Kingston's Myth of 7,000 Souls
Was the mining boomtown really once the biggest town in New Mexico Territory?
by Craig Springer
Kingston was a busy place over a century ago. The town and adjacent mines peaked in their prosperity about 1890, with a population of less than 1,500. But the town's population grew post-mortem to a mythical 7,000. That's how legends go. And that's the difference between heritage and history. That latter is what happened; the former is how we want it to be. That Kingston was New Mexico's largest territorial town has become our heritage with no basis in truth.
Doctors, lawyers, and the usual supporting industries surrounding mining made Kingston’s economy. Folklore has three newspapers competing for readers and advertisers; during the mythical peak in population, Kingston actually lacked a newspaper. Eleven papers operated in the small town from 1883-93, most lasting mere weeks.
Kingston had its start with the discovery of silver. In the early 1880s, prospectors scratched dirt for signs of precious metal, and they found it. In October 1882, James Porter Parker, a civil engineer and General George Custer's former roommate at West Point, platted a townsite. The Nov. 11, 1882, Tombstone Weekly Epitaph reported on the boom, citing that 45 men were working in the Kingston mines.
Kingston sprang from a wilderness. A finely wrought prospectus, The Mines of Kingston, published in March 1883 by C.W. Greene, a mining investor and owner of Kingston's Tribune, documented a great deal of activity. He cites that "people came pouring in till not less, probably, than three thousand had come to view the promised land." Far fewer of the lookers stayed. Greene himself pulled up stakes by the end of 1883, and moved his newspaper to Deming.
The Territory of New Mexico conducted a census in 1885, counting 329 people living in Kingston and in the nearby Danville Camp combined. It was a pluralistic place that included people with Chinese and Spanish names. A Kingston resident corroborated that the population numbered in the hundreds mid-decade in a lament in the St. Johns Herald, Oct. 7, 1886: "We blush to admit that Kingston, a town of several hundred inhabitants has no school, no church, no young men's Christian association, and no public institutions of any kind, in which we can place our children for moral and intellectual training."
Folklore says that hookers paid for the Kingston church. The Methodist Mission Society’s 1888 The Gospel in all Lands says that Rev. N.W. Chase solicited funds for the building.
The population ticked upward, and the Methodist church sought to rectify the lack of morals in Kingston. The Gospel in All Lands, published in 1888 by the Methodist Missionary Society, reported on the progress of a stone church underway to serve Kingston's 1,000 residents, as it cites. There was work to do: "If I could take the reader along the main street on our way to a school-house for evening service, he would see the typical mining town in all its wickedness," wrote Rev. S.W. Thornton.
Two years later, the US Census Bureau conducted its 1890 census. The bureau counted 1,449 people living in Kingston and near its mines. You may have heard that the 1890 census burned. That is true — it burned in 1921, long after the 1890 data were compiled and published, and those published data for population statistics are still available.
According to the 1890 census, 3,785 people lived in Albuquerque, which was more than all of Sierra County's 1890 population. One might wonder if minorities were undercounted, which is to ask essentially: Did the Kingston enumerator overlook 5,551 minorities while counting only the 1,449 white folks? Not likely. Actually, the 1890 census parsed out minorities down to the county: 37 Chinese lived in Sierra County in 1890. Minorities were listed in Kingston in 1885, and were counted in other censuses before and after 1890.
A Territorial Bureau of Immigration publication printed in 1894 reported on the condition and prospects of New Mexico, stating, "The town [Kingston] itself is well situated, has a public water service, churches and schools, two good hotels, and a pushing, go-ahead population of about 1,000 persons."
Those prospects had already changed by the time the report saw print. Silver prices went south with the economic Panic of 1893 and Kingston decayed. The July 7, 1893, Mohave County Miner published a note from a Kingston correspondent: "Less than a hundred miners are employed at Kingston, New Mexico, where there were hundreds at work a few years ago. The mines at Kingston are all silver producers and the low price of silver has made it necessary to suspend operations on most of the mines in the camp." Note that the alleged largest town in territorial New Mexico is referred to a "camp."
The myth of 7,000 walks hand in hand with another: that three newspapers kept shop in town, competing for readers and advertisers. That too is bogus. Eleven newspapers were published in Kingston from 1883-1893, but all were very short-lived, some lasting only weeks. From April 1885 to March 1886, during Kingston's alleged peak, the town lacked any newspaper at all. Albuquerque in the same 10-year period supported two-dozen newspapers, according to The Territorial Press of New Mexico (UNM Press).
The 1890 edition of N.W. Ayer & Son's American Newspaper Annual includes a report from C.T. Barr, editor of the Kingston Shaft (the only paper in Kingston listed in the annual). Barr said the paper served a town of 700 and a county-wide population of 3,635. Three years later, the Shaft reported to the same newspaper annual a Kingston population of 633. The Shaft had a circulation of 500 in 1893.
Kingston's greatest growth occurred after it died. In travel guides, state tourism office promotions and academic writings by professional historians, you will see a phrase repeated so often that a myth has turned to "memory," that Kingston once exceeded 7,000 residents and was the largest town in New Mexico. It's even on Forest Service signs at Emory Pass. A population of 7,000 is about as big as Truth or Consequences is today.
A Chinese sojourner poses with this Kingston family ca. 1890. Some 360 Chinese were documented living in New Mexico in the 1890 census; 37 Chinese people called Sierra County home.
How such myths start is a curious mystery. The earliest writing on an inflated town size, a purported 5,000 people, that I found was in Log of a Timber Cruiser, published 22 years after the silver miners left Kingston. Its writer, playwright and novelist William Pinkney Lawson, visited Kingston for one night on his way into the forest to count trees that summer, calling the town "a melancholy collection of deserted buildings." He had no direct observation of the purported 5,000.
In August 1936, WPA writer Clay Vaden interviewed former Kingston prostitute Sadie Orchard. She told Vaden that Kingston thronged with 5,000 residents in 1886. Also in 1936, Sierra County pioneer James McKenna, looking back through the haze of 50 years, published the apocryphal Black Range Tales. He upped Orchard by 2,000 and it's been gospel since.
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend," the line goes from the old movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And so it's been for the quaint Sierra County town.
To see the history for yourself,visit the Black Range Museum in Hillsboro and the Percha Bank Museum in Kingston. Both are privately owned, and donations are encouraged.
Craig Springer is the co-author of the book Around Hillsboro. He's a member of the Hillsboro Historical Society. His historic home in Hillsboro is made from gold slag and the wood from the home of photographer J.C Burge, who likely took several of the pictures on these pages. That's documented, Springer notes, in the 1894 contract that directs the carpenter to fetch and use the Burge studio wood. Burge left Kingston when the miners left ca. 1893. Springer adds, "The contractee, George Miller, the first owner of our home, was a professional photographer himself, and he bought out Burge, studio, negatives and cameras. The Burge images eventually went to the Black Range Museum. Miller bought the drugstore in Hillsboro (the present-day Country Store and Cafe) and made his living there. The man he bought the place from went on to Columbus, NM, and was murdered by the Villaistas."