There´s Gold In Them Thar Hills: Gold Mining For Beginners

3 ores

By Pat Werner

Perhaps the classic tale of greed and gold mining is B. Traven´s,  Treasure of the Sierra Madre, made into the classic film of the same name  by John Huston.  These lines, spoken by Alfonso Bedoya, Goldenhat,  ¨Badges, We ain´t got no badges, we don´t need any badges, I don´t have to show you any stinking badge¨,  are now part of the American lexicon. And so is gold mining, to some extent,  a part of the collective American identity.

I began wandering the Uinta Mountains gold mining, better said gold panning, many years ago. What I learned there I later applied in the northern mountains of Nicaragua.  And I found gold and silver.

First, let´s talk about the mining itself. You can either take a sledge hammer and bust rocks and then grind them to a powder, or you can  wade around pretty cold running mountain streams with a pan and wash the gravel and sand hoping to find some bits of gold.  Of the two, I prefer wading in cold streams to busting big rocks with a sledge hammer.

That there is gold in Nicaragua there can be no doubt. Presently a couple of the big mining companies, B2Gold, and Hemco, are producing over 200,000 troy ounces of gold and the same amount of silver.  In addition, native gold miners, here called guiriseros, produce perhaps another 60,000 ounces for local use and sale. The silver production comes from the smelting of gold, which usually contains silver when mined.  It did not take the Spaniards long to find gold in Nicaragua.  Gil Gonzalez´s compulsive treasurer, Andres Cereceda, recorded the Spaniards took about 13,000 ounces of gold from the villages they first visited in 1522. The second Spanish entry  into Nicaragua was made by Francisco Hernandez,  who recorded taking about 11,000 ounces of gold from the native villagers.  Within five years of their first entry into Nicaragua, the Spaniards were in the northern mountains, finding a lot of gold establishing mining towns, and getting killed, and eaten,  by the natives.  Hernando de Soto, famous for finding the Mississippi River, did some mining in the northern mountains, found gold, and a lot of hostiles.  He left Nicaragua in 1531 for less strenuous ventures.  Another early conquistador, Gabriel de Rojas, found several streams in the northern mountains that contained gold. Three hundred years later American ambassador Ephraim Squier wrote about a couple of those same streams.

In order to find gold, you have to look where it can be found. Gold has a specific gravity of about 18,which means it is 18 times heavier than water.  Most substances found in streams where gold is found are various forms of silicon, or quartz bearing rocks and gravel, and  have a specific gravity of about three.  Gold is six times heavier than everything else in the stream.  When it is transported by water, it will drop out of the current as soon as the velocity of the water begins to drop.  Going around the bend and collecting at the end of a bend is one place to look.  Another is where the stream slows down; there gold nuggets of dust will drop out of the stream and lay on the bottom of the gravel and sand.

To get the gold you have to dig up that sand and gravel mix, and use a pan, any kind of pan, to slosh the mix around so the gold separates by weight from the mix.  You then collect the bits of gold with a squeeze bottle or use the eraser of a lead pencil, and put the gold in a small glass bottle, like the one in the picture of Mrs Werner´s hand with gold dust. That´s it.

Northern Nicaragua´s geology should be considered.  While most expats tend to live in the  flatlands, complete with beaches, palm trees, and other expats, there is no gold there, only a lot of people.  Southern Nicaragua is relatively new, with little geology dating back before 25 million years, and some petrified wood from the period.  The highest and oldest  mountains of Nicaragua are found in the Cordillera de Dipilto, along the Honduras border.  The cordillera itself is a huge chunk whitish granite, called a batholith, about 60 miles long, laying east west, in a bed of metamorphosed schist. The batholiths has been dated to about 163 million years,  or the Cretaceous  period.  Some fossils, like those imbedded in the rocks at the Samaska rapids on the lower Bocay River, have fossils sea shells of about that age.

Gold, as usually found, appears, in two periods, the Precambrian, very old, and Tertiary, perhaps 25 million years old.  The Homestead mine in South Dakota is Precambrian gold; most of the gold in Nicaragua is Tertiary. It seems that sometime in the Tertiary period, superheated water transported, along with silicon, gold, in the form of white stringers, in the contact zone of the batholiths and underlying schist.  Water over the ages has acted as a sort of natural milling process, that liberated the gold from the surrounding white quartz, and deposited it in stream beds.  There it has sat, until some native, Spaniard, or expat, came along to scarf it up.

Other Considerations

For placer mining as described here, little is needed, any sort of pan, and a small bottle for the gold, and a change of clothes and tennis shoes for wading in the streams. If you want a more sophisticated gold pan, check out Garret gold pans, and equipment. They make a fine squeeze bottle for sucking up gold particles from the pan.  If you get ambitious, you might try importing a small gold dredge.  Keene makes several models, some you can carry on your back or on a pack animal.  Pack mules or horses are always a good idea.  A small dredge can move perhaps a cubic meter of sand and gravel per hour, more than you can wash with a pan in a day.  Problem with a dredge is that they tend to attract attention to all within earshot, which may not be good.  Some villages do give mining concessions to local cooperatives; they may not take kindly to a foreigner, not a member of the cooperative,  mining with a dredge. And you might attract bad guys.

A panning operation is quiet, and if you choose wisely where to pan, can be effective.  There are many mine shafts in the northern mountains, particularly around the old colonial silver mines at Macquelizo and Dipilto.  They may contain interesting  geology.  The one pound nugget of silver lead that my secretary Irela Lanuza is holding in the photo I found in a mine shaft.  But mine shafts have two problems.  One, they are inherently dangerous, with ventilation shafts, and cave ins.   And,  they are inhabited by bats, who deposit guano,  in which grows various fungi that can produce nasty diseases such as histoplasmosis which attacks the lungs, and for which there is no easy remedy in Nicaragua.

Security generally must be considered.  If you are successful you will be carrying out of the mountains a certain amount of something small and quite valuable.  Gold is presently selling at about 1200$ per troy ounce.  Once you get outside of Ocotal or San Fernando and go up the cordillera, there is little or no police presence.  You need to be cautious and it helps to be bi lingual to see what sort of language is used when you meet someone on the trail. Nuances count.  Another hazard is that in some areas there may be remaining land mines from the war. The Cordillera was a place of intense fighting and regular infiltration of the Contra and both sides laid down land mines, and did not always make accurate maps of those mine fields. Knowing the trails and local folk is quite helpful.  Ineter also makes some very fine topographical maps, at 1:50,000.  They are accurate to 1990 and should be obtained for all areas that may be explored. They can be used to calculate when stream velocity drops and where gold may be deposited by water.

Gold Dust Purity And Purchasing Gold From Miners

One of the curiosities is that the purity of gold changes as you go east.  Gold mined by Ocotal usually  is about 12 carat, or 50% purity.  As you move east along the Coco River the purity increases to Wiwili, where the purity is usually around 18 carat, or about 67% purity.  The predominant other metals are silver, and in rare instances uranium.  I once sold some Segovia gold to a jeweler in San Jose Costa Rica.  When I went back the next month with more gold, he refused to buy more gold as he had purchased from me gold with traces of uranium, which is almost impossible to separate from gold.  There is a deposit of radium north of Wiwili, and maybe that is what I had sold.

Another way to obtain gold is to try purchasing it directly from miners.  This is an interesting art.  Most of the villages down river from Wiwili, such as Shaminka, have miners who are more than willing to sell gold dust to expats.  Another area is the village of Santa Rosa del Peñon, where there was a big gold strike in 1771.  There is a big crack in the mountain called Tisey, south of San Nicolas,  and gold bearing dog toothed quartz on both sides of the crack.  There are multiple mine shafts, and many houses appear to have two latrines, one of which is a large mortar and pestle for grinding the dog toothed quartz to get the trapped gold.  You can buy as much gold as you want.  The problem is paying too much for the gold.  It is best to bone up on conversions, troy ounces to grams, and grams to tomines, the medieval Hispanic apothecary measurement still  used  to buy and sell gold.  For the curious, a spent .22 long rifle casing weights five tomines; and 1.5 tomines is about a gram.  Troy ounces are not the same as avoirdupois ounces and contain  a few more grams.  The biggest problem is trying to calculate specific gravity and buy metal with a specific gravity of 18, or you may be buying a lot of mercury mixed in with the gold. Because someone is uneducated and does not speak English does not mean they will sell gold at a good price.  They will usually know exactly at what price they must sell the gold to make a profit using arcane measurements that may be unfamiliar to  an expat.

Good  luck mining!

Suggested Readings

It helps to know what ancient miners did and knew  and worked to obtain gold.  The best compendium of renaissance knowledge of mining and technology  is Georgius Agricola´s great De Re Metalica, 1556 ( Dover, 1950).  Translated by Herbert and Lou Hoover in 1912, this is the best place to start in understanding mining in the 16th century.  Vannoccio Biringuccio´s,  The Pirotechnia, 1540 ( Dover, 1990) complements Agricola regarding smelting techniques and treatment of different alloys. A very good overview of mining techniques in the Hispanic tradition is found in Otis Young, Jr´s,  Western Mining, ( 1970, University of Oklahoma Press).  The best geology  handbook I have found, and one that has accompanied me many times into the mountains is the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Rocks and Minerals, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1993.  Squier apparently retraced Gabriel de Rojas´s tracks, or at least got Segovian prefect, Don F.D.Zapata, to do so,  in 1860.  This account is printed in Squier´s very fine Notes On Central America, 1860 (AMS Press, 1971).  A  source on Hispanic colonial mining law and the mining code of 1584, which defined mining in the colonial period,  details just how miners had to go about staking a claim and the working the claim, is found on my web page, nicaraguanpathways.com in the section on manuscripts.

3 ores

 

Three types of gold ore from Nicaragua.  The sample on the left is green silicate from the El Jicaro area, found in a very old mine, probably Spanish.  The sample on close inspection contains gold crystals on the surface.  The sample in the  middle is the so called dog toothed quartz from a mine in the fault at Santa Rosa del Peñon.  The gold is found as small flakes in the quartz behind the quartz crystals, or dog teeth. The dog teeth are covered by hematite in their natural state.   The sample on the right is a mix of iron pyrite crystals attached to  sort of chalcopyrite, classic gold ore, as described by Agricola as resembling rotten bread.  The sample came from a rich mine presently  being worked in the Rosita district of Las Minas.

 

Mine Shaft

Mine shaft at Macquelizo silver mine

Burro

 

Rural transportation burro with pack saddle in Nueva Segovia

Stream

 

Good gold bearing stream, Nueva Segovia

 

 

 

2 oz gold

 

Mrs Werner with a glass bottle with two ounces of Segovian gold

 

one pound nugget

Irela Lanuza with one pound nugget of silver lead from Macquelizo mine

Panning

Gold panning with a Garret gravity feed gold pan

Pat Werner – Bio

Born in Michigan in 1948, Werner received his education at Michigan State University and Wayne State University.  He began working in a gun shop at the age of 14, and began competitive shooting at 16. He worked as a friend of the court in family law matters, assistant prosecutor, and entered private practice, specializing in family law and bankruptcy.  In the intermountain west, he became involved in ranch management, began gold prospecting as a hobby, and got post graduate education in handling green broke horses.

Werner moved to Nicaragua at the later part of the Contra War, and was engaged by various news agencies, including Izvestia and the Los Angeles Times, taking reporters into various places in the northern mountains, and the Miskito Coast. He had the opportunity to wander the northern mountains and Miskito coast, and worked exporting fish from the Miskito Coast to Costa Rica in 1989. He worked at the American School and later began work at the University of Mobile, San Marcos campus.  He continued to work at the campus in various positions, including professor and Academic Dean at Keiser University, retiring in December 2014. He served for several years on the board of the CCNN of the American Embassy.

His scholarly interests include Nicaraguan archaeology and anthropology, ethno-botany, Hispanic colonial law and Nicaraguan history. He has published seven books, including the first guide to Nicaraguan orchids in English and has also written 10 manuscripts, and presented 60 papers at international conferences on botany, archaeology, anthropology, and Hispanic colonial law.

5 Comments

  1. Bob Moore

    May 11, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    Hello Pat, I have a gold mine in the Rosita area. I have dug a very big hole and have been working rock for the last two weeks. Could use a some advice. Would you be interested in visiting my mine as my guest? Best Regards, Bob

  2. Luiz

    May 8, 2016 at 4:19 pm

    Hello , can I get advice about river in nicaragua to set a 10″ cutterhead dredge?

  3. Eric

    June 1, 2016 at 7:57 pm

    Where can i sell my gold in Managua or is there a goldsmith?

    • Abe Shaheen

      January 26, 2017 at 9:09 pm

      any body interested to work in small scale gold mining in Nicaragua with me?,
      good expertise.Thank you

  4. Russel Sandlin

    January 27, 2017 at 1:16 pm

    I am in Managua, and I want to try a little weekend Gold hunting. Anyone else here in Managua care to join me?