- Before The Big Bonanza: Dan De Quille’s Early Comstock Accounts ed. by Donnelyn Curtis and Lawrence I. Berkove
In 1874 a group of mining magnates commissioned William Wright (1829–1898), widely known by his pen name Dan De Quille, to write a history of the fabulously rich silver and gold mines of Virginia City, Nevada. De Quille was considered the preeminent mining journalist of the district, and his Big Bonanza (1876) remains a classic. But due to the nature of the commission, The Big Bonanza is a diplomatic retrospective emphasizing the positive aspects of mining operations. Curtis and Berkove’s Before The Big Bonanza: Dan De Quille’s Early Comstock Accounts complements The Big Bonanza by reprinting fifty newspaper articles De Quille wrote between June 1860 and October 1863 as a correspondent to the Cedar Falls Gazette in Iowa and The Golden Era in San Francisco. These letters, republished here for the first time, offer a candid eyewitness report on the Comstock’s early years, covering aspects of the social scene The Big Bonanza omits and conveying the curiosities of daily life on the booming mining frontier known at the time as “Washoe.”
Besides being entertaining to read, thanks to De Quille’s highspirited, playful style, the letters are a goldmine of historical information. In addition to reporting on prospecting activity in the vicinity, De Quille details the workings of big Comstock mines and takes the reader on fascinating underground tours through the shafts and drifts. He explains the processes for extracting gold and silver from the quartz substrate and inventories the enormous mills built for this purpose. De Quille’s mastery of mining terms is something to savor; the letter A, for example, begins adit, amalgam, antimony, anthracite, arastra, assay, auriferous, and argentiferous.
De Quille’s correspondence describes diverse amusements, such as theater, balls, kissing bees, parades, spirit rapping, and mill [End Page 259] warmings, while reporting the equally frequent social violence—brawls, shootings, stabbings, duels, prize fights, rape, and domestic violence. He notes average wages and details the prices of flour, bacon, butter, and news, which Comstockers “are continually hungering and thirsting for” (150). Notable national news events De Quille comments on include the outbreak of the Civil War and the coming of the telegraph, both affecting the Comstock. The letters vividly characterize the polyglot immigrant community that included Chinese, French, Germans, Spanish, Irish, Scots, and Mexicans, along with American emigrants and local Northern Paiute and Washoe Indians. Unusual for the day, De Quille sympathized with the Indians, and his letters present Native views of local conflicts.
The Comstock rapidly transformed from a wilderness to an industrial urban center, and De Quille’s ear for everyday sounds memorably captures the cacophonous scene: “We hear the ring of the sledge upon the drill, the whirling of windlasses, the rattle of the cars as they are run out, on the long wooden tracks and their contents dumped and the thunder of the huge stamps, (each weighing 600 to 800 pounds) in the reducing mills and the frequent boom of the earth-jarring blast” (89). Other sounds these letters record include “a six-mule team, dragging a mountain schooner covered with bells,” “Union Guards” marching with fife and drum, theater people parading with their brass band, hack men yelling, dogs fighting, men fighting, pistols shooting, and steam whistles sounding the supper hour (128). No wonder De Quille found his home state of Iowa a “region of social calms,” and after a sojourn back to Iowa in 1863 to see his wife and children—“nothing has ventured to happen since I have been here” (225)—he returned to the Comstock until 1897.
Donnelyn Curtis, head of Special Collections at the University of Nevada, Reno, Libraries, and Lawrence Berkove, a distinguished scholar of Comstock writers, have done a brilliant job of editing this collection. The table of contents provides each letter’s venue and date and lists its topics. The introduction explains the importance of the letters...