Mercury and the Making of California: Mining, Landscape, and Race, 1840-1890

Mercury and the Making of California: Mining, Landscape, and Race, 1840-1890

by Andrew Scott Johnston


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Mercury and the Making of California, Andrew Johnston’s multidisciplinary examination of the history and cultural landscapes of California’s mercury-mining industry, raises mercury to its rightful place alongside gold and silver in the development of the American West.

Gold and silver could not be refined without mercury; therefore, its production and use were vital to securing power and wealth in the West. The first industrialized mining in California, mercury mining had its own particular organization, structure, and built environments. These were formed within the Spanish Empire, subsequently transformed by British imperial ambitions, and eventually manipulated by American bankers and investors. In California mercury mining also depended on a workforce differentiated by race and ethnicity. The landscapes of work and camp and the relations among the many groups involved in the industry—Mexicans, Chileans, Spanish, English, Irish, Cornish, American, and Chinese—form a crucial chapter in the complex history of race and ethnicity in the American West.

This pioneering study explicates the mutual structuring of the built environments of the mercury-mining industry and the emergence of California’s ethnic communities. Combining rich documentary sources with a close examination of the existing physical landscape, Johnston explores both the detail of everyday work and life in the mines and the larger economic and social structures in which mercury mining was enmeshed, revealing the significance of mercury mining for Western history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607322429
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 09/15/2013
Series: Mining the American West Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

 Andrew Scott Johnston holds a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, and is an associate professor in the Department of Architectural History at the University of Virginia.

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Mercury and the Making of California

Mining, landscape, and race, 1840â"1890

By Andrew Scott Johnston

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2013 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-462-1


Imperialism and California's Quicksilver

Years before gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, quicksilver was being produced at the New Almaden Mine in the hills a few miles to the south of Mission San Jose. The first mine in what was to become the state of California, New Almaden was recognized at the time for its potential value, and the mine was much discussed. Thomas Larkin, the U.S. consul at Monterey, wrote to Secretary of State James Buchanan regarding New Almaden on March 28, 1848, not long after American annexation of California and not long after accounts of the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills appeared in San Francisco newspapers:

Messrs. Barron Forbes & Co. of San Blas and Tepic, one of the richest English Houses in Mexico, in 1846 became lessees for sixteen years of a quicksilver mine ... Since that period they have become part owners. They have had a few common labourers, with some pick axes, crow bars, shovels and common whaling try-pots ... everything done very imperfectly. Nevertheless, they are now taking out two hundred pounds per day ... Some of the ore now found is one half pure quicksilver ... Several mines of quicksilver have in 1847–48 been discovered in this territory. From every appearance California will soon supply all of Mexico and South America and be able to undersell any mines in the world.

Larkin was a successful businessman in California, and had been firmly in favor of American annexation. While he was the U.S. consul, tasked with representing the United States in California, he was also made, in 1845, the "confidential agent in California" in a secret dispatch from Buchanan. As confidential agent his job was to promote U.S. interests in California against the designs of other governments, particularly the British, and this he had done for years, reporting to Washington any rumor of British involvement in the region. Larkin was aware of the value of quicksilver mines, and the New Almaden Mine and other quicksilver mine prospects in California occur many times in his letters. While Larkin was acting in the interests of the United States government, he continued to act as a businessman for his own benefit, attempting through numerous channels to acquire shares in the New Almaden Mine and other quicksilver prospects in California. About the time of his letter, Larkin formed a mining company with seven partners, one of whom held a claim for mining rights in the New Almaden area.

In the letter quoted above, Larkin's goal was to convince the powers in Washington that the recent annexation was an opportunity to legally unseat the powerful British interests controlling the New Almaden Mine. In the letter he describes Mexican law regarding mines and the changes being made to laws regarding mining in California by the recently appointed military governor, the combination of which he saw as an opportunity for invalidating the Barron, Forbes & Co. title in favor of U.S. interests. His claim that at New Almaden "everything (was) done very imperfectly" is curious, given that within eighteen months, the mine was producing enough mercury to double world production. Also, it is not likely that Barron, Forbes & Co. — the dominant merchant house on the Pacific Coast of the Americas, with experience running other mines and mills — would develop and manage so poorly a rich prospect that they had spent a great deal of money acquiring (Figures 1.1 and 1.2). More likely, Larkin is helping to make his case for taking the mine by claiming mismanagement. And, if in the process of unseating Barron, Forbes & Co. the mine should somehow fall into the hands of his own mining company — well, so much the better, in his view. A decade after Larkin's letter, Buchanan's administration aided in invalidating the title to the mine, an important step in taking the mine from its owners; and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court, aided by the Lincoln administration, wrested ownership of the New Almaden Mine from Barron, Forbes & Co. in 1863, during the height of the Civil War. Taking the mine from Barron, Forbes & Co. was a fifteen-year process, and in the 1840s when he wrote his letter as confidential agent, Larkin stood at the nexus of imperial designs in California, fighting for American interests against those of the British and Mexicans, all the while angling for his own business and financial interests.

Although Barron, Forbes & Co. did eventually lose ownership of New Almaden, the merchant house dominated quicksilver production in California from the late 1840s until 1863, defining the industry and establishing the physical landscapes of mercury mining and reduction in California. Barron, Forbes & Co. understood the potential value of mercury in the Americas, and after leasing the mine quickly worked to develop New Almaden and exploit the quicksilver resource. In 1851 the mine produced 27,779 flasks of mercury, doubling the typical year's production of mercury available on world markets. This scale of production required a landscape of industrial production, and Barron, Forbes & Co. — along with other partners in the New Almaden Company — financed this development, including the mining and reduction facilities and settlements for the workers, managers, and their families. Due to the incredible richness of the cinnabar deposit; the substantial wealth, knowledge, and connections of Barron, Forbes & Co. and its partners; and the work of the laborers, New Almaden developed very rapidly in the late 1840s and early 1850s, establishing itself as the third major quicksilver producer in the world after the Almadén Mine in Spain, operating since Roman times, and the Idria Mine in modern-day Slovenia, operating since 1497. Barron, Forbes & Co. and its partners understood the long historical relationships between mercury and empire, and they developed the mines and settlements of New Almaden to exploit their understanding and create their own business empire from the promise of California's mercury wealth.

Hacienda Nuevo Almaden

The landscape of New Almaden, as established and developed in the 1840s and 1850s, was a hybrid of Spanish, British, and Mexican influence in California. Embedded in the landscape is the story of the development of the industry in California. Located in a region of steep hills and narrow valleys about eighteen miles south of San Francisco Bay, New Almaden was originally a mining grant awarded by the Mexican government to Andrés Castillero, a Mexican citizen who identified and claimed it as a quicksilver mine. The original mine at New Almaden was at the top of what was known as Mine Hill, at an elevation of over 1,700 feet, with commanding views over the bay and the San Juan Valley. The surrounding hills and high valleys around Mine Hill were the sites of additional mine workings and of miners' houses. Figure 1.3 shows the sequence of landscape features the visitor would have encountered in entering the valley of New Almaden. There were a small Protestant church for the owners and managers, the Casa Grande and its extensive gardens and vineyards, and a tidy row of managers' cottages, and at the end of the valley was the reduction works, where half of the world's quicksilver was reduced from the cinnabar ore mined on Mine Hill.

New Almaden, and the fledgling California mercury mining industry as it was created in the 1840s and 1850s, were but a snapshot in the long history of the interplay between humans and mercury. The New Almaden landscape, a hybrid of colonial influences, was at its core a Spanish/Mexican hacienda, or estate, on the California frontier, and it was through the hacienda model that mercury wealth was created and controlled. The hacienda was a colonial economic model imported to the New World by the Spanish in the sixteenth century and a model that remained intact in Mexico until the Mexican Revolution of 1901–17. Haciendas had many similarities to, and important differences from, plantation systems established by other colonial powers in the New World. Haciendas were efficient, industrialized centers that focused on the production of one commodity or product — be it farming, ranching, or mining — as was the case with New Almaden. A hacienda aimed to be an isolated, self-sufficient, interdependent society under the rule of a "patron" and managed by a small circle of elites. The laborers on haciendas worked in a system of peonage, receiving basic food and shelter for them and their families but having little control over their working situation or much of a possibility of mobility. Although haciendas were established for efficient economic production, they were marks of status for their patrons and the other elites, displaying wealth through large landholdings, grand architecture, and luxurious consumption. Haciendas functioned as "inns" for elite travelers as well — hosting and entertaining important guests was an important role for the patron of the hacienda, and many of the travelers to New Almaden remarked on the graciousness of their hosts.

The Hacienda Nuevo Almaden was large and complex, sharing many similarities with the ideal hacienda. New Almaden was built for the profitable mining and refining of quicksilver, but it was also much more than the basic facilities needed to physically mine and process ore. It was consciously created as a separate community, an isolated island in rapidly Americanizing California. Barron, Forbes & Co. had used the hacienda model before at other mines and at the merchant house's cotton mill outside Tepic, Mexico. It was a contained, self-sufficient machine for producing wealth and power while resisting the buffeting of the revolution and change of the era. Like the ideal hacienda, there was a show quality to much of the landscape of New Almaden, highlighted by a grand house and gardens where elite visitors were entertained. Like haciendas built throughout Spanish colonies in the Americas, New Almaden was built on the backs, especially early on, of a workforce that perhaps was held in peonage, limited in opportunity by racial and ethnic bias in early California.

New Almaden differed from the ideal hacienda in important respects. First, it did not produce a raw material or a product for a home country. New Almaden produced a finished commodity that was sold throughout the Pacific world by the Barron, Forbes & Co. trading network. Unlike the ideal hacienda, there was no single patron of Hacienda Nuevo Almaden, but instead a circle of elites, including the owners and their managers, their lawyers, and businessmen and politicians who were their allies. Eustace Barron and Alexander Forbes, the partners of Barron, Forbes & Co., did not live at New Almaden — in fact, Eustace Barron never visited California, and Alexander Forbes only visited New Almaden in its earliest days. New Almaden was, instead, a grand hacienda for a body of interested elites, who visited the mine and partook of its hospitality as needed and desired. New Almaden was also a hacienda with no direct peers, and in some sense a place without a country. The Hacienda Nuevo Almaden was a hybrid form, adapted to developing California by its owners, managers, and workers to exploit the mercury that promised each group what they desired or needed.

A Visit to New Almaden in 1854

Profoundly influenced by its Spanish and Mexican roots, the Hacienda Nuevo Almaden was a unique colonial implantation in American California. Founded in 1846 in Alta California, it was resolutely its own island of curiosity to outsiders, fundamentally different from gold rush California. It was, perhaps, this foreignness that made New Almaden an attraction for early travelers in California. Stories of the great wealth of the mine also made New Almaden a place of great interest in early California. Early travelers saw the physical landscape of New Almaden and agreed that it was unlike anything else in the state. One of the earliest and most extensive accounts of the New Almaden Mine was written in 1854 by Mrs. S. A. Downer for The Pioneer; or, California Monthly Magazine. Entitled "On Her Trip into the New Almaden Mine," it is an article-length account published in the first magazine solely devoted to California, introducing the new state to a readership in California and the East. Downer was a Victorian-era woman travel writer, and presented for the genteel reader of the 1850s not only what you would see at New Almaden, but also how you were supposed to see it. Traveling with Downer to New Almaden as it was developing as a hacienda in California in the 1850s provides a unique view on how a developing power elite in California saw the mine and its significance in California.

Mrs. Downer's story begins on the road from San Jose to the mine. Like most elite visitors, she arrived at New Almaden by stage from San Jose, after a boat ride down San Francisco Bay, or a stage ride from San Francisco to San Jose, we don't know which. She remarked on the beauty of the San Jose Valley and the magnificence of the Coast Range mountains in which the mine lay. This interest in the natural world, from the large-scale geography of the dramatic setting of the mine to the gooseberries and wildflowers growing along the trail, is a dominant theme throughout her article. For Downer, nature was to be appreciated in its wild state, but it was also to be controlled and put to man's use. On the second page of her article she lamented that until the present company was formed, "man was too timid to avail himself of her gifts," referring to the taking of the great richness of the mine, and all of the timber, water, and other resources at hand for exploiting the abundant ore.

The first buildings she encountered at the mine were a carefully tailored row of cottages for the superintendents of the works (Figures 1.4 and 1.5). These cottages were placed formally on the main road that led from the entrance to New Almaden valley to the reduction works at the other end of the valley. Downer wrote that "each [cottage is] enclosed with a paling fence, containing in front a small flower-garden with shrubbery, while a vegetable garden in the rear bespeaks usefulness combined with taste and beauty." She commented that New Almaden village seemed a moral place with well-treated managers, supervisors, skilled tradesmen, and their families living in permanent and picturesque homes. Mrs. Downer stressed this theme of morality for her readers, and the wives and families and beautiful arbors were signs of the morality of the owners and managers of the mine. The village provided the perfect scenery, supportive both of the ideals embodied in New Almaden as a hacienda and of Downer's ideal of morality.

From the village, Downer traveled up to Mine Hill, over a thousand feet in elevation above the valley floor. Downer remarked on the thrill of the precarious journey up the steep mountain roads, and the sublimity of the view and bodily exposure on the hill. Once on the hill, she was impressed by the industry and the scale of the workings, and she remarked on the three major elements of the Mine Hill landscape: the Mexican village, the mine, and the patio or sorting floor for receiving the ore from the mine.

On the hill, Downer encountered many of the hundreds of miners and sorters who both lived and worked there. The Mexican village where they lived with their families, however, was only mentioned in passing and was not visited (Figure 1.6). Downer gets close to but never quite sees the village, describing it as over the next rise and as containing the lodging cabins of the miners and their families and a store for the miners "who may truly be said to live hand to mouth." In Figure 1.7 we can see how, in contrast to the lower village, the Mexican village was in a windswept, exposed location with dramatic scenery but with no water and little shade. For Downer, these workers and their families were peons, laborers with little control over their employment conditions. Visitors did not write of how they lived, for this knowledge would expose some reality of the mines perhaps best left unsaid by the genteel traveler. The worker was of no real account except for the work he performed, which to the visitor was interesting, dangerous, and inhuman despite being performed by humans who with their families lived with this work.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: California: The Quicksilver State 1

1 Imperialism and California's Quicksilver 21

2 Money and Power in the California Mercury Landscape 57

3 A Geography of Mercury Mining in California 93

4 Race, Space, and Power at New Almaden 137

5 Race, Technology, and Work 193

6 Race, Family, and Camp Life 215

7 Conclusion: The Legacy of the Quicksilver Landscapes of California 245

Bibliography 261

Index 277

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