Tabasco bottle provides clues to black experience on Comstock
A 130-year-old Tabasco bottle, recovered during the Boston Saloon archaeological dig in Virginia City two years ago, is providing vital clues to the black experience here.
The Boston Saloon was owned by African-American William Brown, who first worked as a bootblack or street shoe-shiner in Virginia City around 1861. Originally from Massachusetts, he established the Boston Saloon on North B Street about that time, but later moved it to a more prestigious part of the downtown district at D and Union Streets.
Catering primarily to a black clientele, the saloon operated at that location from 1864 until it burned in the great fire of 1875. The peppery sauce was first produced in Avery Island, Louisiana in 1868, but officials at Tabasco said it wasn’t distributed in the West at that time.
Found in the heart of the Comstock Mining District, the bottle is known as a type 1a, one the first of its kind ever produced by the company.
“This was an exotic product and Comstock African Americans were apparently the ones breaking this new ground,” said Kelly Dixon, administrator of the Comstock Archaeology Center.
State Historic Preservation Officer Ron James said this is not simply an example of a condiment moving West.
“Having this innovative product associated with an African American business dramatically underscores the fact that diversity played an important role in building Virginia City into an internationally famous mining district,” he said. “The discovery of this bottle is a perfect example of the importance of the Comstock Mining District and shows how historical archaeology can be a powerful tool in reconstructing the past.”
He said the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., has expressed an interest in the exhibit. Officials are applying for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, in the hopes that this bottle can be exhibited across the nation.
“We don’t know that much about the African American experience and this is proving to be a good site,” James said. “We want to celebrate that. This is one of many stories and we will be talking about many more important discoveries in the future.”
The bottle was reconstructed from 21 fragments, part of the 30,000 shards of glass and pottery, rusted metal and charred bone found during the dig.
Volunteer Dan Urriola of Reno reassembled the broken fragments of glass and pottery from the saloon. He previously reassembled an extensive collection of artifacts from two other Virginia City saloon excavations. His work is now on display at the Silver Legacy Resort Casino in Reno.
Significant discoveries often come after a dig and James emphasized the importance of the work going on long after the site was closed.
“Everyone thinks discovery is a process in the dirt, but a lot goes on in the lab,” he said. “One hour of field work will mean five man-hours of lab work and we don’t get many volunteers for the lab. Most want to work on the dig.”
Extensive lab work has begun to unfold the story of the saloon, but much more work remains and James promised more disclosures in coming months.
The land, owned by the McBride family, is the back parking lot of the Bucket of Blood Saloon on C Street in Virginia City. The site was repaved after the excavation.