For someone like me who’s had a lifelong fascination with the American West it was an enduring site; a look back at a scene that was surely played out time and again over a century ago in places like Deadwood, Tombstone or Dodge City. This time it was right in front of me in Virginia City, Nevada a former mining town with its own wild west credentials. While photographing the cemetery I saw, just downslope, a wild horse wandering among the decaying gravestones, stopping occasionally to graze on the yellow and gray patchwork of brittle sagebrush.
I wasn’t in love with the shot that presented itself from where I stood. Even with my long lens the lighting was far less than ideal. I needed to be on the other side of the horse, and hopefully closer. The photographer’s dilemma of taking a chance with the sure shot that I had or get greedy and try to position myself for a better one. There was the possibility of that frameable photo or of the horse moving on and taking the opportunity along with him. I opted for greed and took a long circle around the horse, managing to get within about 20 yards of the animal, still ambling around the gravestones. The horse continued to graze pausing now and then to glance at me as if making sure that I wasn’t intruding into his no fly zone. At times I wonder if these horses have it in their minds to patiently tolerate we humans before deciding that they’ve given us enough of an audience before trotting away; “Hurry up and get your picture taking done.” I got some shots that I’m not entirely thrilled with but still they are iconic, calling up a uniquely American story.
Below: This trio of horses meandered through the cemetery grazing on the sagebrush. Note the wound (common on mustangs) on the left side of the black horse.
Suffer the little children to come unto me.
The American West had a mind to be heartless; a place, a time and a life that didn’t discriminate when it came to the taking of life. The miners of Virginia City were particularly vulnerable to the caprice of frontier life. But there’s was a choice. The innocents, the children, were the victims of the parental whim of settling in this hard place and ultimately to fate’s cold whim. Walking through Silver Terrace Cemeteries one can’t help but to notice the many memorials for children.
Below: The epitaph reads, “Sleep on dear Mother. And take thy Rest. God called thee home. He thought it best. Suffer little children to come unto me. To abide in a home of rest. May their souls rest in peace.” The unnamed child died in 1867 at 6 years and 10 months. Three years later mother passed at age 36. There are numerous family sites showing the passage of a mother shortly after the death of a child. Coincidence or a mother’s broken heart?
The Owen Family Tragedy
Above: Illustrating the harsh time and place, Virginia City’s Wild West Museum (now shuttered) described the story of the Owen family tragedy. May died at 19 months in 1875, Edith at 14 months in 1879 and in 1883, as a sad testament to the particular dangers of life in a mining town, James Jr. age 11 years, perished in a fall down a mine air shaft. By 1885 the whole family had died.
Views of Silver Terraces.
Below: Selden Allen McMeans, born in Fife, Scotland in 1806 journeyed to America with his parents in the 1820’s. The family took up farming in Tennessee. Selden moved to Virginia City in the late 1860’s likely lured by the Comstock Strike of 1858. He was owner of the McMeans House, a hotel on D Street. He died of stroke in 1876. His grave now partially reassembled was vandalized, and the parts scattered about.
The work of restoration and preservation of Silver Terraces Cemetery is done largely by the Comstock Cemetery Foundation (link here). The foundation arranges for events and tours including living history tours in which docents play the roles of the citizens of 19th century.
According to the Comstock Foundation, the single largest threat to this historic treasure is theft and vandalism.