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My Experience in Mexico - How Luck Again Brought Me Fortune.
All the early gold seekers of California had some knowledge of Mexico. The great argosies of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company stopped at various points, such as Acapulco, Manzanillo and sometimes at Mazatlan. Thus the passengers gained a sort of hurricane deck impression of the Latin nation to the southward. But it extended no further than these glimpses of the coast. A veil of profound mystery and romance shut out a view of the vast interior. Only, we knew that it was immensely rich in precious metals, but so utterly lawless and overrun with bandits that nothing short of a standing army could protect an investment.
Thus none of the adventurous pioneers attempted to explore and prospect the west coast of Mexico, which later poured its hundreds of millions into California. I may be mistaken, but I have a strong impression that I was the first of a long line of miners who went from San Francisco to Mexico and laid the foundation there for mighty fortunes.
Very much like Jason, when he pushed his classic junk from Greece, I started on my ventures in Mexico. I bought a small trading vessel, hired an excellent crew, several of whom spoke Spanish, took very little money along, but a large cargo of goods suitable to the wants of the country. In other words, I figured to make the expedition finance itself. In this I was fairly successful. After sailing up the Gulf of California and stopping at various ports, we arrived at Mazatlan, my original objective point, my cargo sold out.
There was a small American colony at Mazatlan and several groups of foreigners of other nationalities, all of them of the trading class. When I suggested a prospecting expedition into the interior, they assured me it was little better than suicide; that the country was in the absolute possession of outlaws of the most desperate type, and that a prospector's life would not be worth ten cents among them.
But I met a Mexican gentleman by the name of Don Miguel Paredis, who told me a very different story. He said that the dangers were grossly exaggerated - that there was really little to fear for anyone who understood the people. As a guaranty of good faith he offered to go with me, for at the time he happened to be broke - not an unusual incident in the life of a Mexican gentleman. Moreover, he promised to lead me to a mine of fabulous riches, in the mountains of Durango, about two hundred miles from Mazatlan. So we set out with a complete mining outfit, powder, steel, tools, general equipment and provisions for six months.
Don Miguel certainly understood his business. We really were in no more real danger than if we had been traveling through one of the New England States. We did meet some uncommonly tough-looking citizens, armed to the teeth, but Don Miguel always rode forward to meet them, handed out some specious palaver in Spanish, whereupon the whole party would disembark from their mules or horses, embrace each other on the trail, pass around some more palaver and part with mutual esteem. The Don was a marvel as a peacemaker and I might add that for genuine good-fellowship and clean dealing in all respects he was one of the finest men of any nation I have met in a long life.
Finally, we reached his mine. This was known for years after as the Guadaloupe de los Angeles mine. He hadn't exaggerated its riches, hadn't told half the truth. The vein ran straight up the almost perpendicular face of a narrow gorge. It was merely a case of breaking down the ore as in an open cut. There were no shafts, tunnels, drifts, and winches that take the heart out of quartz mining as a rule. And the ore was so rich that with careful sorting it was possible to make large cargoes average $500 or $600 a ton.
We never attempted to "beneficiate" or reduce the ore on the spot. Don Miguel was altogether too shrewd for that. Had bullion trains gone through the mountains from our camp it would have taken a standing army to protect them. We simply bought mules and burros, loaded them with rock that no bandit wanted, though it was worth perhaps five hundred dollars a ton. It very seldom failed to reach the seaboard, where there were crude reduction works and plenty of purchasers of ore.
Even our inbound pack trains of costly supplies were unmolested. Don Miguel was forever practicing diplomacy. If a robber appeared at our hacienda he was received like a friend and brother, had the best of everything, couldn't say "mas vino" too often, was handed a liberal "gratification" or tip and limitless "felicidades" on his departure. By the exercise of these arts, the management became so popular that on several occasions our pack trains were actually protected by professional bandits against marauding amateurs.
We never had a bit of trouble in our camp with the large number of people assembled there. This also was due to Don Miguel's forethought and knowledge of his people. As far as I can recollect, give the average Mexican plenty of grub, plenty of music, plenty of dancing, a little cheap finery in dress, and the rest of the world can wag on as it will, for aught he cares. He does not take kindly to abstractions, doesn't worry over his "wrongs," has no inclination to reorganize society; only wants to be let alone to enjoy the good things of life according to his own simple plan. And when you get down to brass tacks, his is not a bad philosophy, after all.
Don Miguel arranged it so that our little army of employees never had time to meditate mischief. He bought them all kinds of musical instruments, including a brass band on which they became proficient in a wonderfully short time. Every night there was a "baile" in the plaza at which the people danced till they fell from exhaustion. He offered cash prizes - mighty stiff ones - for the best dancers, male and female - the choice to be determined among themselves by a plebiscite or by select committee. Also, on Sundays, we had a bull fight. It wasn't of the sanguinary description; the bulls weren't killed, but were thriftily kept in cold storage to fight another day. It made a satisfactory sport for the people, and was also inexpensive. Added to this, we paid high wages in, hard cash and kept in stock at our store an assortment of articles for personal decoration at prices that were highly profitable but not prohibitive.
Thus our enterprise became a big success from every standpoint. At a time when nearly all the mines in the Sierra Madre were closed down - practically abandoned - we were swinging along under a full head of steam, without the slightest interruption, with the general good will of all with whom we came in contact. Besides, we were making money at a rate sufficient to turn one's brain. I doubt if ever such a return was made on the trifling sum invested. There had been no development expense. The mine paid from the very day we began to operate it.
While I was the "capitalist" and owned, by our agreement, two-thirds of the property, I allowed Don Miguel an absolute free hand in all matters of policy; wherein I showed a wisdom superior to my years. And I followed his advice in one matter so important that I must mention it for the general good of mankind.
The women of the Mexican Sierra are remarkable for their physical charms. There were many real beauties resident in our camp - "simpaticas," they used to call them - which doesn't mean "sympathetics," but "good lookers." Now, I have always believed that a good looking woman was made to be looked at, to be admired; otherwise, wherefore was she created? Down in Mexico I could no more fail to notice a "simpatica" as she passed by, than I could close my eyes to the beauties of nature.
Observing which, Don Miguel gave me a piece of advice which every reader of this chapter who may happen to visit Mexico should write down for future reference.
"Leave our women alone," he counseled me. "They are romantic, soft-hearted and will meet you half way, but no matter how innocent your intercourse, it will rouse jealousy, ill-will and serious danger. Nearly all the foreigners who get into trouble in Mexico can trace it to this source."
I realized the truth of this later when a young friend of mine called Eaton, who was a fine fellow but an ardent imitator of Lothario the Gay, was shot down in a lonely spot, jealousy being the evident motive.
In the fall of 1860 I returned to San Francisco, as I thought for a brief trip. Just to show myself, in fact. Among other things, I brought a few tons of ore that sold for $3,000 a ton, the sight of which made the town delirious. I found that my fame, or rather various romances, had preceded me. I wasn't quite twenty, couldn't vote, couldn't make a legal contract, yet I had over a quarter of a million in hard cash to my credit in bank, and my mine in Mexico was worth a million more. These were the actual facts, which were exaggerated and distorted beyond all resemblance to the truth. My wealth was at least quadrupled, and I was dragged through a series of bloodcurdling experiences in Mexico without a parallel in fiction.
Thus, you can see how the orange and banana sale incident set the wheels of fate revolving. If I had come to California with sufficient money, I would have made some kind of a blind stagger at luck, thrown up the sponge in disgust after a few months, and written to my father for a remittance to come home.
As it was, I quietly took rank with the great figures of the State before I had reached my majority, and became a leading actor in an unwritten page of history, when the destinies of California hung by the veriest thread.