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A look at Silver City, before settlement 

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Let’s take a little trip back to Silver City — uh, make that Ciénega de San Vicente — from before the town’s founding. Here’s how trapper James Pattie described it in 1836: “… where upon the hills that bordered the [Ciénega] grew dense groves of cedar and pinons, and in the early spring and summer the rich, luxuriant gramma grass grew in abundance; and, from the fertile soil of the little valley, tall and gorgeous sun-flowers grew in profusion, and which at times covered nearly the entire valley. About midway and towards the lower end of the valley, there flowed a number of cool, clear springs, the water from them created an extensive marsh, for which thousands of tules [bullrushes] grew …” 

Imagine there’s no Big Ditch, no houses, businesses or streets. All we see is a marsh, springs, grassland and sunflowers. What Pattie called cedar was almost certainly juniper. Sunflowers don’t grow wild here now, but apparently they did in 1836.

I started thinking about pre-settlement history because of the San Vicente Creek River Stewardship Project that started early this year. A state grant funded crews to remove non-native trees, such as trees of heaven and Siberian elms, and to clean up the waterway and stabilize stream banks.

If you haven’t walked the San Vicente Trail for a while, now would be a good time to explore the improved area. Things may look a little rough until nature cleans up the cleanup.

As part of this project, Scott Zager, a plant ecologist and GIS specialist for the Gila Resources Information Project, prepared a report on the history, vegetation and geology of the area. I borrowed part of his report for this column, but you can read the whole thing here:

For example, Lt. William H. Emory had this to say about the springs in our area in 1846: “[They are] very large, and impregnated with sulfur, in a beautiful valley, surrounded, at the distance of ten or fifteen miles, with high mountains.”

I doubt the water in the Big Ditch still has sulfur, but I’m not going to taste it to find out. And high mountains? We appreciate Twin Sisters, Bear Mountain and Signal Peak, but they’re not very high by Colorado standards.

In October of 1867, geographer William A. Bell crossed the San Vicente Valley below Silver City and described the landscape as a “slightly undulating plain covered, as far as the eye could reach, with the most magnificent pasturage.” It’s hard to say exactly where he was looking, but today the closest you might come to grassland is the artificial turf at Scott Park and the artificially watered grass at the golf course. Instead of grassland, erosion has left oak and juniper scrub in rocky soil.

Those three descriptions are the best available from before the town’s 1870 founding. Of course, plenty happened before that. Archaeologist Bob Schiowitz has identified the remains of a Mimbres pit house about a mile downstream from the N.M. 90 bridge. The Mimbres people are gone, but it’s a good guess that they planted corn, squash and beans in several feet of topsoil across the creek.

Apaches lived in the same area. Several years ago, an Apache graduate student presented research here to rediscover how his people lived before they were exiled to Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma. He said Apaches planted one crop of corn, then traveled a regular route to gather wild foods at different places. If one of those places was San Vicente Creek, they would have probably planted in the same location as the Mimbres did before and the Chinese after.

This is the farm that has been known as the Slout Farm, then San Vicente Farms and now Old Chinese Gardens. At one point, I studied newspaper archives to learn the location and extent of the original Chinese Gardens. The stories about Chinese farms that provided produce for Silver City didn’t mention where they were, because everyone knew. That’s one way that history gets lost.

A big dividing line described by Zager was caused by the town’s original energy source. Houses were heated by and partly built with wood. We’ve seen the old pictures of hills stripped of trees, which led to the floods of 1895 and 1903. They created the Big Ditch and made unrecorded changes to everything downstream.

The stream project is trying to restore San Vicente Creek to a more natural state — but if natural means how it used to be, no one knows exactly what that was. Recent floods and human activity continue to change the landscape.

Creeks change naturally or unnaturally, and so do towns. We can’t stop change, but we can nudge the landscape into a new form of natural.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

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Bruce McKinney

Bruce McKinney is a Silver City business owner, close observer of local government and occasional troublemaker. In his column, which appears every other Wednesday, he tries to address big questions from a local perspective. Send comments and ideas to
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We respectfully acknowledge that the entirety of southwestern New Mexico is the traditional territory, since time immemorial, of the Chis-Nde, also known as the people of the Chiricahua Apache Nation. The Chiricahua Apache Nation is recognized as a sovereign Native Nation by the United States in the Treaty of Amity, Commerce, and Friendship of 1 July 1852 (10 Stat. 979) (Treaty of Santa Fe ratified 23 March 1853 and proclaimed by President Franklin Pierce 25 March 1853).

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