Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Plenty of ladies at the ball

150 years ago today, Alfred Doten, a journalist in Nevada, was celebrating Christmas with Charley Ockel’s eggnog, a supper of fried egg and oysters, and a trip to the theatre to see a San Francisco company performing on its last night in town. A day later, despite the ‘violent shock of an earthquake’ he was back at the theatre, this time to see the comedian John Max Thompson and his ‘Minstrels’. And, on New Year’s Eve, he was enjoying the company of ‘plenty of ladies’ at a ball being held in the Athletic Hall. We know all about Doten’s life not because he was famous to any degree but because he left behind such a detailed diary covering more than 50 years, from the age of 19 until his death.

Doten was born in Plymouth, Massachusetts, but sailed to California in 1849 intent on making his fortune in the San Francisco gold rush. As a so-called placer miner he moved from one site to the next using inexpensive, movable wooden boxes called rockers to wash sand away in search of gold. By 1863, though, he had moved to Nevada to try his luck in the silver boom there. Unsuccessful again, he gravitated to journalism, working as a reporter on several Nevada newspapers. In 1872, he purchased the Gold Hill Daily News, and under his stewardship the paper became one of the most important in the silver boom region. Also in 1872, he met Mary Stoddard, who he married the following year, and with whom he had four children.

Apart from his journalistic output, Doten was very involved with the local theatre, and published reviews; he also wrote short stories, essays on Nevada journalism, and books. In time, however, he became increasingly dependent on drink, accrued much debt and eventually lost the News. His wife left him to take up a teaching post in Reno. He, meanwhile, moved to Austin (Nevada) where he edited the Reese River Reveille. He died in Carson City in 1903. Further information is available from the Nevada Press Association, the Online Nevada Encyclopaedia, or the Nevada Women’s History Project.

Doten’s name would surely have been lost to time but for the fact that he left behind 79 leather-bound volumes of diaries, kept from the age of 19. After his death, they were moved from one family attic to another until the University of Nevada acquired them in 1961. Walter Van Tilburg Clark spent years editing the manuscripts and, in 1973, the University of Nevada Press published The Journals of Alfred Doten, 1849-1903, in three volumes. The work become a classic of Western American history with its details of the gold rush and frontier life. The full text of the three volumes, in a searchable format, has been made freely available online thanks to the University of Nevada Alfred Doten project. In a further stage, the project aims to make the full text of the 79 volumes (only about half was included in Clark’s edition) available online.

Here are several extracts from Doten’s diary dating to exactly 150 years ago - from Christmas Day to New Year’s Eve.

25 December 1869
‘Christmas - Stormy - snow an inch deep this morning and 3 or 4 inches deep at noon - kept on till 4 PM when it sort of cleared up - at home - at noon I went down to Charley Ockel’s and got some of his eggnog - good - PM downtown - Dan is in the station house very sick with the delirium tremens - went there at his own request - so Doc Hoit tells me - Met many men celebrators of Christmas, some pretty tight - Home at 6 - supper of fried eggs & oysters mixed - Went to Mrs Garrity’s to get Ellen to go to theater - unwell, so couldn’t go - Came back & took Mrs M - good house - plays were the “Little Treasure,” and “Day after the Wedding” - Last night of the dramatic season - company leaves for San Francisco this night - go by a special stage at 10½ oclock - connect with 2 o’clock train tonight - Home at 10 - Bed at 11 - Cold & freezing - [erasure] -’

26 December 1869
‘. . . At 6 PM violent shock of an earthquake - heaviest yet here - followed within a few minutes by 2 others - shook houses terribly - shook fire wall down off Taylor’s brick building corner of B & Taylor st, etc, etc . . . down to theater - Johnny Thompson’s Minstrels - $190 house . . . Visited Dan in station house - getting better - staid with him 1½ hours talking - Home at 11½ - Bed at 12 . . . [erasure] -’

27 December 1869
‘Several shocks of earthquake felt this PM and evening . . . Evening Mrs M went with Ben Denton to a Masonic supper & ball . . . I was at Theater a short time . . .’

28 December 1869
‘A few light shocks . . . Evening at home till 9 - went down town - snowing - Went up in Enterprise office & chatted with Dan awhile - He is all right, and went to work on the local again yesterday morning . . . Bed at 11 - still snowing - [erasure] -’

30 December 1869
‘I got a little keg today of about a quart of fresh Baltimore oysters just arrived per railroad yesterday, packed in ice with about 20 others - got them of Hatch Bros this morning $1.75 per keg - about 100 oysters . . . we had them for supper, both stewed and raw - The first good and fresh ones . . . I have yet had - Just as nice as they were when first out of the shell . . .’

31 December 1869
‘Clear & pleasant - As usual - got up my mining report - Home at 5½ (No earthquake shocks worth speaking of today - or last night) - Went to Shaney’s and got a pair of pants and a vest I have had made for Morton - out of blanket cloth, snuff colored - heavy - Cost $18 - got them this morning, & this evening took them to Woodruff to be forwarded together with a hat & other fixins that Mrs M sends him - I went down to Theater - Johnny Thompson’s Benefit - Slim house - Waited till show was over & collected the bills of the News - $17 - Home at 11 - took Mrs M to 4’s Ball at Athletic Hall - Best ball I have attended on the coast - good hall full - a little crowded at first - but thinned out after supper - Plenty of ladies - Enjoyed it very much - Danced every quadrille till after 4 oclock - Left at 4½ for home - Bed at 5 - [erasure] - clear & freezing - “Happy new Year” - No paper till next Monday -’

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