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Early mineral dealers: William Niven (1850-1937).

William Niven, a self-taught mineralogist, archeologist, prospector, miner, businessman, explorer, adventurer and raconteur, was a dedicated field collector who, for a time, was among the leading mineral dealers in New York City. He discovered the new minerals yttrialite and thorogummite (at Barringer Hill, Texas) and aguilarite (at Guanajuato, Mexico) and was the namesake for the mineral "nivenite"--now considered a variety of uraninite.


William Niven, mineralogist, archeologist and mineral dealer, was born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, Scotland, on October 6, 1850, the son of Sarah (Brown) Niven and William Niven, a railroad engineer. Details of his life are recounted in Buried Cities, Forgotten Gods (1999) by art historian Robert S. Wicks and Niven's grandson, Roland H. Harrison. The first third of the following account, and a few bits farther on, are abstracted from that interesting biography, which focuses primarily on Niven's archeological activities. The emphasis here will be on his involvement in mineralogy and mineral dealing, revealed primarily through his ads and articles in the collector journals of his day: The Exchangers' Monthly, The Mineralogists' Monthly, and The Mineral Collector.

Niven was an interesting and admirable character. As reviewer Randall Holdridge (1999) said of him:
  Niven intrepidly survived desert thirst, earthquake, bandit
  skirmishes, skull-packed caves, arrest in revolutionary Mexico, raging
  rivers and jungle fever. The God-fearing Scotsman managed to keep safe
  in a world of violence and intrigue by nothing more (nor less) than an
  ironclad sense of honor and sober industry.

Niven came from a large and close-knit family in Scotland. His parents were acquainted with the famous missionary and explorer David Livingstone, who regaled the young William with tales of his African adventures, inspiring in him an urge to explore remote and primitive lands. When his father was killed in a railroading accident in 1865, Niven dropped out of school and took a succession of clerking jobs to help support his family. In 1870 he took over the management of the Dalmarnock weaving mill in Glasgow, though he was only 19 at the time. Despite his success there, he decided in 1879 that it was time to leave Scotland and travel to America, as his younger brother James had done before him in 1874.


Niven arrived in New York City on April 15, after a ten-day crossing, and traveled on to Providence, Rhode Island where he lived for nine months with a cousin, Robert Niven. He was "so pleased with the country" that he decided to make the United States his permanent home. He first attempted to start a jewelry manufacturing business, but soon realized that it would not be profitable. He then moved to New York, where he worked for J. W. Cochrane & Company as a traveling salesman, with only indifferent success. By 1880 he had nearly run out of money. Inspired by promotional brochures touting "mountains full of rich gold and silver ores, sulphurets, carbonates, chlorides and rich placers not yet prospected," Niven decided to seek his fortune out West. He pawned his last few possessions for enough money to buy a one-way ticket to the site of a booming silver rush: Leadville, Colorado.


Soon after arriving in Leadville he established a bakery with his cousin, John Niven, but when John took sick and had to return home, that business came to an end. Rescued from destitution by a check for [pounds sterling]100 from his brother Alexander in India, he parlayed it into a $400 profit by selling "gent's furnishings," then set off for Las Vegas, New Mexico where he joined up with two partners to go prospecting. They found nothing that could be mined economically, but in the process Niven became an expert miner with pick and shovel. He then found work in a mine in Bernalillo for four months and saved his money, before setting out prospecting again with two new partners. They very nearly died of thirst before reaching the Gallinas range, ending up in the Red Cloud district of New Mexico where they finally achieved some measure of prospecting success.

Niven mined in the Red Cloud area for more than a year, and developed an interest and proficiency in the local mineralogy. He collected a number of minerals, including malachite, azurite, native gold and silver ores from the nearby White Oaks district.

In July and August of 1883, a major event took place in New Mexico: Santa Fe celebrated its Tertio-Millenial Exposition, commemorating 333 years of local history. Niven exhibited his collection of ore minerals, and was promptly chosen as Mining Commissioner for Lincoln County. He gave a lecture on the Red Cloud mining district, recounted in the New Mexican Review for August 1, 1883. He described about 50 claims there, the mineralogy consisting of "copper, silver, gold and iron in the form of sulphides, sulphurets, carbonates and oxides, in the usual gangue accompanying such ores." Regarding one particular claim, Niven recounted a discovery that was a mineral collector's dream:
  One of the most important discoveries was made a few weeks ago. While
  sinking on the Tenderfoot vein 100 feet from the surface, a chamber of
  remarkable beauty was exposed. The rich appearance and wonderful
  brilliancy of this subterranean palace--50 feet in length, 6 to 12
  feet in width, grandly rising to a height of 60 feet--the walls and
  roof covered completely with the most gorgeous crystallizations,
  interspersed with beautiful malachite and azurite, long lines of
  stalactites and stalagmites of every imaginable shape and color--
  sparkling like a thousand gems, form a scene of rare grandeur, which
  baffles the power of description.

As part of the festivities, a fancy dress ball was held, reported as "the most elaborate society event this territory has ever known." There Niven met Nellie Purcell, daughter of a noted costumer from St. Louis who had been commisioned to provide fancy gowns for the evening. Dressed as Romeo and Juliet, William and Nellie danced the night away, and after Nellie's return to St. Louis they carried on a long-distance romance.


Niven's prospecting activity took him into Mexico in 1884 and then into Arizona Territory, where east of Tucson he found a rich I-inch vein that was 50% solid gold and silver. He sold the claim for $1200 and purchased a half interest in a local hotel, the Benson House in Benson, Arizona. The hotel business went well, and Niven greatly enjoyed having a roof over his head and being in business for himself, but it was not to hold him for long. The collecting impulse drove him to take the money left over from the sale of his claim and buy up large numbers of specimens--a nine-ton carload of ore samples, in fact--mostly native gold and native silver that had been collected primarily from the mines of Tombstone and the Copper Queen mine at Bisbee. He also acquired some Arizona petrified wood samples and a variety of local plants and animals preserved in alcohol.

Niven was appointed Assistant Commissioner for Arizona Territory to the 1884-1885 World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial in New Orleans, the ideal place to exhibit his Arizona minerals and ores. He had everything shipped to New Orleans in a freight car, and installed his specimens in showcases in the Arizona section of the exhibit hall. He was located right next to the exhibit of William Adams and Seely Shaw, who had a government lease at that time on the Petrified Forest in northern Arizona and were mining it for petrified wood. They had plenty of time to talk during the exposition, and by the time of its closure in June of 1885 they had agreed to go into partnership together. They shipped their petrified wood and Niven's mineral specimens (over 20 tons all together) to New York City by boat, and opened a new business there called the Jasperized Wood & Mineral Company at 246 West 23rd Street. The company was short-lived, though, and the partnership was dissolved in 1886. Niven retained the shop and continued dealing in mineral specimens under his own name, but his rich ore specimens were not sufficiently attractive for New York mineral collectors, so he shipped the bulk of his nine tons to a smelter in Newark, New Jersey and received a check for $6,600--a huge sum in those days.

Shortly after moving to New York, Niven acquired an extraordinary specimen. He told the story himself in a lecture given in 1930; the following extract is from his handwritten lecture notes which have been preserved by his descendants:
  In 1885 [I moved] to New York City where, for a number of years, I
  carried on a regular mineral business, and my explorations in and
  around New York City kept me constantly and plentifully supplied with
  mineral specimens. Many very important discoveries of fine species and
  varieties were made. One of these was a huge garnet crystal, said to
  be the largest ever found, weighing nine pounds nine ounces and
  [measuring] six inches in diameter. It was unearthed by a laborer
  making an excavation at 35th Street near 3rd Avenue, eight feet below
  the surface, and thrown up on the dump where I happened to be passing
  along. After a careful cleaning it was found to be a perfect
  dodecahedron crystal of almandite garnet, and was placed in the window
  of my mineral store at 246 West 23rd Street in New York--for sale--the
  price marked $100. Next day it was bought by a well-known gem expert
  of Tiffany and Company, and is now on display in a loan gem exhibition
  of the Mineral Department of the American Museum of Natural History in
  New York City.



The Tiffany gem expert was none other than George F. Kunz, who described and figured the crystal in an article read before the New York Academy of Sciences on December 7, 1885, and May 30, 1886. Kunz mentions that the specimen came from a sewer excavation in August 1885, and states that "the laborer took it to Mr. J. J. King, from whom I received it." King was no doubt Niven's shop attendant, often left in charge during Niven's long absences. The specimen, which became known as "the Kunz garnet" (a drawing of it was incorporated into the crest of the New York Mineralogical Club), is still preserved in the American Museum of Natural History.

Incidentally, it was no accident that Niven happened to be passing by that excavation when the big garnet was uncovered. Just a few days before, Niven had been shown garnets found around there by fellow New York Mineralogical Club member Gilman Stanton. "I always wondered how you found it so soon after I showed you my specimens," wrote Stanton in a 1936 letter, insisting that the big 9-pound garnet must have come from near 7th Avenue rather that 3rd Avenue.

Niven married Nellie Purcell in St. Louis in 1886 and, after a short honeymoon, they returned to New York City. The following year Nellie gave birth to a son, William Albert Niven; ultimately they had a total of nine children. Niven, joining the local mineralogical fraternity for business purposes, soon developed his contacts with the American Museum of Natural History and with Kunz at Tiffany and Co., and was a co-founder of the New York Mineralogical Club.



Niven's 1886 ads in The Exchangers' Monthly proclaimed him a "dealer in fine mineral specimens" and lapidary objets d'art (including his specialty, Japanese crystal balls). He offered for sale a boxed collection of 12 specimens of Arizona Territory minerals (fluorite, native gold, chalcocite, malachite, chalcopyrite, smoky quartz, native copper, petrified wood, azurite crystals, cuprite, argentiferous galena, and "argentiferous quartz") for 50 cents. He sold these through Exchangers' Monthly publisher Arthur Chamberlain, who must have purchased his complete stock of sets, because he continued to market them for years afterward. In December 1886, Niven began advertising on his own, listing his address as 739 Broadway, New York. In November 1887 he advertised as a "wholesale and retail dealer in foreign and American minerals" and lapidary objects, and initiated monthly auction sales of mineral specimens in New York.

By May 1888 Niven had become successful enough to take out a full-page ad for his monthly auction sales of minerals, now also including Indian relics and other curios. He wrote:
  These sales are meeting with a good deal of favor both from the buyer
  and seller. Consignments of goods are received almost daily for these
  sales from all parts of this country and Europe. The place during
  Auction Week is a veritable museum and is thronged with persons
  wishing to add to their collections. By next fall it will be necessary
  to hold these sales twice a month if the interest in them continues to
  increase at the present rate.

Niven charged sellers 15% of the amount realized, plus $2 per page for space in his auction catalog.

Niven's 20th auction sale took place on November 16, 1888, conducted by Messrs. Bangs & Co., auctioneers, at Niven's expanded quarters at 739-741 Broadway. (1) The sale featured "a mineralogical student's collection of 500 mineral specimens collected by a well-known mineralogist" (perhaps George F. Kunz), "every specimen properly labeled," as well as Indian relics, fossils, curios, and a collection of Japanese bronzes. Many of the mineral specimens might sound quite interesting to collectors today; for example:


Beryl crystals to 4 inches from Connecticut, North Carolina and
Crystallized cinnabar from Napa Valley, California.
Goshenite (colorless beryl) from Goshen, Massachusetts.
Very fine pyromorphite from Ems, Germany.
Botryoidal Russian malachite.
Fine crystals of Cornish torbernite on matrix, 2.5 inches.
Very fine native silver crystals from Batopilas, Mexico.
Native silver from Silver Islet, Lake Superior.
Petzite and gold, 2.5 inches, from Gold Hill, Colorado.
Cornish vivianite crystals, 3 inches;
Rutile and emerald crystals from Alexander County, North Carolina.
Very fine proustite crystals, 2 inches, from St. Andreasberg, Harz.
Manganite crystals, 4 inches, from Ilfeld, Harz.
Pyromorphite crystals from the Wheatley mine, Pennsylvania.
Very good celestine and sulfur crystal group, 3.5 inches, from Girgenti,
Malachite and azurite crystals, very good, 5 inches, from the Burra
  Burra mine, Australia.
Very fine native copper crystals, 4 inches, from the Phoenix mine,
Good crystals of "troostite" (willemite), 3 inches, from Franklin,
  New Jersey.

At the time Niven also had available for private (non-auction) sale a collection of 420 mineral specimens, 2 to 4 inches, for $80; a collection of minerals and rocks from New York Island, 250 specimens for $100; a large consignment of Alaskan garnet specimens up to 12 inches in size; the "Hix Collection" of fine wire gold, native and ruby silver, crystallized native copper, etc." (particulars on application); and an Egyptian mummy for $12!

On a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1888 (2) Niven had noticed quartz crystals being uncovered by an excavation in the town's main street, right in front of the Arlington Hotel. He purchased the rights to the excavation for a day and did some blasting, uncovering a substantial pocket. One extraordinary cluster of clear quartz crystals to 3 or 4 inches in diameter was later sold to the American Museum of Natural History for $350, and was believed at that time to be the finest quartz cluster in the world.

Niven's 24th sale in February 1889 included minerals, stuffed birds, animals from the "Fraser Collection" and Indian relics from the "Spang Collection" (perhaps Charles Spang, 1809-1904). The catalog included 13 full-page plates illustrating minerals and other specimens in stock. He also acquired for resale a "private mineral collection" of 648 specimens averaging 3 x 3 inches and representing over 200 species, offered at $200.


In February of 1889 Niven embarked on a ten-week collecting trip through Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, Missouri and other areas. (3) Writing in March, (4) he announced: "I have visited not only all the celebrated mineral localities, but some never before prospected; and have collected many hundred pounds of fine and rare specimens." Among his discoveries (5) were gadolinite and fergusonite from Barringer Hill, Llano County, Texas; quartz crystal groups, variscite, wavellite, perovskite and rutile from Arkansas; and sphalerite, galena, marcasite, dolomite and calcite crystals from Missouri.

The work at Barringer Hill had originally been inspired by newspaper reports in 1887 and 1888 describing rare yttrium-bearing minerals from an unnamed quarry in Burnet or Llano County. William E. Hidden, a New Jersey mineralogist and agent for Thomas Edison, commissioned Niven to locate the deposit and ship back specimens for Edison to experiment with in his search for a practical electric light filament. Arriving in Texas, Niven learned that a Dr. Westfall, President of the First National Bank of Burnet, was one of the chief owners of some of the local quarries. Westfall was very helpful, and directed Niven to the exact locality he was looking for, on the west side of the Colorado River about 5 miles south of Bluffton in Llano County. It proved to be a granite hill about 50 feet high, covered in quartz and transected by a pegmatite vein. It was owned by a man named John Barringer, who had located the deposit in 1886 and had noticed the unusual mineralization. Barringer had already shipped off 1000 pounds of gadolinite and other minerals to see if anyone could figure out what they were and whether they had any value, but was disappointed with the evaluation. He therefore was willing to let anyone take what they wanted, so Niven was able to arrange with Barringer to work the quarry for specimens. By the time Niven arrived, the place looked as if it had been scraped fairly clean (Niven, 1889), but ...


  ... To my great surprise, the first pick I put in the ground brought
  to the surface a huge crystal of gadolinite, and for a short time I
  enjoyed the most pleasant excitement, bringing out crystal after
  crystal from the decomposed feldspar, until the pile must have weighed
  30 pounds.

He worked out the pocket and continued digging. On the fourth day he struck a pocket of crystals "the forms and appearance of which were all new to me." That evening he packed off samples to William E. Hidden for identification, and a short time later received a telegram saying "Congratulations; xenotime, fergusonite, cyrtolite, etc."

This good news spurred further searching which turned up large quantities of fluorite, muscovite, magnetite, menaccinite, molybdenite, graphite, columbite, allanite, several more pounds of fergusonite and ultimately over 200 pounds of gadolinite. (In 1895 Niven arranged the purchase of the Barringer Hill deposit from John Barringer, on behalf of Thomas Edison's Piedmont Mining Company, for $5,000 in gold coin. The mine was later acquired by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, which abandoned it in 1906.)




After this highly successful first trip of 1889 Niven wanted to return to the field as soon as possible. He planned a three-month tour of Texas and on into Mexico for late 1889, in preparation for which he decided to auction off his entire stock (6) of existing specimens in June. At this same time, however, he also acquired the huge collection of the late Chemistry and Geology Professor Charles Stewart Stone (1815-1889) of Cooper Union College in New York: 5,000 specimens of minerals, rocks, fossils, shells and zoological items. (7) It was, according to George F. Kunz, "unusually strong in the rare and expensive minerals such as wulfenite, crocoite, matlockite, vanadinite, and all the metallic minerals." That same June Niven made a quick two-week collecting trip to Middleville, Herkimer County, New York, where he secured nearly 500 pounds of the famous "Herkimer diamond" quartz crystals, clusters and matrix specimens. (8)


Niven then embarked on his second major collecting trip of 1889. He returned in November, (9) after three months in the field, with substantial stocks of yellow and white topaz crystals from San Luis Potosi, Mexico; precious opal from Queretaro; amethyst specimens and snow-white calcite crystals from Guanajuato which he deemed "far surpassing in beauty, brilliancy, and variety of form the well known and much talked of Egremont [Cumberland, England] crystals." He had purchased several thousand specimens of the Guanajuato amethyst and calcite from the miners and overseers, and had worked three days packing them in 14 boxes of about 80 pounds each. He also got apophyllite and valencianite from Guanajuato, and had spent a week in Zacatecas (10) buying specimens of proustite, pyrargyrite, stephanite and native silver. Before entering Mexico Niven had also collected more brookite, perovskite, apatite and idocrase from Magnet Cove, Arkansas, and had acquired more uranothorianite, thorogummite, yttrialite, gado-linite, fergusonite, cyrtolite and allanite from Barringer Hill, Texas. One of his Texas discoveries was promptly named "nivenite" in his honor by William E. Hidden, in the December 1889 issue of the American Journal of Science.

In February 1890 Niven received "one of the best lots of minerals from Nova Scotia I have ever seen, comprising chabazite, gmelinite, analcite, stilbite and heulandite," and also offered for sale an intriguing specimen: "the finest, largest and best rhodonite specimen that doubtless has ever been found," priced very high (for the times) at $500. By this time Niven had also accumulated over 30,000 Indian relics, and even had a 3,500-pound Toltec stone god, (11) a double-headed serpent with tail, for sale at $5,000. A shipment also arrived from his contact in England, containing fine specimens of fluorite, celestine and barite. Niven's mineral business was flourishing; he had over 5,000 mineral specimens on exhibit in his New York shop, arranged in eight large showcases, two of them 15 feet long by 10 feet high.


In April of 1890 Niven announced (12) that he was entering into partnership with the Philadelphia mineral dealers George L. English and Edwin C. Atkinson. Business was to be conducted at their various premises as before, but under the name of "George L. English & Company." Offerings from Niven thenceforth appeared in the English ads, referred to as "our New York store."

On May 3rd Niven left his shop in the hands of a "competent assistant" and took off once again for Mexico and the Southwest. (13) Immediately he began shipping specimens back to English, first from Magnet Cove, Arkansas, then from a stay of several weeks at Barringer Hill in Texas, and then from the topaz locality in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Some of the topaz crystals were nearly 2 inches long, (14) very perfect and brilliant, including a number of doubly terminated crystals and fine matrix specimens. He also returned to previously visited Mexican localities for more apophyllite, calcite, proustite, pyrargyrite and native silver.

In late 1890 Niven set out on another collecting trip to Mexico in search of specimens for his museum clients. He spent time at the San Carlos silver mine in Guanajuato, acquiring many silver specimens including a new silver selenide which, at his recommendation, was later named aguilarite by Frederick Genth in honor of the mine's superintendant, J. Aguilar, who had been so courteous to him during his visit. Moving on to Pachuca, he met with Francisco Landero of Landero & Company, owner of the Real del Monte mine, one of the richest silver mines in Mexico. Landero was also a dealer in mineral specimens, and had an extensive personal collection of Mexican minerals. This collection included specimens of a massive rose-colored grossular intermixed with yellow vesuvianite, a commodity which Niven had been seeking. Landero informed him that it came from a deposit at the small town of Xalostoc, near Cuautla in the state of Morelos. In January 1891 Niven visited the locality, where he was able to block out about 240,000 tons of the attractive ornamental stone, and arrange for samples to be shipped back to New York.




Niven continued to travel Mexico and the Southwest during the summer of 1891. In August his office reported "Mr. Niven's great find at Bisbee!" He had entered one of the cave areas that often overlie orebodies at Bisbee and had found the room decorated with green to sky-blue stalactites to 20 inches as well as a large amount of floss ferri and white aragonite crystal clusters, all of which he immediately harvested and shipped back to New York. (15)

In January 1892 Niven met with Mexican President Porfirio Diaz and obtained a temporary concession for the recovery of minerals and archeological artifacts in Guerrero.

Throughout the time Niven was in the field, his store in New York continued to acquire stock from other sources, including several in Europe, perhaps with the help of English. On March 1, 1892, the mineral collection of the prominent Swiss dealer Hoseus was put on sale at Niven's shop in New York, (16) while Niven was engaged directing the quarrying of the pink grossular rock in Mexico. Niven remained almost exclusively in the field while English took over the New York store and moved it to more spacious quarters at No. 64 East 12th Street. (17)

Niven returned to New York in April 1892, with a load of Mexican artifacts. Morris K. Jessup, a well-known banker and President of the American Museum of Natural History, purchased a Guerrero jade sculpture for the museum and agreed to fund another expedition to Guerrero for artifacts. Niven was made an honorary life member of the museum. Meanwhile, the pink grossular rock (which he named "rosolite") from Morelos was causing excitement, so Niven acquired the mineral rights to the deposit, in partnership with Jose de Landero, Director of the Real del Monte Mining Company, and thus the American Rose Garnet Company, Inc. was formed in April, 1892, with Niven as Vice President, Edwin Atkinson as President and George English as secretary. Tiffany & Company agreed to act as agent for any items manufactured from the stone. Niven and his family then returned to Mexico for the remainder of the year, setting up headquarters at the Hotel Iturbide in Mexico City.




In January 1893 a small part of the English ad in The Mineralogists' Monthly offered "Mexican minerals, secured by Mr. Niven during a recent visit to Guanajuato. Nine boxes of selected specimens of richly colored amethysts, beautiful groups and twins of calcite, fine apophyllites, and a few aguilarites." Niven continued sending periodic shipments, but the partnership with English was finally dissolved when English bought Niven's share in December 1892. (18)


After selling out to English. Niven started fresh in the mineral specimen business--not too difficult considering all of the contacts he had developed--and maintained a mineral shop in New York (as "the William Niven Company"). Meanwhile, quarrying of the rosolite rock continued, and in mid-February 1893 a shipment was sent to New York to be prepared for exhibit at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where it was greeted with considerable acclaim. Unfortunately, professional stone cutters found the rock impossible to cut without generating surface pits because of the difference in hardness between the various component minerals, and it also proved to weather quickly when exposed to the elements. Thus, despite its early promise, the rose garnet venture proved a failure.



In April 1894, the William Niven Company, "collectors and dealers in scientific minerals," announced in The Mineral Collector that:
  Our Mr. Niven, who has been absent so frequently from New York on
  extended collecting trips through the Southwest and Mexico during the
  past 5 years, will be glad to meet his old friends and customers at
  our Mineral Show Rooms, 644 First Avenue, New York, where a rare and
  beautiful collection of minerals, recently purchased from one of the
  oldest and best known mineralogists in New York City, is displayed. No
  fancy prices."

Who this old mineralogist may have been is unknown, but apparently it was noteworthy that Niven was in New York and actually present in his own store. In June he was once again collecting in Mexico at his favorite localities, and sending shipments back to New York. Although Niven was no longer formally in partnership with George English, they maintained a cordial relationship and Niven sent shipments of specimens to English as well as to his own shop. (19)

On a prospecting tour for the American Museum of Natural History in 1894 Niven made an archeological discovery: prehistoric ruins (later named Omitlan) northwest of Chilpancingo in the state of Guerrero. This was tremendously exciting to Niven, and he would later devote his full attention to the excavation of ancient ruins.


He also found attractive zeolites and associated minerals at West Paterson, New Jersey. In May of 1895 he announced his relocation to new quarters at 853 Broadway, and in August 1895 he acquired yet another collection for resale, this one consisting of over 500 specimens.

Niven prospected the New York City area thoroughly from 1886 to 1889 and did so again in 1895-1896, discovering an extraordinary mineral locality in the subway excavations along Washington Avenue from 165th to 181st Street. (20) There he collected thousands of xenotime crystals, yellow titanite crystals, brilliant monazite crystals, beryl, tourmaline and almandine. Always the professional, he first obtained official permission from the chief of New York's Board of Public Works, then hired laborers who worked the site with drills and dynamite. Among his many finds there was a schorl crystal (21) over 11 inches long and 4 inches wide, on a quartz crystal matrix, the whole specimen weighing about 60 pounds. Found in October 1895, it was purchased in 1896 by the American Museum of Natural History. The next morning the New York Herald published a picture of it with a story headlined "Largest Sale of Real Estate ever made on Manhattan Island." It went on to say "William Niven sells to the American Museum a specimen of rock from 181st Street with a Tourmaline Crystal, weighing 60 pounds for $250--said to be the largest crystal of that mineral in the world." The specimen (pictured here) is still in the American Museum collection, though most of the matrix was trimmed off about 50 years ago, and it had lost its provenance over the years. Curator George Harlow, who tracked it down and photographed it for this study, was pleased to be able to reclaim its history.

Niven announced (22) that he would soon be off again on a collecting trip through Mexico in search of minerals and archeological specimens, and invited "his friends to call before he leaves." He then formally took on the 23-year-old Roy Hopping as his protege for a year, doing business together (23) as "Niven & Hopping." Hopping had worked for George English, and it is very probable that he had also been working for Niven, as one of Niven's unnamed "competent assistants." In October of 1896 Niven sold his remaining interest in the business to Hopping. (24) During that year, Niven had obtained exclusive rights to the minerals from a quarry at Paterson, New Jersey, and began to get more shipments of minerals from his contact in Arizona. Hopping (25) benefitted from these acquisitions, but no more ads for Niven or his company appeared after 1896; he was out of the mineral specimen business for good.



Niven turned increasingly to Mexican archeology in his later years, funded in part by his prospecting for gold in Guerrero, where he filed hundreds of claims in remote areas. His greatest find was the La Lucha mine, where the ore ran $10,000 in gold to the ton. He also discovered the celebrated Placeres del Oro sepulcher in 1910. His curio shop in Mexico City became a popular gathering place for visiting collectors, archeologists, diplomats and American writers, such as Katherine Anne Porter, who called him "a charming old pot hunter." Excavating neglected archeological sites in the Valley of Mexico, Niven unearthed relics now in the collections of major museums worldwide. His collection of archeological artifacts from Guerrero is now distributed among the American Museum of Natural History, the Peabody Museum of Yale University, and elsewhere.

In 1911 Niven discovered ancient ruins buried beneath volcanic ash near Azcapotzalco just north of Mexico City. He devoted the next 20 years of his life to archeological exploration in the Valley of Mexico, and thanks to an arrangement with the Mexican government he was able to fund his digs through the sale of artifacts. Niven was so successful in his field work that he was able to establish a private museum in Mexico City containing more than 20,000 objects.

A great many interesting adventures befell Niven in Mexico; readers are urged to consult Wicks and Harrison's fascinating book, Buried Cities, Forgotten Gods for more on that portion of his life.

Niven had liked Texas when he worked at Barringer Hill, and so in 1929 he retired to the Houston area, where he made himself popular by donating a large number of Mexican artifacts to the new Houston Museum and Scientific Society, and serving on its board of trustees. He also served on the Board of Directors of the Houston Museum of Natural History in 1930. In 1931 he moved to Austin, Texas, where he remained until his death on June 2, 1937, at the age of 87.


William Niven mineral labels are, for some reason, quite rare. We would appreciate receiving color scans at 300 dpi of any such labels that collectors, dealers or curators may come across. We will then post them on the Label Archive portion of the Mineralogical Record website (, with credit to the owner.


My sincere thanks to Roland H. Harrison, William Niven's grandson, for access to the family photographs and letter files; and to Judith Keeling, Editor-in-Chief at Texas Tech Press, for permission to reproduce images from Wicks and Harrison (1999). Thanks also to George Harlow of the American Museum of Natural History for searching their collection records for Niven specimens and for locating and photographing the big schorl crystal. My special thanks to Richard Hauck for graciously allowing us to acquire his rare set of The Exchangers' Monthly, without which this article could not have been completed.


HOLDRIDGE, R. (1999) The wanderer. Fortune-seeker William Niven grew rich in tales of adventure. Tucson Weekly, October 14.

KUNZ, G. F. (1886) An almandite garnet crystal found in New York City (35th Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue). New York Academy of Science, Transactions, 5, 265-266.

NIVEN, W. (1889) A trip through Mexico [and Texas]. The Exchangers' Monthly, 5, 9-11, 17-18, 25-26, 33-34, 41-42, 49-50, 57.

WICKS, R. S., and HARRISON, R. H. (1999) Buried Cities, Forgotten Gods. Texas Tech University Press, 318 p.


1. November 1888 ad in Exchangers' Monthly for his auction (p. 17), with partial catalog (p. 18-28); store ad (p. 29).

2. Handwritten lecture notes by Niven in the files of Roland Harrison.

3. February 1889 ad in Exchangers' Monthly, p. 17-19.

4. April 1889 ad in Exchangers' Monthly, "An open letter," telling where he's been, p. 19.

5. May 1889 ad in Exchangers' Monthly, p. 19, giving results of his trip.

6. June 1889 ad in Exchangers' Monthly, p. 17; his planned three-month collecting tour, and the sale of his entire stock.

7. June 1889 ad in Exchangers' Monthly, p. 18-19, on the Stone Collection (repeated in the following issue).

8. July 1889 ad in Exchangers' Monthly, p. 17, Herkimer collecting trip.

9. November 1889 ad in Exchangers' Monthly, p. 18-19.

10. Jan 1890 ad in Exchangers' Monthly, p. iii, Zacatecas silver minerals; also described in his handwritten notes in the Roland Harrison files.

11. Feb 1890 ad in Exchangers' Monthly, p. iii-vi, the Toltec stone god, also described in his handwritten notes.

12. April 1890 ad in Exchangers' Monthly: "A Card" announcing the merger on April 1st 1890, p. xii

13. May 1890 ad in Exchangers' Monthly, p. iii, announcing trip beginning May 1; store left in charge of "competent assistants." June 1890 ad in Exchangers' Monthly, p. iii; progress report on trip. July 1890 ad in Exchangers' Monthly; another progress report.

14. August 1890 ad in Exchangers' Monthly, p. iii, describing topaz crystals to 2 inches

15. August 1891 ad in Mineralogists' Monthly, p. xii, describing "Mr. Niven's great find at Bisbee! Now on sale!"

16. March 1892 ad in Mineralogists' Monthly, p. viii: Hoseus Collection sale.

17. December 1892 ad in Mineralogists' Monthly, p. viii: removal sale, new headquarters at 64 East 12th.

18. February 1893 ad in Mineralogists' Monthly, p. viii, announcing buyout by George English.

19. August 1894 ad in Mineralogists' Monthly by English, p. viii, noting a shipment of Mexican minerals from Niven's typical localities, presumably sent by Niven.

20. May 1895 ad in The Mineral Collector, p. ix; Niven's first announcement of xenotime, sphene, monazite, etc. "recently found" on Manhattan Island.

21. The story of the big schorl is told in Niven's handwritten lecture notes (Roland Harrison files); the ad for Niven & Hopping in the January 1896 issue of The Mineral Collector, p. vi, states that the schorl specimen, still available at $250, was found by Niven in October 1895.

22. August 1895 ad in The Mineral Collector, p. vii.

23. January 1896 ad in The Mineral Collector, p. vi: the first ad for Niven & Hopping. It also announced "We are exclusive agents for the Paterson (New Jersey) quarry, which is yielding the best zeolites the world has ever seen."

24. October 1896 ad in The Mineral Collector, p. 129: "Roy Hopping, successor to Niven & Hopping"

25. Roy Degrasse Hopping was born in Union, New Jersey on June 18, 1872, the son of George Washington Hopping and Laura Degrasse. Roy had been interested in mineralogy from an early age, and had apparently studied the subject in college because he advertised in the November 1895 issue of The Mineral Collector to sell his Zentmeyer's student microscope (giving two addresses: Bloomfield, N.J. and 64 East 12th Street, the address of George L. English's shop in New York City). An ad in the January 1896 issue of The Mineral Collector indicates that the 23-year-old Hopping had been taken on by William Niven as a junior partner, operating as "Niven and Hopping" from rooms 504-506, on the fifth floor of the Liberty Building at 123 Liberty Street in New York City. Hopping probably had learned the business working as English's shop assistant, and may also have helped Niven run his shop during his long absences in Mexico and the Southwest.

Unfortunately, Hopping seems to have suffered from chronic health problems, for the following month (February 1896) their ad announces apologetically that "Owing to the prolonged illness of Mr. Hopping, announcements and bulletins have been delayed, but we hope to have them ready very soon. Meanwhile Mr. Niven is daily attending to the wants of customers...."

Hopping recovered, however, and having completed his apprenticeship under Niven, he took over the business in October of 1896, when his ads announced the company name as "Roy Hopping, successor to Niven & Hopping," at the same address. His ads continued through July 1897, then ceased until March 1898, when they resumed with Hopping at a new address, 5 & 7 Dey Street. Ads for this address continued until December 1899, when Hopping announced his relocation to 129 Fourth Avenue, near Union Square, in rooms 35 and 36 on the third floor of the recently constructed Hancock office building, where he enjoyed nearly twice the space he'd had at his Dey Street address. He published bulletins periodically, in Autumn 1899, February 1900 and September 1900. Judging by his detailed and enthusiastic full-page ads, he handled a large and varied worldwide stock, with fine minerals arriving regularly in shipments from his contacts throughout Europe and America. Hopping was a member of the New York Mineralogical Club, and published an educational booklet entitled The Practical Study of Common Minerals.

Hopping's last regular ad appeared in the December 1902 issue, and editor Arthur Chamberlain must have known of his worsening health problems because he published a portrait photograph of Hopping (reproduced here) as the frontispiece to that issue. An ad placed by Hopping's father in the April 1903 issue sadly announced the closing of the business: "My son, Mr. Roy Hopping, being in such poor health as to be totally incapacitated for business, I have taken charge of his business and will close it out as rapidly as possible."

Oddly enough, Hopping married Belle Hedden Jarolamon (born 1880) in New Jersey on April 3, 1903. It may well have been a deathbed marriage, and he may not have lived much longer, though his precise death date is unknown. He did continue to publish his own short-lived magazine (only two issues known), American Minerals, from his address at 1 Grove Place in East Orange, New Jersey in September 1903, and then from 3459 Walnut Street in October 1903. Roy Hopping is not recorded on the 1910 Federal Census, but Belle appears, under her maiden name, living alone in a boarding house in San Francisco, and working as a public school teacher.

Labels can be dated as follows: "Niven and Hopping," 1896; "Roy Hopping," 1896-1903.

Wendell E. Wilson

Mineralogical Record

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Author:Wilson, Wendell E.
Publication:The Mineralogical Record
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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