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William Niven
(1850-1937)

William Niven, mineralogist and archeologist, was born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, Scotland, on October 6, 1850, the son of William and Sarah (Brown) Niven. He came to America in 1879 and worked as a mineralogist. He also served as an assistant commissioner to the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial at New Orleans in 1884-85 and was responsible for arranging an exhibition of minerals from Arizona territory. He then worked in New York City for the Jasperized Wood and Mineral Company. By 1886 Niven had established his own mineral business; his ads in The Exchangers' Monthly proclaimed him a dealer in fine mineral specimens and lapidary objets d'art (including his specialty, Japanese crystal balls). On January 26, 1886, he married Nellie Blanche (or Blanch) Purcell of St. Louis, Missouri. They had nine children.

In 1889 Niven undertook an expedition for Thomas Edison to acquire the rare-earth mineral gadolinite (used as a filament in the Nernst street lamp) at the Barringer Hill deposit in Llano County, Texas. There he discovered three new minerals, yttrialite, thorogummite, and one that was named in his honor as nivenite (unfortunately later discredited as a variety of uraninite). In 1895 Niven arranged the purchase of the Barringer Hill deposit from John B. Barringer, on behalf of the Piedmont Mineral Company of London, England. The mine was later acquired by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, which abandoned it in 1906.

From 1890 to 1892 Niven worked in partnership with mineral dealer George L. English, primarily as English's field agent. In the early 1890's Niven's attention turned to the mineralogical exploration of Mexico, and he sent many fine specimens back to English for sale. In 1891 he discovered the new silver mineral aguilarite at Guanajuato. He also promoted the commercial exploitation of pink garnets from Morelos. On a prospecting tour for the American Museum of Natural History in 1894 he made an archeological discovery: prehistoric ruins (later named Omitlán) northwest of Chilpancingo in the state of Guerrero. Returning to New York in 1895, he discovered new localities for xenotime, monazite and other rare minerals on Manhattan Island and at West Paterson, New Jersey. In May of 1895 he announced his relocation to new quarters at 853 Broadway. He then took on the young Roy Hopping as his protege for a year (doing business as "Niven & Hopping"); but Niven was happiest in the field rather than minding a shop, and at the end of 1896 he turned the business over to Hopping

Niven turned increasingly to Mexican archeology in his later years, and discovered the celebrated Placeres del Oro sepulcher in 1910. 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.

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.

References:
NIVEN, w. (1930) My mineral discoveries since 1879. Rocks & Minerals, 5 (3), 73-76.
WICKS, R. S. (2005)Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "NIVEN, WILLIAM," www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online.
OATMAN, W. (1970) Llano, Gem of the Hill Country: A History of Llano County. Hereford, Texas: Pioneer.
WICKS, R. S., and HARRISON, R. H. (1999) Buried Cities, Forgotten Gods: William Niven's Life of Discovery and Revolution in Mexico and the American Southwest. Texas Tech University Press.
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[Citation format for this entry:
WILSON, Wendell E. (2014)
Mineralogical Record
Biographical Archive, at www.mineralogicalrecord.com.]
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The Mineralogical Record - William Niven William Niven
The Mineralogical Record - William Niven 46 x 80 mm
The Mineralogical Record - William Niven 46 x 81 mm,
Wm. Niven label for a specimen of fergusonite which he collected at Barriger Hill, Llano County, Texas.
The Mineralogical Record - William Niven 46 x 81 mm,
Wm. Niven label for a specimen of tengerite which he collected at Barriger Hill, Llano County, Texas.
The Mineralogical Record - William Niven 46 x 81 mm,
Wm. Niven label for a specimen of yttrialite which he collected at Barriger Hill, Llano County, Texas.
The Mineralogical Record - William Niven 54 x 72 mm,
A handwritten Niven label for a specimen of xenotime which he collected in New York City.
The Mineralogical Record - William Niven 30 x 69 mm,
A Niven & Hopping label, 1896.
The Mineralogical Record - William Niven 31 x 69 mm,
A Niven & Hopping label, 1896.
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