The Little Known Story of Potosi

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In 1993 I made a trip to Potosi, Bolivia in search of history and adventure.  Here in this city that was once Spain’s most valued holding. I found a historical character that totally amazed me and at the time wondered why his story had not been told.Enterance to Mine - Potosi, Bolivia

The history of Potosi is filled with unbelievable greed, inhuman treatment and death.

The story of how the world’s richest silver deposit was discovered is as magical as the city itself.  In about 1450, a servant to a Spanish captain was looking for his llamas and ventured up the 15,827 foot mountain.  Caught by the fall of night and at such an extreme altitude freezing to death is only one of your worries.  In an effort to prevent the bone-chilling cold from taking his life, he pulled some tuffs of grass, added dried llama dung and set it on fire to keep him warm through the night.  When morning came, he was amazed to see a river of silver that had melted in the nigh, now pooled at his feet.

The servant returned to his master and reported the amazing find.  From that day forward nothing would be the same for Spain or for the native people of Potosi.

When the mountain that overshadows the city was first put into production, it is said that the entire mountain looked like it was ablaze from all the fires fueled by llama dung, simply melting the silver that was on the surface of the rich mountain (Cerro Rico).

It is said that the first shipment of silver was a pack train of 3100 llamas. Estimating that each llama could carry about forty pounds.  Now you can see why in a short time the city grew to over 200,000 people, this making it by far the largest city in the America’s and it rivaled Paris in size, but had none of the comforts of any European capital.

There were no trees and very little vegetation. It also lacked a water supply to run the mines and quench the thirst of the residents. To compensate for this water shortage, thousands of enslaved natives were forced to hand-dig a huge lake above the city and construct an aqueduct, similar to those built by the Romans.  A wall was also built to divide those of wealth and prosperity from the working class. When you pass through the gate it completely outlines the Cerro Rico.

Rocha's Treasure of Potosi - Fred StaffIn those days the Spanish took ten per cent of anything that an individual produced and the Church took another ten per cent of production.  Such overbearing greed by the mine owners, the government and the Church compelled them to stoop to unbelievable cruelty.  This is how the mountain gained the name “The Mountain That Eats Men.”

The greed of the Spaniards also created another legend.  It is said that there was enough precious silver ore mined from this one murderous mountain to build a bridge of silver from Potosi to Spain.

Each hacienda was required to send native workers to the mine three times a year.  They were forced to carry the ore on their backs from the bowels of the earth to the surface.  It must be remembered that the interior of the mine could be well over one hundred degrees, and when the workers reached the surface to deposit the ore, the outside temperature could be well below freezing. Coupled with the use of mercury to separate the silver from the ore, and the brutal treatment of the natives killed them by the millions.  The workers only had to stay three months at the job, but there are records that show that no man ever was sent to the mine three times and returned home.

A few of the church leaders saw the irony of spending so much time and effort converting the natives to Christianity, and then being a part of their forced death.   So there was a plea to import African slaves to do the work and it 1608 this was granted.  They were given permission to bring a few thousand a year, but again, greed forced the local government to far exceed that number.  When the Africans got to Potosi not only were they used to transport the silver, but replaced mules in turning the massive wheels that drove the ore separation machines.  The logic was, mules only lived about six months doing this grueling work and they were hard to come by, so slaves were considered much cheaper and more expendable.

I’ve written about this fascinating time and city is called “[amazon_link id="143277073X" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Rocha’s Treasure of Potosi[/amazon_link].” It’s a historical fiction based on the life of Francisco Rocha, a man who was an adventurer and Potosi Bolivia Panoramabusinessman, who recognized the wrongs that were being done to the slaves and fought to bring it to a halt.  His methods were not always legal, as he made every effort to avoid paying the taxes demanded by the church and the government.  He even went so far as to coin his own money and organizing the natives in rebellion.  His labors in behalf of the people nearly brought down the government and the church.

“[amazon_link id="143277073X" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Rocha’s Treasure[/amazon_link]” is an action packed historical fiction that represents hundreds of hours of research.  It can be found on all of the major book outlets, and has received many extremely positive reviews readers, the largest collection can be found on Amazon. I am very proud to report that it is the #1 book in its genre in Bolivia.

If you love history, action and adventure, I invite you to take a journey into the 1650’s and take an action packed ride with the amazing characters.

Written by Fred Staff.  Fred Staff is a history teacher that has taught so long that most of the things I teach I was a part of.  He now lives in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and teaches history at a private English speaking school.

His love of history and telling stories brought him to writing.  He has written [amazon_link id="143277073X" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]ROCHA’S TREASURE OF POTOSI[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id="1432782339" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]YOUNG BASS REEVES[/amazon_link].  He is in the process of finishing BASS REEVES LAWMAN. The old west and Oklahoma history are his favorite subjects.  That is why he has chosen to write about Bass Reeves, who he believes is without question the greatest lawman in the old west.   The fact that he was black had kept him from taking his rightful place in history.

Staff was born in Seminole and raised in Pawnee, Oklahoma.  Some of his outside of school activities have been Director of Rural Economic Development and Director of Migrant and Farm Labor Programs, for the state of Florida. He owned and operated a Registered Angus cattle operation for 28 years, and established the largest grape vineyard in the state of Florida.

While attending the University of Central Oklahoma he was a defensive tackle on their first National Championship Team.  He has coached for many of his teaching years and just this year coached a League Championship Basketball team.

You may find Fred Staff on Facebook or would really enjoy any correspondence by  email at

Photos by Martin St-Amant

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