ISABELLA McCORMICK BUTLER
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: 1860’s, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Canada
Died: June 23, 1922, in Sacramento, California
Maiden Name: Isabella McCormick
Race/Nationality/Ethnic Background: Caucasian
Marrried: Maurice Donohue, Jim Butler
Children: Nevada Belle, Frank, and Lottie
Primary City and County of Residence and Work:
Tybo, Little Antelope Valley, Tonopah
Major Fields of Work: Prospector, Rancher
Other Role Identities: Wife, Mother
Isabella McCormick was born at Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, probably in 1860. Five years later when Belle was a small child, her parents migrated with Belle and their two other children to the Fish Lake Valley in the remotest regions of southern Nevada. Later they moved to run a boarding house in Tybo, a mining camp in the Hot Creek Mountains. Here she met Maurice Donohue, a prospector and miner nearly as old as her father. His fondness for racing and fine steeds may have given him a vaquero’s reckless charm. In 1876, when she was sixteen to his thirty-nine, Belle married Maurice and had three children, Nevada Belle, Frank, and Lottie.
Over the next dozen years, Donohue was prone to long absences, perhaps prospecting, perhaps spying on Belle, for he had grown increasingly distrustful of his young wife. A vicious circle developed. The more jealous Donohue became, the more he drank and mistreated Belle, further alienating her and fueling the causes of his jealousy.
Increasingly his suspicions centered on Jim Butler, a ne’er-do-well rancher from Little Antelope Valley who spent a great deal of time in the Shoshone camps and bore the reputation of a squaw man, but he was an affable young man of warm sympathies. In September, 1888, she filed for divorce from Donohue.
The result was explosive, Butler in flames and Donohue expiring in a pool of blood. Tybo residents would tell the tale for the rest of their days. Mary McCann Sharp, one of these, called it: “The eternal triangle, two men and a woman dissatisfied with her husband. . . .all the way to the inevitable, the death of one or both of the men.” The inevitable arrived on a September evening in 1888 in a Tybo street where Donohue waited with a pistol in his hand for Butler. They grappled, and Donohue fired several ineffectual shots, one of which set Butler’s hat and coat on fire and inflicted an injury that left him infertile. Butler shot with deadlier effect. According to Sharp, when Donohue lay wounded in the street, Butler grasped him by the shoulder and raised him up. Donohue pled for mercy, but Butler responded with a fatal bullet through the head. While the coroner’s jury may have heard this, they gave more weight to Donohue’s many previous threats and returned a verdict of “justifiable homicide.” Butler went free, except that years later he told a friend that he never again enjoyed an untroubled sleep. “You see it all over and over again in the dark.”
The following spring, after a decent interval had passed, Belle married Jim Butler and moved out to the ranch in the Little Antelope Valley, though one of her children refused for some years to live with her father’s murderer. There they raised a little hay, ran a few head of stock, and managed to eke out a meager living for the next eleven years, supplemented for awhile by Butler’s salary as district attorney. Then came the event that was to transform the fortunes of the Butlers – – and indeed of all the hard scrabble pioneers who hung on in central Nevada during the lean years. The folklore of Butler’s discovery, as he told it, was in the realm of lucky accidents. Enroute to the small mining camp, optimistically christened Klondike, he picked up a rock to throw at his burro and realized that he had something in his hand worth assaying. Few historians find this explanation convincing. It has long been suspected that Butler’s perfect command of the Shoshone language and his intimacy with the Indians had led him to a discovery far removed from the normal route to Klondike. He may have learned of the site from the great Shoshone prospector Tom Fisherman, but his presence was no quirk of fate.
This was in May, 1900, the year when Belle turned forty and Jim, forty-five. Returning to his ranch, Butler agreed to allow a friend, Tasker Oddie, to assay the sample in return for shares in the future claim for himself and the assayer. When the test showed high values, Oddie, and the assayer became so excited that they dispatched an Indian runner to Butler’s ranch with the news and urged him to stake his claims forthwith. The indolent, easygoing Butler failed to share their sense of urgency, however. He temporized. He made excuses. He had hay to put up at the ranch and other chores to do. At length, as the pioneer newspaper editor Carl Glasscock told it, the “efficient” Belle decided that the claims could be “more satisfactorily located under her direction.” In late August she finally got Jim wound up to make the effort, and the two of them set off together in a spring wagon drawn by two burros to stake their claims.
At the site Jim presently would christen with a Shoshone name, Tonopah. They spent many hours in the prospector’s signature pastime, chasing runaway burros, and Belle spent many more hauling water from the springs several miles away. Although Belle might have learned how prospecting was done from Donohue, who prospected and mined extensively, there is no definitive evidence that she had done earlier prospecting, and mining records show no claims staked in her own name prior to this fateful trip. Evidently, she had some standing as a prospector, however. Agnes Reddenbaugh recalled: “Many ‘old timers’ thought that Mrs Butler found Tonopah- – -and that she let Jim Butler take the credit. She was always prospecting.” Jim, lacking prior experience, enjoyed a lesser reputation among the prospecting fraternity. On hearing that Jim had a good eye for ore, one of these contemporaries responded, “Ha! Jim Butler didn’t know any more about ore than his burros.”
In between trips to the spring and chases after the burros, Belle carefully prospected the area with Jim for about a week and eventually struck out on her own, somewhat patronizingly encouraged by Jim. That day Belle staked the Mizpah, recorded in her own name and christened in honor of a friend of hers who used that sobriquet. The Mizpah, richest of all the Butler claims, was to bring a fortune to the Butlers and many others, but the early days were hard at the site Jim named Tonopah (Shoshone for brush water). Food and fuel ran very low, and the “black death” (probably influenza-pneumonia) swept the fledgling camp. In these dark times, Belle ministered to the destitute, the dying, and even to sick burros.
Enriched by Tonopah silver, the newly wealthy Butlers soon left for luxurious retirement in California. They bought a home in San Jose, as well as another near Bishop, and a hotel. When Belle died in Sacramento on June 23, 1922, much mourned by her husband, her many kindnesses led newspapers to eulogize her as the “Mother of Nevada,” but the recognition has not lasted. To this day, Tonopah annually celebrates “Jim Butler Days,” largely overlooking the “Mother of Nevada.”
Researched and written by Sally Zanjani
Sources of Information:
- For more on Belle Butler, see Zanjani, A Mine of Her Own: Women Prospectors in the American West, 1850-1950, University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
- Scrugham, James G., Editor. “Nevada, a Narrative of the Conquest of a Frontier Land”, Nevada Biographies, 1935, p 60. The American Historical Society, Inc.