Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Black Saloon Volume 53 Number 6, November/December 2000
by Jeff Donaldson

Standing atop a section of charred floorboard--part of the remains of the Boston Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada--archaeologist Kelly Dixon pulls a two-and-a-half dollar gold coin from a crack beside her boot. The piece validates for Dixon one of the West's oldest folktales, that coins could always be found between the floorboards of a saloon, dropped there by miners and cowboys who gathered for drink and raucous play.

This past summer, Dixon led archaeologists on a quest for evidence of how African Americans lived during northern Nevada's Comstock silver boom, from 1860 to 1880. Nestled in a rocky mountainside, Virginia City was once home to hundreds of blacks seeking wealth in the mines and escape from indentured servitude back East. Though little is known about the role blacks played in the early West, records show William Brown opened the Boston Saloon for black patrons in 1865 on what is now the parking lot for the Bucket of Blood Saloon. Brown's saloon burned in an 1876 fire, but the spot was identified from city records in 1997.

Archaeologists unearthed a gas lighting fixture, ceramic dishware, and sheep bones, all of which indicate saloon patrons enjoyed some of the same amenities provided by other area saloons. Dixon hopes to determine whether dozens of Jamaica ginger extract bottles found were used to make ginger beer, suggesting a link to ethnic food patterns of the time.

"This is the gap we're trying to fill," said Dixon. "Many studies have been done of African-American communities at the lowest socio-economic stratum, but there are few studies on African Americans who were middle-class."

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America