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Wild West Saloon Life Volume 58 Number 6, November/December 2005
by Jennifer Pinkowski

The next time you see a Western in which a gambler in a saloon reaches for his gun to shoot the cheating varmint across the table, think instead of a cognac-sipping chap puffing on a decorated pipe, or an African American businesswoman enjoying a fine cut of mutton while making plans to expand her operations.

Boomtown Saloons

These are the more accurate images drawn by historical archaeologist Kelly Dixon in Boomtown Saloons (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2005; $34.95), a compelling look at these establishments in one of the biggest mining towns in the nineteenth-century West. Written for nonspecialists, it presents an analysis of artifacts excavated from four saloons (two of which Dixon worked on), which together expand the historical record and contradict the saloon's popular image.

Like bars today, they varied in purpose, clientele, and atmosphere. In Virginia City, they served an ethnically diverse population of miners, shopkeepers, and well-heeled bigwigs. The artifacts--dinner plates, cribbage boards, clay pipes, crystal stemware--show that while drinking, gambling, smoking, and perhaps prostitution were mainstays, the saloon atmosphere was more sedate and clublike than legend has it. Much of the blame for this misconception can be placed on writers such as Mark Twain, who, as a newspaper editor in Virginia City in the 1860s, let "fancy get the upper hand of fact too often when there was a dearth of news," as he admitted. He wasn't alone.

Dixon is best when writing about the Boston Saloon, the African American-owned venue that was the focus of her dissertation work; she is most conversant with what its artifacts say about it being a high-end refuge from the pervasive restrictions placed on black life in Virginia City.

Boomtown Saloons is limited in scope but fascinating as a corrective to exaggerated historical accounts. Still, it's a bit disappointing to have such notorious dives tamed by archaeological evidence. What a relief, then, to encounter the spent ammo, cheap liquor, and gaudy women's accessories found at the site of O'Brien and Costello's Saloon and Shooting Gallery, with its fabulously fatal mix of booze and guns. Yet archaeologists also found a fine tea set there. Even this saloon made temperance-minded patrons welcome.

Dixon clearly enjoys investigating sites deeply entrenched in the popular imagination; in 2004, she dug the Donner Party camp to see how the doomed group lived its last days. It will be interesting to see what legend this young archaeologist takes on next.

Jennifer Pinkowski is Associate Editor/Reviews Editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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