Nevada's History As "The Silver State"
A 1794 silver dollar believed to be one of the first-ever minted is going up for auction by the owner in Las Vegas.
Known as the "Flowing Hair" silver dollar, it’s expected to fetch almost as much as the current owner paid for it in 2013 – $10 million dollars.
If the buyer is another Nevadan, that might not surprise UNLV history professor Michael Green because Nevada has a storied history with a strong connection to silver.
“The simplest way to put it is silver put us on the map,” Green said.
When people started pouring into California during the gold rush, Green explained, they also started looking for gold on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, thinking if there is gold on the west side there might be gold on the eastern side.
Some gold was found, but they also found a blue-gray gunk that most people thought was trash. In reality, it was silver.
In 1859, two miners Peter O'Riley and Patrick McLaughlin made the big discovery of the silver in Six-Mile Canyon near Virginia City.
“They found the big silver lode that became known as the Comstock Lode," Green said, "It was the largest silver discovery in the United States and I believe it still is. It was the first major silver discovery in the U.S. This inspired migration into the region."
An estimated 20,000 people poured into Nevada to strike it rich on the silver.
That also led to a myth surrounding Nevada's statehood, Green said. Nevada became a state in 1864 and people still believe it was because President Abraham Lincoln needed the state's silver to fund the Union war effort.
Green notes that isn't the case. Nevada was already a territory with less autonomy than a state, meaning Lincoln already had easy access to the state's silver.
Instead, Green said Lincoln was up for re-election and likely needed another electoral vote. In addition, he needed another congressman to vote for the 13th Amendment and another state to ratify it.
When the Comstock Lode brought barely enough people to Nevada to become a state, it became part of the Union.
“Nevada became the Silver State for, I would say, very good reason,” Green said.
The problem with silver is it is more difficult to process into usable coins compared with gold. In fact, Green said it wasn't profitable, “until they figured out how to process the silver. How to get this blue-gray gunk out of all of the other soil that they had picked up.”
The Carson City mint was created to help out that process.
“By getting that mint built, it established Nevada as sort of the center in the West for this," Green said.
The establishment of the mint was mainly spearheaded by Sen. William Stewart, who was also an attorney for the corporation that funded the silver processing operations.
Green said that if you spot a silver coin from the era with "CC" on it then it was minted in Carson City.
The silver industry ran into some trouble in the 1870s when the federal government demonetized the precious metal and put the country on the gold standard, Green explained.
Nevadans were outraged and called it a conspiracy against the state.
For years afterward, Nevada lawmakers tried to get silve remonetized or have the government buy it. Nevada Sen. Key Pittman eventually got that to happen to help fund World War 1 efforts.
Green said Pittman and the rest of the lawmakers known as the "Silver Bloc" in Washington, D.C. got President Franklin Roosevelt to nationalize the domestic silver mines.
“They delivered as much silver as they could to the U.S. mints to be stored or made into coins, and Treasury paid the rate for silver that was above the value. So the price of silver almost doubled in that period, which in essence was a New Deal program for silver mining,” he said.
Like other programs under the New Deal that aimed to put Americans back to work, this one helped the silver industry.
Other efforts by Nevada lawmakers to get more silver from the state minted and into circulation didn't go as far, Green said. One push in the 60s was opposed by the Kennedy administration and then the Johnson administration.
The efforts didn't end there, Green recalls.
“I go back to my misspent youth in Las Vegas," he said, "And back in the mid-70s, there was a candidate for governor named James Ray Houston, who announced that he was going bring silver back and they were going to have silver coins and it came out before the election that he was actually a con-man who had been in serious legal trouble. But the governor of Nevada cannot exactly coin silver.”
One of the strangest stories connected to silver in Nevada could be the one involving casino executive Ted Binion, Green said.
Binion was the son of late casino owner Benny Binion. The family owned Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas.
Ted Binion had a penchant for silver and kept $7 million worth of it in the Horseshoe, until he lost his gaming license and had to move it.
Green said he moved it to a vault in the desert near Pahrump.
However, in September 1998, Ted Binion was found dead in his home.
“Right after he died, this guy named Rick Tabish was caught digging up the silver along with, supposedly, a note from Ted Binion’s girlfriend, Sandy Murphy, who was also dating Rick Tabish, apparently telling him where to go to find silver,” Green said.
Eventually, both Murphy and Tabish were arrested and tried for murder in Ted Binion's death.
After a trial that captured the entire Las Vegas Valley's attention, a jury found them guilty, but after an appeal and second trial, the two were acquitted of murder. Tabish was found guilty and went to prison in connection with the theft of Binion's silver stash.
“It’s kind of strange story because you don’t think of Ted Binion of being associated with the silver heritage of Nevada,” Green said.
Michael Green; UNLV History professor, author, writer for KNPR's "Nevada Yesterdays"