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`What's in a Name?'

Christening Early Madison County, Montana, Quartz Lodes

by Jeffrey J. Safford

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 50 (Autumn 2000), 66-69; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2000.

William Shakespeare's oft-quoted inquiry "What's in a name?" must have been particularly meaningful to the innumerable prospectors who provided appellations to the thousands of quartz lodes they discovered and worked on the western mining frontier. Yet, one critic, mocking the pretentiousness of these names, reworded the quotation to read, "There is nothing in a name." He offered as examples of inanity such lodes as the Thermopylae, Ne Plus Ultra, and Saturnalia. This critic, an unnamed correspondent from the Hot Spring Mining District located thirty miles northeast of Virginia City, reported to the Virginia City Montana Post in 1867 that he proposed to descend from the "sublime to the ridiculous" by naming his own lode the Slumgullion. The name, while not as euphonious as Saturnalia, was offered as something more in keeping with the rough, earthy mining environment epitomized by that district's central camp, Sterling.1

  To students from Western Montana College at Dillon, shown at right exploring Alder Gulch in the 1920s, there was more than a name to the valley. For them, gold was the location's history. Above right, county recorder Robert Hill obliged S. M. Edwards by recording his claim to the Esop Lode in the Hot Spring District of Madison County, Territory of Montana, on May 6, 1865.

MHS Photograph Archives, Helena

It seems surprising that no one published a rejoinder to this, for many prospectors put much thought and meaning into the names of their mining claims. In fact, how prospectors titled their discoveries provides clues about who they were, their backgrounds, and the environments they worked in, and the names given quartz-lode claims in Madison County, Montana Territory, offer examples. In the mid-1860s, Madison County, with Virginia City its county seat, reigned as one of the West's most celebrated gold-mining regions. Alder Gulch, discovered in May 1863, rendered prodigious amounts of placer gold—arguably the most ever extracted from a single gulch. An enormous stampede followed the discovery, and within a year the gulch's population numbered roughly ten thousand. Many hundreds more fanned out to prospect the surrounding hills and valleys. By 1867 so many lode discoveries had been made in Madison County that one prospector cautioned that "it would be dangerous . . . to venture out any distance during a dark night without running a risk of . . . falling into some one of the numerous perforations which have been made . . . in pursuit of the precious metal."2

Courtesy the author

The names of these gold discoveries reflected many conditions and sentiments. Political and sectional biases, for example, were often evident in lode naming. Montana, although remote geographically from the Civil War's battleflelds, was not immune to that conflict's impact. Large numbers of the territory's residents were adamant about their allegiances, both Union and Confederate. When Reverend Learner B. Stateler and his wife Melinda, stalwart secessionists from Missouri, titled two of their Norwegian Mining District lodes General Beauregard and Vallandigham, other miners in the district, the northernmost of four subdistricts in the Hot Spring Mining District, countered with E Pluribus Unum, Red, White and Blue, Uncle Sam, the Freedmen's Bureau, and the Star Spangled Banner. One will never know just how many Civil War veterans worked in Virginia City and in the camps surrounding it, but the Malvern Hill and Shilo lodes might have indicated combat experience for one or more of their claimants, and for other discoverers the U.S. Mallory, Farragut, and Monitor lodes might have reflected Union naval sentiments or enlistments.

Many miners named their lodes for places from which they had emigrated. The Philbrook brothers titled three of their lodes for hamlets around Milwaukee, Wisconsin—Brookfield, Waukesha, and Wauwatosa—thus providing documentation of their origins. Edward Baldwin's upstate New York roots were identified by the Oneida, Mohawk, Mohican, and Iroquois lodes. The Wall Street, Broadway, and Fifth Avenue lodes defined the roots of prospectors from or around Gotham. Miners with California experience implanted their own memories: Calaveras, California, Grass ffalley, and Red Bluff.

Henry Augustus Ward, superintendent for the Midas Mining Company of Rochester, New York, favored names having metallurgic or zoological meaning, including Chrysostone and Megatherium. The Chester Dewey lode was named for one of Ward's mentors. Virtually all of Virginia City's public officials, and many of its leading merchants, bankers, barristers, and lawyers, had lodes named for them: the expectation that a prospector if fortunate in the field would file a claim for a friend, for someone who had grubstaked him, or for someone else to whom he felt obliged was one of the most common characteristics of those who worked the goldfields.

Spanish words were common lode names. Edgar Reynolds, prospecting in the Norwegian area in mid-1864, named his lodes the Buena ffista, Muy Rico, Oro Fino, and Poco Tiempo, suggesting that he had been influenced by California or Mexican experiences. Others chose names associated, apparently, with events or situations experienced at the time of discovery: Badger, Black Rock, Blue Bird, Blazing Comet, Curlew, Dead Rabbit, Five Pines, Killdeer, Lone Tree, Mountain Lion, Rainbow, Rising Sun (although the latter might have connoted a coveted economic condition).

The discovery corps of the New York and Montana Mining and Discovery Company, after naming lodes for themselves, resorted to a full run of the Greek alphabet—Alpha all the way to Omega. Some prospectors were more innovative. John W. Lesher, working twenty-two miles northwest of Virginia City on Mill Creek and on Alder

From Madison County Book E of Pre-emptions for 1865
Mining claim records could take on a fanciful appearance when those filing them employed special calligraphy to emphasize the uniqueness of the names they applied to their discoveries, such as the samples at left.

Creek two miles below Virginia City in the Junction Mining District, included the Hidden Casket, Magic ffault, and Mountain Safe lodes among his discoveries. By contrast, some miners suffered a complete lack of creativity: hence, the No Name lode in Brown's District, two miles west of Virginia City, and the Nameless lode in the Junction District. The Elder Jewett and the Bishop Simpson lodes in the easternmost district of the Hot Spring Mining District were named for ranking members of the Illinois Methodist Church by their discoverer, David D. L. McCullough. These lodes were then bequeathed to Northwestern University on the thoroughly optimistic condition that the university pay to Jewett "not more than five thousand dollars, which may be realized beyond $25,000 on sale of said premises."3  Such optimism found its way into many an appellation: consider, for example, Amen, Compensation, Cynosure, Dividend, Eureka, Good Omen, Home Ticket, Hopeful, Miracle of Wealth, Neversweat, O Let Us Be Joyful, Ready Cash, and Seek No Farther. Although Madison County lacked cultural sophistication, musical and literary sentiments found outlets through lode naming. A prospector in Norwegian Gulch named three of his lodes for classical composers: Mozart, Beethoven, and Rossini. A miner in Indian Creek just north of present-day Sheridan worked the Jenny Lind lode. Charles Dickens was honored with the Estella and the Great Expectations (a double entendre?) lodes; Sir Walter Scott with the Ivanhoe; Washington Irving with the Rip ffan Winkle; and Scottish poetry with the Bobby Burns. Longfellow and Byron each had namesake lodes. And not to be ignored, the great bard himself was celebrated with the King Lear lode.

Whatever the names they applied, prospectors invariably had expectations not unlike those depicted by the miner at right, who posed for a staged circa 1905 photograph that was labeled, "I have struck it."

MHS Photograph Archives, Helena

In fact, a recent article describing the influence Shakespeare had upon western place-names, including such Colorado mines as the Ophelia, Cordelia, and Desdemona, underscores the significance just one poet and playwright had upon western thinking in the mid - to late nineteenth century, thus countering the argument that "there is nothing in a name."4

Jeffrey J. Safford is professor emeritus of history, Montana State University, Bozeman, and a previous contributor to this magazine. His study of the Hot Spring Mining District of the 1860s appeared in two parts in the Summer and Autumn 1997 issues of Montana.


1. H. H. S. to Virginia City Montana Post, December 23, 1867, in Virginia City Montana Post, January 11, 1868.

2. Ibid., November 9, 1867.

3. Record Book R, p. 177, Clerk and Recorder's OYce, Madison County Courthouse, Virginia City, Montana. Despite McCullough's well-meant generosity, the lodes did not pan out—neither Jewett nor Northwestern University ever received a cent.

4. Jennifer Lee Carrell, "How the Bard Won the West," Smithsonian, 29 (August 1998), 99-102, 104, 106-7.

From Montana The Magazine of Western History, 50 (Autumn 2000), 66-69; this article is presented courtesy of the Montana Historical Society.  All rights reserved, © 2000.

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