The Stewart Indian School

The Pyramid Lake Indian war of 1860 marked the beginning of an extremely difficult time for the American Indian population of the Great Basin area. Until this time, the Indians and the European emigrants were able to tolerate each other with just a few exceptions.

When silver was discovered on the Comstock Lode in 1859, there was a sudden increase in the white population of Nevada Territory. With this increase in population came an increase in demand for resources including food, water, land and timber. The white emigrants took over the traditional lands where the Native Americans had hunted and gathered for their subsistence for centuries.

Farms, mines and mills took over the places where Indians had hunted and fished for food. The pine forests were cut for firewood and lumber where the Indians had once gathered pine nuts to help them survive the winters. Since the Native Americans had few skills useful in a more modern world and few could speak English, jobs were near impossible for them to find. Discrimination following the Indian Wars made matters worse. Some Indians camped on the outskirts of Virginia City, Dayton and Carson so they could scavenge for food and clothing and look for menial jobs they could do.

In 1860, California attorney William Stewart arrived in Virginia City at the time when Indian-White Relations were most volatile. In 1865, Stewart became Nevada’s first senator. He was very supportive of Indian education in order to improve their social and economic situation in the state. While in congress, Stewart worked with the Indian Service and served as chairman of the Commission on Indian Affairs. He thought that rather than relying on the reservation system, Indians would be better served with training that would help them to become self sustaining individuals and citizens.

In 1888, Stewart introduced a Senate bill to establish an Indian school in Nevada. With Stewart’s political persuasion, an Indian boarding school was established south of Carson City in 1890 with money and land dedicated by Ormsby County. Senator William Stewart helped obtain funding from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also succeeded in establishing the University of Nevada, first in Elko, then in Reno.

During the early years, the Stewart Indian school was a boarding school for elementary students learning to speak and read English, basic math and some vocational skills. It later had a high school with a graduation program and a first class athletic department. Students at Stewart were required to live on campus and were not allowed to speak their native languages. In addition to the local Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe Indians, there were tribes represented from California, Arizona and New Mexico.

The campus grew in size to about 80 buildings. There was a gymnasium, swimming pool, boarding houses, offices and residences for staff members. A railroad spur for the Virginia and Truckee Railroad was built to bring passenger and freight service to the campus. The campus had a cemetery where Washoe Indian basket maker Dat So la Lee is buried.

Discipline was very strict at the school and the students were required to attend classes for about half of each day, then work in vocational training the other half. The vocational part of the training included work on the campus such as carpentry, masonry and agriculture. The students planted and harvested crops that were used to feed the student body and staff. Farm animals were raised for meat and dairy products. Girl students operated the laundry, performed sewing and dress making. Many worked in the kitchen preparing meals and doing cleanup chores.

If you visit the Stewart campus today, you can still see many of the old colorful stone buildings built by Hopi Indian stone masons from rock they gathered along the Carson River. When I was a child on our family farm in Sparks in the 1940s and 50s busloads of the Steward Indian students came out to pick potatoes each fall during harvest time. This was cheap labor for the farmers and it made extra money for the school. The workers were not paid, since the experience was considered part of their education.

The Stewart Indian School closed in 1980 after 90 years of operation. The campus was taken over by the State of Nevada as an office complex. My landscape company was hired in the 1980s to install sprinkler systems in some of the lawn areas for the State Public Works Dept. For several years, there was a small museum at the Stewart campus. I donated an interesting collection of Indian artifacts to the museum where it was displayed until the museum closed. I then repossessed the collection and re-donated it to the Carson Valley Historical Museum in Gardnerville, where it resides today.

Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Cassinelli

The Nevada State Museum mine exhibit

Having completed several tours as a docent guiding tours for the Nevada State Museum in Carson City, I want to tell you about the unique mine exhibit at the facility. Many years ago, before I knew better, I took some self-guided tours of several of the many open tunnels and shafts around Virginia City and Gold Hill. With my kerosene lantern and a flashlight, I entered places and did things that I now know I am lucky to have survived. This was an extremely dangerous pastime and no one should venture into these old mines.

A much safer way to see and learn about the old mining methods used during the Comstock mining boom is to visit the Nevada State Museum and see the many exhibits about the Comstock. This region dominated the early history of Nevada. Many people have a natural curiosity about the mines and how things were done down there. The favorite tour for many of the school groups and adults alike is the mine that has been built deep in the basement of the museum which once was a branch of the United States Mint.

As you enter the area where the entrance to the mine is located, you pass through a replica of a typical old western mining camp ghost town. This has authentic old building fronts and artifacts that actually came from some of our abandoned mining camps. Just past the main street of the ghost town lies the entrance to the mine exhibit.

Originally opened on Nevada Day in 1950, the mine has become one of the museum’s most popular attractions. With a gift of $50,000 from the Fleischmann Foundation and many gifts of materials from people and industry, a very authentic-looking mine was created in the cavernous basement of the old mint building. It represents many of the underground mines in Nevada. The walls and ceiling are plastered with actual minerals and ore donated by several Nevada mining companies and from the Comstock.

The tunnels are timbered and braced just like those in actual mines and the floors have mine car tracks and plumbing for compressed air and water. You will cross over an elevator cage and floor from an old shaft on the Comstock. You will see a powder magazine and costumed figures preparing dynamite and fuses. There are men operating drills, loading ore carts and performing other tasks in the tunnels.

While the area for the displays was not large enough to show life-sized square-set timbers, there are miniature displays showing how this innovation was used. The square-set timbers were used in a series of 6’ cubes to support the walls and ceilings of large underground ore bodies that were encountered on the Comstock.

There is a miniature stamp mill that can be operated by pushing a button to show visitors how the cams lifted the heavy stamps and let them fall to crush the ore. Even this miniature mill makes a startling sound when it is operated. Stamp mills were incredibly noisy and the incessant clatter of hundreds of stamps running day and night had to have been an annoying experience.

Having actually been down in some of the original Comstock mines and tunnels, including Sutro Tunnel, I can tell you that there is much more to see and learn about at the Nevada State Museum mine exhibit. Fortunately, most of the dangerous tunnels and shafts have been sealed off to keep people from becoming injured or killed when entering these places. I cannot think of a worse way to die than falling down a 2,500’ mine shaft, bouncing off timbers and protruding rocks on the way down. Just entering a tunnel is equally dangerous. Rocks can cave in on top of you and often rotting planks cover unseen shafts.

A weekly column does not offer enough space for me to describe all the features of the Nevada State Museum Mine exhibit. This is something everyone interested in Comstock history should experience in person. Be sure to visit the upstairs history exhibits while you are there. There are artifacts and displays of life and mining on the Comstock as well as other Nevada mining districts including Tonopah, Goldfield and Aurora. This is a great learning experience for the entire family.

Link: Tripadvisor offers some visitor photos of the Nevada State Museum and its exhibits, including the mine exhibit.

Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Cassinelli

Originally published in the Comstock Chronicle, Virginia City, Nev.