869 it assumed the role of County Seat. (7)

At the time of these preemptions, Grant County had been in existence for just under 1 year, and the Territorial Legislature had not yet authorized the sale of public lands in the new county, which first required that the land be officially surveyed by the Surveyor General of New Mexico or one of his Deputies. Once this was done, and the land made available for sale, those who had preempted were given the first option to purchase the land which they had settled and improved. Improvement of the tract of land was mandatory under the 1841 Act.

The original Mining Deed books of Grant County are a treasure trove of information. They are catalogued as mining records, locations and deeds, but they contain far more information. In fact, they are the Probate Judges record books for all kinds of legal transactions - sales of lots, plots and properties, land and water claims, mortgages, indentures (contracts), liens, power of attorney - anything that necessitated some kind of legal record.These official records of Grant County provide a historically accurate account of events, written and recorded as they happened, and it is these records which we largely rely upon in our narrative. Many contemporary accounts of events in and around Silver City are based upon writings that were authored several - if not many - years after an event; some accounts are based on the recollections of "old timers." Even some of the newspaper accounts published at a date much closer to a given event we have found to be questionable and often not substantiated by official documents. Therefore, we will use such sources sparingly, and only where we can verify the veracity of their content.


1: Eighth U. S. Census, 1860, Doña Ana County Pino Alto Gold Mines, page 126, line 36

2: War of The Rebellion: Official Records of The Union and Confederate Armies Series 1, Vol. L pp. 100, 105 -106, 123 These records refer to both "Pino Alto" and "Pinos Altos".

3: Ninth U.S. Census, 1870, Grant County The Town Of Central City, pp. 1 - 3

4: Grant County Mining Deed Book 1868 - 1870 pp. 56 - 57 Located at: New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, 1205 Camino Carlos Rey, Santa Fe, NM 87505

5: Ibid. pp. 118 -119

6: Ibid. pp. 29 - 30 These quotations are from the original, hand written entries and It is sometimes difficult to decipher the handwriting.

7: Anderson, George B. (1907) History of New Mexico: Its Resources and People Pacific States Publishing Company p. 721

Note i: There are numerous published accounts of this incident which was the catalyst for the escalation of Apache hostilities in south western New Mexico and south eastern Arizona. It marked the beginning of all-out warfare between the Apaches and all non- Indians that was to last for 10 years. See, for example, Hackler, George (2005) "The Butterfield Trail In New Mexico." Yucca Enterprises.

Note ii: Merriam-Webster defines "preemption" as : "The right of purchasing before others; especially one given by the Government to the actual settler upon a tract of public land; the purchase of something under this right." In effect, squatters' rights - the policy which allowed the first settlers - or squatters - on public lands to purchase the property they had settled on and improved when the land was made available for sale. In this case, preemption allowed for the claiming of 160 acres per person.

© 2007, Erica and Jim Parson

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