Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Lost Silver Miners

By Edith McClintock

Wallace, Idaho
I like mysteries. That seems self-evident given I also write them. But the mystery I’m most interested in at the moment isn’t fiction. It’s an American historical mystery—a lost immigrant story that unfolded in turn-of-the-century Idaho.

Last year I posted a blog about my great-uncle who lived in Deadwood during the gold rush of the late 1800s, as well as a family tree I pieced together that stretched back to the King Henrys (maybe). However, there was one branch missing, the fourth leg of the stool if you will: my maternal grandfather’s line. As a good mystery goes, what little I’ve discovered during the past year has only led to more questions.

My maternal great-grandfather, John Melise (previously, Giovanni Milesi or Melice), arrived in the United States in 1884 at the age of twenty. From where precisely, I’m not sure, although family lore places his hometown in Italy near the boarder of Austria. That same family lore also gives John Melise at least one brother, a brother who also married my great-grandmother’s sister. But the big story is that my great-grandfather abandoned my great-grandmother and her six kids, including my 5-year old grandfather, to strike it rich in the Idaho silver/gold rush.

Wallace, Idaho
My research (thus far) suggests none of my family stories are true. John Melise was still living with my great-grandmother in the midst of the Idaho silver-mining boom in 1920, at which point they’d been married nearly seventeen years. And he died shortly after the 1920 census (my only reference material for those years), in 1922, around the time my great-grandmother likely moved back to her hometown of St. Louis. That doesn’t seem like abandonment.

Then there’s my possible great-uncle, Joe Melici (or Guiseppi Milesi), who may or may not have married one of my great-aunts. Yet through the 1940 census there is no record of a marriage or kids. He worked his entire American life as a silver miner in Wallace, Idaho, always single, always living in boarding houses. By the 1940 census (the latest available) he was living in the historic Jameson Hotel, which may have been a run-down boarding house in those days, but is currently on the market for $549,000.

Included in that price is a ghost named Maggie who awaits a long-lost love who never returned from a quick-trip East after striking it rich in the silver mines. It’s a bargain!

Perhaps Maggie’s lost lover, like my great-grandfather, didn’t abandon her. Perhaps he simply died. Or did he?

It’s unlikely I’ll ever know the truth, no matter how many hours I scan through barely legible records. My great-grandfather didn’t write down his history (he didn’t have more than a 5th grade education), nor did his wife, Emma Schneider (who began working as a servant when she was 15 and married a miner 20-years her senior when she was 19), or any of their six kids, all of them now gone. I’d have to go back in time to find out whether he was a ne'er-do-well who failed to strike it rich, or a family man who simply died too young. Or perhaps something in-between?

Wallace miners, late 1800s.
Source: University of Idaho
Just as interesting to me as the family saga, however, is the role he and his brother, even Emma, played in the beginnings of the American labor movement in the Western United States. Because turn-of-the-century Wallace, Idaho, wasn’t a quiet Western town. It had big trouble. Union trouble.

What I do know is that my great-grandfather (and his brother) spent his adult life as a silver miner, working in what today is called the Coeur d'Alene mining district—one of the two richest metal mining areas in the world. The boom began in 1885 and he had likely arrived in Wallace by the union strikes of 1892 and 1899.

The strikes were over pay cuts combined with increased hours, poor working conditions (stifling heat, little air, carrying heavy equipment on one’s back, mine collapses, falling debris, dynamite explosions, and no benefits if injured), as well as union-busting tactics such as infiltration and the firing of union membershow little the world changes. During the 1892 strike, the mining company brought in hundreds of replacement workers from around the country and it’s possible that’s when my great-grandfather arrived.

The 1892 strike led to a number of violent clashes, as well as several hundred strikebreakers being marched out of town, and eventually the U.S. military was brought in to break the strike. The strikers lost in the short-term, but out of it came the consolidation of several mining unions into the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), which would initiate a number of confrontational strikes across the West in the early 1900s, including the bloody Colorado Labor Wars of 1903-04.

Union and mine operator conflicts erupted again in Wallace in 1899 and several hundred union members seized a train and dynamited a mill at the Bunker Hill mine, and the military again intervened. Following both strikes, hundreds of union workers were held for months with no charges, some were prosecuted and went to jail, and many were banned from working in the mines altogether.

Wallace, Idaho, Great Fire of 1910
The labor conflicts weren’t the only Wallace historic events. In 1910, the largest fire in recorded U.S. history burned one third of the town, along with more than three million acres in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The Great Fire of 1910, as it was called, transformed the newly created U.S. Forest Service into an agency that focused on complete fire suppression well into the 1990s (but has since learned some fire is good).

I’d love to know what role my great-grandparents played in all of the events, both public and private, starting with whether my great-grandfather abandon my great-grandmother and their six kids. And if not, what did he do to her to make her pass down that story to her children? Was he a union man or was he brought in by the mining companies to break the union? Did he strike? Did he go to jail? Or did he take what work he could and just survive? And how did they all live through that fire?

Perhaps only Maggie the ghost has the answers, as she was a contemporary, but alas, I don’t have $549,000 to find out.

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).


  1. An interesting piece, Edith. What fun to explore a mystery in your family history. The images are great.

  2. Family histories are such fun. But, Edith, you could write a book about all this and create your own versions of what role your ancestors played in these historic events. I, for one, would love to read it. You could even put Maggie in the story!

  3. Fascinating history, Edith. Wallace has a colorful past, to say the least. Have you searched through University of Idaho archives? Some of the mining companies in the area may still maintain some historical records as well. I agree with Heidi, this sounds like a great novel idea with your own instinct as your guide. I would love to read it. :)

  4. I was thinking about its potential as a book last night as I was writing it up. We'll see. I'm nearly done again with the 2nd one. Hopefully.

  5. So interesting, Edith! I agree with Jenni---keep digging. I'm almost certain you haven't depleted your sources yet. In addition to the excellent ideas she's thrown out, what about the Mormon church? I've heard it has the most extensive genealogy records in the country. And yes, a novel is another good idea. Don't forget to include your great-aunt ?) Calamity Jane

  6. And forgive those typos... my phone locks up whenever I try commenting on a post. Is it suggesting I bite my tongue, so to speak?

  7. The name Milesi/Melice/Melise and the reference to Austria could mean that your ancestor came from the province of Piedmont (Mountainfoot) which belonged to Austria at one time. According to friends here in South Africa, whose families came from there, the language was a local form of French because of the connection with the Bourbons and many refused to use Italian. There are hundreds of small villages tucked away in valleys there and people, especially young men, left when the area was ceded to Italy. Names were used in their Italian and French versions so your man could be registered as Jean Melise/Melice. You could I am sure edit your uncle's book and amplify it with research to fill out the history of the time, and illustrations, and have something really gripping, a best seller. PS Could you please slow down the monkey pictures on your website, one doesn't get time to look at them properly and read the captions. Anne Taylor