April 2005 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts



Panamint Annie--One of the Last Immortals of the West

by Cecile Page Vargo

          When she was born on June 22nd, 1912, in Washington D.C., her army surgeon father and Iroquois Indian mother dubbed her Mary Elizabeth White. At 12 years old, Mary missed the fateful airplane trip that killed her mother and sister because she was grounded for riding a motorcycle around the army base where the family lived. Her devilish behavior and disregard for what was considered acceptable behavior of the day, was beginning to set tone for her future. From her mother and sister’s death she learned that she was a survivor because she was “a stinker.” When she decided a few years later that she wanted to follow her fathers footsteps into the medical field and become a doctor, she was told that women were not allowed to be doctors, but she could pursue a career as a nurse instead. Not one to compromise, Mary Elizabeth White chose to do things her way or not at all. 

A Joshua tree grows near Panamint Annie's grave in the cemetery at Rhyolite, Nevada.

          Mary’s stubbornness and determination to do things her own way led her to an early marriage at 15 years old, and the birth of her first two children followed. The first child died in infancy, the second she left with her husband in Boston while she found a career driving bootleg liquor from Canada to Chicago. When she tired of that she moved west and found herself cooking for dudes at ranches in the states of Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. Tuberculosis, which she had contracted in her late teens, soon forced her to even drier country. Mary Elizabeth White moved to the lowest and driest part of the United States, where she would earn a whole new name and identity.

          Long soaks in the hot springs of Shoshone outside Death Valley, seemed to provide the cure for the tuberculosis that Mary struggled with in her youth. Once her health and beauty was restored, Mary took to the surrounding barren hills in search of the rich minerals they bore. The peace and beauty of the desert struck her as she prowled the hills, with hammer, pick and shovel from the wee hours of the morning until long after dark. The motto of the old prospectors “Listen and the mountains will talk to you.  They will tell you where gold is if you listen”, became hers as well. When the mountains revealed their hidden wealth, Mary learned to timber, blast and muck, as well as any man.  Her underground work was lit with candles she made herself instead of spending money on kerosene. Other prospectors began comparing her with the legendary woman prospector of the old days, who also came from back east, prospected, left a child behind, and was known as a rough gal. The Mary Elizabeth White originally from Washington D.C. was fast disappearing, and a new Panamint Annie, was born.

          In 1936, five years after a 21-year old Mary Elizabeth White showed up at the Shoshone Hot Springs, she felt her tuberculosis was cured, and she returned to Colorado to marry a cowboy named Bryant. Unfortunately, Bryant died when she was seven months pregnant with their daughter. She came back to her beloved desert and Doris was born in the year of 1938. Doris spent the school sessions with her father’s sister in San Bernardino, but she never forgot the life she lived with Panamint Annie in the back of a 1929 Model A truck. Taking her cue from the original old prospectors who used wagons as living quarters, Annie outfitted the flatbed of the truck with beds and tent and other living necessities. Over the years other women prospectors would follow her tradition. As a young Doris and her mother, Annie, roamed the higher elevations of the Panamint Mountains to work on various mining claims, they tried to keep the hot water bottle used to warm their beds from freezing on the colder winter nights, and survived on snake or rabbit stew. If pickings were lean, Annie would go to bed without eating herself, but she never felt hungry enough to sell her favorite treasure, a vial of the first gold she had mined.

          Panamint Annie and Doris often teamed up with other prospectors. There were 12 to 14 women prospectors that worked the hills primarily with their husbands, but Annie as an only woman, joined a prospector “family” of eight to 10 prospectors and no romantic intentions. They camped in the mountains, sending in to town every two to four weeks for supplies, if there was money amongst the lot of them to do so. The prospector family lived an isolated life, depending on radio to keep them abreast of world events such as the second World War. Cooking chores were shared by everyone, over a communal campfire.  Annie was particularly noted for her cinnamon rolls and the potato chips she fried up after a traveling salesmen talked the family into a 50 pound sack of potatoes. As men “hated to wash”, she served as laundress, which earned her extra food and water in return for her services. She was also nurse and doctor to those who needed it, healing deep cuts, mending broken bones, and helping women birth babies. The primary family business of prospecting was done by everyone individually, not as a whole, but as  lucky strikes were made, one would “come in dancing” & celebrating.  Claims were not discussed with outsiders no matter where the family was or how drunk they got. So far away from any real form of law, the family members were careful to “watch each other’s back” for claim jumpers.

          Eight uncles with names such as "Old Man Black" and "One-Eyed Jack", doted over Doris during their time with the prospecting family. Even though Annie herself was noted for “language that would blister the ears of a drill sergeant” she and the eight uncles kept their mouths clean in the presence of her daughter. The uncles did all they could to insure that Doris also learned to keep her body clean as well as her language, and would go without coffee to ensure the young girl had water for her nightly sponge bath.

          Doris learned many lessons from her prospector mother over the years. Panamint Annie’s golden rule for desert survival was drilled into her daughter’s head over and over again, “Anything that looks like a rope coiled, stay away. Never put your hand on a rock without looking.  So many people get disoriented. Fix your stationary block wherever you’re going. Whether it’s this mountain or this rock, always remember that if you pass it more than twice you’re going the wrong way. Never leave a vehicle, because the distance is so vast that you can’t comprehend it.” When Doris proclaimed she hated the desert, Annie told her “When you’re in a city, everyone does things for you. You got people taking care of running water, electricity, picking up trash for you. When you’re out on your own by yourself, there’s no one to do it for you. You have to learn to do it yourself”. When she went to pick wildflowers, Annie pronounced them “God’s decoration for the desert.” and told her to only take two or three instead of an entire handful so others could enjoy as well. 

          In the course of her years, Panamint Annie gave birth to eight children. Only four survived. She had a variety of husbands and live-ins who daughter Doris said “would live, sleep and die mining.” and “Some of them treated her nice. Some of them didn’t.” Annie took the attitude “I do whatever I want to do when the mood is on me.” and didn’t let the men in her lives get in the way. Her babies would be strapped on her back and taken into the mines with her or left in her oldest daughter’s care. As they each reached school age she would send them to family in Southern California where they could get an education. At age 37, Annie gave birth to her youngest child, Bill. When Bill was ready for school she settled the family into a shack near Beatty, Nevada, as there was no family to send them to at this time. She made up for what her prospecting didn’t bring in by money by selling homemade jellies, crocheted hats, and jewelry of her own design. She was noted as an excellent mechanic, and often took on car repair jobs, as well. Her prospecting was now done on a gold mine she owned with a woman partner, Mrs. Frederica Hessler, the heiress of Rhyolite which had already become ghost town by this time.

          When fortune came Annie’s way and her prospects brought her large amounts of money, she was known to blow it as fast as she made it.  After her children were taken care of, she would pay her debts, then put money towards the next prospecting venture, buy a few necessities such as tires for her truck.  What was left went into shoes and food for Indian friends that she looked after. When she turned 45, some of the money went towards drinking. She would go on three day binges that were well known in and around Death Valley. One drive to Las Vegas for medical attention for a broken back, took her three days because she had drug herself into every bar along the way.  A trip to town for supplies turned into a drinking spree with the men.  As she came back in to reality following her binge, she found she could no longer remember where she had found the gold that she had come in to town to spend. “I know it’s up there,” she would say. “I’ll find it. You wait.” She never did find it, but had she done so she would have gambled it away in a game of blackjack or keno.

          Panamint Annie was known as fiercely honest and independent. If she didn’t like someone she just didn’t talk about them, it was as if they didn’t exist to her. For the most part she lived her life with the attitude “Tomorrow will take care of itself.” Even long after she was gone people remembered “She wasn’t afraid to tell you, no matter how bad it hurt.”  If she had an opinion on something she wasn’t afraid to voice it.  She even was known to telephone the governor of Nevada with her advice when she saw fit.  She believed in equality for women, and strongly felt that a woman could do any job a man did, the only difference being in the strength they had to carry a heavy load, and she believed that women should be paid the same for the same job men did. She firmly believed that women should be independent and equal in all ways.  Her attitude even on sexual behavior, and her own choice to have many lovers “It’s no big deal. Men do it all the time.” Her thinking and attitudes were way ahead of her time in many ways.  

Panamint Annie's headstone in the Rhyolite Cemetery reads "Mary Elizabeth Madison known as 'Pannimint Annie' 1910-1979."    

           Once in the last years of her life, Annie appeared dirty, unkempt, strangely  clothed, and ready to mouth off her opinions to anyone whether they wanted them or not, and was known as a woman who would “bum around with anyone who had the price of a bottle and didn’t much care what was in it.” The middle-class female tourist who saw her warmed to her, anyway. Annie’s captivating personality seemed to win people over in spite of everything else. One admirer even declared Panamint Annie as one of the last immortals of the West, along with John Wayne. Arthritis and cancer took over Annie’s body in the very end. Until it completely overtook her, she would still talk of heading into the mountains and striking rich and dreamed of exploring new places unknown to man. Her grave in the Rhyolite Cemetery reads "Mary Elizabeth Madison known as 'Pannimint Annie' 1910-1979."   


A Mine of her Own: Women Prospectors in American West, 1850-1950

by Sally Zanjani

University of Nebraska Press


Panamint Annie

by Claudia Reidhead



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