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Wild Women of the West: Fermina Sarras

COWGIRL LIFE

Wild Women of the West: Fermina Sarras Considered by her peers to be a formidable force, Fermina carried a six-shooter in the folds of her dress to ward off anyone who considered jumping her claim...

Fermina Sarras wild women cowgirl magazine

Photo courtesy of Special Collections Division, University of Washington Libraries.

A strong, but dainty hand dipped a pen into an inkwell and scratched her name in a ledger at the Esmeralda County courthouse in 1881.  Written in big, bold letters was the name “Fermina Sarras.  Spanish Lady, Belleville.”  Every miner in the area was required to register in the tax record and this feisty, forty-one year old prospector, often mistaken for being an Indian or Mexican, wanted to list her true heritage.  The form completed, Ferminia proudly exited the building and marched off to her mining claims in the western Nevada hills.  

A hard rock miner who made and lost a fortune in numerous silver and copper diggings, she was considered by her peers to be a formidable force.  Ferminia had a talent for locating valuable ore and was tough enough to defend her mine.

The diminutive, slightly overweight woman carried a six-shooter in the folds of her dress to ward off anyone who considered jumping her claim.  

Ferminia was born in July 1840 in Nicaragua a descent of the noble Contreras family who governed the entire region in the 16th century.  Several years before leaving Nicaragua, Ferminia married Pablo Flores and the couple had four children.  In 1876, the ambitious thirty-six year old woman traveled to San Francisco in search of a better life and the immense opportunity for wealth in the nearby goldfields.  Whether or not Pablo accompanied his family on the journey is unknown.  Some historical records indicate that Pablo made his way to the mining district of Nevada without family.  After arriving in San Francisco, Ferminia traveled through California and on into Nevada in 1880 with only her daughters by her side.  

The prospective miner initially settled in Virginia City, Nevada after she learned of the discovery of silver in the outlying hills.  Looking out of place in a black taffeta dress and wearing a gold cross pendant, Ferminia invested the little funds she had in mining equipment and supplies.  She decided to leave her two youngest girls at the Nevada Orphans Asylum before setting out to stake a claim with her two oldest children.

Loaded down with picks, pans, axes, food, and clothing, the three hiked more than 100 miles from Virginia City to the mining camp of Belleville and then proceeded on to Candelaria.  A census from 1875 show that Pablo was in the vicinity at the same, but there is no record that the two searched for silver together.  Ferminia filed her first claim in April of 1883, but her husband’s name is not associated with the find.  Some speculate that he had died by that time.  

The weather in the high desert where Ferminia looked for silver, copper, and gold was extreme.  During the winter months, temperatures plunged below freezing and in the summer, the sun’s hot rays were relentless.  The weather, though would not overwhelm the lady miner.  She would trek for days at a time carrying a forty pound pack on her back.  The possibility of a great fortune spurred her on.  After scouring the countryside for more than two years, Ferminia finally located valuable silver ore on a site she named “The Central American.”  

When Ferminia wasn’t prospecting, she was spending the fruits of her labor in the mining camps that dotted the Candelaria Hills.  She splurged on the finest food and champagne and kept company with a variety of miners, most of whom were considerably younger than her.  

She was also drawn to gunslingers, since they would be valuable in defending her claims.  One such suitor lost his life defending her property from thieves.  In early 1881, another of the men she became involved with left her with a new baby to care for.  On January 25, 1881, she gave birth to her fifth child, a son named Joseph A. Marshall.  She carried the newborn from one boom camp to another, never deviating from her mission to stake more claims.  

In 1885, Ferminia moved her family into a small house in the railroad town of Luning, Nevada near Tonopah.  After locating a series of copper mines in the area she purchased a ranch in Sand Springs, a spot east of Fallon, and a toll road in Death Valley.  The toll road proved to one of the most profitable ventures she ever entered into.  During the years when her mines were not producing she lived off the funds earned from the road.  In addition to supporting her family on the income she helped destitute miners passing through the area who needed a meal and a place to sleep.   

Determined that she would one day find a strike that would yield millions, Ferminia moved south to a location rumored to be rich with silver and copper called Silver Peak.  She registered numerous claims in the area, none of which panned out to be worth much at all.  

It wasn’t until 1900 that she managed to make the significant money she dreamed she could from her various mines.  Lucrative ore deposits found near Tonopah prompted investors to scramble to buy up claims.  Ferminia’s holdings in the vicinity included abundant copper diggings and she sold off twenty-five claims at $8,000 a piece. As she always did whenever she got a little ahead financially, she celebrated her windfall in San Francisco, staying in fancy hotels, buying elegant clothing, and dining at the most expensive eateries.  

As a result of the copper discovery, the area around Tonopah grew at an alarming rate.  By 1905, the region was in desperate need of a railroad depot to accommodate the miners and businessmen who were traveling back and forth between Tonopah and the nearby camp of Goldfield.  Railroad executives decided against paying the landowners in the area the outrageous asking price for the property to build the depot.  They chose instead to create a new town north of the Caldelaria Hills and build the depot there.  Ferminia’s reputation as Nevada territories “Copper Queen” prompted railroad executives to name the spot Mina.  

Mina was a prosperous location and Ferminia benefited greatly from the influx of people to the town.  

She amassed a handsome sum selling off her land to the brokerage firms and entrepreneurs.  Although she had relinquished many of her holdings in the district, she still possessed many profitable mines throughout the state.   

In 1907 residents from Tonopah to Reno estimated that she was worth more than a quarter of a million dollars.  With the exception of $10,000, which was deposited in a Los Angeles bank, Ferminia kept the majority of her wealth hidden at her homestead.  She believed banks were more likely to be robbed than she would be.  Indeed, the only money that was ever taken from her were the funds in the bank.  Doming Velasco, one of Ferminia’s lovers, managed to withdrawal the money and then left the country for South America.

In her mid-70s, Ferminia decided to return to Luning and retire from prospecting.  Her son, Joseph took over the everyday duties of the mining operations she still possessed and continued to include his mother in any discussions about their disposition.  He recognized that Ferminia’s considerable knowledge of the business was the key to her success.  In her final days she was surrounded by her children, sons and daughters-in-law, and numerous grandchildren, many of whom she had named claims after.  

Before passing away on February 1, 1915, Ferminia made out a will and several of her loved ones received a portion of her estate.  The claims she owned in Giroux Canyon, Nevada are stilled being mined today and Ferminia’s descendants continue to benefit from her findings there.  

The Spanish Belle was buried at the Luning cemetery and a massive monument was placed over her grave.  Vandals demolished the headstone, but nothing could erase Ferminia place in mining history.  The day of her funeral the local newspaper, The Western Nevada Miner proclaimed her to have been “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 other might follow.”    

Ferminia Sarras was 75 when she passed away.      

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Chris Enss is a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West.

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