History of Gold Mining in Puerto Rico

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but it wasn't until his second voyage to the Indies when Christopher Columbus first landed on the island in 1493, he claimed Puerto Rico for Spain. The Taíno, the island's original inhabitants, donned gold jewelry that they had discovered in the island's rivers and streams. Puerto Rico's moniker, which translates to "rich port," refers to how rich the local gold was. There's a reason why many Puerto Ricans prefer to refer to the island by its indigenous Taíno name, Borinquen. In the colonial world, naming a place for its riches marked it for plunder, slavery and for slaughter.

Columbus left behind a small group on the island of Hispañola to start a colony, when he returned to Spain after his first voyage. Upon arriving in Spain it was announced that a second expedition was already being organized. Fighting and hostilities had recently ended in Granada, Spain, leaving thousands of knights with nothing to do. These iron muscled "tough guys" were used to danger and could endure hardships. There only patronage was their sword and now they were left without occupation.

Among them also eager for adventure and conquest, were ruined traders, protégés of royalty, priests and monks. Christopher Columbus counted these men, that aspired to be lucrative in new places, among the 1500 companions of his second voyage. He called them "individuals of the bluest blood in Spain".

On November 3, 1493, the company of the bluest blood arrived in the Indies. The mountainous island poking up out of the depths of the Atlantic Ocean captured the attention of 1500 curious eyes. It had stayed undiscovered up until that point, only being known to the Taíno who lived in the island's forest.

Juan Ponce who would become destined to play a major role in the conquest of Puerto Rico was among the crew. He was from Santervas de Campos hailing from the kingdom of Leon. Ponce de Leon was, under Pedro Nuñez de Guzman, a shield bearer or page as they were sometimes known. Of the order of Calatráva, he was a knight commander for over 15 years in the war fighting the Moors. Like the rest, he had joined Columbus, at all cost on the Western Hemisphere seeking his own fortune.

Settlement of Puerto Rico

placer deposits

Puerto Rico was not settled by the Europeans until 15 years later in 1508. Queen Isabella, of Spain gave Ponce de Leon permission to further explore the island. Yes, the same Ponce de Leon that "discovered" Florida later while looking for the "fountain of youth". He established the first gold mining operation on the northern coast of the island later that year, in the north-west region. Puerto Rico gold mining history had started on a regular basis.

Later, Ponce de Leon would take control of the territory. Admiral Diego de Colon, the son of Christopher Columbus, the first "discoverer" of the Indies, gave the instruction for him to do so. He set ship from the port of Xiguey, then known as Salvaleon, which is situated on the modern-day Hispanic island of Santo Domingo.

He arrived in Puerto Rico for the first time on the island's point, which people still refer to as Aguada. The senior cacique (chief of the Taíno people), Agueybana, gave him a cordial welcome.

He found some native gold with some Taíno Indians with whom he had become acquainted. He took these gold samples back to Admiral Colon. He did not conquer Puerto Rico at that time but instead negotiated with the Admiral. He later returned to conquer and populate it. He landed on the southern tip of the island, and he founded a city in the port of Guanica. Don Cristobal Sotomayor, was lieutenant of this outpost at the time. From this outpost they began the conquest of this island in the year 1508.

Ponce and crew worked their way east from Aguada, using horses. Eventually reaching Caparra (mangrove swamps). They established their first fort at this location but after not long relocated to what is now Old San Juan due to mosquitos. A gold smelting plant would later be established at Old Jan Juan under Ponce de Leon once he became governor.

The native Taínos of Boriquén seemed to live in peace at the time the Spanish arrived. They passed the day doing their Areíto or areyto.It was a type of dance performed by theTaíno and included a song performed for religious reasons. When the Taíno weren't bust performing Areítos, they could be found in their hammocks lazily passing the day. They were then made to be forced to stand in cold water from morning until night washing river sands. The Taíno were enslaved being forced to dig for gold.

The TaínoIndians were forced to change their daily routines, habits and also their diets at great detriment to them. They had gone from being free, peaceful, happy farmers of the soil to becoming slaves. All so a few ruthless men from beyond the sea could use them for gold prospecting.

Ponce ordered them to be distributed among his men. It took only seven years to enslave, conquer, destroy and massacre the TaínoIndians of Boriken. The Taíno looked upon the small number of their destroyers asked themselves if there were no means of getting rid of them once the hopelessness of their slavery was confirmed.

Did Puerto Rico once have a lot of gold?

Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico in 1493 on his 2nd trip into the new world. In fact, Columbus originally christened the island as San Juan Bautista. It was quickly changed into Puerto Rico meaning "rich port" as they realized how much precious gold they could get out of its rivers. Yes, Puerto Rico had and still has a lot of native gold, and other mineralization veins in the forest, and surrounding continental shelves.

Early Spanish Gold Mining of Placer Deposits

gold mining

Ponce de Leon learned of gold locations from the natives during his initial exploration, as he took them with him prospecting. He found enough gold prospecting to establish his headquarters in the north of the island. The first gold samples from Puerto Rico were taken from the Manatuabon Later he found a lot of gold in Coa and Sibuco Rivers to warrant a mining operation there.

The Spanish gold produced by the Conquistadors on Puerto Rico during the first couple decades was estimated to be valued at $ million or more in Spanish currency. That would be worth over $1 Billion dollars today! Spanish Conquistadors explored throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, during that time in searching for precious gold. Nearly all of the civilizations, they were finding, were using gold and the Spanish plundered all the gold they encountered.

First Gold Deposits

 first gold deposits

The local villagers (the Taíno) led uprisings during the 1600's in Puerto Rico. In many instances the Taíno failed at fighting back and were made slaves to mine gold.

The southernmost region of the island's San German region was also very gold-rich. Rivers that originate in Luquillo's highlands and what is now El Yunque National Forest are also present. The Rio Prieto, Rio Grande, Fajardo, and Espiritu Santo in particular. This is because the ground there has a high level of mineralization due to previous volcanic activity. The Rio Mameyes was the waterway that in particular had the most gold. Even today, placer gold is still fairly common in the Mameyes.

The Rio Mavilla and Rio Grande, located about 30 kilometers southwest of San Juan, were once the main sources of placer gold. There might be the same amount of wealth left over as was taken out. There have been sporadic efforts to extract additional gold from Puerto Rico's Rio Mavilla and other placer deposits, but these endeavors were unsuccessful. The United States Geological Survey and the government of Puerto Rico have both reported finding placer gold in other parts of the island as well as in some of the waterways that drain northeastern Puerto Rico.

Gold Mining in the Dominican Republic

Later Gold Mining

During the first few years gold production remained steady until the year 1530. Around this time the gold being found fluctuated as they began to become exhausted. The Spanish king did not receive anymore gold after 1536.

Smallpox claimed the lives of many natives working the mines during this time, as they were susceptible to diseases brought over by the Spanish. So it will never be known if there was simply no more gold to be found in the clay of the islands, or as some claim no one left to work the mines.

Until the late fifteen hundred there were some gold operations that continued. According to an officer in San Juan, veins containing copper and silver had been discovered. They had no knowledge of the silver smelting process at that time so the silver ore was not mined. After 1538 in would be another 300 years until gold mining started again. A gold mine was established in the Central Highlands, interestingly that is where Caribbean Gold Paydirt is located.

The placer gold deposits were the first to be worked by the Spaniards. The rivers of the Central Highlands of Puerto rico that drain to the North were very rich with gold. These placer deposits were also among some of the easiest to mine. After that they moved into the forests in search of gold ore.

Any of the rivers and streams that drain the Central Highlands will still produce gold today according to us and the USGS, and it is interesting that Caribbean Gold Paydirt is located here. Despite the fact that they were heavily mined in the sixteenth century, some of the ancient placer ground may be profitable for miners today; because, the early miners never get it all.

It is not known if Puerto Rico will ever make an important profit through mining. A site that was profitable in the past was the Rio Mameyes which lies within El Yunque National Forest and is off limits to commercial mining. Spanish miners discovered placer gold in the period 1509 – 1579 and extracted around 120,000 troy-ounce gold from there.

The economy at that time however discouraged continued exploration, and there was comparatively rich gold and silver resources elsewhere in the New World. Likewise labor sources were wiped out by disease and murder. The primary source for placer gold lies at Rio Mavilla, about 30km southwest of San Juan.

Gold Mining in Cuba

End of Spanish Gold Mining

gold deposits worked

Around 1529, Spanish mining activity started to decrease. As gold mining ceased to be profitable, the colonizers started replacing it with agriculture, such as sugar cane and tobacco. The prospectors had to leave the river banks, where they had been virtually picking up gold nuggets in the past, as the placer gold deposits became depleted, and take a chance venturing into the much rougher terrains of the forest in the mountains.   

Mining in the Sierra de Luquillo (current day parts of El Yunque rainforest) started to decline. There are several reasons for this decline. A lack of forced slave labor from the Taino's in one contributing factor. The Taino population began to decline due to disease brought from the Europeans, malnutrition and outright murder. The remaining Taino population began to revolt against their enslavers.

In 1528, the French Corsairs and Taino inhabitants of Puerto Rico and the Lesser Antilles started a series of attacks on the coastal towns. The Taino Indians killed Farmer Cristóbal de Guzmán in 1530 and destroyed his farm on the banks of the Mameyes River (Rio Mameyes) in protest at the settlement of that forested area, according to one of the few historical documents from that era still in existence.  Eleven canoes carrying 500 "Caribe" natives also assaulted the Luquillo mines, many of which were located along the Mameyes River.  

These locals attacked the miners and set their homes on fire in an effort to retake the region. Although the conflict between the indigenous people and the settlers is confirmed in this most recent account, not enough information is given to identify the precise position of the mines that were attacked.

The devastation caused by the seven hurricanes that struck the island between 1530 and 1539 was another element. The Spanish set their eyes on finding rich mineral deposits in Peru and were exploring Florida in addition to these disasters and declining gold returns.

Even as far as 1582, colonists reported the Luquillo Mountains as an unsafe area because they were still occupied by hostile native groups. Even though much of the indigenous population has been decimated by diseases and Spanish mistreatment, this fact highlights the importance of the Luquillo Mountains as a significant geographic location of native determination and resistance to the traumatic events of the Conquistadors.

For the remaining portion of the 16th century mining was not a lucrative occupation and it was only carried out by a scant number of men.

Conquistador Gold Mining Came to an End Around That Time.

The Taíno Native Indians tried several times to regain control of their island as the Spanish conquered and settled, but failed due to being outgunned and overpowered. Those Indians that were not killed fighting the Spanish were enslaved for gold mining. A majority however, would go on to die from being malnourished and diseases such as Smallpox. The interior of the island was populated by surviving Indian women and Spanish sailors, eventually.

Puerto Rico survived as a small farming economy for several hundred years after all gold was mined. Spain changed routes to the west after the gold ran out, largely ignoring Puerto Rico. The governor of Puerto Rico was even forced into piracy and smuggling, due to the dramatic loss of economy.

Puerto Rico began to emerge as a large coffee producer before sugar plantations came to dominate during the "Cedula de Gracia" in which Spain's king granted land to immigrants willing to go to Puerto Rico. African slaves were also unfortunately imported during this time by South America, European and Spanish settlers, to work the larger sugar and coffee plantation.

Slavery was finally abolished by the Spanish National Assembly on March 22 1873, after a long struggle by the PR abolitionist movement. Although the slaves were still required to work an additional three years. Plantation owners were

Finding Placer Gold Deposits in Puerto Rico Today

gold panning

Gold prospecting in Puerto Rico was likely most lucrative in the early to mid 16th century. There is also gold in Puerto Rico today to be found for the modern miner. Here at Caribbean Gold Paydirt® we went gold panning the Mameyes River for a short while and prospecting throughout the only tropical rainforest on the USFSC system. We can attest to plenty of gold still being present there as we picked chunks of gold and quartz from the ground with ease. If you can't travel to Puerto Rico to prospect, of course you can always buy a bag of our paydirt.

Of course we did our research for years prior and found the locations in El Yunque that contain gold veins and a copper site before even going there. As Puerto Rico is part of the part of the USA, some information can be found at the USGS and university in Puerto Rico. We have studied a lot of the past history and found rich gold deposits. We are not however, located near El Yunque and our mine sites are of course, a secret.

Even if you don't find any gold, El Yunque is a special magical place. You can almost still feel the presence of the powerful Taino Caciques. We recommend going even if you don't plan on gold panning as it has lush green jungle, waterfalls and gold just a few hours east of San Juan.