Six hundred years ago, before the arrival of the Europeans, Cerrillos was the land of the Keres and Tano Indians. There were people here thousands of years earlier too, hunting the mammoths, elk, sloth and paleo-bison that once lived here, but their numbers were small and we know little about them. The Keres and Tano lived in agricultural villages and cities, the evidence of which is spread out widely throughout the Galisteo Basin. The archaeology shows that some Coalition and Classic Basin (1250 AD – 1680 AD) villages were occupied by a few dozen people, and others by thousands. The tumbled rocks, scattered potsherds and discarded stone tools are the clues archaeologists use to reconstruct life in the Basin. At least one of the pueblos, Burnt Corn, five miles east of Cerrillos, may have been, for reason unknown, ritually destroyed. Other Pueblos, the nearby great Indian cities of Galisteo, San Lázaro and San Marcos, persisted into the epoch of the Europeans, each of them having resident Franciscan missionaries.
The Pueblo Indians had for centuries before the Europeans obtained turquoise and galena from the Cerrillos Hills, the turquoise for its ritual use and for its medicinal power, and the galena (lead sulfide) for paint with which to decorate pottery. It was the Europeans, beginning with Capitan Chamuscado in 1581 and Antonio de Espejo in 1583 who first detected silver in the galena ore in the little hills. The silver was not abundant but it was definitely present, and the silver in a small way made up for the failure to find gold in New Mexico; the fanciful Seven Golden Cities of Cíbola. Hampered by recurrent strife, it was not until 1695 that el Real de los Cerrillos – the silver and lead mining camp on the north side of the Little Hills – was founded. That camp, which survived only a year, was the first settlement to bear the name Cerrillos.
Thereafter the relatively rich Cerrillos Hills remained the private domain of a few important Santa Fe families, a situation that continued well into the Territorial Era. But in 1879 by two prospectors from Leadville, Colorado broke that embargo. Word spread fast of the reputed treasures and soon many “Colorado” miners swarmed the hills of Cerrillos. The following year the railroad arrived, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, and the new train station on the south side of the booming Cerrillos Hills became the center of activity. Cerrillos Station was well known and many people came from around the world to discover or buy a share in a mine and make their fortune. The new town started off as a tent city but soon grew into a town of many buildings, homes, a church, a school and stores. Cerrillos Founder’s Day is March 8, 1880.
The rapid growth of the town offered opportunities for people who chose to stay. Hotels were built along with saloons, dance halls, local shops and short order houses. There was not only money to be made by miners but sometimes even greater profits for the businesses that provided for the miners. One of the town’s leading businesses was William McKenzie’s Cerrillos Supply Company. This company provided equipment that miners needed (shovels, picks, tools, powder and fuses to name a few). There were a great number of saloons, since all you needed to start a saloon was a tent, a glass, and a bottle of whiskey. If you aspired to be a first-class saloon, however, then you needed some upstairs entertainment. From the beginning Cerrillos sported several first-class saloons.
By 1900 the galena and silver production had diminished, with one smelter and perhaps twenty intermittent employees. A decade later that smelter was shut down. The railroad was good for no more than a dozen jobs, fewer as the years went by. The once-thriving town of Cerrillos morphed itself into a suburb of Madrid, the now thriving company coal town a few miles south. There were 500 or more jobs to be had at Madrid. In 1903, thirteen years after it had in the heady optimism of the time incorporated, Cerrillos Town disincorporated. (Madrid’s turn to dry up would come 50 years later.) Cerrillos never completely dried up but it also never achieved the dreams of its boosters, who in the early years had touted it as “the Little Pittsburg.” Cerrillos today is not greatly changed from its 19th century beginnings. Tree-lined dirt streets and sleeping dogs, small art galleries, people who smile and greet you, and the twice-a-day dinging of railway crossing bells, along with a few extra dingings for the occasional ghost train.
Some of the original buildings still stand in Cerrillos today. The distinctive Opera House is the oldest masonry structure in town. The Methodist church on Waldo Street is long gone, but St. Joseph’s church still stands on First Street, where the local people attend mass on Sunday. Some buildings show evidence of the movies filmed on First Street (Young Guns, Vampires, and Outrageous Fortune). The discovery of Cerrillos by the movie industry dates to 1958 with Disney’s TV (and later cinema) The Nine Lives Of Elfego Baca, and it hasn’t stopped. In our quiet town there are a few businesses available to tourists and locals, including a petting zoo with a trading post that features Cerrillos turquoise and a mining museum. The new enterprise in town is the Cerrillos Hill State Park, which has 5 miles of multi-use trails with an ADA trail to the village overlook. The State Park is located across the tracks, a half mile north of the village on CR 59, Camino Turquesa.
Come for the feeling of yesteryear, spend some time exploring and discovering.
Cerrillos is sure to grow on you too.