At a glance:
Ferminia Sarras came to Nevada sometime around 1881, which was the date she was first listed on Esmeralda County tax records and described as "Spanish Lady, Belleville." Much of her story had been lost until recently when author Sally Zanjani worked with Ferminia's great-grandson to reconstruct the past.
Ferminia always described herself as "a Spanish lady of royal blood," although she was often mistaken as having Mexican ancestry and was no doubt often called "greaser." She was a descendant of the noble Contreras family of Nicaragua where a relative, Roderigo de Contreras, governed during the 16th century. In her native country, Ferminia was married to Pablo Flores and gave birth to four daughters, Conchetta, Conceptión, Juanita and Emma. When she arrived in Nevada, Ferminia evidently felt her two youngest daughters would be safer in the Nevada Orphans Asylum in Virginia City than at the mining camps of Belleville and Candelaria. Ferminia may have joined her husband who is thought to have worked in those rough mining towns, but he did not remain in her life.
It appears that she may have been married as many as five times during her life, often to men who were younger than she. Her youngest son was named Joseph A. Marshall, although Ferminia was not married to anyone named Marshall at that time. One newspaper article claimed that all of her husbands died violent deaths, and author Zanjani speculates that she may have been interested in men who were handy with a gun because they could help protect her claims. One of those was Archie McCormack, a man twelve years younger than Ferminia, who was described as a Canadian-born gunman. He was killed in 1906 in a gunfight while defending one of her claims. However, by the end of her life, one of the young men she trusted stole her money from a Los Angeles bank and returned to Central America.
Ferminia did not depend on the men in her life for her livelihood. She began prospecting in the Candelaria area in 1883 and went on to file a number of claims on copper mines in the Sante Fe district. She spent a few years prospecting in Silver Peak, but didn't have much luck during the 1890s, a time when Nevada was in an economic depression. She returned to the Sante Fe district in 1899, and it was there that she eventually made her fortune. She prospected alone wearing pants, boots and a back pack. By the time she died in 1915, she had made several fortunes on her copper mines, often stashing the gold coins from her sales in her chicken coop where she believed it would safer than in the banks.
Each time she made a profitable sale, Ferminia would travel to San Francisco, stay in the finest hotels, shop for elegant clothes and enjoy fine dining and young men until her money ran out. Then she would return to Nevada's mountains and resume prospecting for another fortune.
According to author Zanjani: One cannot resist observing that when liberated from the cloistered world of the upper-class Latin American woman in the place rightly known as a "man's country," Ferminia used her freedom much as a man of similar background would have done. In this tradition, wealth was to be enjoyed and generously spread among one's friends, not devoted to the civic purposes of churches and organized charities; individualism was the normal mode, not the galling restraints of team-work and joint enterprise; and a good deal of blatant philandering was both a pleasurable assertion of the self and a status symbol, not in the least damaging to one's reputation. If Ferminia had been a man, her compatriots would have admiringly called her "muy hombre."
Ferminia named her many mining claims after her family, friends, and lovers. She had small cabins or adobe houses in several locations, but lived mostly at Luning, Nevada, between prospecting trips. Later, the town of Mina was named in her honor.
Ferminia's belief in the value of her mines eventually proved to be true. Her most valuable mines were located in Giroux Canyon, Nevada, which is currently being mined successfully. Likewise, her belief in herself never wavered. She arrived in Nevada as a Spanish lady of royal blood and was dubbed nobility here as the "Nevada Copper Queen." Thanks to author Sally Zanjani, her legend has been recovered.
Biographical sketch by Victoria Ford
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