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Virginia City

Secrets of a Western Past

Ronald M. James

Publication Year: 2012

Spent cartridges. The pieces of an original Tabasco Pepper Sauce bottle. Shards of a ceramic pot, stained red. For archaeologists each of the thousands of artifacts uncovered at a site tells a story. For noted Comstock authority Ronald M. James, it is a story resulting from decades of research and excavation at one of the largest National Historic Landmarks in America, the Nevada town that, with the discovery of the Comstock Lode, became a boomtown microcosm of the American West.

Drawing on the work of hundreds of volunteers, students, and professional archaeologists, Virginia City: Secrets of a Western Past shows how every detail—from unearthed artifacts to reports of local saloons to plans for the cemetery to surviving nineteenth-century buildings—adds to our view of Virginia City when it was one of the richest places on earth. James recreates this unlikely epitome of frontier industry and cosmopolitan living, the thriving hub of corporate executives, middle-class families, miners, prostitutes, and barkeepers—and more foreign-born residents per capita than anywhere else in the country—in a spot that had begun its life a few years earlier as the mining camp of several lucky guys. An excavation of the history of Virginia City, a window on the heyday of the American frontier, James’s book is also an enlightening look at how archaeology brings the story of the past to life.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

Kelly Dixon, now on the faculty at the University of Montana at Missoula, excavated two of the sites discussed in this text. More importantly, Kelly and I discussed the writing of this sort of book for several years, and we contemplated...

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Introduction: Twenty-One Bits of Glass,Historical Archaeology, and the Meaning of the West

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pp. xv-xxii

In 2000 twenty-one broken bits of 130-year-old glass began a journey that would bring them international attention, providing a glimpse into the past and offering an opportunity to underscore the importance of historical...

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1. Gold and Silver!

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pp. 1-17

In 1990 Don Hardesty and Bill White led an archaeological team underground where miners from an earlier century had left their tools. The dozen heavy, iron drill bits were the sort of artifact commonly found scattered throughout...

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2. A Crowded City on the Mining Frontier

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pp. 18-30

The Silver Queen Saloon boasts a sixteen-foot portrait of a woman with her dress and jewelry composed of 3,261 silver dollars, 28 gold twenty-dollar pieces, and a handful of dimes. The Silver Queen was created to attract tourists...

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3. An Irish Blacksmith and the Archaeology of Belief

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pp. 31-41

Timothy Francis McCarthy was from Ireland’s County Cork. The Bere Peninsula, pointing into the Atlantic toward America, had the most important hard-rock mines on the island in the nineteenth century, and its men...

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4. The Chinese

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pp. 42-53

In the Cedar Hill Canyon north of Virginia City, the Pioneer Steam Laundry thrived for two decades during the height of the Comstock Mining District. The industrial complex employed men and women from Europe, North America...

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5. Saloons and the Archaeology of Leisure

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pp. 54-72

Between 1993 and 2000 archaeologists examined the locations of four saloons in Virginia City, retrieving roughly three hundred thousand artifacts. The diversity of excavated businesses allows for an unprecedented opportunity...

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6. Women on the Mining Frontier

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pp. 73-84

In the late 1850s Eilley Orrum lived in Gold Canyon, perfectly positioned to witness the first strikes of 1859. The Scottish immigrant was between husbands, and as hundreds of fortune seekers arrived during that summer, Orrum offered...

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7. Kids on the Comstock

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pp. 85-95

Between 1910 and 1920 Alexander and Louise Wise and their two children, Verna and Fred, moved into the upstairs apartments of the Werrin Building described in chapter 2. They stayed long enough for young Fred to leave pencil lines...

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8. Piper’s Opera House and the Archaeology of Theater

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pp. 96-110

On July 2, 1863, as over 170,000 Americans fought in the fields of Gettysburg, Thomas Maguire, San Francisco’s famed theater impresario, opened an opera house in Virginia City. The Comstock event attracted hundreds of patrons...

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9. Death and the Material Culture of the Final Chapter

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pp. 111-123

On January 21, 1867, firefighters formed an escort for the funeral procession of Julia Bulette, the murdered prostitute described in chapter 6. Their path took them switching back and forth from the home of Engine Company no. 1, south...

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Epilogue: Breathing Meaning into the Past

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pp. 124-129

Far below Virginia City’s hectic main street, St. Mary Louise Hospital stands in the midst of a tree-lined oasis. The Daughters of Charity opened the imposing brick structure in 1875, offering a higher success rate in caring...


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pp. 131-137


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pp. 139-143


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pp. 145-147

E-ISBN-13: 9780803240087
E-ISBN-10: 0803240082
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803238480

Illustrations: 36 illustrations, 1 map
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Virginia City (Nev.) -- History.
  • Virginia City (Nev.) -- Social life and customs.
  • Virginia City (Nev.) -- Antiquities.
  • Frontier and pioneer life -- Nevada -- Virginia City.
  • Silver mines and mining -- Nevada -- Virginia City -- History.
  • Gold mines and mining -- Nevada -- Virginia City -- History.
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