Nevada’s mining history features numerous men who financed, built, and operated the mines that created fortunes and developed towns across northern Nevada. We don’t often think of women as having a central role in Nevada’s mining industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – after all, mining has been one of Nevada’s most masculine enterprises — but if we look hard enough, we can find numerous Nevada women who were engaged with the mining industry during the state’s first 100 years.
For Nevada women, that engagement was at a distance. Many Nevada women operated family businesses, which allowed their husbands the freedom to prospect and mine elsewhere. Sometimes, it was a risk worth taking. In 19th-century Battle Mountain, Nancy Greer Huntsman ran the family business, the Capitol Hotel, while her husband searched the Nevada desert for riches. He was one of the few who succeeded. Lorenzo Dow made a strike that led to the development of Tuscarora in the 1870s and provided enough family wealth that Nancy could retire from the hotel.
A few Nevada women invested their own money in others’ mining activities. One such investor was prominent Battle Mountain resident Edith Williams Jenkins, who financed a mill at Kennedy in Humboldt County around 1900. A widow by that time, Edith eventually built one of the largest ranching empires in the state and was known as the Sheep Queen of Nevada.
A very few women, such as Maggie Johnson, operated their own mines. Maggie E. Smith Johnson was born a slave in Louisiana in the 1850s. After the Civil War, she and her husband moved to Nevada for new opportunities. By 1910, she was a widow and living in a remote area of Eureka County near Mt. Tenabo. According to the 1910 census, Maggie owned and operated a silver mine with two employees. She died in 1924 and was buried in Eureka County.
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Most of the Nevada women who worked in the early days of mining, however, were prospectors, traveling out into the Nevada desert in search of gold, silver, and other minerals. Some women prospected with their husbands. Perhaps the most famous prospecting Nevada couple was Jim and Belle Butler. Jim Butler has long been celebrated as the founder of Tonopah. But it was his wife, Isabella (Belle) McCormick Donohue Butler, who staked the claims that became the famous Mizpah Mine, one of the richest producing mines in Tonopah.
In the 1920s, Maym Schweble operated the mine she owned with her husband in Nye County. A highly respected prospector, Mayn was elected to the Nevada legislature in 1924 when she was 50 years old. Maym officially listed her occupation as “prospector” and served on the Assembly Committee on Mines and Mining.
Like many single men, some unattached women chose the solitary life of a Nevada prospector. Profiled in a couple of national publications, Josie Reed Pearl became one of the most famous prospectors in northern Humboldt County. The “Queen of the Black Rock” lived and worked in the Leonard Creek district for more than 20 years.
In 1938, Alma Irene True also staked claims in Leonard Creek district and was known to do some prospecting while operating a freighting business between Winnemucca and Midas. Another local prospector, Luella Pendergast, doubled as the Midas Justice of the Peace in 1943.
When Elizabeth Collins died at Haystack near Jungo in Pershing County in 1958, the Reno newspaper identified her as “one of the last women prospectors” in the area.
As it turned out, Elizabeth was not the last woman to work in mining. Today, 60 years later, Nevada women hold positions of responsibility throughout the industry. As geologists, women still search for and identify new deposits. Women are employed at mine sites as metallurgists, engineers, hydrologists, environmental scientists, and general managers. Women can be found in the executive suites, in the front offices, and on corporate boards. Nevada women have always had a place in Nevada mining, and their opportunities with Nevada’s foundational industry continue to grow.