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Photo: Matthew B. Brown (Candelaria today)
Her gaze is steady and frank. Her hands are sure at their task, as she has done this many times before. Her gear has been stacked and is being wrapped expertly in canvas into a pack she will soon hoist on her back.
It’s early in Luning, 1901. The sun has just begun to touch the Garfield Hills to the west, a rugged up thrust of multi-hued rock with stern outcroppings, strange curves, and whorls of sedimentary layers. Colors emerge in the first rays of light: tan, chocolate, rosy blushes, and drops of blood red; stains of amber and honey, pale yellow and green—like a calico dress too long in the sun. Eastward, with the sun coming up behind it, the Gabbs Valley Range broods in the shadow cast by its own mass.
The woman is 61 years old. She is short, somewhat stocky, and remarkably strong and dignified in bearing. Her hair is put up for travel, revealing a face that is pleasing in its features, though just now impassive and alert. The woman shoulders her pack and steps outside. No one will know where she goes.
This could be one of the days she sets out to climb the steep, tortured New York Canyon to the east. Perhaps it was on her last trip there that she saw some promising color but had to leave it when provisions ran low. She pauses once more to consider the amount of water she is packing and decides it is sufficient. She knows where the springs are, and that bit of color, too.
The woman is Ferminia Sarras, and she is a very long way from her native Nicaragua.
From the land of poets to the land of promise, Sarras arrived in San Francisco in 1876. Descended from a prominent conquistador family, perhaps born to privilege and wealth, she may have been prompted by circumstances at home—lost love, fading family fortunes—or been summoned to California by a husband or other relation scouting the way to a better life.
She came at the age of 36, a mature woman with four daughters. Whatever else she might have been, she was already a survivor. In 1880, another calling drew her to the treeless, windswept mining frontier of the Candelaria Hills in Mineral County.
Mexican prospectors, pioneers who eventually sold out to newcomers, had extensively staked the area in the 1860s. The town of Candelaria and adjacent Metallic City were now the center of mining, while milling of the silver ore was done at nearby Columbus and Belleville. Sarras’ arrival in the desert coincided with a boom in the area, but despite the arrival of the Carson and Colorado Railway a couple years later, the towns remained small, hard-scrabble, and far from just about everywhere.
Sarras’ first winter in this strange, stark world—where she established modest domiciles in both Candelaria and Belleville—was memorable. Snow in late November was followed by freezing temperatures, more snow, and then rain. The brief sparkle of Christmas might have lifted Sarras’ spirits but would not have distracted her much from physical discomfort, for she was eight months pregnant and on January 25, 1881, gave birth to a son, Joseph A. Marshall.
The father’s identity is unknown. However, it is clearly documented that Sarras was or became a remarkably liberated woman, enjoying several liaisons throughout her life, often with much younger men, without sacrificing her independence.
Sarras soon acquired a small house in Luning, in Soda Springs Valley to the north of the Candelaria Hills. She supported her family through a variety of means, possibly renting some of her houses or operating a toll road, but she also apprenticed herself to the art and science of mineral prospecting.
In April 1883, in dangerously cold, snowy weather, she staked her first claim, aptly named the Central American, near Belleville. In 1888, with activity in Candelaria slowing down, Sarras filed several claims around Luning. Then, prompted perhaps by a tip, she left the Soda Springs Valley for Silver Peak country. Here she prospected for a decade, still not catching the big break. But something big was on the horizon, a growing market for copper, not only for roofing, cooking utensils, hardware, and nautical sheathing, but for electric and telephone cables and a host of new-fangled appliances.
Something came together in Sarras’ mind. Hearing of the growing demand for copper, learning the techniques to test for its presence in ore samples, perhaps remembering something about those rugged hills around Luning, some trace of color passed over in the quest for something else. Thus it was that in June, July, and September of 1899, working alone as she always did, Sarras returned to those hills and staked new claims. More followed in January, March, and December of 1901. In 1902, at the age of 62, she trekked again into the mountains and staked 25 claims and six mill sites.
That same year, Sarras’ shrewd prospecting almost magically converged with improving fortunes in Nevada’s mining industry. She made her first big haul when investors bonded a group of her claims for $200,000. More large sales followed in 1905, 1907, 1912, and 1914.
Always generous, Sarras could now afford a little something for herself. While she continued her solitary combing of the hills, her prospecting was punctuated by trips to Los Angeles and San Francisco to wine, dine, and dance.
When she passed away in 1915 at the age of 74, she was honored as “one of the last of those brave spirits who dared the desert’s fierce glare in Nevada’s primitive days and blazed the trails that others might follow.”
And follow they did. Even now, maps bear permanent witness to the passing of her strong, steady stride, the vigilance of her keen, appraising eyes. The town of Mina is named for her, and the Copper Queen Mine in the hills above Luning pays its own enduring tribute.
WORTH A CLICK