Columbus's Failing Mining Colony Pilfered Its Supplies, Study Says

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
February 20, 2007
Residents of a 15th-century New World mining colony founded by Christopher Columbus turned to desperate measures in the face of rapidly deteriorating conditions, a new study suggests.

According to researchers from the University of Arizona, the colony of La Isabela's situation was so dire that the miners tried to smelt their own supplies by extracting silver from lead ore they brought with them from Europe.

Archaeologists working at the site—located in what is now the Dominican Republic—in the 1990s found slag and other by-products of mining operations indicating that the miners had processed some ore there.

The initial conclusion was that the ore had been found near La Isabela, processed there, and found to contain no significant amount of silver or other precious metals.

But the new report suggests that the colonists, beset by hunger, disease, hurricanes, mutiny, and conflicts with the natives, were instead pilfering their own supply of ore.

The attempts came as the miners prepared to abandon the colony after a breakdown in authority, the authors speculate.

"Our paper, which describes the extraction of silver from lead ore at La Isabela, concludes that these ores were processed very late in the history of the settlement, just shortly before La Isabela was completely abandoned in late 1497," said Alyson Thibodeau, one of the study's authors.

The study appears this week on the Web site of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Golden Failure

Columbus led the mining expedition to what was then known as Hispaniola in 1494, two years after his historic voyage of discovery to the New World. (Related video: "Columbus' 1492 Journey Continues to Spark Controversy".)

Like his first endeavor, the mining colony, designed to find and extract large amounts of precious metals, was funded by Spain.

In 2004 Thibodeau began a two-year analysis of slag recovered from the site. She found that the ore that had produced the slag hailed not from the Caribbean but from Europe.

The research team hypothesizes that the miners brought the European ore with them to help determine the silver and gold content of ore unearthed at La Isabela.

After three years with little to show for the effort, however, it became clear to the miners that La Isabela was not going to succeed. Columbus was recalled to Spain to explain why his efforts had failed.

Meanwhile, the miners began smelting their own ore supplies—but without much luck.

The process yielded "very tiny amounts of silver," said David Killick, a study co-author. "They must have been truly desperate to try this."

The fact that the miners resorted to such steps meant that they had few options left, he added.

"The people who had been induced to come out to La Isabela had been promised big sources of gold and silver," Killick said. "They were minor noblemen in Spain, and they expected to make their fortunes. They didn't find it."

After the colony failed, some of the miners hiked across Hispaniola to Spain's new colony, Santo Domingo. Others faded into the mountains and became bandits.

The discovery, Killick added, shows that archaeologists and scientists can team up to make "new and surprising finds" that can rewrite what is known even about well-documented history.

"In conclusion," the study authors write, "what seemed at first to be evidence of the earliest European mining and processing of precious metals in the New World appears, on further inspection, to be poignant testimony to the disillusionment and desperation of settlers who had embarked on the second expedition in the hope of making their fortunes."

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