Born February 2 1855 in Logtown California
Died January 22 1923 in Sacramento California
Throughout Nevada and the mining circles of the early 20th century, Jim Butler is not only credited with discovering Tonopah, but with saving Nevada after the state had gone through a severe depression starting in the early 1890s.
James Logan Butler, the oldest of three children, was born February 2, 1855, in Logtown, El Dorado County, California, to John C. Butler and his wife.
John Butler was a teamster, so they moved frequently throughout northern California and in 1868, John took his three small sons and moved to Little Antelope Valley, a short distance west of Eureka, Nevada. John’s wife stayed in California and she eventually divorced him.
John went into the livestock business mainly breeding carriage horses. Cattle, sheep and horses raised in Nevada were driven to California by way of the San Antonio Mountains which ran from the Southern end of the Big Smoky Valley to beyond Lone Mountain near Tonopah. This was the route that John Butler traveled taking his horses to California.
Growing up in the boom town of Eureka, Jim heard the miners and prospectors tell tales of ledges, leads and finding the “big bonanza” Jim became obsessed with mining and a prospectors life.
Young Jim Butler frequently accompanied his father on the livestock drives to California and noticed that the outcroppings of the San Antonio Ranges which had been worked intermittently by miners.
It is believed that the Butlers may have camped several times at the springs near Sawtooth Pass, present day Tonopah, during those drives.
The Butlers had a Shoshone housekeeper named Peggy, who befriended young Jim and taught him the Shoshone language. Jim became proficient in Shoshone and developed a lifetime love for the Shoshone.
Jim’s youngest brother, Frank, attended Eureka schools, however, Jim didn’t attend school. In fact, Jim didn’t like school or the labor on the ranch, but he enjoyed mining and prospecting.
Tybo, in eastern Nye County, was experiencing one of its many mining revivals, so in 1888, Jim headed there to seek his fortune.
Jim was known for being lazy, but he was friendly and likable. T. Rickard wrote in the Mining and Scientific Press of April 1908 that Butler had a reputation for being the “laziest white man in the world.” His acquaintances said that he spent much of his time at the Shoshone camp near Tybo. He avoided as much work as possible and was a frequent gambler with his Shoshone friends. Jim shared food that he bought from his winnings with them.
Tybo was a raucous and rowdy town with frequent brawls and gunfights. One event would change Jim’s life forever.
Jim and his friend Louis Benson were friends with a young woman of good background and education, Isabella (Belle) Donahue. Belle and her husband Maurice had three young children. However, due to Donahue’s drinking and abuse of her and the children, Belle filed for divorce.
Maurice was extremely jealous of her friends and threatened the lives of Butler and Benson.
This is an account published in the Eureka Sentinel, Eureka, Nevada; September 22, 1888, as told by Louis Benson.
“Donahue sent word to Jim Butler that he wanted to “settle with him.” Butler rounded a corner of a building and Donohue pulled a pistol on him. Butler being faster than Donahue, pulled his pistol and walked up to him and disarmed him. The sheriff was called and when he arrived he took both pistols. Donohue then stated that he would kill Butler.
About a week later, Louis stated. “I was walking down the street in Tybo last Friday evening. Donoahue was standing on the sidewalk and said, ‘I’ve got you d —m s—n of a b—tch.’ He held up the pistol against my arm and fired, the ball taking effect just above my left elbow and passing into the fleshy part of my arm. I got out of the way as quick as I could, when Donohue and Butler got together grappling each other and fired.” Several shots were fired and Butler was creased on his cheek. Donohue had been shot four times by Butler and died immediately.”
Butler was arrested. But Tybo didn’t have a jail, so a few days later he was transported to Belmont, the Nye County Seat. At the ensuing hearing, witnesses stated that Donahue had threatened the lives of Isabella’s friends, both men and women. Butler was exonerated.
Jim Butler never forgot the incident. Years later he told his friend Arthur Tate, “It’s a terrible thing to have killed a man; you never have a good night’s sleep afterwards — you see it over and over again in the dark.”
In the spring of 1889, Butler married Belle and they remained married the rest of their lives. Jim’s father deeded the Little Empire ranch in Nye County’s Monitor Valley to Belle in the early 1890s. Butler moved Belle and her three young children, Franks, Lottie and Nevada Belle, to the ranch.
The ranch’s rock house was home for the family for several years. The ranch was isolated with the nearest neighbors over 15 miles away. The ranch did provide a meager living with livestock, fields for hay and a large vegetable garden.
The Nevada depression, which began in the early 1890s, was hard on the Butlers. Needing additional income to support his family, friends suggested to Butler that he run for Nye County District Attorney. If he won, his salary would be $50 per month in script. At that time, to be District Attorney, a formal education and a law degree were not required.
Butler ran against fellow Monitor Valley rancher Andrew Johnson and won. Claiming that Butler’s win was a fraud, Johnson locked himself in the District Attorney’s office in Belmont. Negotiations weren’t going well until the office had to be used for young people to take the teacher’s examination. The standoff ended. Butler was reelected in 1898.
Butler loved the desert and prospecting. On May 10 1900 he departed Belmont with his friend William Hall for Southern Klondike about 50 miles south. According to the May 10, 1900 issue of the Belmont Courier, “District Attorney J.L. Butler and William Hall left for Southern Klondike on a prospecting trip.”
Butler and Hall, having no money, were grubstaked by Frank Brotherton, Postmaster and merchant of Belmont, and Thomas Tate, Nye County Commissioner and operator of the Austin-Belmont stage line.
Because of a dispute Hall returned to Belmont.
Butler headed south towards Southern Klondike and camped at the black outcropping at Sawtooth Pass. He knew where he was going, due to the extended period he had spent in the area as a youth.
“Tonopah is an Indian name, which I learned when a boy, signifies a small spring. The Indians on their periodic trips from the Cowich Mountains and other places to Rhodes Salt Marsh camped at this spring. Rich mines had been discovered in the San Antonio Range and the country being highly mineralized, I long considered the mountains in the vicinity of the spring a good field for the prospector. Attention to other matters kept me away from the range until May 1900, when I left Belmont, the seat of Nye County, on a prospecting expedition south. I passed over the Manhattan Mountains, left Rye Patch and traveled all day to the springs known as Tonopah near which I found quartz. I followed up the float and found leads. There were bold, bold black croppings of fine-grained quartz, showing a great quantity of mineral, so much, in fact, that I considered it as little or no value.” (Tonopah Weekly Bonanza, February 7, 1903., Library of Congress, Chronicling America.)
In fact, the ore turned out to be black sulphide of silver (argentite) and was tremendously rich. The argentite ore was mainly silver with lesser quantities of gold and copper.
Butler proceeded to Southern Klondike and the local assayer, Hicks, threw the samples on the trash pile stating that they weren’t worth anything. Butler had offered him 25% of his discovery for the assay.
On his way back to Belmont, Butler picked up more samples and returned to Belmont with over 75 pounds of ore. He showed the samples to Wilse Brougher, who owned the general store and was Nye County Recorder. Also in the store was an up and coming attorney from Austin, Tasker Oddie. Butler, having no money, offered Wilse Brougher and Tasker Oddie a percentage of the claim. Oddie took the samples back to Austin and offered a portion of his stake to the local assayer Richard Gayhart. The samples proved to be extremely rich and assayed $300 to $400 per ton.
In the meantime, Butler returned to his ranch, 45 miles north of Belmont to do his haying. Upon receiving notice of the richness of the ore, Oddie sent a Native American runner to Butler. Three months after the assay, Butler returned to Belmont.
His wife Belle, Oddie and Brougher scraped together $25 worth of supplies and returned to Sawtooth Pass, staked their claims and sent a load of ore to the railroad 70 miles north at Austin.
After several weeks, they received a check for $600. The boom was on.
When word of the discovery got out, the surveyor at Southern Klondike, Hicks, ran his samples and presented the results to Butler. Through negotiation, Hicks eventually received 1/32 of the discovery. Butler was not obligated to pay Hicks, but he always stayed true to his word.
Still lacking enough funds to fully develop the claims, Butler and his partners leased blocks of their claims to miners. The leases were in effect until December 31, 1901.
On June 3 1901 a group of investors, headed by O. A. Turner of Philadelphia purchased the leased claims for $337,000 of which $50,000 was paid immediately to Butler and associates.
One requirement was that all leasers would be able to complete their leases which ended on December 31, 1901. The leases were profitable to the end with the total of about $3,000,000 of ore was extracted.
Jim Butler was heralded as the, “Hero of the mining world,” and Belle was called “Mother of Tonopah.”
In October 1901, Jim Butler’s oldest stepdaughter married Robert M. Chrysler. After a San Francisco honeymoon, the couple moved to a ranch in Smoky Valley. Two months after the wedding, the bridegroom died of pneumonia.
The whole family, heartbroken at Chrysler’s death, moved to Owens Valley and purchased a ranch near Bishop which the family would own the rest of Butler’s life. Butler made frequent trips back to Tonopah. He was named the Grand Marshal of parades for several holidays and celebrations including the Tonopah Railroad Day Celebration. He was also the Grand Marshal for the celebration’s “Indian Parade.” He never forgot his association with the Shoshone and he would pass out Silver Dollars to them as well as food.
In 1902, Jim Butler was asked to run for Governor. Once he found out that he would have to give a speech, he declined.
Always restless, Butler bought the Callow Hotel in Big Pine, California, renaming it the Butler Hotel. He stayed in a small shack at the rear of the hotel.
The Butlers also bought a home in San Jose, but Butler was not content and moved back to Big Pine living in that cabin at the back of his hotel. Later, he bought a house nearby and made frequent trips into the desert.
In 1918, the Butler family suffered another tremendous personal loss. Nevada Belle (Vada) succumbed to the influenza pandemic at the age of 30. Her husband, Leicester, an attorney was in France during World War I, and Vada was keeping his practice running.
Cousin Elma remembers, “she was as smart as she was beautiful, active in local Bishop civic groups, head of the Republican Committee. Kind natured, as her mother, Vada could always be counted on to help a friend or neighbor in need.”
Jim and Belle took Vada’s death hard and you could say that Belle never recovered. She kept busy by traveling to visit family and friends.
Belle passed away at the home of her eldest daughter in June 1922. Jim being heartbroken and despondent passed away also at the same home in January 1923.
The bulk of the Butler estate was left to the two remaining stepchildren, Lottie and Frank Donohue.
Shortly after Belle’s death, Tom Lynch, an early Tonopah friend, wrote Jim about building a tomb and memorial to them on Mt. Oddie. Jim consented and the matter was taken to the state legislature. However, the legislature wanted it built in Carson City, so the plan was forgotten.
Prior to his death, Butler requested that he be buried in nearby El Dorado County, however, the burial was delayed.
His remains laid for 22 years in the Mortuary Chapel of the Sacramento City Cemetery. Rental was paid until 1936. In 1945, the California Health Dept. required that he be buried and his body was placed in an unmarked grave in the Sacramento City Cemetery with 3 other unmarked graves nearby.
The graves were eventually covered by a small road so, Butler’s final resting place is lost. However, a memorial was constructed by the Old City Cemetery Commission. A group of Tonopah residents led by Bill Metscher and Bob Perchetti contacted the Butler family to see if Butler’s remains could be moved to Tonopah.
And so the founder of Tonopah and savior of Nevada met his end as so many pioneers do: in an unmarked grave far from the events that made him famous.
If you have time, while traveling through Sacramento, stop by the Sacramento City Cemetery and pay homage to the Founder of Tonopah. A small monument has been erected near the place where Butler is buried.
And if you’re in San Jose, stop by the Oak Hill Memorial Park where Belle, “The Mother of Tonopah,” is interred.
Jim Butler’s legacy? Stanley Paher in his book, Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of Nevada says it the best, “The Comstock put Nevada on the Map and Tonopah kept it there.”
By Michael “Mike” Lee
Eva La Rue of the Tonopah Historic Mining Park for providing the article, Jackie Boor, “A Tale of Two Friends in the Wild West – with Land Park Connections,” The Land Park News, Valley Community Newspapers Inc., Sacramento, California, June 23, 2011, pg. 19.
Myrtle T. Myles. “Jim Butler: Nevada’s Improbable Tycoon.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, vol 26, no.1, 1976, pp.60-69.
The Tonopah Weekly Bonanza, February 7, 1903 from the Library of Congress, Chronicling America.
The Eureka Sentinel, Eureka, Nevada, Sept 22, 1888. Library of Congress, Chronicling America.
Boomtown History III, Judith Butler, Life in Goldfield & Tonopah’s Boomtowns, Belle Butler, First Woman of Tonopah, and Poems from Nevada Belle and the Forgotten Women of the West, Published by the Boomtown History Conference in Tonopah, 2009.
Early History of Goldfield, Nevada, As Written by T.A. Rickard, Compiled and Published by N. & S. Sirnes, Domaine Enterprises, Reno, Nevada, October 2009.