State’s pioneers were a sturdy, independent bunch
Appeal Staff Writer
Though the Comstock was known as the “Richest Place on Earth,” Nevada’s early days were tough on its first settlers.
Brutally hard work, poverty, horrendous heat in summer, bitter cold and deep snow in winter and short lifespans were the norm for the pioneers that settled the state.
“Extreme isolation was one of the main facts of life, because they weren’t having these dry winters,” said Sally Zanjani, a faculty member at the University of Nevada, Reno’s political science department, and author of a book on the state’s early years. “The Sierra had them snowed in; there was no crossing.”
Not only was life difficult, but the first 10 years saw dramatic change, transforming the area from part of Utah Territory when it was first settled in 1851 to becoming a territory of its own in 1861.
“It’s amazing how short a span is involved here,” she said. “From 1851, when the first trader rolled his wagons into Mormon Station to 1861, when we got our territory.”
Zanjani will share stories of the state’s beginnings at the Nevada State Museum at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
She is the author of “Devils Will Reign: How Nevada Began,” which tells of Nevada’s early development.
“They (settlers) didn’t want to be ruled by the Utah theocracy,” she said. “The old settlers hated it. They were all those miles away from the seat of government in Utah and that was a great inconvenience.”
The book’s title, “Devils Will Reign” is a quote from Orson Hyde, who was sent to Nevada by Brigham Young to organize the Mormon colony.
“He rapidly exceeded his instructions and wanted to organize an agricultural empire, and said ‘devils will reign if we don’t get in,'” she said.
She said although settlers didn’t like the Utah territorial government, they didn’t fight it directly.
“In many ways the old settlers just backed off, they would not obey the government, they wouldn’t pay the taxes,” she said.
She will discuss the lives of those pioneers, and how the development and impact of the Comstock pushed the settlers to create first a territorial, then a state government.
Listeners will recognize some of the names of the Comstock prospectors, like James “Ol’ Virginny” Finney, but might be less familiar with Italian aristocrat Leonetto Cipriani, or the Grosh brothers, Ethan and Hosea, whose letters to their father in Pennsylvania are the only records of what prospectors’ lives on the Comstock were like.
“Much of the time these letters are about how miserable it is, how they’re in poverty, and the heat,” she said. “These guys had been slowly working their way up Gold Canyon, looking for gold, thinking silver was worthless. They thought it was that cursed blue mud that was clogging up their rockers that they threw away.”
She said the mystery that surrounds the Grosh brothers is whether or not they actually found riches before the tragedy that ended in their early deaths.
“Most of the people of the day thought they had not found it, but they would have if they had lived longer,” she said.
Zanjani also will discuss the agricultural scene of the Dayton and Carson valleys, which fed the miners on the Comstock, who were often the forces behind the push for territorial status.
“It was their excitement over the Comstock Lode that brought us our own territory,” she said. “Of course, the crystal ball was as clouded for them as it is for us, so they never knew this was not going to be like another California gold rush.”
“Devils Will Reign” is Zanjani’s ninth book on the history of Nevada and the West.
She thinks there still are important lessons Nevadans can learn from their past.
“I think reading about the hardships and privations of the pioneers teaches us how easy we really have it, and what a struggle it sometimes is to attain your goals,” she said.
• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at email@example.com or 881-7351.
If You Go
WHAT: “Devils Will Reign: How Nevada Began” presentation by Sally Zanjani
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Nevada State Museum, 600 N. Carson St., Carson City
COST: $5 adults; $3 for seniors; free for members and children
CALL: 687-4810, ext. 239.