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Wild Women Of The West: Josie Pearl

Thirteen-year-old Josie hurried past the brush and trees lining a crude trail leading the way to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains...

January 10, 2018

Thirteen-year-old Josie Reed hurried past the brush and trees lining a crude trail leading the way to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains outside of Tres Piedras, New Mexico. She moved with the ease of one who had a long acquaintance of the terrain, dodging boulders and logs that at times blocked the narrow footpath. A cheek-to-cheek grin dominated the young girl’s angelic, chubby, round face and her blue-green eyes were wide with excitement. She stopped running only for a moment to yield the right of way to a pair of rabbits passing in front of her.

During the brief pause she inspected five broken pieces of rock held tightly in her right fist. Flecks of gold glittered in the sunlight. Her left arm, which was obviously broken, rested in a sling draped around her neck. Josie tucked the precious nuggets inside the folds of the cloth bandage tightly binding her left wrist. Confident that her discovery was in a safe place, she dashed off again.

In the near distance she spotted her sister, Liss and Liss’s husband’s cabin. Smoke swirled out of the chimney of the small log home, and the smell of freshly baked bread permeated the air. She was certain the news that she’d found gold would be a tremendous financial boost to her hard-working sibling, who was expecting her first child.

Josie had moved in with her to help with the housework and livestock and most of the time readily fulfilled her obligation, but there were days she could not resist sneaking off to the mountains to prospect. It was her life’s ambition to become a miner. She wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father and brother-in-law. Both were employed at coal mines in the area, but had no experience mining gold, silver, or copper.

Before her stay with Liss, Josie lived with her father. He was a great encourager of her dreams and occasionally allowed her to shadow him on his mining job. One winter day while she was off working her own diggings in the bluffs around Tres Piedras, she fell on a patch of ice and broke the bones in her forearm.

Josie’s father could not look after her and work at the same time and Liss needed help, so the decision was made that she should go and live with her sister. Josie was sad about the arrangement at first, but the daily treks into the wilderness to Rat Creek and back again to look for firewood, gave her the chance to continue prospecting. Her attitude improved in light of the opportunity and she grew to appreciate the setting. “If I hadn’t been looking for timber,” Josie admitted to thinking years later, “I never would have found gold.”

Josie’s discovery in late 1886, was met with great enthusiasm, and her father escorted her to the nearest assayer’s office to authenticate the find. The nuggets proved to be real gold and a claim on the spot where the rocks had been located was filed. Josie named her mine the Molly S. Within a few days of the filing, the teenager was offered $5,000 for the Molly S. and she accepted. She used the money to pay the taxes on the family farm, add another room onto the Reed home, purchase feed for the animals, shoes, and bolts of fabric for clothes to be made for her brothers and sisters. Josie vowed then that as long as she lived she would hunt for gold.

Josephine Reed was born on December 19, 1873 in Evening Shade, Arkansas. The prospecting phenomenon was one of twelve children. Her mother, Priscilla Adair, and her father, John Everett Reed, made the trip overland in the fall of 1880. Reed was a farmer and rancher who had migrated to Colorado and settled in the San Luis Valley. Josie was nine when they arrived in central Colorado. Her father staked out a few acres of land for his family and built and adobe house on the property. “The walls were made of mud brick,” Josie recalled in her autobiography. “There were no windows except the panes of glass set in the mud walls, and they could not be opened. The door consisted of cottonwood, over which burlap was stretched. This allowed circulation of air, since there was a large fireplace in the home. Thus, there was plenty of mud in the winter, and stifling heat in the summer. We dared not open the door for ventilation, or we would be pestered to death with flies.”

Josie’s father went to work framing, and she and her brother and sisters kept busy with school and their chores. The Reed children took odd jobs to help supplement the income for the large family. Josie was a midwife’s assistant and a dishwasher at a local hotel.

When she wasn’t working she explored the trails around her home, looking for the gold nuggets she had heard were in abundance in various parts of the state.

The need to keep his wife and children clothed and fed prompted John Reed to pursue employment as a coal miner in New Mexico. Farming did not supply a steady income and he believed mining would. He left his sons to tend to the crops and made plans to leave the area as soon as possible. Josie had accompanied John on previous trips to Tres Piedras and was fascinated with mining, the machinery, and the tools; she wanted to join her father on this venture. After several requests, Josie’s parents agreed that she could leave with John.

Father and daughter lived in one of the many shacks clustered around the mine. Josie kept house during the day, and in the evenings and weekends she and John would visit with the other miners on the site. One of the laborers taught Josie how to pan for gold and how to tell the difference between iron pyrite or crystal quartz.

The sale of the Molly S. mine enabled John to return to the family farm in Colorado to visit. Josie went home for a few months, but it was clear to her that she couldn’t stay and needed to be on her own.

Like her older sister before her, she moved to Denver to attend Peck’s Training School. Her education consisted of classes in cooking, sewing, and various household duties. Josie enjoyed her time at school and was exceptional at cooking, but she grew increasingly homesick for the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and prospecting. She longed to return to the area, but lacked the funds to make the trip or to finance a mining expedition.

Josie graduated from Pecks in 1888 and immediately took a job as a pastry cook at the James Hotel in Leadville. The popular business attracted many mine workers and owners including Horace Tabor and his wife, the infamous Baby Doe. The Tabors were millionaires and fans of the biscuits Josie made – she made eight hundred a day. They befriended the young girl and discussed business and mining with her whenever they came into the establishment for food. They invited Josie on sleigh rides and to several fancy area dances. Josie came to regard Horace and Baby Doe as a benevolent aunt and uncle. The Tabors were protective of the teenager and they kept a close eye on her well-being. The mining district was crowded with unscrupulous men who would take advantage of a single young girl away from her parents. When Josie tired of Leadville and expressed a desire to return home, Baby Doe offered to purchase a train ticket for her.

Josie arrived back in the San Luis Valley just in time to witness a mass exodus of the area’s residents west to the San Juan Mountains. Silver had been discovered and farmers traded in their plows for pickaxes and headed for the hills. Josie found that she was just as anxious as her neighbors to pursue mining. Although she was happy to be with her family again, she had become too independent to stay in the house cooking and cleaning. She wanted to prospect. An offer from the Tabors to take Josie with them to the new mining town of Creede, Colorado was quickly accepted by the restless teenager.

After agreeing to serve as the Tabor’s chief cook in exchange for room and board and the opportunity to search for her own strike, Josie packed her meager belongings and moved away again. The trip from San Luis Valley to Creede was long and uncomfortable. The new mining camp was overflowing with prospectors who had rushed in to dig for silver. The region had been given the nickname “King of Solomon’s Mining District” and everywhere Josie looked were men roaming in and out of makeshift saloons and gambling houses carrying picks and shovels.

“I know your mother was worried about your coming with us to this raucous and bawdy place,” Baby Doe told her, “but your father insisted you could hold your own.” “I certainly can,” Josie replied as they rode down the main section of Creede toward the Zang Hotel where Josie would reside for the next few months.

The Tabors introduced Josie to many of the business owners in the camp the day after they had settled in their new home. Among the popular characters living in Creede were sporting-house owner Soapy Smith; gambler Mort Watrous; Bob Ford, the man who shot Jesse James; and Army scout and sometime miner herself, Calamity Jane.

When Josie wasn’t cooking for the Tabors and holding down a job in the kitchen at the Lang Hotel, she was roaming the landscape outside of town looking for silver and gold ore. Horace and Baby Doe eventually returned to Denver, leaving their protégé behind to fend for herself and to keep an eye on their claim, the Amethyst Mine. By January 1893, two years after the Tabors had brought Josie to town, she still had not been able to locate a substantial find of her own. She was frustrated and tired of the “rowdy, drunken sots” she encountered everyday. “I wish a real man would come to town,” she lamented to one of her friends.

The Silver Act Amendment of November 1, 1893, which regulated the value of silver, sending the price for the metal spiraling downward and making it no longer profitable to mine, forced some of the mines to close and drove numerous miners out of town. Government-funded engineers were moving into Creede, however, to oversee the removal of the silver ore for use in making coins. Josie had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of one of those mining engineers while dining with a friend. Lane Pearl was a graduate of Leland Stanford University and had relocated to the area. He was six feet fall and handsome. He had an engaging personality and a pleasant, soft-spoken voice.

Josie and Lane were instantly smitten with one another and the two spent a great deal of time together. They were married in late 1903 at the Reed family farm. After the wedding the couple returned to Creede and purchased a home near the Happy Thought Mine where Lane was foreman. Josie loved her new husband, but knew she would not be content as a full-time housewife; she liked working in between prospecting ventures. With Lane’s full support she accepted a position in town as the manager of a miner’s boardinghouse. That job led to an offer to manage a hospital in a mining camp five miles above Creede.

Although she excelled at her work, nothing she did compared to prospecting. “It was all I dreamed about,” she wrote in her autobiography. “If I could just find a good prospect! With Lane a mining engineer, we could develop a mine by doing the initial work ourselves and then hiring men and installing machinery as conditions warranted.” Josie was convinced that she would find what she was looking for.

Lane called her persistent search “mining fever.”

As the director of the Bachelor Hospital, Josie was on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and worked almost exclusively with miners. She oversaw the treatment of prospectors injured in work-related accidents or suffering from the inhalation of silica dust from the mines. The hours were grueling and the job cut drastically into the time she needed to look for gold and silver. She decided to resign her position and take a less stressful job at the Last Chance Mine Boardinghouse. Her new post gave her the opportunity to try and locate a rich mine of her own. Prospecting in the high peaks and rocky gulches, Josie survived numerous avalanches and startling encounters with bears and mountain lions living in the timber. There was no danger she was not willing to endure to find the mother lode.

Miners from Bachelor, Leadville, and Cripple Creek who stayed at the Last Chance boardinghouse benefited from Josie’s knowledge of prospecting and kindness. Men who had profitable claims rewarded her for her good cooking and mining tips with $100 bills and gold earrings. She never let a down-on-his-luck miner leave her establishment hungry and she always defended foreign workers brought in to replace miners on strike from various mining companies. The foreign miners who sorted ore were mistreated frequently; they were beaten, tied to trees, and left to die of exposure. With Lane’s support, Josie rescued several of the men from certain death. Her own life was threatened on more than a few occasions for interfering with what the so-called “honest miners” insisted they do.

The Pearls returned to Creede in 1905 where Lane took a job as shift boss for the Capta Vinta Mine. The couple moved into a small cabin near the mine and while Lane was off at work, Josie prospected. One day while she was out pounding some ore in an iron mortar she noticed a red glow coming from the Capta Vinta Mine. The mine was on fire and Lane and his men were trapped inside. Josie helped organize a rescue crew to subdue the flames and pull the miners out of the burning shaft. The men were blistered and suffering from smoke inhalation, but all survived.

The near death experience prompted the Pearls to head back to San Luis Valley. Lane accepted a job at the Pass-Me-By Mine, sixty-five miles from Monte Vista. After building a combination home and boardinghouse, Josie negotiated a deal with the mine owner to hire her to feed and house the miners in their employ. She served fifty men three meals a day at a cost of $35 a month for food quarters.

Josie was earning a substantial monthly income as a cook, but her desire to make the same amount by mining never wavered. In 1906, Lane and Josie leased a silver mine called the Commodore. Josie worked the mine in between serving meals at the boardinghouse. The decrease in the value of silver, however, forced the pair to eventually give up the lease and accept a $40,000 loss. The decision to surrender the lease was heartbreaking for Josie, but she stubbornly held onto the notion of finding another rich strike somewhere.

The determined prospector and her husband were on the move again in 1908. News of the rich ore deposits being mined in the area around Goldfield, Colorado prompted the couple to try their luck at that location. Lane’s background in mine engineering made him a highly sought-after employee. Josie’s managerial skills landed her a job at the Palm Restaurant, where much of the gold dug out of the earth passed through her hands.

On her days off Josie trekked into the mountains to search for gold and silver. She would saddle her horse, loading the animal down with food, water, blankets, picks, shovels, and gold pans, and rode toward the regions of Summit King and the Bullfrog. “I always felt closer to God when I was in the mountains,” she admitted in her autobiography. “The solitude was good for my soul! I often stayed overnight in the mountains and returned in the morning just in time to dress for work.”

The Pearls stay in Goldfield was short-lived. When Lane was offered the position of manager of the Ward Mine in Ely, Nevada, the two moved again. Gold had been discovered in Ely in 1900 and the town quickly became a booming mining camp. Josie cooked for the employees of Ward Mine while Lane handled the daily operation of the claim. Continually lured by the quest for gold, Josie resumed her prospecting ventures. Finally, her relentless searching paid off. She located three gold claims and named them the Nevada, the Colorado, and the Mexico.

In the midst of Josie’s good fortune came the news that her friend Baby Doe Tabor had fallen on hard times, both financially and physically. She quickly made her way to Leadville to see how she could be of help. Horace had died in 1899 and Baby Doe was sick with the flu. Josie stayed by the woman’s side until she became well again and then returned to Nevada.

Safely back in Ely, Josie worked her mines, supplementing her income with a job managing the Steptoe Hotel. She befriended many residents, monetarily assisted destitute miners and retired school teachers, held a variety of civic leadership roles, and in 1917, helped introduce and pass a bill in the Nevada State Legislature revising the pension law for retired school teachers.

In 1918, after more than fifteen years of marriage, Josie lost her beloved Lane when he died of influenza. She sank into a deep depression and for a time believed there was no reason to keep living. A need greater than her own heartache helped her to find a way through the sorrow. A massive snowstorm had blocked the roads leading to the mountain where the Ward Mine was located, and consequently, necessary supplies for the mine and its staff were delayed. Josie offered to drive a team of horses to Ely to retrieve the provisions. The mine’s temporary manager tried to talk Josie out of making the trip, but it was to no avail. “You need supplies and mail!” she told him. “One only dies once, and now I haven’t much to live for, so I’ll try it.”

The trip was rugged, but Josie made it through and returned to the Ward Mine with food, mining equipment, and other provisions intact.

Josie decided to leave the area in the spring of 1919 and travel to Los Angeles, California. She spent a great deal of time alone, walking along the beaches, still grieving the loss of Lane. After months of soul searching she made her way back to her parents home in Colorado. It was during her brief visit that her love for mining resurfaced. She chased silver and gold strikes to Tonopah and Searchlight in Clark County, Nevada, and to Bodie and Humboldt County, California.

By the fall of 1920 Josie had settled near the town of Battle Mountain, Nevada and was employed as a cook at a boardinghouse. Her desire to devote her entire life to mining, filing claims, developing and digging shafts, and tunneling into Battle Mountain itself never wavered. As always her job cooking for miners, now at the Big Enough Mine, gave her the funds needed to keep working towards her ultimate goal.

Once she raised enough money for another mining exhibition she moved on to the vicinity of Winnemucca, Nevada. She had overheard a couple of prospectors in Battle Mountain discussing the gold fields in the area between Winnemucca and a camp known as Varryville. Josie bought a burro, loaded the animal with supplies and rode off to find her fortune. She spent many days and nights alone, crushing rocks and panning them in the sands and mud of creek bottoms in the area. During her travels she met a couple of miners who had secured several rich claims in the canyons she was working. One evening she offered to make dinner for the prospectors and after tasting her delicious cooking they gave her a mine as a present. She named her claim Juanita.

The Juanita Mine proved to be rich with gold ore. Josie made enough money to not only keep herself in supplies, but she was also able to put some money in savings. In addition to the income from the Juanita, she managed to earn extra funds assisting other prospectors with their claims.

While Josie was helping a handful of miners at the Opalite Mine in the spring of 1922, three men snuck onto her property and began stealing ore from the Juanita.

Josie quickly returned to her claim and discovered that the night watchmen she had hired to guard the mine was part of the trio high-grading from her. The thieves plotted to kill her, but she snuck away from them during the night while they slept. She fled to a nearby miner’s camp, borrowed a weapon from one of the prospectors, and snuck back to Juanita.

The following morning she confronted the men with an armed rifle. “Line up and keep your hands in front of you,” she told them. “I don’t mind shooting one little bit. In fact my trigger finger is itching to fire just in case you boys start any funny business.” The men took her at her word and submitted to her demands. Cowpunchers from the nearby Montera Ranch helped escort the criminals to the authorities in Winnemucca.

Josie stayed on her own claim for the next two years, making so much money she was able to hire men to work with her and purchase new drilling equipment and ore cars. In 1929, Juanita yielded more then forty buckets of ore a day and paid out more than $15,000 a month. When the depression hit in 1930, Josie lost the entire fortune she had acquired overnight. “It’s just my luck,” she lamented in her biography. “Rich one day and poor the next!”

From 1930 to 1934, Josie wandered through northern California and Nevada prospecting. She filed claims on two mines in the area of Cove Canyon, Nevada. Both finds were rich with gold ore and by the end of 1936, she had made another fortune. She used her wealth to help care for the indigent women and orphaned children in the territory and for medicine and supplies for flu victims.

In 1939, sixty-six-year-old Josie returned to the Juanita Mine to work and live out the remainder of her life. Her benevolence extended to the people in the towns, villages, and Indian reservations around Winnemucca. She purchased a cemetery in the Black Rock Desert where homeless miners with no families and the disenfranchised could be buried. She paid for the deceased to be laid to rest in wooden coffins and have their graves marked with wooden crosses. When World War II broke out, Josie decided to sell her complete interest in the Juanita Mine and the group of mines surrounding it to assist in the war effort. She also helped sell war bonds and organized scrap metal and rubber drives.

Newspaper reporter Ernie Pyle wrote a series of articles about Josie’s generosity and life as a prospector. As a result of the article radio and television producers sought Josie out to appear on various broadcasts. Although she was flattered, she graciously declined any offer to participate. “You know,” Josie later admitted, “I can drive a truck and work all day in the mines along with any man, but I can’t stand that kind of life! I’d be worse than a pet raccoon.”

Josie died of heart disease in 1962 after a brief stay at a hospital in Reno. Her last days were spent talking about life as it had been with her husband Lane and making plans to prospect for uranium.

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