by Don Bullis
New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers
“Santa Rita Del Cobre – A Tale of Copper & Blood”
Some historians believe that the Spanish became aware of vast copper deposits at Santa Rita as early as the 1630s when Álvar Núñez, Cabeza de Vaca, passed through southwestern New Mexico on his way to Mexico from the east Texas coast. Núñez is said to have heard of the copper from Indians. The Spanish at the time, however, were much more interested in oro y plata (gold and silver) than copper, so no effort was made to develop a mine for many years.
Sometime around 1800, a Spanish military officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jose Manuel Carrasco, learned of the copper from an Apache Indian and he came into ownership of it, but he was not able to develop it because it was located in Apache country, and the Indians did not approve of him tampering with what they considered their property. A few years later, Carrasco sold his interest in the place to Don Francisco Manuel Elguea, a Chihuahua merchant. Don Francisco called the mine Criadero de Cobre (which simply means a mining vein of copper) and the town which sprang up there Santa Rita del Cobre. Don Francisco was able to work out an agreement with an Apache band led by a chief named Juan José Compa who had learned to read, write and speak Spanish by earlier missionaries. (Note: one source indicates that Colonel Carrasco and Don Francisco were partners in the venture from the start.)
The agreement was relatively simple. Juan José would allow the mining to proceed, unmolested, as long as the Spanish miners did not leave the immediate area. The chief would also allow freight wagons to haul the ore to Mexico, and supply wagons to Santa Rita. He also allowed the construction of a triangular fort. Juan José did not apparently object to the use of some of his people, children included, as mine laborers. Some sources say he abided slavery of his people. In return, he personally received many gifts, including copious amounts of liquor. The agreement worked for many years. Don Francisco died in 1809 and his widow operated the mine until about 1825 and after that there were several short-term managers before Robert McKnight took over in 1826. He remained there until 1836.
Not everything was as ideal as it might seem. Another Apache band chief named Chuchillo Negro (Black Knife) had entered into no agreement with the Spanish, and continued raiding into Chihuahua, even though he seems to have avoided raiding wagon trains in and out of Santa Rita. His activities became so onerous that by the 1830s, the Mexican government felt called upon to take action, and rewards were offered for Apache scalps: $100 for adult men, $50 for adult women, and $25 for each child. McKnight simply ignored the offer, but there was no shortage of other white men in the area willing to accept the deal. One of them was James Johnson, said to have been a trapper. Rather than face Apaches in combat, he looked for a way to take scalps with little risk to himself and the troop of men he gathered. His method was simple: he would simply ambush and slaughter them.
Legend holds that while visiting the town of Santa Rita, he noted the presence of numerous Apaches loitering about the small community. He invited them all to a big fiesta he held in a clearing near the town. Once the Indian people gathered in one place, he simply blasted them with a cannon loaded with “musket balls, nails and pieces of glass.” Johnson and his men then went about killing those who had only been wounded in the initial blast. Numbers vary, but about forty Apaches were killed, including Juan José Compa and three other tribal leaders.
Johnson, in his own account, asserted that he encountered a band of eighty or so Apaches in the Animas Mountains and because he only had seventeen men he was obliged to attack using the cannon as an offensive weapon. Other sources at the time were far less generous in their versions of what came to be called a massacre. One source even reported that Chief Compa was not killed in the initial blast, but was chased down and murdered by Johnson himself.
A new Apache leader emerged from all this; in fact survived Johnson’s massacre. He was called Mangas Coloradas. Mangas Coloradas was a leader fueled by the need for revenge. He possessed a talent for leadership which allowed him and his followers, the Copper Mine band, to wreck havoc on Mexican people initially and Americans after the American Occupation of 1846. Numbers are not available, but they killed all non-Indians with whom they came into contact. One story goes that the Apaches laid siege to Santa Rita, and when the four-hundred Mexican miners and their families were obliged to seek refuge in Chihuahua, they were slaughtered along the way. Only six of them reached Chihuahua. Other historians simply note, “there was a long hiatus in mining activities at Santa Rita.” The Apache war against Mexico and the United States lasted for nearly a half century; from what came to be called the Johnson Massacre of 1837 until Geronimo finally surrendered in 1886. Hundreds of lives were lost along the way, on both sides.
As an aside, Johnson never collected any bounty for the Apache scalps. Depending on the source, he was either forced to leave the scene of the slaughter by a counter attack by the Apache survivors (lead by Mangas Coloradas), or he was subsequently put to flight by the Apaches and escaped to California where he died in poverty.
In modern times, Santa Rita is well known as the birthplace of Harrison “Jack” Schmitt who as a NASA astronaut was the first, and only, civilian to walk on the moon (1972). He also served as a United States Senator from New Mexico (1977-1983).
Santa Rita is a town that is no longer there. As the open-pit mine grew, the town was literally moved out of the way, until there was nothing left. One can view the huge mine and imagine a town somewhere out there in space.
Don Bullis is the author of ten books on New Mexico.