The information below has been compiled from a variety of sources. If the reader has access to information that can be documented and that will correct or add to this woman’s biographical information, please contact the Nevada Women’s History Project.
At A Glance:
Born: year unknown , Louisiana
Died: Aug. 5, 1924, Eureka, Nevada
Maiden Name: Maggie Johnson
Race/Nationality/Ethnic Background: African American
Marrried: H.L Smith *
Children: one daughter, Rhoda?
Primary City and County of Residence and Work:
Mill Canyon, Eureka County, Nevada
Major Fields of Work: mining, boardinghouse owner
Boom-and-bust life of a colorful Nevada miner
Maggie Johnson led a boom-and-bust life, mirroring the ups and downs of the Nevada mining towns she loved. Born a slave in the Southern U.S., the black woman relished her freedom in Nevada and the opportunities she made for herself through hard physical labor, her friendly and generous personality and her ever-optimistic view of life.
Details of Johnson’s life are sketchy and sometimes elusive. In census records from 1880 to 1900, her date of birth varies from 1838 to 1857. It is possible she may not have known her actual birthdate. What is known is that during the forty years she lived in Nevada, all census data states she was born in Louisiana. In her later years at the Eureka Hospital, Johnson boasted that she was from Maryland, so she must have lived there at some point in her life. Her parents’ origins were similarly vague: perhaps Mississippi or Louisiana; her father might have been from Africa. A 1900 census recorded one child, the 1910 census listed five children, but none were ever with her in Nevada. A newspaper article spoke of a “legend” of a daughter, Rhoda, at school in California. There was no “next of kin” recorded on her death certificate.
The earliest reference to Maggie Johnson living in Nevada is a story in the Feb. 18, 1876 issue of the Virginia Evening Chronicle of her witnessing a conversation in an assault case involving a police officer. Johnson was referred to as a “colored servant” in a Virginia City brothel. The 1880 Nevada census lists Maggie Johnson living in Virginia City, widowed, living in a boarding house, and her occupation was given as a servant.
Sometime in the 1880s, Johnson moved to Mill Canyon, a hardscrabble mining district in northern Eureka County, eight miles from Cortez, the nearest city, and operated a boarding house. But she also acquired quite a few mining claims that she valued highly, believing that they would eventually earn her a fortune.
Maggie, described as “a charming, youthful and vivacious brunette” by the Eureka Sentinel, made a big society splash in January 1886, when she and Hank (H.L.) Smith, a fellow Mill Canyon mine owner, staged their own elaborate wedding. Cortez was too small a town to have a minister but that was no obstacle to the couple, who were “arrayed in the habiliments of a wedding in high life and surrounded by such unbounded mirth and enjoyment as would cause the nabob, indifferent to the pleasures of life, to grow green with envy.” A miscegenation law in Nevada prohibiting interracial marriage between Blacks and Caucasians was not repealed until 1959, so the marriage was unofficial, and Maggie kept her “Johnson” name. *
She was called the “Angel of Mill Canyon” for her habit of staking other miners down on their luck. But her openhanded generosity depleted her own funds. She sold one claim for $7,000 cash but held onto others in hopes of hitting gold or silver.
In October 1890, a headstone in the Eureka Cemetery graced the resting place of H.L. Smith. There is a real possibility that the memorial was paid for by Maggie.
During an economic depression that followed, she worked her own mines, wearing the rough garb of a prospector and laborer. The physical toil of mucking out the ore and lifting heavy sacks of rock degraded her health with arthritis, causing her fingers and her back to curl and bend. She lost her teeth and her hair and wore a mattress hair wig. Based on her appearance, the children of Mill Valley called her “Old Black Mag.”
In 1909, Maggie sold her mining properties to Patsy Clark, a prominent mining man who bought out several other claims. Old age and a hard life caught up with her, and in July 1920 she was driven in her first-ever automobile ride to the Eureka County Hospital, to receive treatment as a ward of the state for severe arthritis.
She spent several years (some accounts say two years, others 4½ years) in the hospital, still flamboyant as ever. Stories of her life there include “dancing a fandango with an old Shoshone squaw.” She swiped butter from the dinner table, to use as “hair dressing,” hiding it under her hat and insisting, when it melted down her neck and face, that she was “sweating.” She also hoarded fruit peelings to ferment with sugar and water in her room to make liquor.
Maggie died Aug. 5, 1924, probably in her 80s, and was buried in Eureka.
Researched by Patti Bernard, written by Janice Hoke. Posted to website September 2017.
- “A Novel Marriage at Cortez.” Eureka Sentinel, Jan. 17, 1886.
- Letter from Nellie S. Laird of Carson City, NV, to Lee Mortensen of Nevada State Historical Society, Reno, NV, dated Sept. 9, 1976.
- Jean McElrath, “’Black Angel’ of Mill Canyon, Helped Luckless Men In Search of Silver I Early Days of Camp”. Nevada State Journal, 14 July 1957, p8.
- “Patsy Clark is in Old Cortez.” Nevada State Journal, Aug. 7, 1909. P6:3.
- “A Policeman’s Brutality.” Virginia Evening Chronicle, Feb. 18, 1876.
- “Colored Mining Woman in Eureka Hospital.” Battle Mountain Scout, July 24, 1920. P1.
- “Old Eureka County Resident Passes Away.” Eureka Sentinel, Aug. 9, 1924.
- 1880 United States Federal Census, Virginia City, Storey, Nevada, Maggie Johnson.
- 1900 United States Federal Census, Garrison Mine, Eureka, Nevada, Maggie Johnson
- 1910 United States Federal Census, Garrison Mine, Eureka, Nevada, Maggie Johnson
- 1920 United States Federal Census, Palisade, Eureka, Nevada, Maggie Johnson