Ronald M. James Papers

Identifier: 2010-10

Scope and Contents

The Ronald M. James Papers consist of research materials for five of James' book publications that deal with the history of the Comstock Lode, the architectural heritage of Nevada’s landscape, and research on the Cornish. Also included are materials reflecting his work as an academic instructor, correspondence about his writings and talks he gave, and certificates he was awarded. This collection does not include materials that deal with his study or publications on folklore.

The papers are arranged in seven series: Series 1: Comstock Women Book Research; Series 2: Roar in the Silence Book Research; Series 3: Buildings of Nevada Book Research; Series 4: Castle in the Sky Book Research; Series 5: Nevada’s Historic Buildings: A Cultural Legacy Book Research; Series 6: Cornish Census Research; and Series 7: Professional Materials.

The first five series deal with research materials and topics found within James’ books. Copies of the books can be found in Special Collections. Series 1: Comstock Women Book Research, are research materials collected for his book Comstock Women: The Making of a Mining Community, edited by James and C. Elizabeth Raymond and published by the University of Nevada Press in 1998. Series 2: Roar in the Silence Book Research, is his research for his book The Roar and the Silence: A History of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode (University of Nevada Press, 1998). Many consider this book to be the best general contemporary history on Virginia City and the Comstock Lode written. Series 3: Buildings of Nevada Book Research, by Julie Nicoletta, published by Oxford University Press (2000), draws heavily upon James’ extensive knowledge of Nevada’s built environment gained during his tenure with the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office. Series 4: Castle in the Sky Book Research, covers much of the life with an emphasis on the home of millionaire George Whittell, Jr. who lived at Lake Tahoe. The book, entitled Castle in the Sky: George Whittell, Jr. and the Thunderbird Lodge, was researched and co-written with his wife, Susan James, and published by the Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society. Two editions of the book were published due to its popularity, the first in 2002 was in hardcover and the second edition in paperback in 2005. Series 5: Nevada’s Historic Buildings Book Research, co-written with Elizabeth Safford Harvey (University of Nevada Press, 2009), fills in much of the social and cultural history about the state’s buildings not included in Buildings of Nevada.

The final two series contains materials from James’ other interests and professional work. Series 6: Cornish Census Research, contains primary research about the Cornish that came to Nevada to work in the miners as well as their origins. James published papers about his findings, are included here. Series 7: Professional Materials, includes additional correspondence with publishers, information concerning his talks to groups from 1993 to 2002, as well as certificates he received. James also served on a Yale University committee in 1993 for Rachel Hartigan’s undergraduate thesis entitled “Looking for a Friend among Strangers: Virginia City’s Religious Institutions as Purveyors of Community.” A copy of her thesis is included.


  • 1992-2019


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Materials must be used on-site; advance notice suggested. Access to parts of this collection may be restricted under provisions of state or federal law.

Biographical Note

Ronald M. James is a folklorist, historian and former administrator of the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office. Born in Reno, Nevada in 1955, he attended local schools and eventually becoming a semi-professional musician, playing both trumpet and bagpipe. He received dual degrees in anthropology and history from the University of Nevada, Reno in 1978, while pursuing minors in psychology and English, and studying linguistics under Robert E. Diamond (1920-2005), who was an expert in North Sea languages. In 1976, James began independent studies under noted folklorist Sven Liljeblad (1899-2000), who had worked with Swedish ethnologist and pioneering folklorist Carl Wilhelm von Sydow, becoming Liljeblad’s last and his only student for the following five years. James received an advanced degree in medieval history with an emphasis in folklore from the same institution in 1981. He subsequently studied at the Irish Department of Folklore at University College Dublin, and he pursued additional graduate studies in anthropology and in western history at the University of Nevada, Reno.

James secured a fellowship from the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation to study under Bo Almquist (1931-2013) at the Department of Irish Folklore at University College Dublin, 1981-1982. Almquist was the student of the Swedish folklorist Dag Stömbäck. James’ topic in Ireland was an analysis of Aarne-Thompson Tale Type 306, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” but finding that the Irish variants of the tale type were late importations from the Grimms collection, he proceeded with an analysis of that and several other tale types represented in the Irish collection that were the result either of literary diffusion or plagiarism. James also conducted folklore collecting in Cornwall, gathering material that would influence his work for decades.

Returning from Ireland, James resumed teaching at the University of Nevada, Reno, having begun his career at the lectern in 1979. His classes have included European history, mythology and folklore, and various classes on historic preservation. In 1997, he began a role as adjunct faculty with the Historic Preservation Program in affiliation with the Anthropology Department.

In 1983, he assumed the role of administrator of the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office, serving in that capacity for five governors, from 1983 to 2012. In 2004, James was appointed to the National Historic Landmarks Committee. In 2006, he was appointed as a panelist for the White House Initiative for Preserve America Summit, and the following year, he won an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History for curating the exhibit “Havens in a Heartless World: Archaeology of the Virginia City Saloon.” In 2009, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar appointed James to the Advisory Board for the National Park System, and by virtue of that appointment, James became the chairman of the National Historic Landmarks Committee. His tenure lasted until 2013. In 2010, Salazar appointed James to the congressionally-mandated Presidential Advisory Committee on the Cold War Theme Study.

In 2013, after retiring from the state, James organized the Comstock Foundation for History and Culture to assist with the preservation of the Virginia City National Historic Landmark. He retired from the position of Executive Director of that non-profit organization in 2015. Since its organization, the Comstock Foundation has assisted with the restoration and funding of a dozen structures.

James is the author, co-author, editor, and co-editor of thirteen books (as of 2014), and he has authored dozens of articles in popular and academic journals, appearing in six countries. He also wrote over one hundred articles for the Online Nevada Encyclopedia for which he served as a section editor and then as a chief editor. In 2014, he was inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. In 2015, the Mining History Association awarded James the Rodman Paul Award for Outstanding Contributions to Mining History.

James’s first publication was an analysis of two legends in the first-century Roman source, the Satyricon; the article appeared in 1979 in the prestigious Arv, the Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore. What followed were dozens of academic articles and many more popular pieces appearing in six countries and employing seven languages. Topics have ranged from European and western United States history, European and American folklore, archaeology, architectural history, and demography.

The Roar and the Silence: A History of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode (1998, winner of the Wilbur S. Shepperson Humanities Book Award) is regarded as James’s principal early work, although he previously published an architectural history of Nevada courthouses (1994) and a collection of articles, edited with Elizabeth Raymond, named Comstock Women: The Making of a Mining Community (1998). He also wrote three books with Susan James, his wife (married in 1984), called Castle in the Sky: George Whittell, Jr. and the Thunderbird Lodge (2002; 2nd edition 2005), Virginia City and the Big Bonanza, with Arcadia Publishing in 2009, and A Short History of Virginia City (2014). Nevada’s Historic Buildings: A Cultural Legacy, a comprehensive overview of Nevada architectural history appeared with the co-authorship of Elizabeth Safford Harvey appeared in 2009.

James wrote a synthesis of twenty years of archaeology in the Virginia City Landmark District conducted with Professor Donald Hardesty, a respected historical archaeologist with the University of Nevada, Reno. Titled Virginia City and the Meaning of the West, (University of Nebraska Press, 2012) the book was part of a Society of Historical Archaeological series. In addition, James edited, with the assistance of Robert Stewart, the important Grosh letters, documents that chronicle the adventures of two Pennsylvania brothers who came to California in 1849. In 1853, Ethan Allen and Hosea Balleu Grosh eventually discovered silver in what would be the Comstock Mining District, before the better-known strikes of 1859. The subsequent book, The Gold Rush Letters of E. Allen Grosh and Hosea B. Grosh (2012) won an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History and an Award of Special Recognition from the Clark C. Spence Award Committee, both in 2013.

Through 2013, James’s involvement with folklore has been principally through academic journals, although the subject is woven throughout his books. He is the author of “Knockers, Knackers, and Ghosts: Immigrant Folklore in the Western Mines,” Western Folklore Quarterly 51:2 (April 1992), a monograph on Cornish underground spirits and the transference of the motif to the American West. An earlier work, “A Year in Ireland: Reflections on a Methodological Crises,” Sinsear (Irish Journal of Folklore; January 1983) deals with several tale types that appear in the Irish Tale Type Index. In addition, a series of articles on Cornish folklore have appeared in Cornish Studies, (Exeter, UK: University of Exeter) dealing with ways to understand pre-modern oral tradition in Cornwall. James is currently preparing a book manuscript on Cornish folklore, which is anticipated to be complete in 2015.

In 2014, James e-published two books dealing with European folklore. The first, Trolls: From Scandinavia to Dam Dolls, Tolkien, and Harry Potter, is an adaptation of the 1936 dissertation (Die Trollvorstellungen in den Sagen und Märchen der Skandinavischen Völker) of Elisabeth Hofelich-Hartmann (1913-2004), written under the guidance of Carl Wilhelm von Sydow and Sven Liljeblad. James translated Hartmann’s dissertation under Liljeblad’s direction in the 1980s. Because the original dissertation was nearly eighty years old and had been written within the strict academic guidelines of the time, much of the text required adaptation and augmentation for a new century. James subsequently engaged in a five-year epistolary relationship with Hartmann until her passing. Hartmann reviewed much of the text and provided additional guidance.

James also published an Introduction to Folklore, which draws on Sven Liljeblad’s manual of the same title. Liljeblad had distributed photocopies of his work to students beginning in 1966. His text needed some translating from his unique form of English, and it required additional explanations for a twenty-first century audience that was not familiar with many things Liljeblad understood to be part of basic cultural literacy. James further augmented the text for his students, adding considerable additional material. Both the volumes, Trolls and Introduction to Folklore, were released in part as a homage to Hartmann and Liljeblad, respectively. The two works are also intended to serve as a foundation for additional studies and publications intended to revitalize the Swedish oicotype method, with modifications to make it relevant to a new century.


7 Linear Feet (8 boxes)

Language of Materials



Ronald M. James is an historian, folklorist, and former head of the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office (1983-2012). He authored or edited over a dozen books and numerous articles on Nevada's architectural heritage, history of Virginia City and its residents during the Comstock Lode, and in various areas of European and American folklore. James served at the national level as chairman of the National Historic Landmarks Committee (2004-2013). He was inducted into the Nevada Hall of Fame in 2014. The collection contains research materials for five of James' books which deal with the history of Nevada's Comstock Lode and its residents; Nevada's architectural history; George Whittell's Thunderbird Lodge, located on Lake Tahoe; research on the Cornish in Nevada; and other professional materials.


Arranged into the following series: 1) Comstock Women Book Research; 2) Roar in the Silence Book Research; 3) Buildings of Nevada Book Research; 4) Castle in the Sky Book Research; 5) Nevada’s Historic Buildings Book Research; 6) Cornish Census Research; 7) Professional Materials

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Ronald M. James Papers were donated by James in 2010 and 2011. Additional materials receive in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

Guide to the Papers of Ronald M. James
Jacque Sundstrand
July 2015
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the University of Nevada, Reno. Special Collections Department Repository

Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center
1664 N. Virginia St.
Reno Nevada 89557-0322 USA
775-682-5724 (Fax)