Story of Mexico - Charles Morris

Rich Products of the Soil and Precious Metals in the Rocks

Mexico, despite its large areas of desert, is a land of immense fecundity in products of nature, a realm of splendid promise. With its unusual variety of climate, ranging from tropical warmth to wintry chill, its rich natural resources, its vast abundance of valuable timber, its broad extent of ranch land, and its enormous richness in mineral products, it has few rivals in point of native wealth in soil and rocks. This is yet far from its full development and the future is full of rich possibilities. Hitherto the chief attention of capitalists has been given to the mining districts, the large yield of silver and other valuable metals in these having caused the cultivation of the soil to be neglected. It has been said that ii the capital used in mining had been devoted to agriculture the country would be four times as rich as it now is. But when the silver and copper pass, the soil will remain, and in its cultivation Mexico may yet find an unceasing source of prosperity.

The estimate has been made that Mexico possesses 250,000 square miles of well-timbered land, nearly 6,000 of dense forest and the vast total of about 500,000 of uncultivated land, the latter forming nearly two-thirds of the entire area. To what extent cultivation can be applied to this broad domain only time can tell. It is in this that the cattle and sheep ranches are situated, and here, we are told, pasturage for millions of food animals can be found. At present the greater part of this rich food-producing territory remains in a desert condition, awaiting the development of which it is capable.

Drying coffee on a coffee plantation near Cordoba.


How great are its possibilities, how widespread its riches, none but those who have traveled in the land with an observing eye can appreciate. With its wide range of climate and its soils adapted to every variety of vegetable growth, its vast mineral wealth and its enormous area fitted for the pasturage of sheep and cattle, it simply needs intelligent labor and wise processes of agriculture to supply the needs of a much larger population and to add very largely to its export trade. At present it sends abroad silver, gold, copper and other minerals from its mines; mahogany, cedar, rubber and dye-woods from its virgin forests; coffee, tobacco, fruit, vanilla and other products from its cultivated fields; meats and hides from its ranches; and in all these respects there is a wide scope of undeveloped opportunity yet to be taken advantage of.

Passing from the coast inward, alike on the Atlantic and Pacific sides, the traveler crosses zones of tropical climate, from which he may rapidly pass into temperate, and if he cares for mountain climbing, into frigid, zones. The bordering lowlands are hot, at times oppressively so, yet the night breezes from the ocean compensate for the heat of the day, sufficiently so to render agreeable the climate of the Vera Cruz and Yucatan sections. A degree of refreshment also comes from the rains, which last from June to November, the year being divided into two seasons, a wet one and a dry one. The mean temperature varies from 77 to 80 F., but often rises to 100 and at times higher, yet the refreshment brought by the night breezes goes far to mitigate the enervating heat of the day.

In this realm of solar warmth and fertile soil all the chief products of the tropics grow in the greatest profusion. These productions include coffee, sugar-cane, tobacco, pepper and rice; alligator pears, oranges, bananas, limes, cocoanuts and many other fruits; chocolate, vanilla, indigo, maize, and various products of tropical soils. These are not all native, the sugar-cane, orange, grape and coffee having been introduced from Europe; but they all grow as profusely as though at home in this western realm.

Not only fruits, but flowers of every hue are abundant in great variety, birds of beautiful plumage flit in rainbow hues through the verdant groves, and gorgeous butterflies rival them in beauty of wing. In the depths of the woods the twining boa coils round the overhanging limbs, the crocodile haunts the streams, the jaguar and puma prowl through the untrodden wilds and the tapir wanders clumsily by the river bank. Monkeys of many species frolic amid the densely clustered boughs, and the whole scene teems with active life.

The dense forests which cover much of the tropical region with profuse vegetation contain trees of commercial value in the greatest variety, considerably more than a hundred species fitted for building or cabinet wares being known. These include the oak, mahogany, Brazil wood, logwood, rosewood, cedar and others of leading importance, while there is a long list of medicinal plants, dye-woods, fiber and gum-bearing trees, edible plants, fruit trees, etc. The woodlands are so thick and dense as in places to be impassable unless opened by the axe of the woodsman, while they are so infested by malarial exhalations that only the native Indian seeks game and food within their unhealthful depths.

In this region we see none of the stone buildings found in the Mexican highlands. All the people need here is shelter from the sun and protection from the rains, and their habitations are flimsy constructions, built of bamboo and light poles with palm leaves for thatch. Towns are rare and the villages are of the most primitive type, swarming with naked babies and boys and girls in the simplest attire. So rich is the soil that support could be provided for a very large population, but this section is much more thinly peopled than the salubrious and temperate region of the interior.

Among the chief cultivated plants of the lowland region sugar stands prominent. Of this Mexico has now a considerable export trade, while the henequen, or Sisal hemp, is another of the principal exported products. The dry climate and hard, sandy soil of Yucatan are admirably adapted for the growth of this plant, the fiber of which is in large demand in carpet, rug, rope and bag manufacture. The considerable demand has caused large attention to be given to its growth.

Other plants which are now actively cultivated are those yielding India rubber, the useful product of which is now in such active demand. Large sums of money have been invested in the cultivation of rubber plants in Mexico, but the return has not been promising, and it is doubtful if this country will ever be able to compete with Brazil and Peru, Malaysia and Ceylon in this culture. Another plant of high value in Mexico, as it is needed for the tortilla, the chief article of food of the laboring class, is maize, or Indian corn, the leading vegetable product of the country. This is cultivated on the plateau as well as in the tropical region, but in the hot lands its growth is extraordinary. It reaches there a height of fifteen to eighteen feet, and in two months after planting the mature ears may be harvested.

Indian corn is grown widely in the Mexican highlands, it being the leading vegetable food product of the country, but the demand for it is so great that importation from the north is still at times necessary. Wheat is also grown extensively in some districts, its cultivation being confined to the temperate region of the plateau, largely in the State of Chihuahua. Here irrigation is necessary, and only enough grain is produced for local consumption. For bread and cake making in the hotels and restaurants flour is imported in considerable quantity from the United States.

Two important products of the soil are cotton and sugar-cane. Of these, cotton has long been grown, the Aztecs cultivating it and spinning it into clothing. The Aztec warriors wore armor of quilted cotton of much utility as a safeguard against arrows, for which reason some of the Spanish invaders adopted it. The plant has been grown ever since, there being a very large area adapted to its cultivation, greater, indeed, as is stated, than exists in the United States. The most important region for its production is upon the rich irrigated lands along the Nazas. But as cotton clothing is worn almost universally in Mexico, the product falls far short of the demand and this also is largely imported from the United States. Cotton is grown to a considerable extent in the tropical lowland region on each side of the country, but the total product in the country is less than 120,000 bales. Some of this is exported, but there are about 125 cotton-weaving mills in the republic, some of them having very large capital.

The sugar-cane is not indigenous to Mexico, but was introduced by the Spaniards. But the soil and climate have proved excellently adapted to it and its growth is prolific, the yield per acre being high. First grown by Cortes and his followers, it was being exported from Mexico to Spain as early as 1553. The whole of the hot country is well fitted for its growth and along the Gulf coast the canes are enormous in size. In ten months growth they will attain a height of twenty feet and a girth of two inches. Neither ploughing nor irrigation is necessary, and the cane, once planted, will grow without need of care for ten years. The yield per acre is from 30 to 35 tons, producing from 20 to 25 tons of juice, this yielding 15 to 16 per cent of sugar. Vera Cruz is the best fitted state, and sugar-cane cannot be grown profitably at over 3,000 feet in height. About 1,000 feet high is apparently the best elevation, in view of rainfall, labor, transportation and other needful elements.

In addition to the cane, the sugar-beet is also becoming a product of value, and the opinion is growing that it will eventually supersede the cane. It is suited to most parts of the country and can be grown for ten months of the year, while it has the advantage that corn and maguey can be planted in connection with it. Nearly all the beets now grown are used as food for cattle, but with the growing tendency to convert all the sugar-cane product into alcohol there is an open field for the beet as a sugar producer.

Rubber tree grove on the Ubero plantation,


Coffee is of comparatively late introduction into Mexico, the first planting being in 1790. The largest output is that of the State of Vera Cruz. Here labor is plentiful, and the picking of the berries may be done leisurely, only the perfectly ripe berries being gathered. This is a more profitable method than that used in places where labor is scarce and picking hurried, and where the whole branch is stripped at once instead of the ripe berries being selected. The best quality of berries comes from the State of Colima, these being preferred by experts to the best from Brazil. Mexican coffee is not largely used in the United States, but it is popular in some countries, as Germany, France and England.

As the use of tobacco is universal among the male population of Mexico, much attention is paid to its cultivation and an excellent quality is grown. The plant is indigenous to the country, and though Spain at one time restricted its cultivation it is now cultivated all over the republic. It is also everywhere manufactured, cigar and cigarette factories existing in every community. There is abundance of excellent land for tobacco culture, composed of a sandy soil containing decomposed vegetable matter and salts of iron and aluminum, with a little lime. This combination yields a leaf of mild and aromatic flavor which is much esteemed. It is said that the finest Mexican cigars go to Havana and are sold as "Cuban" in all the Central American and the adjoining South American countries.

The Mexican tobacco has a flavor peculiar to itself, which soon appeals to the smoker who makes use of this product, and which is creating an increasing demand for it in the United States. One of the best grades, if not quite the best, is that grown in the San Andres Texla district of Vera Cruz. There are also excellent tobacco lands in the Territory of Tepic, where the plant with good cultivation could be brought to a high state of excellence.

Maguey is one of the most widely cultivated plants, due to the universal demand for its mildly intoxicating product, pulque. Of this plant there are no fewer than 125 species, but the favorite ones are those yielding pulque  and the fiery spirit, mescal. Pulque  is a refreshing and not unwholesome drink, though its flavor does not appeal to the American palate. It is intoxicating when drunk in large quantities. As already stated, the consumption of it by the lower classes in Mexico is something astonishing, while it is scarcely ever tasted by people of the middle and higher classes.

The use of the maguey plant is not confined to the extraction of its juice. In fact it is of somewhat general application, there being, it is said, as many as forty articles made from it. These include paper from the pulp, twine from the fibers, needles from the sharp leaf tips, and from the leaves roofing material for native huts. A fine kind of papyrus was made from it by the ancient Mexicans, and this art is still in use. Specimens made a thousand years ago are still in an excellent state of preservation.

Extracting pulque from the maguey plant, San Juan,


Most important among the fiber-producing plants is the henequen of Yucatan, the soil of which appears to be especially adapted to the growth of this plant. The fibers are taken from the leaves and are excellent for the making of coarse textiles of various kinds, such as rugs and bagging. As to the treatment of the laborers on the henequen plantations, however, it is marked by a barbarity rarely seen elsewhere. A statement upon this unpleasant subject must be left for a later chapter.

We have spoken of the leading vegetable products of Mexico, but there are others that call for mention, including rice, barley, cacao, vanilla, and the numerous medicinal plants and dye-woods. Much attention has been given to the rubber product, though not with very encouraging results. The rubber tree flourishes in the tropical region of the country, and as much as $50,000,000 has been invested in rubber plantations, though with no adequate return. Considerable attention has been given to the guayule plant, which grows wild and the sap of which has been regarded as possessing "valuable rubber qualities." It has attracted considerable capital, as has also pinguay, a rival plant claimed to surpass it in its percentage of rubber. No one has yet grown rich from their cultivation.

The fruit product of Mexico is large and varied, the list including alligator pears, cocoanuts, apricots, dates, figs, limes, oranges, mangoes, pineapple, banana, and numerous others, including the familiar apple, pear, peach, etc. Bananas are very prolific, a growth of twenty feet in a few months being made, while, when properly cared for, each stalk will yield from 75 to 100 pounds of fruit. There are about twenty varieties, and under skilful cultivation a product of from 600 to 900 pounds of fruit per acre can be realized. This fruit, as is well known, has no equal in quantity of foodstuff yielded per acre of ground.

While the lowlands of Mexico are usually well watered, irrigation is in many places needed in the more elevated localities, and it seems to have been practiced in Aztec days. In recent times much attention has been given to this subject, though not much has been done in the way of impounding the waters of the many mountain streams. We have already spoken of the developed systems of irrigation along the Nazas, where there is a canal fifty miles long, with a large flowing capacity, and several others of smaller size, the result being that the river's flow is exhausted in the dry season. But by building dams to hold the excess flow of the wet season a great addition to the area of irrigation might be made. Where artesian wells have been sunk for this purpose they have proved satisfactory, but this method of obtaining water also awaits development. Of irrigation systems one of the most interesting is that of the great Jalpa hacienda. On this estate from 8,000 to 10,000 head of cattle are pastured and the system of irrigation, which was introduced more than a century ago, is kept in a high state of efficiency. The dam, containing some 15,000,000 cubic metres of water, gave way about seventy-five years ago, drowning everything before it, including about 400 natives. The capacity of the present dams is nearly 60,000,000 cubic metres, while the Turbio River, which flows through the estate, has a capacity of 42,000,000. The soil irrigated totals about forty-five square miles of level alluvial soil, and the excess water is sold to farmers farther down stream, where about forty square miles are irrigated.

Cattle and sheep are raised in almost every state of Mexico, Jalisco being the first in value of products, the extensive, but largely desert, State of Chihuahua coming second. But there are vast areas adapted to this purpose which are disregarded or but slightly utilized. Sheep and goat raising is more generally pursued than cattle breeding, the sheep kept numbering over 5,000,000 and the goats several millions. Sheep thrive well on the great central plateau, the chief region of arid lands. Here they are very free from disease and little exposed to attack by predatory animals, while the cost of raising them is extremely small, about ten to twenty cents per head per annum. Much is being done in the improvement of breeds by the introduction of Merino rams, but the standard is yet not high.

Much American capital has been used in the development of cattle growing upon the ranches of northern Mexico. But the pasturage here is very poor as compared with that of the western United States, the cattle having to browse on coarse grass and weeds. They even eat the cactus in spite of the prickles. It is often a long distance to water supplies and in times of drought the cattle die in great numbers. At such times the peons gather quantities of the prickly pear, burn off the sharp points of the spines, and feed them to the cattle, which devour them ravenously. The ranches in this region need to be very large, as it takes about fifteen acres for the subsistence of a single animal.

A strawberry field at Irapuato


Horses also are raised in large numbers on the ranches, some of them having from 10,000 to 20,000 of these animals. Most of them are small, bony creatures, selling for a few dollars, but some fine looking stock has been developed by the use of foreign breeds. Goats, of which large numbers are raised, are profitable animals, they being left to care for themselves and thriving on very poor pasturage. The poorer people are large consumers of goats' flesh and the skins bring a good price.

The ox, used as a beast of burden, is invaluable in Mexico. It will work patiently and ploddingly for eight or nine hours a day, hauling heavy loads of farm produce and standing for hours uncomplainingly in the burning sun. This animal, however, has peculiarities of temper. It may be willing, or it may be obstinate. It can pretend to be doing its part, while leaving the bulk of the work to its mate. It has its likes and dislikes, and is not altogether mechanical in its ways.

We have so far in this chapter dealt with the products of the soil; now the products of the rocks demand attention. Mexico has long been famous for its minerals, especially for its yield of silver, and the story of its many mines has much of interest. The cruelty of the old-time Spaniard was especially shown in his mining methods, the natives of the country suffering severely in order that their heartless task-master might put money in his purse. A frightful system of forced labor was employed, thousands of the natives being seized and forced to work in the mines, from which, with infinite toil and suffering, they carried sacks of ore-bearing rock on their backs from the depths of the mine, to be driven down again by armed men stationed at the mouth. Never have slaves been more cruelly treated, and we can scarcely blame them when they rebelled at the great Valenciana mine and massacred every white man upon the place. It was due retribution for half a century of ruthless barbarity.

The presence of silver deposits was quickly discovered by the Spanish invaders. Thus the famous mines at Guanajuato, opened in 1525, owed their discovery to a fire built on the rocks by some muleteers, who found silver in the ashes, melted from the rock below. Another famous mining center was Zacatecas, where in three centuries nearly eight hundred million dollars worth of silver was obtained. The Pachuca lodes also, now the richest in Mexico, were famed early, their discovery being made by the companies of Cortes. In fact, the Aztecs were familiar with these veins and showed them to the Spaniards. It was here that the method of treating silver ores by amalgamation with quicksilver was discovered by Bartolome de Medina in 1557.

The Aztecs were familiar both with gold and silver, but gold has not proved nearly so abundant in Mexico as the white metal. Thus, of the $3,275,000,000 worth of gold and silver estimated to have been mined between 1522 and 1879 gold furnished only from 4 to 8 per cent of the total. Everywhere the Spaniards prospected for these precious metals and evidence of their burrowing activity may be found in the rocks of all parts of the country. Many of these are corkscrew-like workings, but there are also splendid tunnels, of dimensions that excite the wonder of modern engineers. There are, in addition, ancient ore-reduction works and many other indications of former activity, long since abandoned to dust and decay.

There is a story of Vasquez de Mercado, a wealthy Spaniard of Guadalajara, who in 1552 was told by the Indians that a great mountain of pure silver existed in a region far to the north. After this he set forth, with a following of armed men, and traveled for many days, his eyes alert for the morning when the sun's early rays would be reflected back to him from the mountain of shining silver his fancy pictured. At last the sought-for hill rose on the far horizon. But on approaching, its metal contents proved to be iron, not silver.

The disappointed treasure hunter turned back, had fights with the Indians, some of his men being killed and himself wounded, and reached home to die of his wounds. But the Cerro del Mercado, the hill of iron, is still one of the wonders of Mexico.

We have spoken of only a few of the silver mines. They occur widely through the mountain regions of the state, the mines of which were pronounced by Humboldt to be "among the richest and greatest of the world." Toward the close of the eighteenth century horses and mules largely took the place of human labor in working the mines and treating the ores, and the old-time barbarity declined. But the hatred towards the Spaniard engendered in the Indian mind by long centuries of cruel treatment was a feature in the revolution that led to throwing off the yoke of Spain.

The period of turbulence that followed the gaining of independence put an end in great measure to mining operations for many years. Where working was continued the mine openings were guarded by fortress-like walls. These remain today in evidence of the troublous times of the past century. Mining is now prosecuted under the stimulus of foreign capital and with the most improved methods, and the output promises to remain large for a long period to come. It is American enterprise that has largely brought about this improved state of affairs.

Silver has done much towards the advancement of church architecture in Mexico. A tax on every pound of silver from the rich Santa Eulalia mine was used to build the fine cathedral of Chihuahua, and the splendid church at Taxco, in Guerrero, had a similar origin, as also the cathedral of Durango. It is said that in some mines the miners were permitted to carry out daily a large piece of rich ore, which they presented to the priest for church-building purposes. From this source the two-million dollar church at Catorce was built.

Though silver is the most valuable the rock products of Mexico, there are many others found throughout the Sierra Madre ranges and their offshoots. These include, in addition to silver, gold, copper, lead, quicksilver, iron, zinc, tin, platinum, coal, antimony, sulphur, petroleum, salt and others, as also a variety of precious stones, embracing opals, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, etc.

The yield of gold has not been large, but in recent times it has much increased, the value of the product at present being about $25,000,000 annually. That of silver is very much larger in quantity and considerably larger in value, reaching in some years a value of 0,000,000 or more. Next to silver in yield is copper, a metal not known to exist in Mexico a quarter of a century ago. Today Mexico stands second in the world's output, being surpassed only by the United States. The yield in 1911 was about 62,000 tons, that of the United States being nearly 500,000 tons. What the future yield of Mexico will be is hard to conjecture.

Of iron the most abundant known deposit is that of the famous Cerro del Mercado, already mentioned. This is estimated to contain 460,000,000 tons of ore, assaying 70 to 75 per cent of pure iron. There are deposits in several other states, large ones in Guerrero. The city of Monterey contains a number of iron manufacturing establishments.

Salt is largely produced, and Carmen Island, off the gulf coast of Lower California, possesses one of the leading salt beds in the world. Lead is plentiful and there appear to be large deposits of tin, though these are not worked. It has only recently been discovered that Mexico is rich in coal, no one yet knowing how great are the deposits. There are extensive beds of anthracite in Sonora, the seams in some places being fourteen feet thick. These are being worked by an American company. There are coal formations in other states, the most important in the republic being those of Coahuila. These are worked alike by Mexican and American capital and the output is of growing value.

Another Mexican product of large importance is petroleum. For about twenty-five years past prospecting for oil has gone on in Mexico, and it has been found in many places. It occurs in both the Atlantic and Pacific coast regions, almost, the whole Atlantic coast showing traces of oil and asphaltum, the total oil-yielding area being much larger than that of the United States. Much capital has been employed in oil-producing enterprises, with considerable success, and the promise is encouraging.

One of the best finds was that of 1908, when a rich "fresher" was struck at San Geronimo, near Tampico. Here the oil caught fire and burned freely for two months, the flames, 1,000 feet high, being visible a hundred miles distant. When the fire was extinguished the flow of oil was so great that dams of earth had to be built in all haste to check it. A large export trade from Tampico has sprung up, and war vessels were rushed there in all haste during the rebel attack on Tampico in December, 1913, to prevent the oil wells being tampered with. The interests of production and trade were felt to be more valuable than those of war.