By Thomas Mitchell
To mark Nevada’s 150 years of statehood, the Sesquicentennial Commission has created “a year-long series of festivities and educational events which will highlight our state’s rich cultural heritage …”
Yes, Nevada was Battle Born in the waning days of the bloody Civil War — Oct. 31, 1864. It played a significant role in an important period, helping determine that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
But we have little concept today of what daily life was like for those hardy Nevadans 150 years ago. Luckily we can still get glimpses of the hardscrabble lives of those first Nevadans from their letters and memoirs and newspaper dispatches written in a tone so foreign to our 21st century ear.
Take, for instance, J. Ross Browne’s description of a Washoe Zephyr in 1864:
“It happened thus one night. The wind was blowing in terrific gusts. In the midst of the general clatter on the subject of croppings, bargains, and indications, down came our next neighbor’s house on the top of us with a terrific crash. For a moment it was difficult to tell which house was the ruin. Amid projecting and shivered planks, the flapping of canvas, and the howling of the wind, it really seemed as if chaos had come again.”
There were dangers other than nature as well. This dispatch from Carson City in 1863 about an attack on an Overland Mail Coach near Schell Creek Station in White Pine County sounds like a script for a Western movie:
“On Saturday night last, the Overland Mail Company’s stage was attacked by Indians between Schell Creek and Deep Creek, about two hundred miles beyond Reese river. The driver was instantly killed and one passenger dangerously wounded in the head. Judge G.N. Mott, of Nevada Territory, was a passenger in the stage upon which the attack was made, and when the driver fell he took the reins, and by running the horses escaped and arrived safely at Schell Creek Station.”
And when lives and limbs were not at jeopardy, livelihoods were. The Reese River Reveille in Austin in 1864 complained mightily about how the miners were treated by the trustees in far off San Francisco:
“The great complaint at San Francisco relative to Reese River mines, is that although they are rich, yet our people are too shiftless to prospect them. The truth is they are not more thoroughly prospected for the reason that San Francisco vampires, high paid Secretaries and other officials absorb all the assessments levied to develop them. In claims incorporated in California the Trustees provide handsome salaries for the officers, collect assessments at the rate of fifty cents to $5 per foot, keeping such of the owners as reside here too poor to pay these heavy drains …”
Like today, in 1864 no man’s life, liberty, or property were safe while the legislature was in session, as Samuel Clemens, who by then had adopted the nom de pen of Mark Twain, did frequently attest in his dispatches in February of 1964 for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City. Here is one example:
“While I was absent a moment, yesterday, on important business, taking a drink, the House, with its accustomed engaging unanimity, knocked one of my pet bills higher than a kite, without a dissenting voice. I convened the members in extra session last night, and deluged them with blasphemy, after which I entered into a solemn compact with them, whereby, in consideration of their re-instating my bill, I was to make an ample apology for all the mean things I had said about them for passing that infamous, unchristian, infernal telegraph bill the other day.”
Of course this is the same Twain who later recounted in his book “Roughing It” how he enterprisingly reported his first Enterprise newspaper story:
“Next I discovered some emigrant wagons going into camp on the plaza and found that they had lately come through the hostile Indian country and had fared rather roughly. … I found one wagon that was going on to California … and would not be in the city next day to make trouble, I got ahead of the other papers, for I took down his list of names and added his party to the killed and wounded. Having more scope here, I put this wagon through an Indian fight that to this day has no parallel in history.”
So, celebrate and commemorate Nevada’s sesquicentennial and the hardy and colorful men and women who founded her.
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read additional musings on his blog at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.