The search for silver has driven prospectors all over the world, but there has never been a silver rush on the same scale as the great gold rushes of the 19th century because silver is rarely found in rich seams. Nevertheless, silver rushes did occur in Mexico, Canada, Argentina, and the U.S. among other places.
Discoveries of silver were often the consolation prize for prospectors whose primary aim was to find gold. In the U.S., as miners expanded their search for gold beyond the depleted gold fields of California, they stumbled on major silver deposits in the Comstock Lode area of Nevada, the Leadville district of Colorado, and various districts in Utah.
At the famous Comstock Lode, early prospectors became discouraged by the small gold return and cursed the “bluish” rock that kept clogging their rocker boxes. Many sold their claims and moved on. Those who stayed on to reap the benefits of the silver bonanza found silver ore in unusual deposits up to a hundred feet thick. The silver-rich material was characterized as being as soft as “putty,” and was easily removed with picks and shovels.
Silver mines and the communities associated with them did not usually experience the extreme boom and bust cycles that were characteristic of gold rush towns. There are several reasons for this. The first reason centers on the fact that a majority of the world’s silver is found in deposits rich in other economically valuable metals including lead, copper, and zinc. The presence of these other metals created a broader economic base to support the fledgling communities that sprang up near the mines.
In addition, the nature of silver mining operations necessitated a supply of laborers, ore smelters, and a variety of continually evolving technologies to facilitate the extraction and refinement of ever increasing volumes of ore.
Although the history of gold fever has captured the popular imagination, it was, in actuality, the less flashy silver rushes that created the lasting communities and culture of the American West.
Next, learn about Weights and Measures | Setting Standards for Precious Metals.