What is an Amalgamator? Was My Ancestor One?

By Rachel Fountain

Q: Peter Zecherle, the brother of my fourth great-grandmother, moved from Wisconsin to Nye County, Nev., around 1875. The 1875 Nevada state census lists him as a miner. In 1878, the Virginia City, Nev., directory says he’s an amalgamator for “Cal. Mill.” What did an amalgamator do? What was Cal. Mill?

A: Virginia City was a mining boomtown created by the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode, under the eastern slope of Mount Davidson in what’s now Nevada. It was the first major silver ore find in the United States. Besides generating vast fortunes and boosting the growth of Nevada and San Francisco, the Comstock Lode spurred mining innovations such as the “Washoe pan process” for extracting silver.

The Comstock’s richest silver vein, known as the “Big Bonanza,” was found in 1873 at 1,167 feet and continuing down for 400 feet. Two existing mines, the Consolidated Virginia and the California, tapped into the Bonanza. By 1879, they’d produced $105 million in silver, making them the richest mines in the history of the Comstock Lode.

Mining companies built a mill for each mine to extract those millions of dollars’ worth of silver. The California Pan Mill (“Cal. Mill” in the city directory), built at a cost of $500,000, was the largest ever built on the Comstock Lode; it could process 380 tons of ore a day. Both mills used the Washoe process. Developed in the 1860s, the process used iron tanks (“pans”) with mechanical agitators. Each tank could hold 1,200 to 1,500 pounds of ore crushed to the consistency of sand. Water would be added to the ore to make a pulp, along with 60 to 70 pounds of mercury and a few pounds each of salt and copper sulfate (“bluestone”). A round iron plate called a muller, mounted on a vertical shaft, was lowered into the tank to agitate the mixture and further grind it.

The mercury combined with (“amalgamated”) the silver so it could be removed; heat that was applied with steam pipes would “cook off” the mercury. The California Pan Mill contained 46 pans for processing ore. Workers in the amalgamation process were known as “amalgamators.”

Virginia City was the most important city between Denver and San Francisco at the time your relative lived there. The Bonanza years ended in 1879, although mining continued, with another $50 million produced by 1920. If Abraham left a widow, try to link her to Joel. Work sideways, too: If you know the names of Joel’s brothers and sisters, look for evidence that Abraham was their father. In North Carolina, the state archives and state library’s Digital Collections include marriage and death notices, family Bibles, cemetery records and submitted genealogies. Also check the links on FamilySearch.

A version of this article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Family Tree Magazine.