Chilean silver rush

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Chilean Silver Rush
Drawing of early 19th-century Chilean silver miners
LocationNorte Chico Mountains, Chile
CauseMajor discoveries of silver in Chañarcillo in 1832 and Tres Puntas in 1848
ParticipantsChilean miners
OutcomeInflux of silver miners led to the rapid demographic, infrastructural, and economic expansion of mining and non-mining industries in the Norte Chico mountain region of Chile
Location of Chañarcillo and Tres Puntas and the cities of northern Chile as of 1830. Modern boundaries of Chile are shown.

Between 1830 and 1850, Chilean silver mining grew at an unprecedented pace which transformed mining into one of the country's principal sources of wealth. The rush caused rapid demographic, infrastructural, and economic expansion in the semi-arid Norte Chico mountains where the silver deposits lay. A number of Chileans made large fortunes in the rush and made investments in other areas of the economy of Chile. By the 1850s, the rush was in decline and lucrative silver mining definitively ended in the 1870s. At the same time, mining activity in Chile reoriented to saltpetre operations.

Exports of Chilean silver alongside copper and wheat were instrumental to allow Chile to cure the default of its independence debt in London.[1]


Placer deposits of gold were exploited by the Spanish in the 16th century following their arrival in the same century.[2] However, only after the independence in the 19th century did mining once again get prominence among economic activities in Chile.[2] Following the discovery of silver at Agua Amarga (1811) and Arqueros (1825), the Norte Chico mountains north of La Serena were intensely prospected.[3][4][5]

Growth cycle[edit]

Statue of Juan Godoy with costumery miner clothes in Copiapó.[6] This statue was ordered in 1850 to be made in Birmingham.[6] Contrary to popular belief the face is not based on that of a Scottish man but on an Argentine arriero held by contemporaries to have had factions similar to Godoy.[6]

On May 16, 1832,[7] prospector Juan Godoy found a silver outcrop (reventón) 50 km south of Copiapó in Chañarcillo.[3] There are various tales and local sayings explaining the discovery by Godoy; one states that he found it while hunting for guanacos,[8] while another saying holds that the outcrop was revealed to Godoy by his mother Flora Normilla on her deathbed.[9][10] A third story claims that Godoy was guided to the riches of Chañarcillo by an alicanto, an animal pertaining to Chilean mythology.[7] Godoy successfully claimed the discovered outcrop inscribing a third of the rights for his brother José Godoy and a third for local businessman Miguel Gallo.[3][9] Godoy and his associates inscribed the claim as La Descubridora (lit. The Discovery).[10] When the three men departed for the site on May 17, they were followed on the sly by local miners.[9] On top of a hill next to Godoy's discovery, these men discovered the silver outcrop that was later known as El Manto de Los Peralta.[9] On May 26, Gallo bought all the rights from the Godoy brothers for a small fortune which however came to dwindle in relation to the future earnings from mining.[9][11]

The finding attracted thousands of people to the place and generated significant wealth.[4] Besides Chileans, people from Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru arrived to work in Chañarcillo.[12][13] During the heyday of Chañarcillo, it produced more than 332 tons of silver ore until the deposits began to be exhausted in 1874.[14] A settlement of 600 people mushroomed in Chañarcillo leading to the establishment of a surveillance system to avoid disorders and theft of ore.[14] Alcohol, knives, and women were banned from Chañarcillo.[13] The settlement evolved over time to a town which was named Pueblo de Juan Godoy in 1846.[12][14] Pueblo Juan Godoy came to have a plaza, school, market, hospital, theater, a railroad station, a church, and graveyard.[14]

Following the discovery of Chañarcillo, many other ores were found near Copiapó well into the 1840s,[3] as attested by numerous claims (denuncios) registered at the court of Copiapó.[14] In 1848, another major ore deposit was discovered at Tres Puntas, sparking yet another rush.[5] Copiapó experienced a large demographic shift and urban growth during the rush.[3] It became the centre for trade and services of a large mining district.[4] In 1851, Copiapó was connected by railroad to Caldera, its principal port of export.[4] This was the first railroad to be established in Chile and the third one in South America.[15] The increased importance of the area around Copiapó in national affairs led to the splintering of the northern Coquimbo Province to form the Atacama Province on October 31, 1843.[16] In 1857, a school of mines was established in Copiapó.[17]

The mining zone slowly grew northwards into the diffuse border with Bolivia.[5] Agriculture in Norte Chico and Central Chile also expanded as a consequence of the rush as it created a new market for its product.[18][19]

The mines of Chañarcillo were:[20]

  • La Descubridora
  • Manto de Valdés
  • Bolaco
  • Colorada
  • Las Guías
  • El Reventón Colorado
  • Mantos de Bolados
  • Mina Yungay
  • Mantos de Ossa
  • Mantos de Peralta
  • Constancia
  • Candelaria
  • Delirio
  • Merceditas
  • San Francisco
  • Dolores 1
  • Dolores 2

When it rains everybody gets wet, but in Atacama they get wet in silver

In the 19th century, Claudio Gay and Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna were among the first to raise the question of the deforestation of Norte Chico caused by the firewood demands of the mining activity. Despite the reality of the degradation caused by mining, and contrary to popular belief, the Norte Chico forests were not pristine before the onset of mining in the 18th century.[22]


By 1855, Copiapó was already in decline.[3] At the end of the silver rush, rich miners had diversified their assets into banking, agriculture, trade and commerce all over Chile.[3] An example of this is silver mining magnate Matías Cousiño who initiated coal mining operations in Lota in 1852 rapidly transforming the town, from being a sparsely populated frontier zone in the mid-19th century, into a large industrial hub.[23][24][25]

In 1870, 1570 miners worked in the Chañarcillo mines; however, the mines were exhausted by 1874, and mining largely ended in 1888 after the mines were accidentally flooded.[14][26][27] Despite this, Chañarcillo was the most productive mining district in 19th century Chile.[5]

A last major discovery of silver occurred 1870[A] in Caracoles in Bolivian territory adjacent to Chile.[5] Apart from being discovered by Chileans, the ore was also extracted with Chilean capital and miners.[4][5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ According to Oreste Plath "some old miners believe that" Caracoles was discovered much earlier, presumably in 1811, by two Aragonese men who were escaping persecution during the independende era. Subsequently, the location of the outcrop is said to have been forgotten.[28]


  1. ^ Pérez Herrero, Pedro (2015). "El orden portaliano (1830-1840)". In Pérez Herrero, Pedro; Sanz, Eva (eds.). Fiscalidad, integración social y política exterior en el pensamiento liberal atlántico (1810-1930) (in Spanish). pp. 237–238. ISBN 978-84-9123-174-5.
  2. ^ a b "Historia de la Minería Chilena". Icarito (in Spanish). University of Chile. 18 April 2011. Archived from the original on 13 June 2013.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Villalobos R., Sergio; Silva G., Osvaldo; Silva V., Fernando; Patricio, Estelle M., eds. (1995) [1974]. Historia de Chile [History of Chile] (in Spanish). Santiago de Chile: Editorial Universitaria. pp. 469–472.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Los Ciclos Mineros del Cobre y la Plata (1820–1880)" [Mining Cycles of Copper and Silver]. Memoria Chilena (in Spanish). Biblioteca Nacional de Chile. Archived from the original on 31 December 2013.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Bethell, Leslie, ed. (1993). Chile Since Independence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 13–14. ISBN 978-0-521-43375-4. LCCN 92017160. OCLC 25873947.
  6. ^ a b c Cortés 2017, p. 14.
  7. ^ a b Montecino Aguirre, Sonia (2015). "Alicanto". Mitos de Chile: Enciclopedia de seres, apariciones y encantos (in Spanish). Catalonia. pp. 47–48. ISBN 978-956-324-375-8.
  8. ^ "Juan Godoy y Chañarcillo". (in Spanish). 2008-11-17. Retrieved 2022-05-19.
  9. ^ a b c d e Cortés 2017, p. 7.
  10. ^ a b "Juan Godoy". (in Spanish). Consejo de Monumentos Nacionales de Chile. Retrieved 2022-05-26.
  11. ^ Cortés 2017, p. 8.
  12. ^ a b Cortés 2017, p. 9.
  13. ^ a b Cortés 2017, p. 10.
  14. ^ a b c d e f Baros M., María Celia (November 2008). "Juan Godoy y Chañarcillo". Minería Chilena. No. 329. Archived from the original on 23 May 2013.
  15. ^ Cortés 2017, p. 17.
  16. ^ Cortés 2017, p. 16.
  17. ^ Cortés 2017, p. 19.
  18. ^ Collier, Simon; Sater, William F. (2004) [1996]. "The conservative settlement, 1830-1841". A History of Chile, 1808-2002 (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 61.
  19. ^ Bengoa, José (2000) [1985]. Historia del pueblo mapuche: Siglo XIX y XX [Mapuche History: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries]. Biblioteca del bicentenario (in Spanish) (6th ed.). Santiago de Chile: LOM Ediciones. p. 155. ISBN 978-956-282-232-9.
  20. ^ Cortés 2017, p. 15.
  21. ^ Aguilar, C.; Navea, L.; Valderrama, L. (2006). Análisis microestructural de clavos y estacas del mineral de Chañarcillo, ubicado en la región de Atacama (Report) (in Spanish). Al respecto Vicuña Mackenna señalaba: Cuando llueve todos se mojan, pero en Atacama se mojan de plata.
  22. ^ Camus Gayan, Pablo (2004). "Los bosques y la minería del Norte Chico, S. XIX. Un mito en la representación del paísaje chileno" (PDF). Historia (in Spanish). 37 (II): 289–310. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 25 October 2015.
  23. ^ Mazzei, Leonardo (2000). "Expansión de gestiones empresariales desde la minería del norte a la del carbón, Chile, siglo XIX" (PDF). Historias (in Spanish). 46: 91–102.
  24. ^ Davis, Eliodoro Martín (1990). "Breves recuerdos de algunas actividades mineras del carbón". Actas. Segundo Simposio sobre el Terciario de Chile (in Spanish). Santiago, Chile: Departamento de Geociencias, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Concepción. pp. 189–203.
  25. ^ Vivallos Espinoza, Carlos; Brito Peña, Alejandra (2010). "Inmigración y sectores populares en las minas de carbón de Lota y Coronel (Chile 1850–1900)" [Immigration and popular sectors in the coal mines of Lota and Coronel (Chile 1850–1900)]. Atenea (in Spanish). 501: 73–94.
  26. ^ Valenzuela Jara, A.E. "History of mining in Chile (part 2)".[dead link]
  27. ^ Cortés 2017, p. 23.
  28. ^ Plath, Oreste (1979). Folklore chileno (in Spanish). Santiago, Chile: Editorial Nascimiento. pp. 131–133.