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Southern New Mexico's Golden Legend — Is the Code the Key?

By Joel Bickings

Last updated on Thursday, July 17, 2003

The Kneeling Nun monolith overlooks the Santa Rita copper mine, which used to bea town, and was where Spanish explorers searched for Cibola, the City of Gold. Photo by Dianna Dobbs
The Kneeling Nun monolith overlooks the Santa Rita copper mine, which used to bea town, and was where Spanish explorers 
searched for Cibola, the City of Gold.  Photo by Dianna Dobbs 

So you've decided to explore Southern New Mexico.  You have your road maps, a cooler of food and beverages, and jugs of water in the back just in case.  You set out across broad basins under an ocean of blue sky, wandering over rugged mountains rising up from the surrounding plains.  The rolling massiveness of the Cooks Range, the rocky needles of the Organ Mountains, and the lofty heights of the Mogollons inspire you. 

You're an idealist.  But no matter how romantic your impressions may be, no matter how much the bright sunshine makes the expansive scenery glitter, the chances are what you won't be thinking about is a fortune in gold.  As you gaze out over the enchanting vistas, odds are you won't be imagining a long, trailing caravan of Spaniards and Indians trekking over ridges and basins in search of a golden legend.  

That is, unless you are among a small group of modern-day treasure seekers looking for Spanish gold that has been lying beneath the mountains of Southern New Mexico for over four centuries.  The search for this fabulous treasure began in the year 1540, when the flamboyant and single-minded Captain General Francisco Vasquez de Coronado journeyed under the intense New Mexico sun in a suffocating suit of military armor with over three-hundred Spanish soldiers and civilians and a thousand Indian bearers and servants in tow.  Their objective was the Seven Cities of Cibola, a fabled land rich with gold beyond all imagination.  Along with his remarkably large entourage, which included a thousand horses and pack mules and a herd of cattle to slaughter and eat along the way, Coronado left New Spain (now modern Mexico) under the guidance of a Franciscan priest, Fray Marcos de Niza, who claimed to have witnessed a shining, golden city in present-day New Mexico.  According to most historians, Coronado's expedition was an utter failure, and Fray Marcos is considered to be one of history's great liars.

However, over four-hundred and fifty years later, various scenarios are still being offered to account for the fabulous wealth that may lie hidden somewhere beneath the mountains of New Mexico.  Over the years, a number of amateur historians and treasure hunters have suggested different locations around the state as the probable or likely repository of the gold.  Today, one organization, a company called Codebreaker Enterprises, run by two of these contemporary treasure seekers, is promoting the theory that the wealth described by the much maligned friar is lying beneath the rocky soil of Grant County, New Mexico.  The crux of this theory is that the seven cities were actually seven caves.  Pointing out as evidence petroglyphs in the Deming area (allegedly carved by Fray Marcos and company) and similar markings in the hills around Pinos Altos, the treasure hunters claim to have discovered crosses carved in rocks dated to 1540.  They believe these carvings to be an as yet unbroken code that will eventually lead them to the gold.  In Silver City, they have opened a small museum where, free of charge, anyone can scrutinize the evidence that they have accumulated.  (Codebreaker Enterprises currently has its own website, as well.)  They even offer a guided venture, called the Codebreaker Tour, which may convince skeptics that it is entirely possible that the Spanish gold lies within the borders of Grant County.

Now before you dismiss this theory out of hand, consider a few facts.  For one, New Mexico is a very mineral-rich state.  Nearly two-thirds of all the value of goods produced in the "Land of Enchantment" comes from mining and mineral products.  Not only does New Mexico have the largest reserves of uranium in the United States and immense deposits of potash, but gold and silver have been commercially mined throughout the state.  Secondly, mining is a major industry in the southwestern corner of New Mexico, including around Silver City (which name was founded upon the discovery of silver there in the 1800s), located in Grant County.  Although silver is no longer mined in the Silver City area, several huge copper mines are in operation, including the Phelps Dodge Open Pit Copper Mine, which excavates eighty million tons of rock out of the earth each year.  In nearby Lordsburg, one can find agate; around Summit, desert roses; near Hachita, zinc and gold; in the Animas Mountains, manganese; and in Silver City, turquoise (along with the silver and copper).  To this day one can still pan for gold in Pinos Altos, in the mountains north of Silver City.  So perhaps there is more to Coronado's famous trek into New Mexico in the 16th century than just a few dusty documents in the hands of the historians.

Even if you can't quite swallow the story of a lost fortune in gold, but you are interested in the physical and geologic beauty of New Mexico, the southern part of the state can make your time spent here an enjoyable and enterprising one.  In Rock Hound State Park, in Luna County, for example, just southeast of Silver City, you'll find that a good shovel, a sturdy back, and a keen eye are all you need to collect a variety of semi-precious stones and minerals.  For three dollars you can hike into the Little Florida Mountains and take home all the agate and opal, jasper and quartz you can find (limit fifteen pounds).  You may even come across some of the lovely flow-banded rhyolite.  To get to the park, drive south from Deming for five miles on Highway 11, then go east another six miles on Highway 141.

If after you have collected to your heart's content you still want more excitement, you may want to drop in at the Codebreaker Enterprises Museum, 617 Silver Heights Blvd., Silver City, New Mexico.  And if you feel really adventurous, you may want to take the Codebreaker Tour to the archaeological and historical sites that pertain to the land of Cibola .  Who knows, you may even be the one to stumble across a fortune in lost gold.

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