The history of Minas Gerais is inextricably linked with the gold rush of the late 17th century, which led to the exploration of this previously undeveloped state and to its early wealth.
Minas Gerais, covering an area twice the size of the United Kingdom, was relatively unexplored until the late 17th century when early colonists found something that would change its destiny forever: gold.
Bandeirantes, Portuguese colonial scouts who were also known as “slave hunters”, roamed across the impenetrable rainforest of Brazil throughout the 16th and 17th century searching for indigenous people, whom they hoped to capture and force into slavery in Brazil and abroad.
However, on expeditions into the heart of southeast Brazil in 1697 their focus rapidly changed with the discovery of rich veins of gold running through the hills of Minas Gerais state.
Drawn by promises of huge wealth, from gold but also from gems and diamonds discovered in the soft itacolumite sandstone, bandeiras flocked to the area.
Many bandeiras were of mixed Indian and European background and adopted traditional indigenous survival techniques, allowing them to penetrate deep into the interior of the thick Atlantic Rainforest.
Their approaches of planting and harvesting food as they travelled across a region laid the foundations for the ranching and agricultural practices which developed across the interior of Brazil.
In the rush to pursue the valuable gold deposits, more than 400,000 Portuguese colonists and half a million African slaves came to Minas Gerais in the late 17th and early 18th centuries: by 1725, half the population of Brazil was living in the south east of the country.
This gold rush lasted until the 19th century, when the mines started to become depleted and miners gradually left the region, leaving behind a history of wealth and success in the major towns such as Ouro Preto (meaning “black gold”) and Mariana.
Today, there are still pockets of iron, gold and gemstones mined across the Minas Gerais region, but mining takes place on a much smaller scale and no longer dominates the lives and livelihoods of the majority of the state.