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Wild Women Of The West: Ellen Nay

This wild woman was recognized by Ellendale citizens as the “uncrowned queen” of the camp...

January 24, 2018

A thin, unshaven prospector took a long drag off the butt of a cigarette before flopping into an oversized chair in the plush lobby of the Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah, Nevada. The six-story building featured all the conveniences possessed by establishments like it in New York. The rooms and foyer were primarily occupied by stylishly dressed men and women from all walks of life. The scruffy miner held up in the main room looked out of place among the sophisticated clientele, but he didn’t seem to mind.

He was waiting for a storm to clear before venturing out of the hotel and into the mountains outlining the town. The downpour that had swept through the area was so sudden and violent that it would have been impossible for the Argonaut to make an ounce of headway. The air was filled with grit and sand and sagebrush flew away like feathers.

The miner snapped open a copy of the Nevada State Journal dated Sunday, July 4, 1909 and scanned the news across the page. His eyes stopped on an article that began “Reports on Another Ellendale Strike.” The man leaned forward in his chair, studying the piece with great interest. “A second really great strike occurred yesterday afternoon at Ellendale. In addition to it, various leases on the Mount Ellen lode are getting gold pannings showing that the richness of Ellendale extends for a great and indefinite distance north and south.”

The miner quickly folded the newspaper in half and shoved it into a bedroll at his feet. As though suddenly infused with a bolt of energy, he gathered his things and headed for the exit. Pausing long enough only to turn his jacket collar up around his ears, he charged out the door into the downpour and disappeared into a curtain of rain.

The feverish obsession to locate a strike on the richest ground in Nevada in 1909, drove prospectors to the fertile area named for the woman who first discovered gold on the site: Ellen Nay. For a chance at securing a wealthy claim in Ellendale, gold seekers would brave harsh weather and incredibly rough living conditions.

Driven by her own desire for gold, Ellen Nay succumbed to the same difficulties. The rich results secured for her a position among a handful of successful women miners in the Old West.

Born on August 29, 1879 in Tybo, Nevada to Scotch-Irish and English immigrant parents, Ellen (or “Ellie” as her family called her) inherited her father’s love for prospecting. From the time he was old enough to hold down a job, Edward Clifford had almost exclusively worked as a miner. He began laboring in coal mines in Maryland and Pennsylvania when he was in his teens, then slowly worked his way west through Colorado and Wyoming employed in the same field. Edward moved his wife and children to Nevada in the mid-1870s in search of silver. He taught his eleven children how to read the rocks scattered among the hillsides and to examine the markings in the earth for fragments of iron and gold.

Ellen’s father allowed her to accompany him on many of his gold-hunting trips. He was a strong influence in her life, as were the many other miners living in the Tybo community. By 1875, nearly $10 million in silver was extracted from the mines. Tybo was the state’s top producer of silver-lead ore. Ellen’s education in the field was well rounded and because she aspired to be a prospector, she eagerly learned all she could about the profession.

The Cliffords lived outside of the mining camp on a remote ranch in Stone Cabin Valley. Ellen was a spirited brunette who worked hard at the various chores around the homestead, including tasks most girls didn’t do, such as blacksmithing and woodworking. She was as fine a cook as she was a carpenter. She attended a one-room school house until the age of twelve and spent her play time with her younger brothers and sisters.

Trips to Belmont, the Nye County seat, were special occasions for the Cliffords. The family loaded up on supplies at the local mercantile, and Ellen got a chance to listen in on conversations between the prospectors who owned property in the area. The mines in and around Belmont produced millions in gold and silver, and discussion about the various strikes further encouraged Ellen to one day pursue a claim of her own.

In 1896, during a routine family visit to Belmont, Ellen met a young adventurer-turned-cowboy by the name of Joseph Bringham Nay. (Some newspaper accounts spell Joseph’s name Ney.) The twenty-five-year-old man and his brother had left their home in Pine Valley, Utah to see the western territory. They had decided to stay in the mining camp for a few days when he made Ellen’s acquaintance.

Joe found the seventeen-year-old Ellen extremely charming and he was persuaded to linger in the area a bit longer than planned. He accepted a job herding stray cattle for ranchers in a valley ninety miles away from the Clifford ranch.

After three years of courting, the couple decided to get married. The two were wed on December 7, 1889 in a ceremony attended by most of the Nye County population. The newlyweds divided their time between Ellen’s parent’s ranch and their own home in Belmont. Joe rustled cattle and drove them from the Kawich Mountains to the railroad at Silver Peak. The pair had their first child in December 1900. Ellen was twenty-one years old, a wife, and a mother, but the ambition to prospect was as enticing as it had been when she was a girl. News of a substantial gold find in a town several miles north of the Clifford’s homestead prompted her to seek her heart’s desire.

The Mizpah claim Jim Butler and his wife discovered in August 1900, in the Toyiyabe Mountains surrounding Tonopah, had made the town the richest gold camp in Nevada. After Ellen’s father ventured to the new mining district in late 1901, he persuaded his daughter to think about doing the same. Ellen spoke with Joseph about the move. He was hesitant at first for two reasons:

One was that Ellen was about to give birth to their second child, the second reason was that he knew nothing about mining. Ellen assured him that she knew enough for both of them and that in time he would become an expert prospector. Joseph put his faith in his wife’s talent for mining and relocated to the state’s new boom town.

The living conditions the Nay’s were first exposed to in the frantic and crowded mining camp were primitive. They lived in canvas tents with limited furnishings. Ellen tried to make it a comfortable and warm home. Joseph supported his family by working two jobs, as a cowboy and a digger for another man’s claim. In his off hours he and Ellen would comb the area looking for their own parcel to mine. In 1904, however, a complication arose that delayed their chance to secure any land.

An altercation between Joseph and an argumentative cowboy he’d met en route from Utah, ended in violence when the pair ran into each other in the streets of Tonopah. The two men decided to settle their long-standing dispute using their guns. Both were seriously injured in the gunfight; Joseph’s leg was in danger of being amputated. The Nays’ search for gold had to be put on hold until Joseph recovered.

New claims were being struck all around the area where the couple and their two young children lived. Edward Clifford, was looking for a fortune in the nearby mining camp of Goldfield which boasted a population of thirty thousand people and in its heyday, produced $11 million in gold. Edward kept his daughter and son-in-law up to date on the richest finds.

Ellen and Joseph rejoined the gold rushers in late 1904. The valuable strikes that had been made around Tonopah had almost all been played out. Like Ellen’s father, miners had shifted their attention to Goldfield. Ellen convinced Joseph they needed to move. Although he was still recovering from his gunshot wound, he agreed. Once they reached Goldfield, Joseph found work as a laborer at a local mine. Ellen supplemented their income by taking in laundry. By April 1905, the two had saved enough money to invest in quality mining equipment, pack animals, and provisions for a trip into the mountains around Goldfield.

The Nays began their search for gold fifty miles east of Goldfield at the southern edge of the Kawich Range. Carrying two baby girls with them on their journey, Joseph and Ellen pushed their way past jagged rocks and inched their way along mountainous caverns they hoped would lead to a fortune. By January 1906, each of them had staked out claims for themselves.

The potential for untold wealth was great, but mining life was hard, especially on children. Ellen suggested they find a spot somewhere between their claims and Goldfield to build a house and a mercantile. The Nays decided to settle in an area near the Sugarloaf Mountains, where they had been mining and already owned property on a spot called Salsbury Walsh.

Many of the claims in the Salsbury Walsh area that had been discovered and moderately worked, dated back to 1900. The miners who initially dug on the location chose to abandon the area and head off to richer prospects in Goldfield and Tonopah. Ellen believed there was still some value in those deserted claims.

The Nays opened the door to their Salsbury Walsh stage stop in 1909. Packers, prospectors, and pioneers passing through the area visited the small roadhouse where they could purchase various supplies and food. Ellen’s mother and father watched the store and her girls while she and Joseph looked for gold. They searched for months but found nothing. “I was feeling tired and discouraged,” Ellen wrote in her journal the morning she made her rich strike. “I told Joe to do the panning and I would go out and bring in more float.”

It was late in the afternoon on the 31st of March 1909, that the Nays’ back breaking efforts proved to be worthwhile. “When we got back to my claim it was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” Ellen later recalled. “I stayed up the wash a ways and found a boulder half hidden in the sand. I knocked off a little piece, examined it, and found a pretty speck of gold. I knocked off a larger piece, and my gracious, it was half covered with yellow stuff that looked like gold, but I couldn’t believe my eyes. I threw off my bonnet and away I flew to Joe. I told him I couldn’t believe it was gold- there was too much of it. I never saw so much gold on a single piece of rock before. But Joe insisted it was gold and he, too, began to get excited. He wanted to know if there was any more of it and I told him the rock was too big for me to carry. Joe forgot all about being lame, and away we went. I wrapped the boulder up in my apron and Joe carried it. It weighed seventy-five pounds and was just full of gold.”

Neither Joe nor Ellen slept much the first night after the discovery. They were anxious to trace the lead back to the original source. The couple elicited the help of their families to find the main gold-bearing vein, promising to share the wealth with them when it was found.

Joseph’s brother used a mining hammer to tap his way to through the rich ledge. Ellen and her father did the same from the other side, using picks. When the group located the vein they shouted for joy. Twenty-nine-year-old Ellen had finally become the successful prospector she’d always dreamed of being.

Ellen’s father and husband assumed control of the dig. A claim was filed on Ellen’s discovery six months after she found the massive nugget. The reason for the long passage of time was so that the Nays and Cliffords could develop the strike; they wanted to plot out areas around and on the find to be sold off in an orderly fashion. News of a strike at the site would generate a rush of people to the area and increase the potential for claim jumping. When all the plots for the town, aptly named Ellendale, were laid out, the public was made aware of the gold discovery.

The July 20, 1909 edition of the Nevada State Journal carried an article about the Ellendale Mines and estimated that the initial shipment from the southern portion of the camp was valued at $20,000.

“The Tonopah Bonanza says that while the exact returns of the ore shipped from the original strike at Ellendale have not been given out, it is stated that it will return in the neighborhood of $4,200 per ton net.

“In the shipment there were exactly five tons, which shows a valuation of over $20,000. Yesterday Mr. Warburton was seen by representatives of the Bonanza concerning the value of the ore that was taken to Millers. He said that he was not in a position to give out any authentic information, but that it was known the ore would run between $4,000 and $5,000 to the ton. He said that the consignment weighed just exactly five tons. No word has yet been received from the umpire assays that were being made at Hasen, consequently there was not check on the assays which had been made by the Western Ore Purchasing Company at Millers.

“At any rate the shipment shows that the new camp of Ellendale is a producer of high-grade gold ore. It remains now for the leasers to open up ore bodies to prove the continuity of the rich lead and from indications at the present time there is every reason to believe that it is but the matter of a very short time until a steady stream of gold ore will be sent from the camp.

“The shipment has created no unrest in Ellendale. The people have been more than anxious to learn its value. That it came up to their expectations goes without saying. It is not every day in the mining world that ore of such richness is found upon the surface and proves that there are opportunities for the prospector in Southern Nevada unexcelled in any part of the country. The field is still wide, having been no more than scratched.”

Eager buyers purchased lots for as much as $550. By August the town was booming, businesses and homes were constructed, and miners were burrowing into the earth. Rumors that the gold initially found there was only a surface discovery stalled growth for a bit, but a report in the August 19, 1909 edition of the Nevada State Journal refuted the claim. “The main strike is bigger and richer than ever,” the article read. “It is looking great. Pannings are now being secured in the tunnel at the main strike and it looks like the ledge was not far away.”

Ellen was proud of the community that grew up around her strike. She gave tours of the grounds to reporters and prospective investors and welcomed anyone into her home who wanted to know more about her life as a mother, wife, and miner. She was recognized by Ellendale citizens as the “uncrowned queen” of the camp.

For a time thousands of dollars worth of gold were extracted from Ellen Nay’s find, but by November 1909, the area had been completed played out. Ellen refused to believe all the value had been dug out of the property and continued to prospect in the vicinity even after all the camp followers had left the scene.

The Nays used the profits from Ellen’s discovery to purchase a ranch outside of Belmont. The horses and cattle roamed the land around the idyllic homestead, which possessed a beautiful view of Mount Jefferson. Ellen enjoyed life at the Barley Creek ranch, but her interest in mining never wavered. Her collection of ore samples was prominently displayed in her home and she eagerly discussed any finds made by the handful of hopeful prospectors who leased land in Ellendale.

Two small bonanzas, one in 1913 and the other in 1930, supported Ellen’s conviction that there was more gold to be found in Ellendale. Throughout the years, she and Joseph would make trips into the all but deserted mining camp and work the claim themselves. Their daughters, and eventually their daughter’s husbands participated in the search for another rich strike. No other find equaled Ellen’s original discovery.

In the spring of 1939, Ellen suffered a major loss; Joseph, her husband and mining partner for more than forty years, died of a heart attack.

She sold the ranch where they had lived for many years and moved to Fallon with one of her daughters. On April 2, 1947, Ellen was attending to some mining business in Tonopah when she became ill. She was quickly rushed to the hospital where she died of heart failure.

News of Ellen’s passing was carried in every major paper in Nevada. She was remembered as a “pioneer and an expert mineralogist who discovered the rich ‘Ellendale’ mine.” The April 4, 1947 edition of the Tonopah Times Bonanza reported that the “news of her death came as a sudden shock to the many people in the area that had valued her friendship. It falls to few persons that live on this earth that the great good fortune to be held so dear in the hearts and minds of so many friends as was Mrs. Ellen Nay.”

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