After a decade of fund raising, Nevada brings home a precious cache of records on a lost chapter in state history
On Sept. 7, 1857, a grieving gold seeker in Gold Cañon, Nevada, wrote a letter to Pennsylvania.
“Dear Father,” wrote Ethan Grosh. “I take up my pen with a heavy heart, for I have sad news to send you. God has seen fit in his perfect wisdom & goodness to take Hosea, the patient, the good, the gentle to join his Mother in another & better world than this.”
Ethan Allen Grosh and Hosea Ballou Grosh had left their father back East to travel to the West where, shortly before Hosea’s death and the writing of this letter, they had discovered the Comstock Lode, the greatest find of silver in human history. Nevada has been trying to obtain their letters, a treasure trove of information on a little-known period of state history, for the past 11 years, and on April 16 Nevada Historical Society officials will announce that the effort has been successfully concluded. Included in the sale along with 200 letters are photographs, news clippings and miscellaneous documents such as articles of incorporation for a Grosh mining company.
The sellers of the letters are surviving family members Charles Wegman and Naomi Thompson, who will be on hand for the announcement. The family over the decades has often made the letters available to researchers, such as Charles Howard Shinn for his book The Story of the Mine (1896) and Sally Springmeyer Zanjani for her Devils Will Reign/How Nevada Began (2006).
“They didn’t raise the price in the 10 years we were trying to raise the money,” said the Society’s Eric Moody, praising the Grosh descendants for honorable conduct and for selling the cache of letters below its appraised value. The Society will pay $210,000 for the material, which is the price it was appraised at in the late 1990s. This is the only money the Grosh family has ever realized from the Grosh brothers’ fantastic mining discovery. Both brothers were dead soon after they found the lode. “With the demise of the two brothers, it takes a couple of more years before the word gets out about the discovery,” said Nevada State Archives administrator Guy Louis Rocha in 1997.
The Groshes left Philadelphia for the California gold fields in February 1849 and by 1853, they were in what was called the Washoe country, “steadily at work searching from cañon to cañon for silver, gold, and other minerals,” as an 1896 historian wrote.
The sons of a Universalist minister, the Grosh brothers had studied metallurgy before striking out for the Western mining fields. Their specialized knowledge stood them in good stead when they started prospecting in western Utah, which is what Nevada was then. While other prospectors overlooked or discarded black and gray material, the Groshes found it interesting.
The Groshes kicked back and forth from California to Utah, earning just enough to keep going, and in March 1856 they had, according to one letter to their father written from California, begun zeroing in on silver in Gold Cañon: “Ever since our return from Utah we have been trying to get a couple of hundred dollars together for the purpose of making a careful examination of a silver lead in Gold Cañon. … Native silver is found in Gold Cañon; it resembles thin sheet-lead broken very fine, and lead the miners suppose it to be.” In September they reported, “One of these veins is a perfect monster.”
Although many prospectors were combing over the Washoe region (the Groshes sometimes were accompanied by acquaintances) in the 1850s, very little is known about mining exploration there from 1850 until about 1858. “The records of those pre-Comstock years are very scarce,” historian James Hulse has written. “Only a few of them [miners] left any testimonials to their activities, and those are dubious.”
And Rocha says the Grosh letters are not just another batch of letters, that their quality is above average. “It is a snapshot of life here that has never been produced before, and it comes from educated, articulate miners.”
Former Eldorado County Museum director Denis Witcher, who was instrumental in finding the letters, said in 1997, “The description of life in the camps is just nonpareil. I’ve never read anything like them.” The museum is in Placerville, where the brothers sometimes prospected.
In June 1857, Ethan—who apparently was known by his middle name of Allen—wrote, “We struck the vein without difficulty. … We have followed two shoots down the hill, have a third traced positively, and feel pretty sure that there is a fourth.” They enclosed a diagram later described in The Story of the Mine as “certainly resembl[ing] the south-end Comstock ledges.” They began processing ore and came up with an assay of $3,500 an ounce—a figure they had difficulty believing, though they described the ore as nearly pure silver: “Our vein lays very compact, as far as we have examined it—not a leaf of foreign rock in it.”
They were starting to interest sources of capital in investing and were locating additional veins when Hosea struck his foot with a pick, contracted “blood poisoning” and died on Sept. 2 in their American Flat cabin. The Groshes had sometimes been accompanied by other friends in the prospecting, but they clearly leaned on each other and were very close brothers, and the grief expressed by Allen after Hosea’s death has touched those who have read the letters.
“In the first burst of my sorrow, I complained bitterly of the dispensation which deprived me of what I held most dear of all the world, and I thought it most hard that he should be called away, just as we had fair hopes of realizing what we had labored for so hard for so many years. But when I reflected how well an upright life had prepared him for the next, and what a debt of gratitude I owed to God in blessing me for so many years with so dear a companion, I became calm, and bowed my head in resignation.”
Soon Allen himself was dead, a victim of frostbite in his feet after he and a friend were trapped in the Sierra. He was buried in Last Chance, a mining camp in California. Hosea is buried in Silver City, Nevada, and there have been discussions of moving Allen’s body from the abandoned California camp to be placed alongside his brother in Silver City.
Historian Eliot Lord later wrote, referencing Henry Comstock, “The Grosh brothers died on the very threshold of fortune. … Their years of patient and intelligent search were therefore fruitless, and it was left for a lazy, drunken prospector to stumble upon the prize for which the brothers had striven.”