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Wild Women Of The West: Lillian Malcolm

"A handsome, wisp of a woman stepped out on the deck of the steamship City of Seattle and peered into the dazzling sunlight reflecting off the mountains..."

January 03, 2018

A handsome, wisp of a woman stepped out on the deck of the steamship City of Seattle and peered into the dazzling sunlight reflecting off the mountains surrounding the harbor in Dawson City, Yukon. Thirty-nine years old, Lillian Malcolm’s heart contracted with excitement and a strong sense of longing as she breathed in the clean, frigid air and watched the icy cliffs looming ahead. The spectacular scenery caused a hush to fall over the travelers aboard the ship and in the quiet the shifting, grinding, and settling of the glaciers could be heard.

As a stage actress who had recently performed in New York opposite the noted Shakespearean actor, Frederick Warde, Lillian was accustomed to traveling to distant locales with impressive settings. The Yukon’s stark, white views and crystal-clear waters provided her with a sight that paled in comparison to any other she had ever seen. She was confident her travels into what she referred to as the “wild and beautiful territory,” would be the adventure she had always longed for.

In 1898, Lillian followed gold stampeders to the spot at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers in search of a multitude of riches. Upon her arrival she purchased a generous amount of mining supplies, food, and warm clothing, loaded the inventory onto a dogsled, and mushed her team into the range of broken, snowy peaks in the distance. Driven by a fever to find a fortune, Lillian made her way along the Chilkoot Trail, a thirty-mile journey climbing 3,500 feet.

Born in 1868 in the north east, to wealthy parents of Scottish descent, Lillian Katheryn Malcolm’s initial ambition was to become an actress. Given that women involved in that profession in 1880 were considered to have “questionable morals,” the Malcolms had reservations about their daughter’s intended line of work. Lillian was not swayed by disapproving attitudes, indeed, she thrived on pursuing nontraditional ways for to make a living.

Entering the field of prospecting raised the eyebrows of the so-called “proper” ladies in the more civilized areas of the Yukon region. “I would notice, as I passed down the street of a mining camp, clad in my tallow-spattered Khakis,” Lillian relayed in an article for the Nevada Humboldt Star newspaper in 1905, “the wives of struggling clerks and other low-salaried men, held their garments aside as though I might contaminate them.”

In addition to criticism from her own sex about her choice of employment, Lillian suffered through freezing temperatures and a rugged terrain on her way to stake out claims in Kugarak and Nome, Alaska. Her gold findings were minimal, but it was enough to spur her on to the next mine or riverbed suspected of being rich. The trek across the frozen landscape was fraught with risks. While making her way along the Bering Sear near the Gulf of Alaska in 1899, Lillian encountered fast-melting glaciers that forced her to jump from iceberg to iceberg drifting on the water.

By 1900, the actress-turned-prospector had taken up residence in a lodging house in a small mining camp in Nome. During the day she vigorously searched for gold and at the end of the long work period, she regaled other sourdoughs with tales of her north west gold rush experiences. On numerous occasions saloon keepers and dance hall owners tried to persuade her to abandon her mining pursuits and work for them as an entertainer. Owing to the persistence of her nature and complete confidence that she would locate a rich strike, she refused.

Claim jumpers were a serious problem for miners who had staked out a section of land and were diligently working the spot. Lillian was not exempt from the land grabbers’ violent attempts to roust a miner off their property. Although she carried a gun and knew how to use it, it was not enough to keep thieves from overtaking her land and driving her away. The court system in the remote areas of Alaska was corrupt and judges were given bribes to side with the criminals. In spite of her steadfast efforts, the mining claims Lillian filed remained in question and she was unable to get the property back. After more than a year of trying to overturn the matter, she abandoned the pursuit and returned to the States.

News of a silver strike in Tonopah prompted Lillian to relocate to the boomtown. With very little money and only a few changes of clothes, she managed to convince a business owner to let her stay at one of their hotels. In exchange for room and board, Lillian agreed to entertain residents with stories of her theatrical career and mining adventures. The occasional odd job helped her to earn the funds needed to invest in mining supplies and a burro. She prospected in the hills around Tonopah and nearby Goldfield, and in 1903 she worked a small section of land in the Silver Peak mountain range. The property did not yield the income she’d hoped for and by 1905 she was on the move again.

Following yet another cry of gold, Lillian hurried to a thriving mining community called Rhyolite not far from Death Valley. More than two thousand claims spanning a thirty-mile area around the town made the region attractive to Lillian. No sooner had she arrived did she agree to go into business with another miner, the founder of Rhyolite, Frank “Shorty” Harris.  Harris possessed the same insatiable appetite for discovering major gold finds as Lillian did. He believed that the bluffs of Death Valley contained an abundance of gold and agreed to co-finance a mining expedition into the area. Lillian led the outing accompanied by three able prospectors, George Pegot, Tom McCabe, and Anthony McCauley.

Three days after setting off on the journey the explorers lost some of the pack animals carrying their provisions. A few of the burros walked off cliffs and ledges, breaking bones and their necks, others succumbed to illness and died. As a result of the misfortune, the journey had to be cut short by three months. The quartet returned to Rhyolite, but a determined Lillian quickly organized another expedition and set off again for the area where Harris suggested mining should take place.

Lillian was grateful for another chance at a possible fortune and hoped a woman’s participation in such a quest would entice other females to the field. “The higher branches of mining offer great inducements to women,” Lillian told a Nevada newspaper reporter before embarking on her second prospecting trip into Death Valley. “I don’t mean the kind of work I am doing. But there is surveying and drafting, the study of mineralogy and geology. It is clean, honest money. There is too much hypocrisy in the sexes. Women can endure as much as a man. Comply with the law and you will have man’s responsibilities and man’s reward.”

Shorty Harris teamed up with Lillian on the foray and the pair spent two months investigating the high desert. The talented miner later transformed the site of spectacular wild flowers, snow-covered peaks, beautiful sand dunes, intermittent streams, and wildlife she encountered during her travels, into spirited stories told to other prospectors and their families.

Lillian and Harris scaled mountainsides and waded through waist-high water creeks, staking out claims along the way and meeting interesting characters who made their homes in the remote location.

Walter Scott, better known as Mysterious Scott, was one such character. He was a former cowboy actor turned prospector who lived under a rock outcropping in the Black Mountains. Scott was an eccentric, charismatic man who could skillfully con people out of their gold nuggets and gold claims. Lillian was unimpressed with his manner and was suspicious of his kindness. She did, however, have more than a passing interest in his mining partner, Bill Key, a soft-spoken, easygoing, half-Indian man whom she recognized as being manipulated by Mysterious Scott. He had staked a few rich claims on his own and Scott was trying to wrangle the find away from him. Lillian befriended the gullible Key and persuaded him to allow her to take out an option on his property. The agreement promised to give him a chance to work the claims himself and get out from under Scott’s control. Key agreed, and when Lillian returned to Rhyolite on January 2, 1906, she had more than her future in gold mining to think about.

With Lillian some distance from Death Valley and unable to keep Key away from Scott, the crafty miner zeroed in on his reliable, but simple-minded business associated and convinced him to abandon his hunt for gold and help him kill a man. The intended victim was a mining engineer hired by east coast investors to develop the riches in the area. Scott wanted the engineer stopped and believed Key was the man for the job. For reasons that have never been revealed, the plan was thwarted.

When news of the botched crime reached Lillian, along with the information that Scott was trying to frame Key for the murder attempt, she hurried to Key’s side. He was being held at the San Bernardino jail and Lillian hired the best attorney in the area to defend him. The attorney managed to persuade the court to dismiss the charges. Key was grateful for Lillian’s efforts, but he did not feel for her as she did for him. Upon his release he returned to his gold mine in Death Valley, and a broken hearted Lillian moved back to Tonopah.

After relocating to the Nevada boomtown where she once lived, Lillian revisited her mines in the Silver Peak Range. As in 1903, the cluster of claims near Coyote Springs appeared to be the most promising. She needed capital to develop the area further and sought out funds from the Pittsburgh Mining Company operating near her property. Although the mining stocks and investments were at an all-time low, she managed to secure the bankroll needed to do the work.

“I raised the money in Pittsburgh,” she told the Tonopah Bonanza newspaper in November 1907, “and I had no trouble in doing it, which goes to show that there is a great deal of bugaboo about this talk of hard times and stringency of the money market. There is plenty of money to be had for legitimate propositions, if one is sincere in his or her motives. When one goes to businessmen, all that is necessary is to talk common sense. But if one is going to take romantic flights, and go up into millions on an ordinary proposition, he is going to fall short in his expectations.”

If Lillian’s mining venture, aptly named The Scotch Lassie Gold Mining Company, had proved to be as profitable as she had imagined, she wanted to use her earnings to create an organization to assist destitute women. Unfortunately, the mining operation was a failure, or “humbug,” as miners called it. Her disappointment in the venture was short-lived and in the spring of 1907, she pressed on to yet another area rumored to possess gold.

Lillian’s next stop was the Alta Mining District, south of Nogales, Mexico. She found very little gold in the region, but refused to abandon the notion that a bonanza was within her reach. By mid-1911 she was back in Nevada again working claims in Humboldt County.

Lillian was now forty-three years old and had thirteen years of mining experience under her belt. Her looks reflected the difficult line of work she had subscribed to. A reporter for the Tonopah Bonanza wrote that she had a “refinement that the desert could not mar.” He continued in a 1907 article: “Her hair was braided and tied in numerous labor saving knots with white baby ribbon.  This rather fantastic effort formed the background for a face that was once called pretty, but which has now certainly lost much of its feminine delicacy owing to the sun’s rays of Death Valley.”

Clad in her standard khaki pants, tan colored men’s boots, and a narrow-brimmed felt hat, Lillian trekked from one end of Nevada to another combing the land for gold ore. In 1914, the state’s mining prospects had all but faded away. In spite of that fact, and with pick and shovel in hand, Lillian traipsed through the Jarbride Mountains in what would be her final mining tour. “I’m in the mining game to stay,” she steadfastly told the Reno Evening Gazette.

Lillian drifted into Arizona in 1915 and nothing more was ever heard of her again. When and how she died remains a mystery. However lackluster her mining ventures turned out to be, she realized her dream of taking to the goldfields and developing her potential as a prospector.

In 1869 an elderly Argonaut posted a sign on the outside of his tent that read All and everybody, this is my claim, what I was born to do. Fifty feet on the gulch, cordin to Clear Creek district law, backed up by shotgun amendments. Lillian Malcolm embodied the sentiment of the armed gold rush stampeders and did what she believed she was born to do.

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