More to Explore

Cerrillos New Mexico and Mining in the Cerrillos Hills

The town of Cerrillos was founded in 1879 as a mining camp. The Cerrillos Hills mining district, now an historic park, has a unique tri-cultural history of mining dating back to 1000 AD. 

Cerrillos, New Mexico and Mining in the Cerrillos Hills

by Emmy Levitas

The prospect and practice of mining the earth is an important part of New Mexican history that is tied to the unique character of the land. Cultures and histories overlap on the sites where turquoise, gold, silver, copper, lead, uranium, and other minerals have been extracted from New Mexican earth. Mining has been the impetus for movement and change—myths of mineral riches drew Spanish explorers and later American prospectors to New Mexico, and along with them, the forces of colonialism. Over the course of New Mexican history, mineral extraction has been tied up with issues of labor and land rights, public health, economic structures, and preserving the environment. These minerals continue to hold great importance to New Mexicans today, for their uses which range from the spiritual to the commercial and military.

The mines in Cerrillos Hills are set apart from other mining areas in New Mexico and in the United States because of their tri-cultural history. Minerals have been extracted from the Cerrillos Hills since prehistoric times by Native American, Spanish, and American miners.

The Tano Indians first inhabited the area surrounding the place now called Cerrillos. The Tano lived in at least eight major pueblos and several smaller villages throughout the Galisteo River basin. The closest pueblo to the town of Cerrillos, and probably the largest in the Galisteo basin, was San Marcos Pueblo. The Pueblo Indians extracted large amounts of turquoise and galena from sites in the Cerrillos Hills area. Two major prehistoric mines were Mina del Tiro, which was mined for galena (lead ore), and Mt. Chalchihuitl, a large turquoise mine. In 1539, Spanish Fray Marcos de Niza made an expedition into New Mexico, and returned with legends of the riches of the Seven Cities of Cibola and Quivira. Following these myths, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado then entered into northern New Mexico in 1540, where he passed through the Galisteo Basin and may have observed San Marcos Pueblo. In 1580-1581, a missionary expedition led by Fray Agustin Rodríguez and Francisco Sánchez Chamuscado made contact with the Galisteo Pueblos and witnessed the nearby mines in the Cerrillos Hills. Cordelia Thomas Snow provides a detailed account of these interactions in her essay, "A Brief History of Mission San Marcos" Spanish settlements were established in New Mexico only after 1598. By the mid-1600s, a ranch had been established close to the present-day location of Cerrillos, and the nearby hills were named, “Los Cerrillos.” Almost all local records were burned in the Pueblo Revolt  of 1680, so there is no documentation of Spanish mining if it occurred in the Cerrillos Hills before 1690. The Spanish were aware of lead and silver ore deposits in the hills, and there is evidence of Spanish mining at sites such as Mina del Tiro and the Santa Rosa mine. Some mines, such as Mt. Chalchihuitl, continued to be worked by Pueblo Indians into the 17th century. 

The town of Cerrillos, NM began as a small mining camp in the American Period (post-1846) strategically located between lead and silver mines to the north, and gold and coal mined to the south. The camp was officially founded as the town of Cerrillos on March 8, 1879. Gold was the primary interest of Cerrillos miners, but nearby deposits of lead, zinc and coal gained increasing attention over time. In 1881, the Santa Fe Railroad built tracks through Cerrillos, which created a greater demand for coal and coincided with a population boom in the town. This population spike in the early 1880s was consistent with a greater trend of population growth in New Mexico in that decade, accelerated by rapid railroad expansion, decreased interaction with Native Americans, and (often misleading) advertisements of prosperous lands. Cerrillos did not reach the huge scale of mining experienced in southwestern New Mexico, but was predicted to be such a successful town that it was considered for the U.S. territorial capital. William Ritch wrote in 1885 that there were 55 different mines being worked around Cerrillos. The mineral deposits around Cerrillos were not as large as expected, however, and the town’s population had already begun to decrease by 1884.

Today, Cerrillos is a town of less than 250 people, and mining has slowed to a private venture by individual miners. There are currently ten claims on mines in the Cerrillos Hills, some of which are still worked. In the 1970s, Occidental Minerals attempted to drill for copper ores in the Cerrillos Hills, which was strongly protested by Cerrillos inhabitants, and ceased soon thereafter. The Cerrillos Hills Historic Park is one of the newest state parks as of July, 2009, and the Cerrillos Hills Park Coalition has ongoing efforts in motion to protect and preserve this historic place.


Levine, Daisy, and Linda J. Goodman. An Archaeological and Ethnographic Survey Within the Cerrillos Mining District, Santa Fe County, NM. Albuquerque: Museum of New Mexico Offic of Archaeological Studies, 1990. Print.

Mathien, Frances Joan. "Tri-Cultural Use of the Cerrillos Mines." Cultural Resource Management 7(1998).

Milford, Homer. "Turquoise Mining History." New Mexico Abandoned Mine Land Bureau Reports (1995).

Simmons, Mark. Turquoise and Six-Guns: The Story of Cerrillos, New Mexico. Sunstone Press, 1975. Print.

Father Stanley. The Cerrillos, New Mexico Story. Pep, Texas: 1964. Print