William Niven, mineralogist and archeologist, son of William and Sarah (Brown) Niven, was born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, Scotland, on October 6, 1850. He came to the United States in 1879 and worked as a mineralogist. He was an assistant commissioner to the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial at New Orleans in 1884–85 and arranged an exhibition of minerals from the Arizona territory. He worked in New York City with the Jasperized Wood and Mineral Company and by 1886 had established his own mineral-specimen business. On January 26, 1886, he married Nellie Blanche (or Blanch) Purcell of St. Louis, Missouri. They had nine children. In 1889, while on an expedition for Thomas Edison to acquire the rare-earth mineral gadolinite (used as a filament in the Nernst street lamp) from Barringer Hill in Llano County, Texas, he discovered three new minerals, yttrialite, thorogummite, and nivenite, the last a variety of uraninite. Niven had exclusive right to the sale of minerals from Llano County and in 1895 purchased Barringer Hill from John B. Barringer, for the Piedmont Mineral Company of London, England. The mine subsequently came under the management of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, which abandoned it in 1906.
In the early 1890s Niven's attention turned to the mineralogical exploration of Mexico. In 1891 he discovered the new mineral aguilarite at Guanajuato. He also promoted the development of gold reserves in the state of Guerrero, the navigation of the Balsas River, and the commercial exploitation of rose garnets from Morelos. In 1895 and 1896 he found new localities for xenotime, monazite, and other rare minerals on Manhattan Island and at West Paterson, New Jersey. On a prospecting tour for the American Museum of Natural History in 1894 he discovered prehistoric ruins (later named Omitlán) northwest of Chilpancingo in the state of Guerrero. He found the celebrated Placeres del Oro sepulcher in 1910. His Guerrero collections are now in the American Museum of Natural History, the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, and elsewhere. In 1911 Niven discovered ancient ruins buried beneath volcanic ash near Azcapotzalco in the Federal District, just north of Mexico City. He devoted the next two decades of his life to archeological exploration in the Valley of Mexico and through an arrangement with the Mexican government was able to fund his digging by the sale of artifacts. Niven established a private museum in Mexico City with more than 20,000 exhibits. It was later moved to Tampico.
He recovered the first in a series of unusual stone tablets bearing pictographs from his digs at San Miguel Amantla, Azcapotzalco, and elsewhere in the Valley of Mexico in 1921. This discovery eventually totaled more than 2,600 tablets and acquired notoriety through the occultist writings of James Churchward, beginning with The Lost Continent of Mu, first published in 1926. Niven was a founding member of the New York Mineralogical Club, an honorary life member of the American Museum of Natural History, a member of the Scientific Society Antonio Alzate in Mexico, and a fellow in the American Geographic Society of New York and the Royal Society of Arts in London. In 1929 he moved to Houston, where he donated a large number of Mexican artifacts to the new Houston Museum and Scientific Society and served on its board of trustees. In 1931 he moved to Austin. He died there on June 2, 1937, and was buried in Mount Calvary cemetery.