Notes On Macquelizo

The road west out of Ocotal leads to Macquelizo, a small mining town not visited by anyone that does not know it is there. Located in the hills around the town are several old silver mines, with their dumps from mineshafts plainly visible. Ephraim Squier wrote about Macquelizo in 1860 in his Notes On Central America, and noted that the silver mines there had been recently exploited by Americans. On the edges of the Macquelizo River are found at least one oven. Close by that oven is the remains of an arrastra, or round area where ore was ground up by dragging a large stone over the ore in a circular fashion. Close by the arrastra is found fused glass, such as is found in kilns, probably where the ore may have been roasted. Distinguished geographer William Denevan, while working on his Master´s thesis, visited Macquelizo in the 1950s. He noted it was pretty isolated with access to Ocotal by a mule trail. There was still a tower present, he thought built by the Marines, during the war with Sandino, 1927-1933. There are no records of any battles, or casualties, known to the author, that may have taken place around Macquelizo.

At the end of the colonial period the prevailing method of extracting silver from ore, even where the percentage of silver was quite low, was a process call the patio process. It was invented in Mexico by one Bartolomé de Medina in 1554 around Pachuca, Mexico. He discovered that if one ground up silver ore, added wood ashes, salt, and created an acidic environment by roasting iron pyrite which produced an acid, put this witches brew in a blocked off area, called a patio, agitated it by having Indians or mules walk around in it and had a good azoquero who added mercury to the mixture, that the silver would become amalgamated in the form of bunches of grapes. When it was cooked, the mercury was driven off as a vapor that could be collected by hovering a large bell over the silver concentrate, and the result was silver in a concentrated from that remained. Key was finding enough pyrite to add to the mixture. Several years ago the author found such a pyrite deposit that had been obviously mined, located on the shores of the Macquelizo River close by the town. The ingredients for the silver torta were complete, except for mercury, which was supplied by the Crown which controlled the concession and probably shipped the mercury, in cantiploras, from Tegucigalpa, where more than 300 silver mines were located at the end of the 18th century.

Silver mines are located close by the road that runs to Amatillo and Cerro Marimacho. A concentration of mine shafts is found between Macquelizo and Amatillo, one of which is the double shaft mine pictured below. But there are several other mine shafts close by, all of which are hazardous to enter. A very large ore processing plant is found upstream from the town of Macquelizo, complete with a dam, and several visible ovens, a remnant of the late colonial and early national period. In the area of the double mineshaft mine in the late 1960s the Nicaraguan Geological Survey, led by Mssrs Zoppis and Guidice, did exploratory core drilling and found substantial ore deposits underground. Major problem is the relativey low price of a troy ounce of silver, which makes it risky to invest in the silver deposits of Macquelizo. Nicaraguan actually produces many more troy ounces of silver than gold, but the silver is a byproduct of purifying mined gold, as almost all Nicaraguan gold contains silver, and in one place, it may also contain uranium, which becomes a problem in preparing gold for sale because of its similar atomic weight and characteristics to uranium

One of the interesting questions is where the silver was taken and whether it was taxed, as provided by the Mining Code of 1584. The author has never found any references in the 18th century, or for that matter, earlier references, to silver mined and taxed in Nicaragua. In a review of late colonial Honduran documents, there is mention of Macquelizo and other northern Nicaraguan towns, probably because the border with Honduras was not very well defined, and a sort of informal free trade zone existed around the Cordillera de Dipilto, where many gold and some silver mines were located. There is one Nicaraguan reference in the 1630s to a mule pack train loaded with silver ingots. It was noted by renegade priest Thomas Gage, who was sitting on the dock in Granada, trying to get to England, when the silver shipment shipped out. That silver had to come from somewhere, and the only place known to the author where silver ore is located is by the Cordillera de Dipilto. Lastly, at the beginning of the conquest, in the 1530s, there is one mention of an auction of silver hatchets, probably miniature size that may have come the area of Nueva Segovia and would have to have been from a source of native silver, one of which existed, at least until 1860, on the road to Jalapa.

For further reading, Otis E. Young, Jr., Western Mining, Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1987; Ephraim Squier, Notes On Central America, 1860, 1971 facsimile edition, AMS Press, New York City.

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