Welcome To Silver City
And Southwestern New Mexico, USA
SilverWeb Radio

Return To History and Culture

The History of Silver City, Part 2

Silver, Claim Deeds and the Founding of Silver City

Erica and Jim Parson

The discovery of silver and the first mining claims

As well as their ranching and farming interests at La Cienega, John Bullard and Andrew Hurlburt engaged in prospecting the hills south and west of the Spring, searching for gold with, apparently, no success. In the early months of 1870, news arrived in the area that silver had been discovered near what is now the ghost town of Shakespeare, south of present day Lordsburg. We can only guess at how this news was transmitted. It is possible, even probable, that the first news arrived, like so much other news, via the stage drivers and conductors of the stage line that ran east to west across the southern part of Grant County. There was a stage station, known as Barney's Station, located just on the northeast side of the Lordsburg Draw. The stage line employees at Barney's would have taken notice of the increased activity and sudden influx of people into this previously unpopulated and barren area of the Pyramid Mountains. Word would then have rapidly spread across the country that something major was going on near Barney's Station. When it was ascertained that this "something major" was a silver strike, the news would have, as in so many other cases, spread like wildfire, and people would have begun flocking into the area. This silver strike occurred in late 1869 or, more likely, early 1870. This news would have reached Pinos Altos, Fort Bayard and the surrounding area just as quickly via the stage coaches which ran from Mesilla to Pinos Altos; Mesilla being the eastern terminus of the Tucson to Mesilla section of the St. Louis to San Francisco Overland Mail Route.

On April 7, 1870 mining claims were filed in the Probate Judge's record book at Pinos Altos by a group of four soldiers and one domestic servant from Fort Bayard; it is of note that these soldiers were enlisted men, not Officers. They filed two claims: the "Lincoln" and the "McCleave," both located in the recently formed Virginia Mining District, which took into its boundaries both Shakespeare, which was called Ralston City at that time, and Leitendorf's Well, located about 6 miles SSE of Ralston.(1) The location of mining claims, that is, the physical marking out of the claim on the ground, required the presence of two witnesses. In both of the above claims these witnesses were W. H. Eckles, Post Trader at Fort Bayard, and William Kelly, an Officer in the United States Army, stationed at Fort Bayard. The mining records of Grant County show that these claims were "on a certain lead, load, ledge or vein or deposit of mineral containing silver mixed with other metals and ores…"(2)

There is something very curious, and still unexplained, about the Army contingent that filed and witnessed the two claims. All of the enlisted soldiers were very young men and therefore it is doubtful that any of them had much, if any, mining experience. Their ages ranged from 19 to 26. The Officer accompanying them, Kelly, was aged 52, and the Post Trader, Eckles, was 25. This appears to be an arrangement of convenience. Eckles was most likely financing this operation, with Kelly supplying the manpower. By recording the claim under the names of 5 people, the total area of mineral bearing rock that was being claimed was optimized. Most probably the young soldiers had no real stake in the two claims, the claims were most likely under the control of Eckles and Kelly. Both of these men had been in the area where the claims were located either during a previous period, or had been there for several days prior to the claims being filed at Pinos Altos. In order for the claims to be filed in the Probate Court, a certain amount of work, as will be explained shortly, was required to have been done on the claim. Work which would have required at least several days to complete. One could surmise, from the ages of the people involved, that these claims were most likely being filed with the understanding between the claimants and witnesses that Eckles and Kelly were the actual owners, or at the very least, the financial backers of the enterprise.

To date, the accounts of the discovery of the silver that would lead to the founding of Silver City have been much oversimplified. There are many accounts, in various forms, of how John Bullard et al made the trip to Ralston with the ensuing, and oft quoted: "Well, if that's silver ore, I know where there's plenty of it."(3) Additional research on the part of the authors has revealed that the story is more complex than has previously been reported.

To the best of our knowledge, no previous accounts have taken note of the relevance of the April 7, 1870 claims to the discovery of silver near La Cienega by John Bullard et al. All previous accounts state categorically that Bullard and his associates went to Ralston (Shakespeare), and that after seeing silver ore supposedly discovered at that place, one or another of the party purportedly uttered the famous line. Although these men may have visited the fledgling settlement of Ralston, it can be stated with certainty that the ore they saw had not originated in the immediate vicinity of that settlement. There is not now, nor was there ever, any high grade silver ore found in the dikes and ledges which are visible at Ralston. The ore that was shown to the Bullard party was most likely chlorargyrite, or cerargyrite as it was previously called, commonly known as "horn silver". Chlorargyrite is a chloride compound of silver, and looks nothing like the silver found in coins, jewelry, or grandma's silver tray. Freshly exposed surfaces of this mineral are colorless, but prolonged exposure to light turns it violet or brown. It does not have a metallic luster but can appear waxy, or in some cases brilliant (adamantine), like a gem stone. It is a soft mineral (2.5, Moh's scale) which can be easily flaked with the blade of a knife.

There is only one area in the Virginia Mining District where this type of ore could have originated, and that is in the immediate vicinity of Leitendorf's Well. In all likelihood this is where "The Lincoln" and "The McCleave"" lodes were located, and it is a fact that some of the earliest claims filed in the Virginia Mining District were in the vicinity of Leitendorf's Well, and that these claims contained the same silver chloride ore. The ledges adjacent to Ralston contained only trace amounts of silver and gold, with the most common minerals occurring there being low grade copper, galena and pyrites. Chlorargyrite is a much higher grade of silver ore, and was one of the major ores mined at the Comstock Lode in Nevada. It was this ore that the Bullard party recognized as occurring in large quantities in the hills near their pre-emption claims, and which could have prompted the fabled "Well boys…" remark. It is also of note that of the two lodes - the "McCleave" and the "Lincoln" - neither is listed amongst the lodes recorded as lying immediately adjacent to Ralston. The major Ralston lodes were the "Harpending", the "Brown", the "Arnold", and the "Roberts", and these had already been fully claimed by April of 1870. Any subsequent claims on them would have been recorded as, for example, "the McCleave Mine on the Brown Lode." The "McCleave" and the "Lincoln" thus were distinct, and physically separated from the Ralston City lodes. As a point of interest, the Virginia District Mining Laws state that the inaugural meeting was held in the "Leidensderf (sic) Mountains."(4)

The first claims filed near La Cienega de San Vicente

On May 27, 1870, James and John Bullard, Joseph Yankie, Richard Yeamans, Henry Fuson, Elijah Weeks, Andrew Hurlburt and John Swisshelm filed the first 4 of their claims in what was by now christened the Silver Flat Mining District; Twin Lode No 1, Twin Lode No 2, the Summate Ledge and the Legal Tender. However, it is largely unrecognized that on the same day there was yet another claim filed. This claim - the "Democrat" - was filed by another group from Fort Bayard. Although the Probate Judge's record of this claim does not refer to the Silver Flat Mining District, stating rather that it was located "on the Cienega, nine miles west of Fort Bayard"(5), the fact that the location was made in the presence of John Bullard and John Swisshelm suggests that this claim was in the same general area as the Bullard claims. This is supported by the fact that, other than the later Chloride Flat Mining District, there are no other named mining districts in this area during this time period.

This time there was something different about the Fort Bayard claimants; there were no enlisted men involved. Out of the eleven claimants, seven were Officers in the US Army at Fort Bayard, and two were Post Traders at the same place, another was the Acting Assistant Surgeon at the Fort. The last claimant of the eleven, John S. Mason, could not be found on the 1870 census. His connection to the other ten men, therefore, could not be determined. (6) On May 30, 1870, the Fort Bayard party filed two more claims , the "Grant" and the "Bayard", and on June 9 , 1870, a claim was filed on the "Santa Maria" by Swisshelm and the Bullard brothers, Fort Bayard Officers William Kelly and Charles Steelhammer, together with John S. Mason and Charles Keerl. This is the same William Kelly associated with the April 7, 1870 claims. Keerl is listed on the 1870 Grant County census as a retail dry goods merchant at Fort Bayard. Mr. Keerl, his wife, and several others were killed by Apaches on March 4, 1871, while returning from Chihuahua City, Mexico, with merchandise for Fort Bayard. (7)

Within a short time many claims were being filed in the Silver Flat Mining District, and, shortly thereafter, at the even richer Chloride Flat Mining District, located just west of present day Silver City. People began relocating to the area from Pinos Altos, Ralston City and from further afield, and by the time of the census, which was enumerated at Silver City on August 17, 1870, the new town had a population of 80, composed predominately of miners. There were 74 males and 6 females on the census. It is worth nothing that In May of 1870, a new stage route was established, running between Silver City and Ralston City. The stage station at Barney's had been abandoned, and a new one had been established at Ralston - the first station at this site - to meet the needs of the settlement developing there. Inhabitants at Ralston had dug out a well near the small spring there, and this afforded fresh water to both the population of Ralston, and also met the needs of the stage station as regards travelers, employees and livestock. The only water at Barney's had been that which remained standing in stagnant pools of rain water at the eastern end of the Lordsburg Draw. As such, it would have been both unpalatable and unreliable.

Mining Districts and Claims

The establishment of a mining district was considered to be essential to the protection of mining claims in 1870. There are no known documents relating to the formation of the Silver Flat and Chloride Flat Mining Districts, however it is very likely they would have closely followed the general format used in the creation of the Virginia Mining District, of which there are copies in existence, so we will use the document entitled "The Mining Laws of Virginia District , Grant County, New Mexico. Adopted Feb 2, 1870, and approved March 25, 1870" as a point of reference. (8)

The mining laws of a district laid out the boundaries of that district and listed its elected officials, most importantly perhaps, the District Recorder, as well as the terms of office of those officials. The officials were elected from amongst that body of miners who had associated together to form the district. Also included were the mining laws governing the district; for example, size and number of claims allowed by each claimant. It also listed the procedures that were to be followed by both the claimant and the Recorder in order to preserve and uphold the legality of a claim. It listed the amount of work that had to be done on a claim in order to hold that claim, and any fees that were required to be paid to the Recorder, and the duties of the Recorder. Much of this formality was not legislated for, but had become an accepted and standardized procedure that over time had become accepted as, and was recognized by Courts of the land to be, legally binding, and was eventually incorporated into Federal Mining Law.

The process of filing a claim was as follows:

Each individual claim consisted of a maximum of 200 feet in length along any given vein or ledge with 200 feet on each side of the length, together with an additional 200 feet granted to the claimant(s) on a ledge or vein for what was called "discovery." For example, four people might join together to make a claim on a single ledge. Each person would be entitled to claim 200 feet in length, making the total combined claim 800 feet, plus one additional 200 foot length for discovery - making a final total length of 1000 feet for the four claimants. At the time of location the claimant had to define the boundaries of his claim with stakes, monuments of rock, or some other physical feature as points of reference. At one of these markers he was required to place a written notice indicating the name of the locator(s), the name of the lode and/or mine and the date of discovery. The notice also had to be signed and dated by the locator(s). This notice, on being recorded at the District Recorder's office, held the claim for six months. Within that six month period, a shaft or excavation 5 feet square and at least 6 feet deep had to be dug on the claim. The District Recorder was required to give a written certificate to any miner whose claim was on record should the miner request it. It was also the duty of the Recorder to measure the shaft or excavation to ensure that it was of the required dimensions, once the owner of the claim had notified the Recorder that the work was completed. The Recorder then had to issue a written certificate confirming that he had inspected the shaft, and that it did indeed meet the requirements of the District Mining Laws. This written certificate then held the claim for the owner for a period of one year, commencing at the date on the certificate. This certificate could then be taken to the Probate Judge at the County seat who would enter the claim in the Mining Deed Books of the Probate Court. This resulted in the creation of a Deed to the claim.


1: Ralston City was established in early 1870, though it was never a city in the true sense of the word, that is, it never became an incorporated town. Most, if not all, accounts state that it developed on a site originally called "Mexican Spring," later adopting the name "Grant" in honor of General Ulysses S. Grant shortly after the end of the Civil War, before being once again renamed - this time Ralston City. It was so-named in honor of William Chapman Ralston, founder of the Bank of California. W.C. Ralston was an associate of several of the mining promoters operating at Ralston City, and possibly the financial backer of the enterprise. With the resurgence of mining in the area at the end of the 1870's, Ralston City was renamed yet again; this time as "Shakespeare," the name it still bears today. The name "Shakespeare" was reportedly chosen by one of the promoters at this time in honor of William Shakespeare.
There is absolutely no verifiable evidence that a settlement of any kind existed at this site prior to 1870. Grant County mining deeds refer in several places to Shakespeare having been formally known as Ralston/Ralston City, but there are no entries referring to Ralston having been previously known by any other name; and neither the name "Mexican Spring" nor "Grant" appear at this location on any maps of the relevant period. There is a place called Mexican Springs, but it is located approximately 27 miles NNW of Shakespeare near Canador Peak, north of the Gila River and about 7 miles east of Virden, NM. The possibility does exist that the name "Grant" may have been used informally on a local basis, as there was a mercantile store there, the store being operated by one William Grant. However, if this is so it would have been at some point after 1871, by which time the mining operations at Ralston had virtually ceased.

2: Grant County Mining Deed Book 1868 - 1870, pp. 255 & 257 and: Ninth U.S. Census, 1870, Grant County, The Garrison of Fort Bayard

3: Berry, S. & Russell, S.A. (1995, 2nd Edn.), "Built to Last. An Architectural History of Silver City," Silver City Museum Society, pp. 9, 79 (note 26)

4: "The Mining Laws of Virginia District, Grant County, New Mexico. Adopted Feb. 2, 1870, and Approved March 25, 1870" Copy obtained from Mr. R. W. Eveleth, Senior Mining Engineer, New Mexico Bureau of Mines and Mineral Resources at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Socorro, New Mexico.

5: Grant County Mining Deed Book 1868 - 1870, p.272

6: Ninth U.S. Census, Ibid.

7: Sweeney, E.R. (1991) "Cochise, Chiricahua Apache Chief", Norman, Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Press, Cited in: Alexander, B. (2005) "Six Guns and Single Jacks. A History of Silver City and Southwestern New Mexico." Gila Books., pp. 65, 66

8: The Mining Laws of Virginia District. Ibid.

© 2008, Erica and Jim Parson

Return To History and Culture