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    Puerto Rico History

    Source: R.A. Van Middeldyk

      If a systematic exploration were practised to-day, by competent mineralogists, of the entire chain of mountains which intersects the island from east to west, it is probable that lodes of gold-bearing quartz or conglomerate, worth working, would be discovered. Even the alluvium deposits along the banks of the rivers and their tributaries, as well as the river beds, might, in many instances, be found to "pay."

      The early settlers compelled the Indians to work for them. These poor creatures, armed with the simplest tools, dug the earth from the river banks. Their wives and daughters, standing up to their knees in the river, washed it in wooden troughs. When the output diminished another site was chosen, often before the first one was half worked out. The Indians' practical knowledge of the places where gold was likely to be found was the Spanish gold-seeker's only guide, the Indians' labor the only labor employed in the collection of it.

      As for the mountains, they have never been properly explored. The Indians who occupied them remained in a state of insurrection for years, and when the mountain districts could be safely visited at last, the _auri sacra fames_ had subsided. The governors did not interest themselves in the mineral resources of the island, and the people found it too difficult to provide for their daily wants to go prospecting. So the surface gold in the alluvium deposits was all that was collected by the Spaniards, and what there still may be on the bed-rocks of the rivers or in the lodes in the mountains from which it has been washed, awaits the advent of modern gold-seekers.

      The first samples of gold from Puerto Rico were taken to the Española by Ponce, who had obtained them from the river Manatuabón, to which the friendly cacique Guaybána conducted him on his first visit (1508). This river disembogues into the sea on the south coast near Cape Malapascua; but it appears that the doughty captain also visited the north coast and found gold enough in the rivers Cóa and Sibúco to justify him in making his headquarters at Capárra, which is in the neighborhood. That gold was found there in considerable quantities is shown by the fact that in August of the same year of Ponce's return to the island (he returned in February, 1509), 8,975 pesos corresponded to the king's fifth of the first _washings_. The first _smelting_ was practised October 26, 1510. The next occurred May 22, 1511, producing respectively 2,645 and 3,043 gold pesos as the king's share. Thus, in the three first years the crown revenues from this source amounted to 14,663 gold pesos, and the total output to 73,315 gold pesos, which, at three dollars of our money per peso, approximately represented a total of $219,945 obtained from the rivers in the neighborhood of Capárra alone.

      In 1515 a fresh discovery of gold-bearing earth in this locality was reported to the king by Sancho Velasquez, the treasurer, who wrote on April 27th: " ... At 4 leagues' distance from here rich gold deposits have been found in certain rivers and streams. From Reyes (December 4th) to March 15th, with very few Indians, 25,000 pesos have been taken out. It is expected that the output this season will be 100,000 pesos."

      The streams in the neighborhood of San German, on the south coast, the only other settlement in the island at the time, seem to have been equally rich. The year after its foundation by Miguel del Toro the settlers were able to smelt and deliver 6,147 pesos to the royal treasurer. The next year the king's share amounted to 7,508 pesos, and Treasurer Haro reported that the same operation for the years 1517 and 1518 had produced $186,000 in all--that is, 3,740 for the treasury.

      A good idea of the island's mineral and other resources at this period may be formed from Treasurer Haro's extensive report to the authorities in Madrid, dated January 21, 1518.

      " ... Your Highness's revenues," he says, "are: one-fifth of the gold extracted and of the pearls brought by those who go (to the coast of Venezuela) to purchase them, the salt produce and the duties on imports and exports. Every one of the three smeltings that are practised here every two years produces about 250,000 pesos, in San German about 186,000 pesos. But the amounts fluctuate.

      "The product of pearls is uncertain. Since the advent of the Jerome fathers the business has been suspended until the arrival of your Highness. Two caravels have gone now, but few will go, because the fathers say that the traffic in Indians is to cease and the greatest profit is in that ... On your Highness's estates there are 400 Indians who wash gold, work in the fields, build houses, etc.; ... they produce from 1,500 to 2,000 pesos profit every gang (demora).... I send in this ship, with Juan Viscaino, 8,000 pesos and 40 marks of pearls. There remain in my possession 17,000 pesos and 70 marks of pearls, which shall be sent by the next ship in obedience to your Highness's orders, not to send more than 10,000 pesos at a time. The pearls that go now are worth that amount. Until the present we sent only 5,000 pesos' worth of pearls at one time."

      The yearly output of gold fluctuated, but it continued steadily, as Velasquez wrote to the emperor in 1521, when he made a remittance of 5,000 pesos. Six or seven years later, the placers, for such they were, were becoming exhausted. Castellanos, the treasurer, wrote in 1518 that only 429 pesos had been received as the king's share of the last two years' smelting. Some new deposit was discovered in the river Daguáo, but it does not seem to have been of much importance. From the year 1530 the reports of the crown officers are full of complaints of the growing scarcity of gold; finally, in 1536, the last remittance was made; not, it may be safely assumed, because there was no more gold in the island, but because those who had labored and suffered in its production, had succumbed to the unaccustomed hardships imposed on them and to the cruel treatment received from their sordid masters.

      Besides the river mentioned, the majority of those which have their sources in the mountains of Luquillo are more or less auriferous. These are: the Rio Prieto, the Fajardo, the Espíritu Santo, the Rio Grande, and, especially, the Mameyes. The river Loiza also contains gold, but, judging from the traces of diggings still here and there visible along the beds of the Mavilla, the Sibúco, the Congo, the Rio Negro, and Carozal, in the north, it would seem that these rivers and their affluents produced the coveted metal in largest quantities. The Duey, the Yauco, and the Oromico, or Hormigueros, on the south coast are supposed to be auriferous also, but do not seem to have been worked.

      The metal was and is still found in seed-shaped grains, sometimes of the weight of 2 or 3 pesos. Tradition speaks of a nugget found in the Fajardo river weighing 4 ounces, and of another found in an affluent of the Congo of 1 pound in weight.

      _Silver_.--In 1538 the crown officers in San Juan wrote to the Home Government: " ... The gold is diminishing. Several veins of lead ore have been discovered, from which some silver has been extracted. The search would continue if the concession to work these veins were given for ten years, with 1.20 or 1.15 royalty." On March 29th of the following year the same officers reported: " ... Respecting the silver ores discovered, we have smolten some, but no one here knows how to do it. Veins of this ore have been discovered in many parts of the island, but nobody works them. We are waiting for some one to come who knows how to smelt them."

      The following extract from the memoirs and documents left by Juan Bautista Muñoz, gives the value in "gold pesos"84 of the bullion and pearls, corresponding to the king's one-fifth share of the total produce remitted to Spain from this island from the year 1509 to 1536:

        In 1509, gold pesos 8,975
        1510, " 2,645
        1511, " 10,000
        1512, " 3,043
        1513, " 27,291
        1514, " 18,000
        1515, " 17,000
        1516, " 11,490
        1517-18, " 38,497
        1519, " 10,000
        1520, " 35,733
        In 1521, " 10,000
        1522, " 7,979
        1523-29, " 40,000
        1530, " 12,440
        1531, " 6,500
        1532, " 9,000
        1533, " 4,000
        1534, " 8,500
        1535, " 1,848
        1536, " 10,000
        Total, 15 share 277,941

      The entire output for this period was 1,389,705 gold pesos, or $4,169,115 Spanish coin of to-day, as the total produce in gold and pearls of the island of San Juan de Puerto Rico during the first twenty-seven years of its occupation by the Spaniards.


      [Footnote 84: Washington Irving estimates the value of the "gold peso" of the sixteenth century at $3 Spanish money of our day.]

    NOTE: The information regarding Puerto Rico on this page is re-published from R.A. Van Middeldyk. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Puerto Rico History information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Puerto Rico History should be addressed to the webmaster.

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