The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Fall 1998, Volume 44, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor
A Mine of Her Own: Women Prospectors in the American West, 1850-1950.
By Sally Zanjani. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Photos, illustrations, maps, bibliography, notes. xii + 375 pages. $32.50 cloth; and Comstock Women: The Making of a Mining Community. By Ronald M. James and C. Elizabeth Raymond. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1998. Photos, graphs, tables, maps, bibliography, notes. xi + 394 pp. $24.95 paper.
Reviewed by Susan Gonda, Instructor of History at Grossmont College and author of Strumpets and Angels: Rape, Seduction, and the Criminal Boundaries of Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century
The best stories of new Western History explore the daily lives of diverse individuals who contributed to communities in the West. They bring to life those who helped shape our romantic images and provide realistic clues about complicated Western politics and culture. Two new books are fine examples of this genre. Sally Zanjani’s A Mine of Her Own places women at the heart of the gold rush — in the mines. James’ and Raymond’s Comstock Women reveal that women were involved in every facet of life in mining towns.
These monographs tell us that women both rejected traditional cultural roles and strove to redefine, or even reproduce, them in the rough terrain of the mines and towns. Zanjani aims to prove that women “plunged with zest into all aspects of the prospecting life, from the rigors of the ice fields to the dog-eat-dog world of mining promotion” (p. 1). In A Mine of Her Own, she describes the lives of countless women who were obsessed with pursuing not only their mining, but the beautiful and sometimes stark wilderness.
Zanjani profiles seven women in depth, some of whom were legends in their own time. Nicaraguan-born Ferminia Sarras settled near Death Valley in 1876 with her three daughters when she was thirty-six. By the time of her death in 1915 she was known as the Copper Queen, had amassed a fortune and enjoyed spending much of it, and had loved many men. She went out alone into the canyons and brush learning the chemistry and geology necessary for successful miners. Another legend was Nellie Cashman (1845-1925). Cashman earned the reputation of the “frontier angel” digging in the extreme conditions of Tombstone, Arizona and in the Klondike, Alaska. A fiercely devout Irish woman, Cashman helped build hospitals, churches, and schools; she became a single mother to five foster children; she mined with male miners; and she earned not only the respect of the male community, but their devotion as a woman who nursed miners who been marooned in the wilderness.
While only a small fraction of women prospectors struck wealth like Ferminia Sarras, Zanjani measures the success of these women in other ways. Their fiercely individual lifestyles, determination, and revelry in the wilderness mark their achievement of an alternate path. They sought — and gained — independence in ways most women never even dreamed. They were tough, passionate women with great physical and spiritual ambition.
Zanjani’s definition of “success” among the mining women aids our understanding about what drove them and how they viewed their life and work. “To succeed,” she explains, “is to find what one seeks, and dollar returns were only one strand in the odyssey of the woman prospector. More important, she was engaged in what Carl Wikstrom called painting her name on the mountain, a fundamentally modern form of self-expression” (p. 315). Aside from making names for themselves, these women became amateurs or experts in biology, botany, geology, business, and tall tales. Josie Pearl boasted “that mining made her worth one hundred thousand dollars one day and broke the next” (p. 221).
Mining women were not always full-time miners. They were also boarding house keepers, cooks for cowboys and other traditional female occupations adapted in the West. Other prospectors, like Irene True, were less traditional in their non- mining occupations: she was an “ex-madam who drove the truck stage from Winnemucca to the mining camp of Midas, Nevada” (p. 3). The full details that Zanjani reveals about these women are what make their lives”and this book”so fascinating. They had lovers, they recovered from devastating illnesses, and throughout incredible dramas that would match any soap opera today, maintained their passion for the mines. The book is beautifully written, crafted with eloquent prose and critical analysis about the women’s successes, hardships, daily decisions, and their remarkable landscape.
James and Raymond have crafted a different book in Comstock Women complementing Zanjani’s story of women in mining communities. This interdisciplinary collection of essays uses techniques from anthropology, archaeology, geology, and history to prove that women were not on the fringes of society in the West — they were at the heart of it. By examining Virginia City, Nevada, during the boom years of 1860-1880 and beyond, we learn how Euro-American women were building new communities; Native-Americans and Chinese were preserving old communities while adapting to the new. Missionary nuns filled a niche with their hospitals and orphans; businesswomen had more than enough employment — whether they were prostitutes or seamstresses. Indeed, Virginia City “had a higher proportion of personal clothiers than did the larger city of Denver.” The Comstock was “a center of fashion and sophistication during the nineteenth century” (p. 9).
The authors demonstrate that women’s experiences in the West were significant, complicated and diverse; women”s lives depended upon their class, ethnicity, skills, and adaptability. Women pursued “a number of occupations simultaneously,” often juggling more complex lives than men (p. 20). Women were lodging-house keepers, elite milliners, poor sewing girls, fortune tellers/spiritualists, and nuns. All essays are designed to counter popular images of prostitutes as women’s chief influence in the mining West. Ronald James’ essay about Irish immigrant women emphasizes “continuity and stability” in their community. The Irish did not come to exploit the land and leave; they settled, “hoping to find respite from their travels” (p. 261). Sue Fawn Chung reveals that Chinese women negotiated between traditional and new worlds. During the 1860s and 1870s, Comstock Chinese women were viewed as common prostitutes by Euro-Americans, despite their connections with nuclear or extended families. Comstock Chinese women also adapted to Western traditions more rapidly than their urban counterparts without the extensive Chinese networks provided by Chinatowns.
Comstock Women offers this wonderful diversity of experiences to taunt future scholars to explore further. The book’s negative starting point, though, hinders a more thorough investigation by the authors. They are so preoccupied with countering the image of “women of the mining West” as “only prostitutes and bonanza queens,” (p. 39) that the essays lack consistent critical analysis about power relations between men and women and between women of different groups. While some essays, such as Loverin and Nylen’s “Comstock Needleworkers” provide a wealth of insight, others cry out for explanations for such phrases as “too Americanized” (p. 208). One smaller criticism is that the entire book is in need of a good editor — rambling, vague sentences and passive voice force one to re-read passages and estimate their meanings. Overall, however, Comstock Women, in providing new images and realities about women in the mining West, has provided readers with “a mine of their own.” Scholars of not only women’s and Western history, but immigration, labor, and legal history will benefit from these essays.
Taken together, these two books provide insight into a range of lives and communities. We learn that Zanjani’s Ferminia Sarras and Ellie Cashman, driven to pursue their mining at almost any cost, deposited their children temporarily in Catholic orphanages such as those described by Anne Butler in Comstock Women. We discover both extraordinary women and ordinary women who led extraordinary lives. Most of them, as Zanjani points out, contradicted the idea that “the woman must wait and the man must seek, And life is a dream for the strong and the weak” (p. 13).