Mary McNair Mathews' memoir, Ten Years in Nevada or Life on the Pacific Coast, established her as an early chronicler of life in Virginia City, Nevada. Mathews was born in western New York in 1834 and attended Oberlin College in Ohio. Widowed by the time she learned of her younger brother's death in Virginia City in 1869, Mathews sold her hoop skirt business, packed up her young son Charlie, and headed west to investigate the circumstances of her brother's death and the status of his estate. She remained on the Comstock for almost nine years, working various jobs to support herself and her son.
Mathews owned and operated a lodging house, ran a school from her home, nursed the sick, took in laundry and sewing, wrote letters for pay, and babysat. She was active in local temperance activities, and, with her friend Rachel Beck, operated a soup kitchen during economic hard times in 1877. While Mathews was often kind, generous, and caring to those in need, she also exhibited many of the prejudices of her time. She distrusted Jewish shopkeepers and disliked the Chinese, Native Americans, attorneys, and railroad conductors she encountered in the West.
Mary McNair Mathews left Nevada in 1878 and returned to New York where she published Ten Years in Nevada or Life on the Pacific Coast in 1880. She then went west again to reunite with her son and died in Ukiah, California, in 1903.