Mining Minerals

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Mining Minerals in the Old West

What resources/mining minerals were of interest to Native Americans, the Hispanic and Anglo miners in the Old West? We immediately think of gold and and silver but there were numerous other valuables Lying around or buried out in that vast, largely unexplored county. Here, Old West Daily Reader offers a short list of minerals, gemstones, bones (two kinds) and such that might have been of interest to the Indians and the 17th, 18th and 19th century prospectors…

Borax: (1830’s to present)

OWDR Kramer Borate deposit - Boron, Kern Cnty CA

Borax Crystals – Photo: U.S. PD

OWDR Borax crystals

Borax Crystals – Photo: U.S. PD







Chemical Formula: Na2B4O7 • 10H2O
sodium tetraborate decahydrate

Used as a laundry and cleaning product, an insecticide, and a fungicide. Used as a flux in metalwork and a component of enamel glazes. It is the precursor to boric acid. However, the more modern laundry product and the Western TV show it sponsored, is likely why modern forks know anything about borax or the 20 mule teams that originally brought the product from the mines in the California desert to processing for the market.
FYI: There were really only 18 mules, check out the references below…  {001}

OWDR 20 Mule Team

20 Mule Team in Death Valley, CA
Photo: U.S. PD NPS

OWDR 20 Mule Team Borax laundrysee:
Wk. 05, 02/02/1846 – born: “Borax Smith”
Wk. 02, 01/08/1856 – Tuscan Springs discovery
Wk. 35, 08/27/1931 – adios “Borax Smith”! How many mules?



Buffalo Bones: (from the git go… ’til they were used up!)

OWDR Bison SkullWell, of course, Native Americans had used buffalo bones for thousands of years. They made tools, implements, weapons and ceremonial objects from them. Buffalo scapula were used as shovels and Indian signboards. They didn’t have to mine them, the bones  were there to be picked up from the ground on the vast prairie. Fresh bone from hunting success could provide excellent food, the fatty marrow.
When the white man came (1840’s to early 1900’s), he had different uses for the resource. Here is the story of boneblack and fertilizer.*  {001}

*The Originals Index – Cow? What Cow? Buffalo?



Building stone: dressed stone (1500’s to present)

OWDR cut stone wall

Limestone Block Wall
Photo: U.S. PD? internet

OWDR Limestone steps

Limestone Block Steps
Photo: U.S. PD? internet






Here, in the top photos, it’s limestone, laid dry as a wall and heavy rectangular blocks of limestone used as steps. The bottom photos are sandstone blocks; one dressed with a smooth face, the other with a rough, irregular face, laid to emphasize the texture and color variety of the stone. Many different types of stone were used throughout the Old West in and near the localities where found. These two are probably the most commonly used, and the easiest to use.  {001}

OWDR Sandstone Block Wall

Sandstone Block Wall
Photo: U.S. PD? internet

OWDR Sandstone Wall 02

Sandstone Block Wall
Photo: U.S. PD? internet






(see also: Limestone and Sandstone below)


Clay: (pre-history to present)


Clay, groomed for pottery making
Photo: crop from web pic

Primarily hydrated silicates of alumina (Al₂∙O₃∙2SiO₂∙2H₂O and variations), sometime including other materials such as iron, alkalies or alkaline earth; clay minerals are found worldwide; formed by natural processes eroding and chemically breaking down the earth’s surface. Often found in creek beds and wet areas, it is plastic in nature and can easily be formed into shapes. Although there are numerous other uses, its original and primary use has always been for pottery making. Almost always a locally mined product, clay is bulky, heavy and generally of low value, so it isn’t usually moved very far. Native American tribes who made pottery certainly knew where the best clays for the purpose in their locality could be found; a river bank or a lake shore, a particular bluff. As the Mexicans and Anglos came on the scene, they certainly noted, and used, the traditional sources, but, no doubt, developed new ones as the needs/requirements for the product expanded. Brick and tile were likely among the first products introduced by these newcomers in addition to their versions of pottery.  {001


Coal: (1500’s to present)

OWDR Coal 01

Coal – Photo: U.S. PD

OWDR Coal 02

Lump Coal – Photo: U.S. PD







Relatively common in the west. Mined by every method from a single individual with a pick and shovel to huge steam powered machines. Small local, group and family coal mines were relatively common in the old west. Used where easily available, for domestic and commercial heating. Coal became the primary producer of steam, later in this era (replacing wood), for ships, railroads, factories and a few power plants. As coke, it is essential in the smelting of iron ore.
Bates and Jackson, (1987), defined coal as “a readily combustible rock containing more than 50% by weight and more than 70% by volume of carbonaceous material including inherent moisture, formed from compaction and in duration of variously altered plant remains similar to those in peat.  Differences in the kinds of plant materials (type), in degree of metamorphism (rank), and in the range of impurity (grade) are characteristic of coal and are used in classification…”.  With time, and depending on the depth of burial beneath deposits of overlying geologic strata (which controls the weight of compaction), the plant material undergoes a series of complex chemical reactions that transforms it first into peat, then brown coal or lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous and finally into anthracite coal. It may be mined and burned at any of these stages. The energy gained from burning increases as the grade of the coal improves. Anthracite coal does not occur in the west. There is no evidence that Indians used coal. {001}

OWDR Whats in Coal

What’s in Coal?

see also:
Wk. 16, 04/20/1914 – Ludlow Massacre
Photo Gallery Index – Mining PhotosLudlow Massacre
Photo Gallery Index – Mining PhotosThe Mystery of Burning Mountain (video)


Copper: (pre-history to present)


Copper Ore – Photo: U.S. PD

OWDR Copper Ore 01

Copper Ore – Photo U.S. PD






Atomic Number: 29
Atomic Weight: 63.65

Copper was likely one of the earliest metals used by man. Found in its native form (pictured below) it can be worked into numerous usable items. Some Native Americans used native copper in this fashion but did not mine or smelt the metal. However, almost anywhere there was copper ore, there was also turquoise and the beauty of this natural stone was appreciated by all. Turquoise was mined and it was definitely an item of trade well before the coming of the Europeans to the west in the 1500’s.  {001}

OWDR Native Copper

Native Copper

Copper Coinage:
Wk. 19, 05/08/1792 – Copper Coinage Act
Wk. 16, 04/22/1864 – Coinage Act of 1864


Diamonds: (Yes and No!)

OWDR Diamonds hoax-sized

Rough diamonds

The Yes part: There are diamonds in North America and even in the Western U.S.
The No part: There has never been a large find of diamond in the West. There have been reports of a few stones; an odd diamond or two had actually turned up during the gold rush, especially near Placerville, California.
There were several excellent hoaxes perpetrated in the West involving diamonds.

“…though it may not pay to hunt for diamonds, yet it always pays to pick them up when you do happen to see them.” – A California state geologist of the times (c. 1850’s).

see also:
The Originals Index – Lost Treasures in the Old West – Hoaxes


Dinosaur Bones: (1850’s to present)

Yes! Turns out the West is full of them. They are still out there waiting to be found and today’s scientists still mine them and the body of knowledge they represent about times far past. Here is a short look at how it all came to pass in the Old West. Welcome to the “Bone Wars” (1877 – 1892)*.  {001}

OWDR Allosaurus

Photo: U.S. PD c. 1915

Here is Cope‘s nearly complete Allosaurus, excavated at Como Bluff in 1879 but not prepared and assembled until 1915; well after his death (1897). The specimen is located at the American Museum of Natural History NY.
*The Originals Index – Range Wars and FeudsBone Wars
The Originals Index – ExpeditionsHayden Expedition of 1853


Glass: (7,000 BCE to present)

For the moment we are concerned with obsidian, natural glass. This material flakes well and has been used in the manufacture of tools and weapons points for thousands of years. The obsidian samples shown here are from Glass Buttes, OR. This glass was definitely well traveled in the trade routes, long before the white man or the Hispanics came to the west. Photo: U.S. PD USFS.  {001}
see also:
The Originals Index – Landmarks and RegistersGlass Buttes
The Originals Index – Trade in the Old West
The Originals Index – Native American Tribes – nice photo of flaked points, top of page.


Gold:  (1500’s to present)

OWDR Gold Nugget

Gold Nugget – Photo: U.S. PD

OWDR Gold on Quartz

Gold on Quartz – Photo U.S. PD






Atomic Number: 79
Atomic Weight: 196.97

OWDR Flake gold


Gold was recovered in numerous ways
see also:

Photo Gallery Index – Mining Photos
Photo Gallery Index – Mining Photos – Lost treasures in the Old West
Photo Gallery Index – Mining Photos – Hoaxes
Photo Gallery Index – Mining Photos – Gold Rushes
Gold Coinage:
Wk. 44, 11/04/1904 – Indian Eagle Coin
Wk. 52, 12/28/1933 – Gold called in


Gravel: (pre-history to present)

In these time, mostly streambed gravel for roads and other construction. As with other bulk loads in the times. you couldn’t haul much and not very far. Definitely not something one made (outside of prisons) due to no machinery, no power sources, etc. It generally wasn’t worth making back then.


Guano: (1500’s to present, earlier in the East)

OWDR Bat Guano fertilizer adOWDR Bat GuanoThe primary source of potassium nitrate, KNO3 (salt petre), a natural, solid source of nitrogen. Useful as fertilizer (a source of nitrogen and potassium), in tree stump removal (it supplies nitrogen to the fungi attacking the wood of the stump), sometimes as a food preservative (salted meats). It is an essential component in the manufacture of gunpowder (black powder) and therefore has related uses as a component of rocket propellants and fireworks.
In the times, mining was most often pick and shovel work, mining in caves with large bat populations. There are methods to make the mineral.  {001}


Lead: (1500’s to present, earlier in the East)

OWDR Lead Mining c 1865 MO

Lead Mining in Missouri c. 1865 – Woodcut
The Loyal West in the Times of the Rebellion
Barber and Howe (1865)

OWDR Lead Ore 01

Lead ore
Photo: U.S. PD internet






Atomic Number: 82
Atomic Weight: 207.20

OWDR Lead Ore 02

“Peacock” Lead ore
Photo: U.S. PD? internet

Just where did they get the lead they slung? Not likely from anywhere in the west. It probably originated in the Southeast Missouri Lead District via the Desloge Family and Desloge Consolidated Lead Company in Desloge, Missouri and Bonne Terre. This outfit was active in lead trading, mining and lead smelting from 1823 to 1929. They were in just the right place to supply the staging areas along the Mississippi River which were supporting the great westward migration.
Finished products such as shot and bullets certainly came west with the traders, but so did ingots for the making of one’s own bullets with the tools commonly available or included with the firearm at purchase. There were a number of other common uses such as making water pipes and solders for tin work. Doc Holliday had a lead cylinder among his dental equipment. Along with nitric acid, the good doctor could make nitrous oxide, the “laughing gas”, which made him a painless dentist.
There wasn’t much incentive to mine lead in the west due to the lack of the necessary facilities to smelt the metal. Then too, there is always the issue of moving heavy or bulky, low value items over long distances, whether ore or finished product. Then, you would still have to compete with established suppliers from the east.
There is usually plenty of lead in the ore with silver, both lead and tin can be by-products of silver mining. Western mined lead was certainly available.  {001}
see also:
Photo Gallery Index – Weapons Photos Index – Ammunition Then and Now
Photo Gallery Index – Weapons Photos Index – Firearms – Percussion Firearms Accessories


Limestone: (pre-history to present)

OWDR Limestone Cliff- luGher Texture Library

Limestone Cliff
Photo: ©? luGher Texture Library

OWDR Limestone Fossilifer pittedu

Fossiliferous Limestone
Photo: U.S. PD? internet







CaCO3 and numerous impurities, fossils, etc.

Used a a construction material as blocks or crushed stone and in the manufacture of glass. A component of cement and thereby, concrete. Used to de-acidify soils and water.  {001}

OWDR Limestone Blocks 10in

Limestone Blocks 10″
Photo: U.S. PD? internet

OWDR Limestone on shale

Limestone on Shale
Photo: U.S. PD? internet








(see also: Building stone: dressed stone above.)


Potash: (1500’s ? to present)

OWDR Potash 01OWDR Potash 02(KCl) and numerous variations. Any of various mined and manufactured salts that contain potassium in water-soluble form. Especially potassium carbonate, has been used in bleaching textiles, making glass, and making soap (lye). A component of a variety of fertilizers.  {001}



Sandstone: (pre-history to present)

OWDR Sandstone Arch

A sandstone arch in Canyonlands<Photo: U.S. PD? internet

OWDR Sandstone Blocks

Sandstone blocks
Photo: U.S. PD internet







Another important, relatively common, construction stone. Almost always locally quarried in the area of use. Numerous colors and textures of sandstone occur.  {001}

(see also: Building stone: dressed stone above.)


Silver: (1500’s to present)

OWDR Silver Nugget

Silver Nugget – Photo: U.S. PD

OWDR Silver Ore

Silver ore
Photo: U.S. PD? internet




Atomic Number: 47
Atomic Weight: 107.87


A metal certainly known to some Indians in its native form and possibly used as adornment in pre-historic times, but not mined or smelted.  {001}

OWDR Native Silver

Native Silver

OWDR Native Wire Silver

Native Wire Silver






see also:
Photo Gallery Index – Mining PhotosComstock Lode
Photo Gallery Index – Mining Photos – Hoaxes The Emma Mine
Photo Gallery Index – Mining Photos – Silver Rushes
Silver Coinage:
Wk. 14, 04/02/1792 – Coinage Act of 1792
Wk. 08/02/21/1857 – Coinage Act of 1857
The Originals – TrailsOregon Trail Memorial Half Dollar


Tin: (1500’s to present)

OWDR Tin 02

Tin ore


Tin (metal)






Atomic Number: 50
Atomic Weight: 118.71

Up until the 1700’s or so, tin was thought to be a “lighter” lead. The metals are usually found in the same ore, often with silver as well. Used in the manufacture of tinplate, float glass and solder. Tin is an important component in the alloying of bronze and brass. You will see it used as ceiling tile/cover in many old buildings; look carefully at all those old interior shots of saloons.  {001}

For related information on this subject in Old West Daily Reader:
see also:
Photo Gallery Index – Mining Photos
Photo Gallery Index – Mining Photos – Gold Rushes
Photo Gallery Index – Mining Photos – Silver Rushes
Photo Gallery Index – Mining PhotosMining on the Comstock
Photo Gallery Index – Transportation Photos
Photo Gallery Index – Transportation Photos – Railroads in the West
The Originals Index – Commerce in the Old West
The Originals Index – Expeditions
The Originals Index – Lost Treasures in the Old West
The Originals Index – Lost Treasures in the Old West – Hoaxes
The Originals Index – Mine Names in the Old West
The Originals Index – Western Forts and Trading Posts
The Originals Index – Trade in the Old West
The Originals Index – Trade in the Old West – Commerce in the Old West
Wk. 52, 12/28/1933 – Gold Standard
References – Dictionary – Mining Terms…

OWDR barbed wire dividerEnd: Mining Minerals


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