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Tucson Weekly The Wanderer

Fortune-Seeker William Niven Grew Rich In Tales Of Adventure.

By Randall Holdridge

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  Buried Cities, Forgotten Gods: William Niven's Life of Discovery and Revolution in Mexico and the American Southwest, by Robert S. Wicks and Roland H. Harrison (Texas Tech University Press). Cloth, $39.95.

WILLIAM NIVEN'S LONG life as a prospector, mineralogist, businessman, adventurer, explorer, amateur archaeologist and raconteur was both curious and admirable, and it is admirably told by his grandson, Roland H. Harrison, and art historian Robert S. Wicks. The volume includes many of Niven's fascinating photographs of early 20th-century Mexico.

At age 28, William Niven emigrated to the U.S. to seek his fortune, a goal which, despite his hard work and imaginative speculations, eluded him. A reader might conclude that the "canny Scotsman" was not as canny as the less scrupulous politicians, businessmen and academics whose trails crossed his. Yet, 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.

Following his arrival in Providence in 1879, Niven's earliest American failures came as a traveling salesman. In a succession of jobs, he worked his way west to Denver, where he fell victim to mining fever. For two years he toughed it out as a prospector in New Mexico until he landed an indoor job at an 1893 mining exhibition in Santa Fe setting up a display of his collected regional oddities. Soon he was back in the field, and he invested part of the profit from the sale of a good claim he had found east of Tucson to buy one-half interest in the Benson House hotel. With the balance he purchased a nine-ton carload of ore samples from mines in Tombstone and Bisbee -- along with specimens of cacti, pickled gila monsters and petrified wood -- which he took for display in the 1884-85 World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial in New Orleans.

This success led him back East, where he opened a shop on Broadway in New York City, selling "minerals, cut gems, fossils, Indian relics, Japanese bronzes, curios, Brazilian butterflies, birds' nest, and Arizona petrified wood, price 10 cents." He made contacts with the American Museum of Natural History and Tiffany and Co., and as a founder of the New York Mineralogy Club. During subway excavations in New York City, Niven discovered unusual minerals; the resulting publicity helped him secure a commission from the Thomas Edison Company. The post brought him to Texas to search for the rare earth minerals used to make light bulb filaments. He succeeded almost by chance, and in consequence, Tiffany's chief gemologist dispatched him to investigate a new type of garnet quartz reported in Mexico.

Niven found the quartz, but it proved a technical and commercial failure. However, in the process he found promise of rich gold and silver prospects in then little-explored Guerrero state. Pulling together a group of New York investors, he was at last close to striking it rich as an American mining concessionaire in the heady final years of the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship. Unfortunately, in the midst of a good deal of sharp-dealing by his associates, primitive means of transportation and the Mexican Revolution foiled his plans, despite his daring efforts to open the turbulent Rio Balsas to navigation.

His trials and adventures during this 20-year period are the best part of Buried Cities, Forgotten Gods -- the real-life stuff of action-adventure movies. Niven kept record of these days in dutiful, matter-of-fact letters to his wife and growing family. For instance, after an infected insect bite had been gradually rotting one of his fingers for weeks, he at last emerged from the jungle: "...Dr. Fichner, a leading physician in Mexico City, looked at the finger, as big as a sausage, smelled it, and broke off the offending portion."

Following the failure of the Rio del Oro Exploration Co., and nearing 65, Niven sought to capitalize on the sale of Mexican antiquities gathered during 25 years of his backcountry travel. Wherever he had gone, Indian guides had shown him the ruins of "lost cities," and even if nothing else was going his way, Niven's passion for digging in the dirt remained constant. His curio shop in Mexico City became a visiting point for collectors, archaeologists, diplomats and American journalists, such as Katherine Anne Porter, who called him "a charming old pot hunter."

Modestly excavating neglected sites in the Valley of Mexico for fun and profit, Niven unearthed relics now housed in major museums worldwide. He contributed materially to the early controversies and discoveries surrounding pre-Columbian cultures. However, the validity of Niven's work as an archaeologist has never been settled. Amid charges of charlatanism, his artifacts and their interpretation became embroiled in scholarly arguments and the politics of Mexican intellectual nationalism. His "great work" on his own theories and research never found a publisher. Desperate for recognition in his advancing years, he was vilely used by James Churchward, author of the 1926 occult classic, The Lost Continent of Mu.

As a colorful American expatriate in Mexico City during the Harding administration, Niven became guilelessly involved in mounting tensions between Mexico and the United States. Along with declining health, this involvement caused him finally to abandon his huge archaeological collection, buried for safekeeping in wooden crates near the docks in Tampico. Having enjoyed in his last few years the nostalgic notoriety accorded to garrulous "old-timers," William Niven died in Austin at age 87, surrounded by loving family.


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