Rock Hunting: Vanadinite Mineral Mystery

Collecting minerals is one way of connecting to a time long past. Minerals belong to geologic time. Deep time. Time measured not in years, but in millions of years. Every now and then, however, a specimen allows us to connect to our own more recent history, to a time when humans were around. Sometimes it even happens in the most unexpected fashion. As a mineral collector, I probably spend a little too much time with my eyes turned toward the ground. I can’t help it. My eyes are drawn to wherever I see exposed sediment, gravel or rocks. What is it made of? What minerals are there? Is there anything worth collecting? Usually the answer is an obvious no, but sometimes it pays off, and that’s exactly how it happened with one of my favorite minerals finds while walking through a farm field in New Jersey.

vanadinite mineral likely from Arizona but found in New Jersey

New Jersey is not particularly known for amazing farm field minerals and yet I was walking along with my usual passive-ground-scanning fashion when something twinkled at me. Winked, I might say. I took several more steps before the flash seeped into to my consciousness. Anyone watching would have thought me crazy because I suddenly stopped and began to walk backwards into the same footprints I just left. It’s always easier to find a small object if you backtrack like that. And there it was a small piece of vanadinite half covered in soil with bright orange-red crystals turned up by the plow.

vanadinite mineral likely from Arizona but found in New Jersey

Vanadinite? It even appeared to be the same mineral habit as vanadinite I was familiar with from Arizona. How did it get into a farm field in New Jersey a half mile from the nearest home? I don’t think for a moment that someone was admiring their mineral collection in the middle of a plowed field, but without any proof there is only conjecture. The nearest source of vanadinite is probably the Wheatley Mine in Phoenixville, PA. Wheatley operated in the late 1800’s and might be the closest geographical location, but that hardly explains how it got there. Plus the piece looks like Arizona vanadinite. It remains a mystery.

Native Americans traded mineral materials far and wide and the more we learn about this, the more astonishing and vast their trading networks appear. Typically, this meant carrying valuable utilitarian materials like quartz and jasper to be worked into tools, but ancient peoples are not too far removed from people today. Sometimes something is kept because it is pretty. I prefer to think that someone in another age thought enough of these crystals to carry them in a medicine bag to New Jersey. Perhaps it was series of different someones over a long time. In the end, I don’t know who it was, but I do know it was someone. The vanadinite crystals did not get there without some help.

Scott Stepanski is a mineral collector and co-author of Gem Trails of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He also produces the world’s largest selection of mineral and fossil rubber stamps at

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