restricted access 6. Women on the Mining Frontier
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73 6. Women on the Mining Frontier 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 some of them rooms in a boardinghouse. With the spring of 1860, thousands came to see the cause of the excitement, and among those newcomers were a few other women. The folklore of the Wild West identifies the first ladies to arrive in mining camps as prostitutes . It is a well-known fact verified by Hollywood. And it is completely wrong. The real story is much more complex. Orrum watched as a society established itself in those first months. Comstock residents focused on making money as quickly as possible, but there were many ways to achieve that goal. The first women to call the place home had many respectable occupations to consider. Some maintained boardinghouses, as Orrum did. Others cooked and sewed, while a few hired themselves out as teachers for the increasing number of children who added to the diversity of the place. It would take many months before the community stabilized sufficiently for a prostitute to justify relocating to a boomtown that might disappear just as a promising ore body failed to yield. Regardless of the period the vast majority of women who arrived as the mining district matured came with families, creating a respectable bedrock for Virginia City.1 Census enumerators passing through the Comstock in the summer of 1860 documented a community far removed from what one might expect . A first glance at census records reinforces stereotypes: miners were, in fact, the chief residents of the Comstock, following a common demographic pattern in the early Intermountain West. Examining the census reports from 1860 to 1930, one finds a predictable shift. In 1860, thirteen months after the first strike, adult men represented roughly 95 percent of Virginia City’s population. Ten years later thousands of women and children appear in the manuscript census, but adult men 74 Women on the Mining Frontier were still in the majority. The shift continued with each decade. A limited , turn-of-the-century boom in local mining resulted in the relative number of single men increasing in the 1910 census. After 1920 the percentage of women and children resumed its rise. Nevertheless, Storey County did not achieve anything near gender parity until the 1950 census , illustrating the long-term effect of the mining industry.2 With the census data in mind, the image of a Wild West town with dirty men and a few saloon girls dissolves into inaccuracy. Families settled in Virginia City from the start, and they grew in number. Remembering that fact goes a long way toward helping students of the past to imagine how the community really was in the nineteenth century. The pages of the manuscript census offer an easy way to understand society from a former time. Archaeology provides another path. The subject of women has been one of the most sensationalized in the West. Whether as prostitutes or as the center of romance, women have been essential to literature and film, giving them a prominent place in the region’s myth. This phenomenon has left a skewed understanding 22. A man and a woman, with a servant to the right, pose with their home at roughly the turn of the twentieth century. Women were an integral part of Comstock society. Courtesy of the Historic Fourth Ward School Museum. 75 Women on the Mining Frontier of mining towns, and it has drawn bottle diggers to destroy much of what remains of Virginia City’s brothels. There is, however, another way to understand material culture associated with prostitution, and that is by considering documents dealing with what these women possessed. In 1863 Julia Bulette arrived in Virginia City. Like many prostitutes in the region, she remained in California after the first Comstock strike, waiting to be certain that Virginia City was worth the cost and inconvenience of moving. Later folklore would place her in the region in time for the 1860 Pyramid Lake war, but that was not the case. By 1863 Bulette found a niche among the privately operating prostitutes who competed with the more elegant brothels. She was average in most respects, but Bulette was notable for attaching herself to Engine Company Number 1, becoming an honorary member and the favorite of Tom Peasley, the captain. When...


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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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