Comstock pioneer’s heir comes to VC
September 12, 2007
Call it sheer luck, fate or destiny, but in my more than six-and-a-half decades on this planet, I’ve learned never to question some amazing coincidences that seem to fall right out of the sky into my lap.
On Sept. 6, I was at Silver Terrace cemetery in Virginia City taking information from a tombstone for a story about the Pacific Coast Pioneers. That was the story I wanted to write that week, but destiny struck in the person of an elderly gentleman standing at the gate as I was ready to leave. He said his name was Bill Bucke.
The surname was spelled the same way as Richard Maurice Bucke, who took that fateful trip over the Sierra Nevada with Ethan Allen Grosh in November 1857 and nearly lost his life in the process. As the man spoke of his famous grandfather, I had no doubt that I was listening to the genuine article of a fabulous piece of Comstock history.The story and tragedy of the Grosh brothers is well-documented in numerous Nevada history books. What is not so well known is the story of Bill Bucke’s grandfather. Bucke was a 20-year-old Canadian prospector who found himself at the Gold Cañon diggings in 1857. Several dozen prospectors were in the area at the time working the placers for gold and received meager returns for their long hours.
Also working the placers were Hosea and Ethan Allen Grosh, who had left Pennsylvania for the California rush of ’49. By the early 1850s, the brothers had crossed the Sierra several times, often wintering in Volcano, Calif., and spending the spring and summer at Gold Cañon.
What separated the Grosh brothers from the other men at the diggings was knowledge, for both were well educated in the science of geology, mineralogy and assaying. They knew that the dark gray mass that lay at their feet was carbonate of silver, and they proved it by casting a small button of the blue stuff. The brothers decided to keep their find a secret, until they could get to California and secure the financial backing they would need to open up the vast treasure trove that should have gone down in history as the “Grosh Lode.” But it wasn’t to be.
In August 1857, Hosea struck his foot with a pick and died from blood poisoning Sept. 2, being buried in the Silver City cemetery. Saddled with the financial burden of his brother’s death, Ethan worked the placers until he scraped enough money together for the trip to California. On Nov. 20, Ethan and his friend Richard Bucke started packing their donkey for the trek over the mountains. It was a deadly decision to make so late in the season for it was already snowing. To read the hardships these two men endured is to know what “gold fever” is.
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Trapped in a blizzard near Squaw Valley and their provisions gone, they killed and ate their donkey to survive. By the time they were rescued Dec. 6 near Last Chance, Calif., both men were delirious and near death from starvation and frostbite. They had been on the mountain for 16 days. Ethan’s feet were amputated to save his life, but he never recovered and died Dec. 19. Bucke also needed amputation of one foot and part of the other, but he survived.Richard Maurice Bucke was born in London, Ontario, Canada in 1837. He left home while in his teens and headed to the U.S. to seek his fortune in the California gold fields. Bucke, like the thousands before and after him, found out that California wasn’t the land of unlimited gold as claimed in those slick newspaper advertisements circulating the country, and had to work at odd jobs just to get by. Gold fever is an affliction that has no known cure, but when Bucke survived the harrowing ordeal that took the life of Ethan Grosh it was the antidote that cured his gold fever. Bucke stayed at Last Chance for the duration of the winter while his body mended and strengthened for his trip back home in the spring.
In 1858, he received some inheritance money which enabled him to enroll in McGill University Medical School located in Montreal. A bright student, Bucke earned a degree in general medicine in 1862 and became a small-town doctor. Interested in psychiatry, Bucke applied himself in this field, and in 1877, was appointed head of the Asylum for the Insane in London, Ontario, a position he held for nearly the remainder of his life. A compassionate man by nature, Bucke revolutionized conditions at the asylum. Whereas beating patients into submission was once the norm, now came understanding, human contact and a genuine attempt to help patients back to some sense of normalcy. It’s what doctors in psychiatry would later term “occupational therapy,” but Bucke was one of the first to implement the idea.
A voracious reader of literature and poetry, Bucke was taken with Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and had committed most of it to memory. He finally met Whitman in 1877, and published a biography of the poet in 1883. The two men shared a lasting friendship until Whitman’s death in 1892. A 1990 movie titled “Beautiful Dreamers” is based on the lives of the two men. Dr. Bucke died in 1902 at age 65 and was buried in his hometown of London.