I know William Williams was anxious as he approached the cabin after midnight on Thursday, 26 July, 1860. He could see the adobe and the outbuildings in the dim quarter moon light, but the silence worried him. No smoke issued from the chimney where 15 men had cooked their meals and smelted their ore for the last year. There was not a sound from the corral where the burros and horses should have been responding to the pack animals he was leading. Motioning the boys, Billy and Charley Ake, to hold back their laden burros, Williams approached the cabin alone, calling out his cousin's name. "James? James?" Something unseen in the pitch blackness made him stop short. William struck a match. And in a ragged breath he saw that the cabin's front door was ajar, and then, stretched on the ground he saw James, face down, with his head split wide open and small clumps of gray-white brain trailing away into the dark.
This story begins after North America had been sailing westward at 2 inches a year for about a hundred million years. Then about 25 million years ago the continent's northwestern edge slammed head on into the Juan de Fuca plate. And like 2 cars colliding head on left headlamp to right headlamp, the collision sent 250 sextillion tons of continental rock buckling and twisting. The wrenching spun Baja California loose from Mexico and, about 17 million years ago, switched on the San Andreas fault.
Telling the boys to stay back, William edged past his cousin's corpse, and pushed the door wider. The small room was was deep black. Holding the match high, William took two steps inside and stumbled over the heavy body of John Moss. That was enough. William stumbled out of the cabin, yelling at the Ake boys to gather the mules, and get the hell out of here.
As the west coast twisted, the crust behind was pulled out, stretching a hundred miles and more, until it was so thin it cracked into 400 blocks roughly 25 miles across, each dropping down at a 60 degree angle on the west end with eastern escarpments tilting up to 10,000 feet into the sky.
They formed a rhythmic series of north-south mountain islands, appearing on maps like "an army of caterpillars marching toward Mexico". With every 1,000 feet in elevation of each range, the temperature dropped 4 degrees, and rainfall increased by 4 inches. Thus each mountain range became a sky island, biologically isolated by the 120 degree desert seas between them .And in this 500 by 1,500 mile Basin and Range Province lay most of North America's accessible rare metal wealth.
The 3 traumatized males hurried 35 miles south along the San Pedro River to Sonoita Creek, then west up it's canyon to Fort Buchanan. The outpost's commander, Captain Richard S. Ewell, recognized William as the panicked man rode up, not long after dawn.
The two had crossed paths just the day before, and, as Ewell wrote his sister back in Virginia, he immediately realized, "..something bad had happened." The story spilled from William like a desert gully-washer. "He said he had arrived at the mine about midnight, and no one answering, struck a light and saw his cousin lifeless with his head split open. They did not wait to see more...." Ewell dispatched as many of his malaria ridden dragoons as he could spare to accompany William back to the cabin. The Captain's assumption was that the Apache must be responsible. But Ewell kept the Ake boys at the fort to question them, as to what they had seen and heard.
As the crustal blocks tilted they lifted ancient hydrothermal vents, where super heated brine had split the bedrock. As the vents cooled they left behind precipitate, veins of quartz, tinted occasionally with gold, but more often with lead - galena - or sulfur - agentite - or even chlorine - horn silver (above).
And by the middle of the 19th century, some humans had learned to read such rocks, the way a hunter reads a trail. A bit of fur caught on a bramble, a leaf nervously nibbled but left on the branch, tells of a furtive buck hiding nearby. Quartz stained with chalcopyrite tells of veins of copper sulphide hiding below. Gelena hints at lead sulphide (above). Should you find both, if you were educated, diligent and lucky, you might find silver as well.
The soldiers found the mechanic James Williams, "ravaged by animals", on the ground between the 3 room adobe cabin (above) and the empty supply shed. All the horses and mules kept in the corral and their tack were gone. Inside the adobe was the body of chemist John C. Moss. He lay on the front room floor, stabbed multiple times. The contents of the cabin had been ransacked, and some of the assaying equipment was missing. But there was no sign of the cook, David Brontrager, nor of the 11 miners recruited from Sonora Mexico, nor the tents they had occupied, nor their boss, the head of the St. Louis Mining Company, Frederick Brunckow.
Silver is an odd metal. You never pan for silver in a stream, or dig it out with your bare hands. Silver is found only in veins running through hard rock, where it forms thin flakes or plates and occasionally crystal clusters (above). But it takes an educated eye to recognize silver ore. In 1858 an educated mining engineer tracked a quartz trail across the hot deserts of the Sonoran, until he found a 6 foot wide vein of silver chloride, a mile east of the north flowing San Pedro River. He filed a claim and named his mine "The Bronco". His name was Frederick Brunckow.
Frederick had been born in Saxony in 1830, of a Russian father and a German mother. He was trained as a mining engineer at the University of Westphalia. He was fluent in German, English, French and Spanish. At 20 years of age he emigrated to the United States, where he worked his way down the Mississippi as a steamboat deckhand, all the way to Texas. There, in 1854, his mining degree earned him an $1,800 a year salary with the Sonora Exploration and Mining Company. And after 2 seasons tracking minerals in the New Mexico basin and range providence, Frederick decided to strike out on his own.
They found Frederick Brunckow not far inside the mine shaft (above). Like the others he had been dead for several days. But his death had been more violent, in part probably because he was Jewish.
His corpse had a 10 inch long hardened steel hand-held drill bit driven into this abdomen. Because of the violence of all the attacks, and because the bodies had lain in the Arizona heat for 3 days, the dead were buried in hastily dug and poorly marked graves. The next morning the nervous soldiers returned to Fort Buchanan.
Frederick had found financial backing in the immigrant community of St. Louis, Missouri. He found his first four employees there, as well. Pharmacist John Moss invested in the Bronco and would serve as chemist. Machinist James Williams agreed to keep the mine's equipment running and his cousin William offered to serve as the Bronco's supervisor. Another German American, David Brontrager, signed on as the mine's cook. The plan was to gather equipment in St. Louis, sail down the Mississippi to New Orleans, then across the Gulf of Mexico to Texas, and make their way overland to Arizona and Sonora, where Frederick would hire peons to do the heavy work because they were cheaper than Americans.
The soldiers returned to Fort Buchanan on Sunday, 29 July, 1860. Their opinion, as Captain Ewell told his sister, was "the Mexican employees had risen, murdered the Americans and robbed the place and run off for Sonora" Having negotiated with the Apache, Ewell agreed. "This is much worse than would have been done by the Indians," he wrote, "who don't betray confidence in this manner." A few days later, this version was seemingly confirmed when the cook, David Brontrager, reappeared 15 miles closer to the Mexican border, at Camp Jecker, on the San Pedro River.
The first task in hard rock mining is simple back-breaking labor under very dangerous conditions. In "single-jacking" an individual miner used a 5 pound hammer to drive a 4 foot long drill 3 feet into the rock, rotating the drill a quarter turn after every strike.
When there was enough space 2 or 3 men would "Double Jack", one holding the drill and the others wielding 10 pound hammers, The completed holes were then filled with black powder, which was set off to crack the rock into pieces. The debris was then "mucked out" and carried to the surface in buckets or carts.
If Broterager's story was to be believed, just hours after William and the Ake brothers had left the adobe on Monday, 23 July, to buy flour at Fort Buchanan, the Sonoran peons had rebelled. They murdered Brunckow because he was the boss and because he was Jewish, James Williams and John Moss because they were witnesses, and the peons kidnapped and released Broterager at the Mexican border because, as they told him, he was "a good Catholic".
The peons primary motive was theft. What they stole speaks to their poverty in feudal Sonora. They took firearms, boots, shoes, underwear, and several dozen pairs of pants, and a small amount of silver ore which had been refined through the use of an arrastra.
The method had been brought to the new world by the Spanish 300 years earlier. An axle was vertically driven into the center of a pit, lined with stones (above). Large flat bottom rocks were then tied to the axle so that as the axle turned, the stones would be dragged (arrastra) across the ore, slowly grinding it into pebbles. This "Chilli Mill" meant more back breaking labor, this time under the killing Arizona sun. But without abundant water, it was the only way to "refine" the ore.
In the America of 1860, Catholics were still suspect, and Ewell could not prove Broterager's innocence. So the German American remained in the fort's brig while the Arizona mining community panicked. Meetings were held, committees formed, outraged expressed, and a list of the "murdering greasers" was compiled. Captain Ewell forwarded these expressions of outrage to Governor Ignacio Pesqueira of Sonora, Mexico (above). The murderers were never arrested, but some of the mining equipment was returned, along with enough validation of Broterager's story, that he was released.
And then the outbreak of the Civil War gave the Americans something else to worry about. Captain Ewell would rise to Lieutenant General of the Confederate States of America, and command 1/3rd of the Army of Northern Virginia. And the German immigrant community of St. Louis would enlist in large numbers to help defeat the Confederacy.
But the violence which had butchered 3 men in a lonely cabin in 1860, would eventually lead to the 30 most iconic seconds of violence in the history of the American frontier, just 8 miles from that dark and bloody adobe, in a town called Tombstone.