By Suzanne Norquist
Assayers may have been the smartest guys in the gold rush. They jumped into the excitement of the mining boom from the comfort of a laboratory in town. No need to labor in the hot sun or underground. Miners respected and needed them.
In the late 1800s, prospectors rushed to Colorado to find their fortune. Many put in long hours in harsh conditions only to lose everything. Miners performed back-breaking tasks underground, often risking life and limb. Merchants fared better, selling shovels and picks to the miners, making money without ever handling the ore.
Assayers tested ore samples for gold and other precious metals. They were in the thick of the gold rush without the hard labor.
They listed their prices in the local newspaper and performed analysis for anyone who brought in a sample.
All sizeable mining operations maintained on-site assay offices.
Unlike chemical laboratories of today, assay offices sat in ordinary buildings in the middle of town. Toxic chemicals didn’t concern anyone. The one in the photograph below was associated with the First National Bank.
I found an ad for an assayer “one door north of the news office.” The one in the price list shown above is located at a drug store. Makes sense. Druggists were often chemists, using similar apparatus and chemicals.
When a miner brought in a sample, the assayer would grind it up and mix it with dry chemicals (including lead). He would put it in a crucible, which looks like a mug with no handle.
Then he heated it in an oven at about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The entire process is difficult to describe with getting overly technical. But in the end, metals were poured out and cooled into a button. The assayer would stamp it with his mark.
Assayers needed to convince people they were honest. They held the prospector’s future in their hands.
An advertisement in the January 1, 1881 edition of the Dolores News states, “The Best of References Given for Work Performed.”
An assay office in Fairplay, Colorado, around the same time, calls itself, “The Old Reliable Assay Office.”
The Southern Assay Office in Del Norte, Colorado, provides a lengthy description of Mr. R.P. Andrews’s work experience, which includes the Denver Mint.
One in Georgetown, Colorado apparently did silversmithing on the side. Not only that he exhibited minerals and offered a reading room—with mining literature, of course.
If I were to travel back in time to the Colorado gold rush, I think I’d be an assayer. All of the excitement without the back-breaking labor.
Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.
She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.
“Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?
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