Taking some of the 'wild' out of the West in saloons of Virginia City

VIRGINIA CITY - In Hollywood's history books, old-time saloons are often peopled exclusively with rowdy sots, shifty bartenders and freelance felons knocking back shots of high-proof whiskey while waiting for the opportunity to kill someone.

While great for building bad-guy narratives and for character-actors seeking work, it just begins to tell the whole story.

In her book "Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology and History in Virginia City," Dr. Kelly Dixon of the University of Montana challenges the movie-set burlesque to a quick-draw contest, conjuring up visions of fine crystal stemware and brandy snifters in place of shattered shot glasses, trombones instead of player pianos and good quality food instead of whatever you managed to shoot that day.

"There was definitely an element of the so-called 'Wild West' in the saloons," says Dixon. "But there really was a much more complex, hyper-cosmopolitan aspect to these establishments."

"Not everybody went to the saloon looking to fight."

Through archaeological excavations of four 19th Century Virginia City saloons, Dixon has come up with what she believes is a more authentic western saloon experience.

At its peak, Virginia City had a population of 20,000 and a rumored 100 different saloons to quench its thirst.

"These were people coming from all over the world with their customs, their religions, their food, their superstitions," says Dixon. "They all converged in boomtowns like Virginia City. The American west represented a fusion of everyone on earth."

For archaeologists like Dixon, Virginia City is the Pompeii of the West.

"There is so much there, buried underground," she says.

Some of which, like the bones found at the Boston Saloon were the smoking gun, not of random pistol play, but of the fine cuts of meat available at the black-owned business.

In 1866, the Territorial Enterprise reported on the shooting of a white man named "Frenchy" at the Boston.

It was an accident, but the shooting made headlines.

Dixon sees the incident another way. Just one year after the Civil War, here were the signs of an integrated bar.

"There's no evidence that blacks were allowed in a place like the Piper's Opera House saloon," says Dixon. "But it does show a bigger picture - a shared heritage."

Dr. Dixon will be reading from and signing copies of her book tonight at 6:30 p.m. at Fourth Ward School Museum in Virginia City.

-- Contact reporter Peter Thompson at pthompson@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1215.


What: Dr. Kelly Dixon reads from and signs "Boomtown Saloons: Archaeology and History in Virginia City"

Where: Fourth Ward School Museum at the south end of C Street in Virginia City

When: 6:30 tonight


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