Nevada History by John C. Evanoff

Visitreno.com is excited to present this series of articles by noted author and poet, John C. Evanoff. John will tell us about Nevada history and cover some of the more remote and unusual things to see and do in Northern Nevada.

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The Comstock Lode

The Mountain Canyon of the Sun
May , 2008
By John Evanoff

Long before European settlers or even mountain men ever saw the mountains around Virginia City the area was inhabited by several different bands of Indians, most notably within the last three thousand years, the Washoe Tribe. The family congregations of this relatively small tribe, an offshoot of the Northern Paiute Indians, moved to the beat of the seasons of food supplies constantly making their way from the east side of Washoe Lake which was a marsh plentiful in game during the spring and fall to the southeast side of Tahoe for the summer, where fishing and deer hunting was plentiful and the families could get away from the heat. Throughout the centuries, the Indians also harvested the pinion pine nut every autumn from the then vast Pinion forests along the Virginia Mountains. Many of the families grouped in communities of forty to fifty individuals met in mid autumn each year to enjoy each other’s company, tell stories of the following year’s adventures and journeys and occasionally sponsor some of their young girls or boys in bids to tie the families together. It is said the legend of two young Washoe lovers was the basis for tales eventually leading to the gold and silver finds of the Comstock Lode.

Thousands of years ago, the two tribes of the north, the three tribes of the south and the four families of the east came together for an annual Pow-Wow at present day New Washoe City. Many saw the young chief of the local family as the most powerful and good looking of all the tribes and a young girl who came from the furthest southern and most prosperous family as the prettiest. The problem was that another young brave had been promised to the hand of the pretty young girl a year before in bargaining between families of another band. The elders were at odds over this for political reasons and several young boys came up in more discussion to also be in the contest to wed the young maiden. With all this talk, the young girl found time during one of the narration dances to speak with the young chief and thus began an immediate relationship. The young chief was smitten and the girl grew infatuated with the strong, young, handsome brave. When the young chief asked to wed the young girl, the tribes were in an uproar. Both knew their love was deep and they decided to elope when the arguments led to infighting between families.

The tale goes that the young couple woke up early the next morning and began traveling east up the mountainside (Mt. Davidson) and then down into present day Gold Canyon. The sun rose into this unexplored canyon they were heading down into and they came upon rocks that reflected the rays of the sun so brightly, they could barely keep their eyes open. The young girl fell from a steep outcrop and the young chief tried to save her and fell himself. Both died instantly and tragically, the rest of the tribe finally found them much later when some of the search party discovered the same reflections and had halted their advance. From that day on, the tale of this mountain canyon of the sun and the two lovers was told and retold, a constant reminder of the grief from that heartbreaking loss.

In the early fall of 1848 it is said a Mormon Wagon Train met up with the tribe and negotiated some trades of their glass beads for pinion balls and rabbit meat. The trust between the two was necessary because more Mormons were to move on this route to establish a system of settlements throughout the west part of the soon to become Utah Territory. The tale of the yellow rocks that glowed brightly from the eastern sunrise captivated the Mormons who ventured a guess that this was actually a canyon full of gold the Indians were discussing. Although the Mormons were by no means experts in mineral sciences, a few of them went up the canyon from the Carson River and discovered gold everywhere they panned. The word got out to other Mormon trains moving through to Genoa and points west in the next couple years from wagon leaders who constantly made the round-trip back and forth to pick up more Mormon settlers from the Salt Lake Valley. When the story spread to other pioneers and eventually California prospectors, thousands of men and women made the pilgrimage back over the Sierras and to the Carson River. Within a few years, Gold Hill and Silver City were full of miners seeking riches and people servicing the needs of the prospectors.

The gold mining was for the most part haphazard by this time and many of the prospectors grew exceedingly tired of trying to rock out the sticky blue mud that constantly hampered their gold mining operations. A few miners even went crazy or broke trying to get rid of the blue stuff. Among these were Henry Comstock himself who gave up his claim and eventually ended up killing himself after futile attempts at retail and mining, a common saga of the day. What happened next brought on a major boon to mining in the United States. The blue mud was found to be a high grade form of pure silver.

Between 1858 and 1880, more than 400 million dollars of gold and silver were taken from the Comstock Lode. Virginia City and San Francisco became wealthy overnight from the strikes and new advances in mining technology followed. But because of the antiquated way the minerals were moved or leeched from the earth in processing and milling, some mineralogists say more than a half billion dollars of gold and silver found its way down the Carson River and beyond into the Carson Sink. What is also known is that the Comstock Lode vein still exists in huge shafts of rock hundreds of feet thick although buried deep under Gold Hill and Six Mile Canyon in an almost volcanic hot sulfurous state.

The best way to see the canyons is to hike along the crest of the Virginia Range between McClelland Peak southwest of Gold Canyon to the top of Mount Davidson just West of Virginia City. Looking east down into the canyons in the early morning sunrise, you can take some great pictures. You may even see the glint of shiny sunshine upon the rocks and reflect on the tale of the Mountain Canyon of the Sun.
Next month, the mines play out, but life goes on.


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