Old West Legends – Mining in the American West

From the beginning, America presented an image of golden wealth that shaped the national character of the country. The discovery of gold and other precious metals in the American West accelerated western expansion, beginning with the California Gold Rush in 1848.

After the discovery of gold in California, prospectors by the thousands headed west to explore every promising region in their search for wealth. In 1859, gold was found near Denver, Colorado and the Comstock Lode was developed in Nevada. In the 1860s, precious minerals were found in eastern Oregon, Montana and Idaho.

Many states in the American West were originally settled primarily by prospectors and miners including Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Alaska. Though these states and others had been traveled by explorers, trappers and traders, there were far more miners than those other fearless pioneers.

Early attention in mining focused on gold and silver. Later discoveries of industrial minerals—coal, copper, iron, oil and gas, stimulated new and continued growth of settlements.

There were a number of men that made their fortunes and gained fame for their mining activities. But, the vast majority became laborers, working for poor wages in dangerous environments and living in desolate communities. Dreams were dashed as they performed backbreaking work and experienced numerous mining accidents.

Of the many mining camps of the American West, some were stimulated by other types of growth and they continue to exist today. Others faded, leaving behind ghost towns. In some there is no sign of their prosperous times whatsoever, with the exception of a debris-strewn and pockmarked landscape.

The mining industry of the American West not only created fortunes and disappointment for the individual miners, but also played an important part in American labor history, mining technology, and the growth of geological knowledge. It was responsible for displacing thousands of Native Americans. Another negative impact left behind was tremendous scars on the environment, which are still being addressed today.

Source: Old West Legends – Mining in the American West
© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America.

Back to top