Dennis Cassinelli: Old Virginia: Gourmet camp cook
The name of Virginia City is said to have been given by James Finney, one of the original prospectors who made the discovery of the famous Comstock Lode. Being from the state of Virginia, Finney became known by the other prospectors and placer miners as “Old Virginia.”
As the story goes, Finney, in one of his usual states of inebriation, fell down and broke a bottle of whiskey where Virginia City now stands. As he stumbled up from the ground, he declared, “I baptize this ground Virginia.” From that time on, the place came to take the name of Virginia City.
Besides prospecting and drinking, Finney’s other great passion was hunting the abundant wild game that lived in the mountains and valleys of the territory at the time. Because fresh meat consisted of whatever could be hunted in those days, Finney’s hunting skills were valued by the other miners and prospectors of the time.
In 1853, six or eight prospectors from Johntown and Dayton, including Old Virginia, Captain Crooks and Dan De Quille, went on a hunting trip and were camped on the lower reaches of the Humboldt River. The hunting party had been having miserable luck finding game of any kind to sustain itself, let alone bring anything back home.
Finally, the group split up and headed in different directions to cover more ground to see if it could scare up some game for the cooking pot. Dan De Quille, who was there at the time, told the story of Finney’s hunting trip in Finney’s own words in the book, “The Big Bonanza.” Be aware that Dan De Quille was known to stretch the truth on occasion.
So the story goes, Finney went off up the river alone in search of sage hen, rabbits, deer, antelope or whatever might help to fill the cooking pot and the hungry bellies of the hunters. As was his custom, Old Virginia took to daydreaming and lay down in a big bunch of weedy-looking bushes.
As he lay there daydreaming, he suddenly heard a rustling of leaves and a racket in the nearby dry grasses. Peering over the top of a clump of bushes, he saw what proved to be the largest, fattest skunk he’d ever seen in his long years of hunting. From past experience Finney knew just where to hit the stinky creature to keep the animal from releasing its powerful perfume. With one well-placed shot, he had dinner for the group “in the bag.”
The experienced hunter also knew how to prepare skunk that would be the envy of any gourmet chef west of the Mississippi. Never had Finney killed a finer or fatter skunk. He was eager to prepare a gourmet skunk feast for the rest of the group when they returned.
When he got back to camp, the others were still away searching to shoot at anything that moved. The Virginia prospector carefully skinned and cleaned the big black and white striped animal and hid the stinking hide in the nearby bushes.
Just before nightfall, the other hunters returned to camp empty-handed after spending the day in search of game. Captain Crooks asked Finney what kind of critter the plump carcass was. Finney’s reply was ambiguous and left to the others to solve the riddle. They asked what color the skin was and wanted to see for themselves from what kind of animal it came.
Finney said he had thrown the brownish hide into the bushes and the dogs must have packed it away. Old Captain Crooks then determined if the skin was brown, the animal must have been a fisher. He said he knew exactly how to prepare fisher for all to eat. He said fisher wasn’t good until it was well parboiled overnight and stewed down in a frying pan for breakfast. Finney and Crooks gently boiled the fat, juicy skunk all night in the camp kettle over a sagebrush fire.
By morning the critter not only was boiled, but too much so. It was completely boiled off the bones. Finney and Crooks then fried the mushy fisher meat in the frying pan and served the feast to the hungry hunters for breakfast. Captain Crooks and the others gobbled down the hot greasy meat with zeal. It seemed to have seasoning and a savory flavor none of them could identify. Crooks bragged about old times in Wisconsin catching and cooking fishers years ago.
As the others sat around the campfire enjoying the last scrap of fisher meat, Old Virginia finished his portion and turned to catch his horse. Along the way he found the big black and white skunk skin he had thrown away and decided to pick it up carefully by about six long tail hairs and show the gang what they had eaten. Finney proudly displayed the hide to the breakfast diners and said, “Hey fellers, blame me if here ain’t that damn fisher skin now!”
What followed was enough to make any man gag. Those who were still shoveling the savory stew into their mouths threw their forks and plates away, then spit and puked until they were green. Crooks dropped his fork and his eyes bugged out with repulsive rage. A convulsive shudder shook his entire body as he yelled, “Skunk, by all that’s stinking and nasty.” “Skunk, by thunder, and nasty!” howled all the rest in chorus.
James Finney, aka Old Virginia, was lucky to survive that episode. This probably is why in later years, he generally had to hunt alone. No one wanted to share a campfire with him. He’s buried in the Dayton Cemetery.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.