Virginia Silver and Gold

On July 19, 2015 · 2 Comments

Living in the Commonwealth for so many years I guess I’m predisposed to notice Virginia being mentioned in out-of-context situations. Such was the case with Virginia City, Montana which I saw while researching presidential counties. It was the seat of local government in Madison County named for James Madison, the fourth U.S. President. Madison had been associated with Virginia for his entire life. How fitting, I thought, that settlers arriving in Madison County named their primary town for the home state of the honoree. Except that wasn’t the case. It was a complete coincidence. However that led me to another string of coincidences, of places named Virginia related to silver and gold.

Virginia City, Montana


Virginia City

I searched for that Virginia/Madison connection and actually found a more interesting story. As noted by the Virginia City Preservation Alliance,

On June 16, [1863] …directors presented the charter to Dr. Gaylord Bissell (who had been elected as Judge of the Fairweather Mining District), the proposed name of the new town was "Varina;" honoring the wife of Jefferson Davis-president of the Confederate States of America. Judge Bissell, a staunch Unionist, declared that there was no way he would approve of a charter which carried this name. One of the charter’s proponents hastened to explain that, inasmuch as Mrs. Davis was the daughter of a prominent New Jersey family, her name actually represented a thoughtful compromise in sectional consciousness. Somewhat mollified-if not totally convinced-Judge Bissell responded by crossing out the proposed name "Varina" and writing in the name of the city as "Virginia."

It was a pretty bold move to try to name a Montana town in honor of the Confederate’s first lady while the Civil War raged on the eastern end of the continent. I’m surprised Judge Bissell even offered Virginia, seeing how it was the home of the Confederate capital of said conflict. Nonetheless Virginia City thrived for awhile as the gold mines prospered, and even served as Montana’s first Territorial Capital. The current population hovers around 200 residents although it has managed to build a thriving tourist industry attracted to the Virginia City and Nevada City Historic District


Virginia City, Nevada


Virginia City , Nevada

I’ve actually visited Virginia City, Nevada although it was many years ago. A different mineral — silver — attracted miners in the late 1850’s. This was the site of the famous Comstock Lode, with seven million tons of silver extracted in twenty years between 1860 and 1880. It’s the reason Nevada came to be known as "The Silver State."

That was a fine set of statistics although I wanted to see the connection to Virginia. It was tangential. The name derived from James Finney (or Fennimore), "Old Virginny Finney." In 1859 he may or may not have discovered the Six-Mile Canyon portion of the Comstock Lode. There were various competing legends explaining how his name came to be applied to the town. My favorite version involved his penchant for public intoxication:

"[O]ne midnight Old Virginia, going home with the boys and a bottle of whiskey," wrote Charles Howard Shinn in The Story of The Mine (1896), "after an unusually protracted revel, fell down when he reached his cabin, broke the bottle, and rising to his knees, with the bottle-neck is his hand, hiccoughed, ‘I baptize this ground Virginia Town!’"

He was a native of Virginia — thus the connection — and "probably Nevada’s oldest pioneer settler" as well as a "frontier hunter, and miner, a man of more than ordinary ability in his class, a buffoon and practical joker; a hard drinker when he could get the liquor, and an indifferent worker at anything." He died in 1861 after being thrown from a horse while intoxicated.


Virginia, Free State, South Africa



Virginia, Free State, South Africa

It was hard to follow-up a story like that although Virginia in South Africa’s Free State province deserved a special mention because of its sheer distance from its namesake. This Virginia was,

…named after the state in America by Louis Seymour, a mechanical and mining engineer who scratched the name of his birthplace on a boulder close to where a railway siding was subsequently built… Years later, after the discovery of gold in 1955 the emergence of a town took on the name of the railway siding. Life here revolves around the gold fields… Virginia’s claim to fame is it pipe-mine, the deepest on the planet, whilst the manufacture of sulfuric acid from gold ore and the mining of gold are what drives the town’s economy.

I’ve seen neither gold nor silver in my little corner of Virginia, although these colorful stories almost make me want to pull out a shovel and start digging in my back yard.

On July 19, 2015 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Virginia Silver and Gold”

  1. Steve Spivey says:

    Don’t bother digging for gold. In most areas, you don’t own the mineral rights to your own property, so anything you might find would belong to someone else. After you did all the work.

    I would suggest digging in the neighbor’s yard, while they’re on vacation, you still likely won’t find anything, but at least you won’t have a big hole in your back yard. 🙂

  2. Fritz Keppler says:

    Don’t Forget Virginia, Minnesota!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia,_Minnesota

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