A little story about The Big Bonanza
Special to the Nevada Appeal
VIRGINIA CITY – Recently on a trip to Albuquerque, N.M., I purchased a 1947 edition of “The Big Bonanza” by Dan De Quille, a book about the early history of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode. The book was in pristine condition, and with a $10 price tag, I wasted little time securing this little gem.
I bought the book only to upgrade the current volume I have in my library. To my surprise I found two newspaper clippings in the back of the book, both dated March 23, 1947. The clippings were book reviews about “The Big Bonanza”, written by two renown journalists at the time the book was re-published in 1947.
One review was favorable, the other was not. The favorable review in The New York Times was written by Richard G. Lillard, a name I recognized. The negative review in the New York Herald Tribune was written by George F. Willison, whose work I was not familiar with. The lengthy 25-page forward was written by noted historian and journalist Oscar Lewis.
George Willison specialized in American history. A native Coloradan, he wrote several articles about Colorado’s rich mining history. He also authored the book “Here They Dug The Gold,” a book about the Pikes Peak Gold Rush.
Willson minced few words as he hammered “The Big Bonanza” as being “rambling and discursive.” Willison, however saved his best shot for last.
With a final salvo, Willison wrote: “Incidentally, the publishers may expect to receive many vigorous and even violent protests from patriotic Coloradans. For one of the early and most striking illustrations in the book, and the one the publishers have chosen to reproduce on the dust jacket, is not of Virginia City or Nevada at all. It comes from A.D. Richardson’s “Beyond The Mississippi” (1867) and is a sketch of the diggings in Gregory Gulch, in the golden “Kingdom of Gilpin,” on the present site of Central City, Colo.
What? I travel a thousand miles and purchase a copy of a book I’ve had in my library for 25 years and find out that the illustration on the dust jacket of that book is a fake. What would be the odds of that happening? My first thought after reading Willison’s review was that he was mistaken. Surely the publisher wouldn’t palm off an illustration of the Gregory Gulch Diggings as that of an early sketch of the Comstock Lode. But that’s exactly what they did, and the more I researched this story, the bigger it got. It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. If that’s true then the illustration on the dust jacket of “The Big Bonanza” is good for a full volume of history.
The illustration that was the cause of Willison’s ire was an engraving made by Nathaniel Orr & Co. in New York City in the mid-1860s. The drawing shows about a dozen miners working the placers on a remote mountain. There’s also a half dozen crudely built shacks and a lone woman standing to the left watching the men at work.
Willison was correct. The illustration was originally made for Albert Deane Richardson’s book, “Beyond The Mississippi” published in 1867 by the American Publishing Co. in Hartford, Conn. The illustration is on page 181 and the caption below correctly states: “Gregory Gulch Diggings, Colorado, May, 1859.” A more correct caption would have been: “Colorado Territory,” as statehood didn’t take place until Aug. 1, 1876. But hey, let’s not get too picky here, for we have bigger fish to fry in this story.
Richardson’s “Beyond The Mississippi” was a book about the author’s travels to many towns and mining camps throughout the American West. The book did a brisk business selling some 150,000 copies. It was heavily illustrated and in addition to the Orr sketch it contained engravings from several other companies as well. The following year in 1868, the American Publishing Co. came out with Richardson’s “A Personal History of Ulysses S. Grant.”
That same year Elisha Bliss, publisher at American was in negotiations with Mark Twain to publish “The Innocents Abroad.” One of the incentives Bliss used to lure Twain aboard was a letter he sent Twain outlining the great success American had with Richardson’s books. Twain had already talked to Richardson and was well aware of the financial rewards if he went with Bliss.
In 1869, “The Innocents Abroad” was published by the American Publishing Co. When Twain’s “Roughing It” was published by American in 1872, Twain was well on his way to immortality.
It’s interesting to note some similarities in “Beyond The Mississippi” and “Roughing It.” Richardson had been a correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and knew the man well. On page 382 in “Beyond The Mississippi” Richardson wrote about Greeley’s famous ride with Hank Monk. The story is barely two pages in length, but it was written a full five years before Twain dressed it up a bit and published it in “Roughing It.”
And there’s more. Thanks to researcher and author Beverly R. David, we get an inside view of how 19th century publishers used the same engravings many times over and simply changed the caption to fit the need. On page 160 in David’s book: “Mark Twain and his Illustrators” (1986) she documents four instances where “Beyond The Mississippi” etchings were used in “Roughing It.”
So what does all of this have to do with “The Big Bonanza” dust cover? Oscar Lewis said the idea for the book came from Virginia City’s mining millionaires who wanted a published record of the great Comstock Lode, and asked Dan De Quille to write it. De Quille at the time was employed at the Territorial Enterprise. Eager to get started on the project, in 1875 Dan packed his bags, books and other assorted necessities and headed to Hartford, Conn., and stayed with his old friend and colleague Mark Twain.
The two had worked together for nearly two years at the Enterprise in the early 1860s. In the comfort of Twain’s home, Dan began to assemble the manuscript for “The Big Bonanza.” The book was published by the American Publishing Co. in 1876 and a second edition followed in 1877.
Sales at first were good, especially in Virginia City and San Francisco. But as the Comstock began to wane in the late 1870s, the book took a sharp turn downward. The American Publishing Co. still had copies of the book as late as 1900. A dozen years later “The Big Bonanza” was officially out of print.
When Alfred A. Knopf reprinted “The Big Bonanza” in 1947 they simply went with the text and illustrations of the original book. But by now those engravings were so ingrained in the publishing world, that their origin was of little question. There are more than six dozen sketches in the 1947 edition. The Gregory Gulch sketch is on page 22. It also by fate became the dust jacket for the book, simply because a previous publication captioned it the famous Comstock Lode. It wasn’t.
A quick search in my library turned up another four volumes containing the Gregory Gulch sketch all purporting to be the fabulous Comstock Lode in Virginia City. How many more are out there, I dare not guess. This illustration has had quite a fraudulent ride for a number of years but now that it’s been unmasked, perhaps it’s time to put it out to pasture.
• Chic DiFrancia is a Virginia City resident and owns the Comstock History Store.
• The Gregory Gulch strike in May of 1859 preceded the founding of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode by one month.
• At the height of the Central City strike, the population reached 60,000. Almost three times greater than the Comstock during the Bonanza years of the mid-1870s.