A History of Silver Mining in the United States

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HomeLearning CenterGemologyA History of Silver Mining in the United States

Over six thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians created beads made of silver and inscriptions indicate that it was worth more than gold for a sizable chunk of their civilization. While the Incas thought that silver came from the tears of the moon goddess Mama Kilya, there is an old saying in China that one can "trust only silver." Thanks to abundant veins in South America, silver became a globally recognized currency in the sixteenth century. However, as reflected in our language, silver is considered by modern culture as inferior to gold. 

Silver beads strung on linen from 1981-1975 BCE from the Tomb of Wah in Thebes, Egypt. Image from The Met.

But why? Silver is a beautiful luxury metal that is lighter than many other metals and its malleability allows for it to be easily hammered into highly reflective sheets and formed into delicate patterns. It can also be alloyed with other metals, including gold, to soften the color and create a shimmering effect. Also, due to its strength and high electrical conductivity, there are countless industrial uses for it. 

Recently, while researching domestic silver mining, Penny, a young student, noticed that the IGS site had very little content addressing this issue and she reached out to bring this to our attention. Well, Penny, you are absolutely correct that silver mining in the US is an important, yet under-represented topic and I hope that the following information answers your lingering questions about the issue. 

Silver mining in the US kicked off in the mid-nineteenth century and the country experienced a genuine silver boom that spanned from 1859-1893. Prior to that, some silver was found in the East, specifically in New York and Massachusetts, but these sources were laced with iron impurities, making them inferior to other silver deposits located in South America. Scores of prospectors traveled west, many aiming for the new state of California, looking to literally strike gold. Some did, but others came across silver.

Have you ever noticed that many Western states have a "Silver City"? That is no coincidence. Nevada's Silver City was established in 1859 after the ore was identified there. Silver City, New Mexico was so named for silver ore that was discovered in 1870, and peak production lasted from 1873-1893. Silver City, Idaho was named for the same reason in 1864 and prospectors flocked to the region to stake mining claims. This Silver City became the site of one of the most abundant and profitable sources of silver in the western US. The extreme wealth gained from the silver found there helped the city grow to include hundreds of homes and employed no less than twelve mills to process ore from its mines. 

The start of the silver boom in 1859 was truly a turning point in US history. Prospectors in Nevada found a massive supply of silver near Virginia City in the shadow of Mount Davidson. This deposit came to be known as the Comstock Lode, referencing one of the owners of the land, Henry Comstock. The Comstock Lode held a tremendous amount of silver ore which was mined until 1890. As was happening in other places, the silver industry here brought wealth to the region and further encouraged immigration to the western United States. 

Mining on the Comstock / drawn by T.L. Dawes; engraved and printed by Le Count Bro's., San Francisco. Gold Hill, Nev.: published by J.B. Marshall, 1876, San Francisco: engraved and printed by Le Count Bros. Photograph retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Just as the Comstock Lode was operating at its peak production in 1877, prospectors found silver ore in Leadville, Colorado. Some silver had been uncovered prior to this in 1864 in Summit County, but the discovery in Leadville changed everything. This deposit was heavily mined until the end of the silver boom when the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, first enacted just a few years prior in 1890, was repealed and the Panic of 1893, a relatively short-term period of economic depression, began. The Act mandated that the US government purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver each month to support the economy, encourage inflation, and mint physical coins. If this sounds like a big number to you, that's because it is! Indeed, this investment was so substantial that it caused the United States to become the second highest purchaser of silver behind the British Crown in India and helped to feed the economy to the point where the US became a dominant player on the world stage. 

us mint coin
US Mint (coin), National Numismatic Collection (photograph by Jaclyn Nash). Wikimedia Commons.

However, buying silver at this extreme pace had consequences and an overabundance of silver coins contributed to an economic downturn. Upon the repeal of the Act, the government abruptly stopped buying silver in such quantities, a move that caused the value of the metal to drop dramatically and put many mines out of business. For instance, the silver mines in Arizona, first discovered only a few years earlier in the 1880s, abruptly ceased production. Colorado, a state whose economy relied heavily on the sale of local silver, was devastated by this change in policy.

It is important to note that the silver boom owed a great deal of its success to new railways which allowed for cheap transportation from coast to coast. This was imperative because, even if tons of pure silver are found (or any raw material for that matter), it's not worth anything if you can't deliver it to buyers or if the cost of transportation makes it too expensive for anyone to afford once the goods get to their destination. 

Fortunately, some mines survived the chaos of the 1890s and continued to operate for many decades thereafter. For instance, the silver mines in Montana remained active. Montana proved to be a rich source of raw materials and continues to play host to hundreds of mines targeting a wide range of natural resources. With regards to silver, specifically, it was in 1874 that vast quantities of the metal mixed with other resources were found in the district of Butte. Profitable mines such as the Alice and Moulton commenced operations. Currently, silver mining in Montana has slowed significantly and now the ore is only uncovered as a byproduct from mines that are focused on other resources. 

Idaho State, including its own Silver City, is another survivor whose silver mines continued operating long after the boom ended. In fact, by the 1960s, the deposits near Coeur d'Alene had reportedly produced three times the total amount of metal ore than the Comstock Lode had. Similarly, prospecting activity in Utah which was first encouraged by Col Patrick E. Connor, led to the discovery of abundant silver deposits in the 1860s. Silver was perhaps the most economically important precious metal to be produced in Utah until the beginning of the twentieth century, and it made a few lucky prospectors millionaires. Indeed, by the 1920s, Utah was producing about a third of the total domestic yield of silver. The wealth that was generated as a result of silver mining activity helped upgrade and modernize the whole area.

yankee girl mine
An image from 1889 of the Yankee Girl Mine in Red Mountain Pass in Colorado. Wikimedia Commons.

Today, the US is reportedly the ninth-highest producer of silver globally. Multiple mines in Alaska such as the top-producing Greens Creek Mine and the Red Dog Mine produce the most raw material. Montana and Nevada also continue to contribute to the market while some locations in Idaho, Arizona, and Utah also post good yields. In total, there are four mines in the US that specifically target silver while an additional thirty-three mines uncover the metal as a byproduct or coproduct. The domestic annual production has remained fairly consistent in recent years. 

The US Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries from January 2022 breaks down which domestic industries use silver the most from 2021. They say that the purchase of silver for personal investment commanded 26% of all sales. After that, industrial uses for electronics were listed as 21%. This high percentage is due to the fact that silver is a necessary component in many fields. For instance, the medical industry uses it in bandages and pharmaceuticals. The world of electronics makes extensive use of silver in solder, batteries, touch screens, and solar panels. It is also employed in the construction of mirrors and water purification systems such as are employed by NASA on the space station. These are just a few of the unexpected ways that silver is a crucial commodity in the modern world. 

The production of coins and metals requires 11% of the silver used in 2021. Interestingly, the percentage of silver used for jewelry and silverware was only 4%. The usage for the remaining 38% is listed simply as "other."

So, the next time you hear someone use a phrase that celebrates the superiority of gold, think of the many contributions that silver and silver mining has made to the US. It is partly thanks to the silver boom that the US economy grew to be a power player on a global scale. Even after the boom concluded, the metal profited many individual brave prospectors who traveled West with only a prayer of locating hidden deposits. Moreover, the wealth generated from the sales of silver boosted local economies and led to the growth and development of entire communities. 

Penny, we really appreciate hearing from you! We hope that this information proves helpful and encourages further study. 

Emily Frontiere

Emily Frontiere is a GIA Graduate Gemologist. She is particularly experienced working with estate/antique jewelry.

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