Pioneer Nevada Books

In the mid-1940s, Harolds Club began printing a series of newspaper advertisements containing vignettes of Nevada history, each accompanied by a large drawing. These vignettes appeared in every newspaper in the state and were enormously popular, leading to hundreds of requests for reprints. So in 1948 Harolds compiled sixty-four of them in a book called Nevada. In 1951 Pioneer Nevada followed with 204 articles, and in 1956 Pioneer Nevada, Volume II appeared with 159.

These advertisements were not intended to present a unified state history but involved unrelated anecdotes and incidents that might draw the attention of potential customers. Still, under the direction of the Thomas C. Wilson Advertising Agency of Reno, a great effort was made to assure historical accuracy through "exhaustive research." The black-and-white drawings were professionally produced by Shawl, Nyeland & Seavey of San Francisco; often they showed people in high states of activity or agitation, and were shaded for dramatic effect.

The first book, Nevada, contented itself mostly with pedestrian articles abut the history of such places as Reno, Lake Tahoe, Washoe City, Boulder Dam, Mountain City, and Winnemucca. Still, "Fun in the Sun in Las Vegas" remains interesting because of its naïve and unenvious look at the future behemoth soon to dwarf Reno: "Today, flanked by dramatic and colorful desert scenery, Las Vegas continues to grow in a way that continually astonishes the rest of the state. Las Vegas has learned that the ways of the old west and the glamour of the Nevada desert holds [sic] an irresistible attraction for tourists and that tourists bring prosperity."

The drawing shows a caballero playing a guitar and singing in a desert landscape featuring a yucca plant. The writers no doubt would have been amazed to learn that Las Vegas would build itself on sophistication and glamour rather than its desert roots.

In addition to the place histories, Nevada included a number of unusual incidents and colorful characters, but the series did not hit full stride until Pioneer Nevada appeared with subjects such as "The Sanitary Sack of Flour," "The Toothless Bridegroom," "Man for Breakfast," "Enroute to Starvation Camp," "Why Oranges are Fresh in Peoria," "Louse Town Track," and "'She Burns Green, Rosie!'"

Readers encountered Madame Moustach, who arrived in Nevada at the age of 20, pretty of face and adept at gambling, and not yet called "Moustache." She made a fortune running games in the mining camps, but married a wayward man who squandered her wealth. By the time she was in her forties, her face had grown course and she sported a dark cloud of hair on her lip, inspiring her nickname. She began drifting through the camps in deep poverty and eventually poisoned herself.

Then there are Sugarfoot Jack, who wanted to be considered one of the tough guys but was shot to death holding an unloaded pistol; hot springs operator Bony Aguilar, who never bathed and whose corpse was given a final farewell with a bath in one of his own hot springs; and the endearing "three-minute bride" from Illinois, who stepped off the stagecoach in Pioche only to find herself in the middle of a shootout in which a deputy killed three desperadoes. Surrounded by an acrid cloud of blue smoke, she fled back to the coach and headed home (no High Noon heroine, obviously).

Pioneer Nevada also delighted its readers with incidents such as the Barleycorn Battle, in which desperadoes took over a Pioche mine, and as in many a Western movie, the owners hired a gunslinger to drive them out. Also in Pioche, the Single Men's Protective Association formed "to protect themselves from the encroachments of the female sex...." The men hired a meeting room and were pledging to resist feminine wiles for an entire year when a group of ladies forced their way in. In mock terror, the men stampeded, jumping out of windows and hiding under tables. This proved such fun that the participants reenacted the meetings and raids for months until, one supposes, they either grew bored or got married.

Memorable too are the stagecoach races, in which coaches raced each other to their destination, urged on by the passengers, especially the women. Everyone bet feverishly until they arrived dust-covered and exhilarated.

However, the stories of Indians give a twenty-first-century reader pause because they reflect old prejudices, presenting Indians as inhuman savages continually attacking innocent whites in brutal fashion. To be sure, the writers did try to describe Indians fairly. In part they did so by presenting seventeen legends and folk tales, including "Why the Piñon is Dwarfed," the Washoe Tribe's version of the lost Eden. Elsewhere, Chiefs Truckee and Winnemucca strive for peace, and we encounter Indian mail carriers and famed basket-maker Dat-So-La-Lee as well as Indians being kind and helpful. Readers are told dispassionately that the first battle fought in Nevada was the "needless product of suspicion and fear between two alien groups" and that "If the pioneer whites had shown the Indians the kindness and fairness given them by Chief Truckee, there would have been no Indian wars in pioneer Nevada." We learn that Colonel Frederick W. Lander "realized the many wrongs inflicted upon the Paiutes by the white settlers" and that "[t]hree months later came the atrocities by whites against Indians, and the returning atrocities by Indians against whites." So the series does recognize that the advent of the whites destroyed the Indian way of life, and that Indians had reason to go to war.

So why, then, does the impression remain of Indians as more brutal, savage, and, in fact, wicked than whites? In part it is the language, with the stereotypes of the times leaching out despite the writers' best efforts. We read of the "complete route for the redmen" (italics added) and of the battle at Massacre Lakes, where forty pioneers fell "in a fearful struggle." The whites are "[f]earful lest the redmen return to disinter and desecrate the bodies." While whites are described as "wily plainsmen," it sounds different to hear of "frenzied warriors" or that the Indians operated with "astute and cold-blooded generalship" as they "slaughtered the panic-stricken white men." Elsewhere "the Mohaves mutilated their victims" while other tribes "tortured the stage station men to death" or delivered "red barbaric death."

The articles bear such titles as "Red Devils in Paradise," "Torture at Granite Creek," "Mohave Treachery," and "Punishing the Goshutes." And while some drawings show Indians as dignified and peaceful, many others show them menacing the settlers, rampaging in bloodthirsty fashion with weapons flailing while white men die gruesomely. In one drawing, an Indian brandishing a tomahawk and knife bends over a white man who is pinned to the ground by boulders; the white man looks up in horror as branches blaze on his stomach. Another drawing shows Indians burning two white men at a stake. There are no drawings of atrocities by whites on Indians.

So these books are a product of their time, but still worth reading for their fascinating collection of the dreams, struggles, triumphs, and chicanery of pioneer Nevada.

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