Turquoise has adorned the rulers of Ancient Egypt, the Aztecs (and possibly other Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans), Persia, Ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and in ancient China. It was cherished by the Pueblo, Navajo and Apache tribes. The Anasazi are believed to have prospered greatly from their production and trading of turquoise. In Persia, turquoise was the de facto national stone for millennia. It was later brought to India following the establishment of the Mughal Empire (even being built into the Taj Mahal). Turquoise was (and still is) used extensively in Tibet and Mongolia. The Egyptian use of turquoise stretches back as far as the First Dynasty and possibly earlier; though most well-known pieces were recovered from Tutankhamun's tomb.
Turquoise is an opaque, blue-to-green mineral that is a hydrated phosphate of copper and aluminium. It has been prized for thousands of years. The word turquoise dates to the 17th century and is derived from the French turquois for "Turkish" because the mineral was first brought to Europe through Turkey, from mines in Persia.
Turquoise is found throughout New Mexico, and in Santa Fe, we have a special history encapsulated in a lovely day-trip along the Turquoise Trail which links Albuquerque and Santa Fe. At the heart of that journey lies the commune of Cerrillos, the “little hills”. Though a major Western gold rush occurred in the area circa 1825, years before the California Gold Rush, this region was coveted long before the search for gold for its rich deposits of turquoise, as well as lead ores. Indeed, turquoise was first mined by the early Pueblo people, who dwelt along the Rio Grande as early as 900 A.D. The Cerrillos hills represents three cultures and the longest intact record of historic stone maul and pick and shovel mining in the Southwest.
The Trail begins to the south, in the Cibola Forest, which has hosted many Native American ceremonies beginning as early as 10,000 B.C. with the Clovis Pateo Indians and continues today. The Tijeras Pueblo was formed about A.D.1313. Just up the road lies Sandia Park and the Sandia Mountains, where in 1961 The National Parks Service designated Sandia Cave a National Historic Landmark for its significance as a paleo-American site, since excavations there have yielded information on three distinct prehistoric groups. The site represents one of the earliest known occupations of the Americas.
The next stop is the settlement of Golden, built in 1879, but hosts traces of two pueblos established as early as 1300. A gold boom drew individual prospectors and small operators but due to limited gold finds, the rush did not last. The San Francisco Catholic Church has remained and dates to 1830.
A real gem on the trail is the town of Madrid, pronounced maa-drid. Its history begins in the early 1800’s when squatters arrived and mined the area. During the occupation of Santa Fe in 1846 troops were sent to the area for fuel to build Fort Marcy. As coal became an important resource, the Santa Fe railroad brought a spur to Madrid in 1892. At its peak the town produced 250,000 tons of coal a year and boasted a population exceeding Albuquerque. The popular local haunt, the Mineshaft Tavern, actually burned to the ground on Christmas Day 1944. Fortunately, it was rebuilt, and its bar is known as the longest bar in the state. Interestingly, one of the mines owners built the first illuminated baseball park west of the Mississippi in 1922 which was home to the Madrid Miners, a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers played a game in the park to a packed house in 1934. Madrid is also known for its annual Christmas lighting display, which began in the 1920s. In fact, TWA diverted night-time flights over Madrid to allow passengers to see the spectacle.
When the coal market collapsed, Madrid became a ghost town. In 1954 the Wall Street Journal listed the entire town for sale for $250,000. By the 1960’s and 70’s an array of artists, crafts people and renegades rediscovered Madrid. Eventually the town’s abandoned Victorian homes and clapboard storefronts were resurrected, and the holiday lighting display resumed along with the opening of shops, food establishments and lodging facilities.
North of Madrid lies Cerrillos, best known for the rare blue-green turquoise named after the town. Mined in the Cerrillos hills as early as 900 A.D., the town is one of the oldest historically documented mining districts in the United States. The rich deposits of turquoise in the Cerrillos hills mined at 12 different sites impacted the value of the stone around the world. The Cerrillos hills have a distinctive cone shape rising 1,000 feet above the valley floor formed from ancient volcanoes. Archaeologists have discovered turquoise specimens from cultural sites as far away as Central America, Canada and the South-eastern U.S., which they believe originated from Cerrillos. Along with the Native Americans who mined the stone, Spanish settlers arrived in the early 1600s and began mining silver and lead in the area. Fifty years of sometimes violent coexistence and mining ended in 1680 with the Pueblo Revolt of that same year. Scattered mining continued through the 1700s but fell second to the discovery of gold in 1822 in the Ortiz Mountains. It wasn’t until after New Mexico became a territory Anglo mines brought new life to gold, silver and lead mines.
The railroad arrived in 1880, bringing many people to the area, including the notorious Billy the Kid. Tiffany & Co., amongst other jewellery companies, began marketing turquoise even acquiring property at Turquoise Hill and began mining the stone for themselves. Several working turquoise claims remain.
The final stretch to Santa Fe crosses the Galisteo Basin which, in the 1300s and 1400s, had a very large Pueblo population, but after the Revolt the basin was effectively deserted. The drive along this northern end of the Trail offers views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, open ranges of antelope and even buffalo.
I hope you’ll make time to explore the nationally designated “Scenic Byway” and perhaps pick up a piece of history in a bit of turquoise to take home with you.