Ten Questions on The Gold Rush Letters of E. Allen Grosh and Hosea B. Grosh, Edited by Ronald M. James and Robert E. Stewart, Published by the University of Nevada Press.

 

Who were the Grosh brothers?

E. [Ethan] Allen and Hosea B. [Ballou] Grosh were two young men drawn, like thousands of others, to the California Gold Rush.  An astounding 300,000 men came to California between 1848 and 1855.

Two things were unusual about these brothers. One, unlike many forty-niners, they were well educated. (Their father, the Reverend Aaron B. Grosh, was a prominent Universalist minister, a leader in the Odd Fellows and a co-founder of The Grange). Most of the letters from the brothers are to their father, and they are full of lively observations, just what you would expect from two men 24 and 22 who have left home to see the world.

Two, they stayed in California, and persisted in looking for wealth–most would-be miners, disappointed and broke, moved on quickly. Despite many setbacks, Allen and Hosea remained cheerful and optimistic, always convinced that their latest plans would finally succeed.

Tell us about the book.

Historians have long known and written about the Grosh brothers, for they were among the earliest prospectors in the Great Basin, what was then Utah Territory, where later the Comstock Lode was found. After discovering evidence of both silver and gold in the area, the brothers died tragically young, before they could investigate further. Their family, hoping for a share in the fabulous wealth of the Comstock, gathered every scrap of evidence and preserved it.  The Gold Rush Letters publishes the collection, transcribed and well-annotated, making them available to the general public for the first time.

Why are the letters significant?

One, the collection is complete; there are no gaps; the family preserved every letter they wrote.  This book tells a complete story: from the first letter home, saying “We sail tomorrow” to Allen’s last, “We have had a very narrow escape of it”, written two days before he died.

Two, they were lively writers, interested in the politics of their time, the new and raw state of California, and all else young men could see and care about. The letters are astonishingly readable and fascinating. This is not dry history; these read like postcards from a friend.

Three, they were among the earliest explorers in the Great Basin and what became Nevada. This is important primary source material, now made readily available to future historians and writers.

What else is unique?

Because there were two brothers, constantly writing home, the reader sees many events in stereo, as it were; two different viewpoints, or first a short mention from one brother, and then a longer description from another.

What can the reader expect to learn?

In many ways the California Gold Rush is ancient history. Reading these letters turns history into current events. The reader is there, with the brothers, when San Francisco exploded from 200 residents to 50,000. When lawless California was rushed from a U.S. military occupation into statehood in just two years.  They didn’t know how events would turn out, who would win elections, what would become of slavery.

What was the most fascinating item you found revealed in them?

Coming to know these two brothers as real people. The times and the events astonish enough. But the brothers were, as a friend of theirs described them, “good-looking, fairly well-educated, very quick of observation, ready with expedients, gifted (especially Allen) with exceptional powers of original thought, thoroughly honest and honorable, absolutely devoted to each other, industrious, persevering, chaste, sober.”  All this comes through in their writing.

Why is this story tragic?

These two idealists left Lancaster, Pennsylvania “to see the Elephant!” as the expression of the day went. “Health, youth, strong arms, and stout hearts  … What more could we ask? We are in California!” they wrote home. They could have turned to shop keeping, or farming, and made a comfortable living. Or they could have done what many did, given up and moved back home. But they persisted in mining, which is backbreaking, frustrating labor.  Through years of hard efforts, they managed to send home just $500 and one stone they hoped was a valuable opal.  To read of their deaths, while still young and dreaming of success, will break any reader’s heart.

To many of our readers, letters from the Gold Rush era would be fascinating.  Would this appeal to a broader audience as well?

If you have any interest in early Nevada or California history, this volume is of course essential reading.  But beyond that, I think that anyone who picks this up and begins will find it a compelling story, almost like a historical novel.

What do James and Stewart add to the work through editing?

This collection would not be readable without the fine work done by the two editors. First, there was the laborious process of transcribing them, frail papers that have survived house fires and flood, cramped handwriting and faded ink. Second, there are full annotations that explain the politics, personalities, and slang of the day. These annotations never get in the way of the flow of the story, but ease the reader into full understanding of the times.

Where are the letters now?

The letters were acquired by the Nevada Historical Society in 2007, after a ten-year process of fund-raising; these important documents are now owned by the people of Nevada, and accessible there to scholars.

In their short lifetimes, Allen and Hosea Grosh never gave up their search for treasure. What they could not have known was that in their letters home, they were creating another kind of treasure: a rich history that this publication makes available to any reader.

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