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A Brief History of Southern Arizona Silver Mining

Mining is important to Arizona and the nation. As late as 2018, 66% of the country's copper came from Arizona. With copper there is silver.

American history of the area dates back at least to 1695, although the community was not founded until 1878.

American history of the area dates back at least to 1695, although the community was not founded until 1878.

The range spans 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) long by 4 km (2.5 mi). Surrounding ranges includes the Cerro Colorado Mountains to the northeast, Tumacacori Mountains of Santa Cruz County to the east,  San Luis Mountains to the south and the Baboquivari west.

The range spans 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) long by 4 km (2.5 mi). Surrounding ranges includes the Cerro Colorado Mountains to the northeast, Tumacacori Mountains of Santa Cruz County to the east, San Luis Mountains to the south and the Baboquivari west.

The Last Continental State

As soon as Arizona became the domain of the United States, prospectors and
pioneers started searching for mineral wealth. Precious metal was the first to
be scouted for - and with the Gadsden purchase in 1853, gold and silver was the
trove of choice. But as early as the 18th century there are records of silver
mining activity in Arizona.

Arizona - A Silver Lining

In the 1770's silver was being mined in Arivaca by the Spaniards. Located in
the Las Guias Mountain range in southern Pima county, Arivaca lies to the
southeast. From 1876 - 1878, silver mining accelerated due to the fact that
Apache warriors were being held at bay by locals and the army. For purposes of
reference, Cochise surrendered in September 1872 while Geronimo surrendered in 1886.

Spaniards Led the Way

In this same area, the Cerro Colorado Mine was first discovered in the 1750's
by the Spanish. In commercial productions from 1856 to 1884 and from 1901 to
1937, the area was incredibly rich with silver ore - of all the ore extracted
the richest spouted 12,000 oz per ton. In the 19th century the average silver
mine production was 770 oz per ton.

Also explored and mined in the early 1700's by the Spanish was another mine. In the Baboquivari Mountains, this earlier Spanish digging became the Allison mine producing gold and silver until 1961. Subsequently the land was deeded to the Tohono Oodam in the 80's.

Mine Sites Never Grow Old

The old Spanish mines were known as "antiguas". With pioneers, soldiers, explorers, and mappers all moving through the area, word of the old silver mine workings was wide spread.

In 1856, Samuel Heintzelman, a Civil War general who had quelled the Brownsville insurrection of 1859 in Texas, became the first president of the Sonora Exploring and Mining Company at the location of the old Cerro Colorado silver mine.

To give an idea of the excitement over silver mining possibilities, 78 mining areas were claimed. This included 25 near Arivaca, 24 in the Santa Rita Mountains,and 29 surrounding Cerro Colorado.

Silver for Coinage

Around 1859 the first shipments of silver were heading to San Francisco to be minted into silver dollars.

Around 1859 the first shipments of silver were heading to San Francisco to be minted into silver dollars.

Solid Ore and Streambed Deposits

It is estimated that by 1864, one year before the end of the Civil War, 25% of
the non-native male population of Arizona was engaged in prospecting. Copper,
lead, zinc, silver and gold were being mined in hard-rock mines all over the
state of Arizona by 1870.

Mining and Politics

Charles Poston, along with Heintzelman organized the corporation which began silver operations in 1856. Poston's brother was murdered by Mexican outlaws who stole a large quantity of silver in 1861. Supposedly hidden on the way back to Mexico, the trove is undocumented and to this day is searched for.

Poston is known for his tireless efforts to make Arizona a recognized territory (February 24, 1863 until February 14, 1912). He is therefore known more for his political contributions to the state. Frequently referred to as the Father of Arizona, Poston was the first delegate from the Arizona Territory in the U.S. House of Representatives.

A Military Discovery

In 1877, Ed Schieffelin founded Tombstone. He was a prospector and former scout for the U.S. Army. One day while scouting he came across a silver outcropping and made a serious mental note that would change his future.

In September of 1877, Schieffelin filed his mining claim. In 1878 he sold the Contention Mine (silver) for $1 million dollars - money raised for further prospecting. Schieffelin had a total of 11 claims and sold out by 1880.

The most profitable silver mines resided south of Tombstone. Hundreds of claims were filed, including some by Wyatt Earp. The most notable of mines were Contention, Emerald, Grand Central, Lucky Cuss, Silver Thread and Toughnut.

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There are records of 380 mines producing silver in Cochise County, Arizona.

It is estimated that the total production of silver in this mining district was 32 million troy ounces (1,000 metric tons). At today's prices, that lode would be worth just short of 1 billion dollars.

An Unusually Pure Silver

Tombstone silver discovery centered around a silver that was chloride in form.
Since there was not much else combining with the silver, the mining process was
easier. Most of the first miners in the Tombstone district were panners
utilizing the San Pedro River.

The OK Corral

One hundred seven miles nearly due east of Arivaca, Arizona lies the town of Tombstone. Tombstone produced the greatest volume of silver ore in Arizona history.

Tombstone's popular notoriety originates with the gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881.

Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, Virgil Earp, and Doc Holliday managed to aggravate Frank McLaury and Billy Claiborne, ranchers from outside Tombstone who also had a dubious reputation for illegal side activities. They along with Ike Clanton, Billy Clanton, and Tom McLaury participated in a 30 second gun fight witnessed by Sheriff John Behan of Cochise County.

The result was Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers dead. Virgil, Morgan, and the Doc were wounded.

What is more than obvious from reading about Southwestern Arizona is that tempers could flare for a number of reasons. It is a dry, dusty place that would have been hard for anyone to make a living, let alone survive. It was a place where tough men came to make their fortune. Some of those individuals may have had previous brushes with the law. Others may have come for employment centered around taming outlaws. And, of course, alcohol was not necessarily the tonic to tone down the nerves.

Those seeking employment and then refreshment after a long day's work in the mines would have been silver miners and prospectors. Many of these men had more than a fleeting desire to get rich from silver.

The Silver King Mine

About 178 miles northwest of Tombstone lies an old silver mine named the Silver King. Whether it is still active seems to be in question. One thing not in question is that it was the richest single silver mine in Arizona history. It produced 42 million dollars worth of silver ore between 1875 and 1900.

Located 6.5 miles north of Superior on Silver King Mine Rd, the history of the mine unfolds in a similar way to other mines in Arizona. A road known as Stoneman Grade was built with the aid of soldiers from Camp Picketpost; one of those soldiers remembered a black rock that could be easily flattened. John Sullivan, the observant soldier, tried to interest folks into mining the area but didn't divulge the nugget silver location. A number of interested parties wound up killed by Apaches before the location of the silver outcropping was discovered.

Picketpost was later named Pinal City.

Isaac Copeland, on March 21, 1875, while trying to locate a stray mule after an Apache Indian attack, discovered the 75 foot high silver outcropping with etched marks left by Sullivan.

Less Labor Intensive Mining

In the beginning the silver content at Silver King was high enough that it could be extracted and loaded on wagons bound for Florence. The furnace there could handle this direct-smelting ore. Later stamp mills were installed in Pinal City. The ore assayed at $2000 a ton which translated to 5.5% silver content - very high!

The principal shaft of the Silver King Mine reached a vertical depth in excess of 700 feet. Two compartments were constructed for access to the mine, each 4' x 4'. Each compartment was equipped with cages that lowered workers and supplies to the mine.

Like other mines in Arizona, economics played a big factor in their lives. When the U.S. went from a silver to gold standard, devaluation caused hardship. With that hardship came the bankruptcy of the Pinal City Bank. As the mine lay idle waiting for the right moment for investors, the Silver King filled with water, another expense.

Between 1920 and 1950 the mine was reopened several times, each time producing profitable ore, yet it never was drained completely. Mine flooding has been a recurrent theme in Arizona history.

Silver King Has A Sister (or A Queen)

In 1883, another silver mine, the Silver Queen, shut down. Then in 1910 she was reopened as a copper mine. Earlier, miners had ignored the rich copper veins they ran across because the metal was not in high demand. With electrification of the United States, however, this changed.

The Silver Queen upon change of ownership was renamed the Magma Mine. The Magma copper mine became one of the most productive copper mines in Arizona, and through 1964, produced more than 25 million troy ounces (780 metric tons) of silver as a byproduct of copper mining.

Resolution Copper currently owns the Magma Mine and is reclaiming the old mines. The new number 10 mine will be the site of the largest copper deposit in America. And remember, with all of that copper extraction comes by products of gold, silver, and platinum.


Our civilization requires metals to advance. With demand for gold and silver, our country's technology advanced also. Today, Arizona continues to give forth its rich abundance. The gold, silver, and platinum alone will probably pay for the copper pulled from the ground - unquestionably necessary for our electronic age.


David F. Briggs, History of the Silver King Mine, Pinal County, Arizona, July 16, 2015, Arizona Independent News Network

Early History of Silver Mining in Tombstone, Arizona, May 16, 2017, Rare Gold

Cafe Media, Cochise County, Arizona Silver Mines, 2020, The

Thomas Kearns, Silver King Mine, May 9, 2017, Wikipedia

William Ascarza, Mine Tales: When Mines Needed Muscle Mules Were Often the Ticket, May 7, 2020,

William Ascarza, Mine Tales: Rich Tombstone Mines Were a Lure for Prospectors, July 2, 2014,

Staff, Tombstone, Arizona, October 26, 2020, Wikipedia

Arizona State Mine Inspector, Abandoned Mine History, N.D., Arizona, The Official Site of the State of Arizona

Glynn Burkhardt, Cerro Colorado, April 23,2003,

Staff, Samuel Heintzelman, October 26, 2007, Georgia's Blue and Grey Trail Presents America's Civil War

William Ascarza, Arizona Has A Long History of Mining Silver, March 11, 2016,

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 John R Wilsdon

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