For generations the Ohlone Indians followed the path along the Alamitos Creek to find cinnabar in a cave in the nearby hills. They traded the mineral, used it in religious ceremonies and decorated their bodies. Elsewhere in the world, quicksilver, another name for mercury, the end product in the processing of cinnabar, was an important component in the amalgamation of gold, silver and other precious metals. The Rothschilds, an influential European banking family, owned the Almaden mines in Spain, held the monopoly on quicksilver and controlled the price for quicksilver on the world market.
In 1845 Captain Andres Castillero, a Mexican soldier, diplomat and scholar, was sent to Alta California on a mission to Sutter's Fort. The Mexican government wanted to buy out Sutter in an effort to keep out American settlers. When meetings between Castillero and Sutter failed, Castillero returned to Mission Santa Clara. It was there that he noticed the red paint in the artwork in the mission church and on the bodies of the Ohlones. Recognizing the red color as probably being that of cinnabar or silver, he proceeded to test the ore and discovered that it was indeed cinnabar. Indians took him to their source. He filed a denouncement on 3,000 vara of land for all sides of the cave mouth. This is the site of the richest mine in California and the largest quicksilver mining area in the Americas. Castillero's keen observation in recognizing cinnabar ore helped break the Rothchild's monopoly of quicksilver.
Twenty-eight months later the discovery of gold sparked the great overland migration of people to California. Soon after arriving miners realized they needed quicksilver to amalgamate with gold. The community of New Almaden became an integral part of the gold rush because its quicksilver was readily available and inexpensive to ship to the Mother Lode. Wagons loaded with flasks traveled to the port of Alviso where the flasks were shipped to San Francisco for worldwide distribution. This local source of quicksilver made mining lucrative for the gold miner.
By 1865, life on Mine Hill was very wild and dangerous. Criminals, including Tiburico Vasquez, were hiding out, drinking was rampant, and shootings were common. In an effort to control the criminal element, mine manager Samuel F. Butterworth built a toll gate at the entrance to the Hacienda Mine works at the narrows of the canyon where Almaden Road and Almaden Way meet. The toll collector lived in the far apartment where he collected tolls and inspected wagons. The residents of Mine Hill were not allowed to bring in alcohol and guns. These residents were fined if they were caught with unacceptable goods.
Over the years, the three apartments were rented to a number of Californios. Among those living there were Berryessas and Narvaezes, descendents of members of the 1776 Anza expedition. Frank Lewis, a son-in-law of James Frazier Reed and the husband of Patty Reed of the Donner Party, was a tenant in 1866. Antonio Soto, a Mutsun Indian, lived here in 1880.
The story of New Almaden's quicksilver and of the overland pioneers' dreams of a better life will always be tied together as a rewarding and tragic human experience that helped settle the Santa Clara Valley, California and the American West.