Earlier this month, Governor Michael Leavitt honored the 150th birthday of the town of Genoa, Nevada, which began life as "Mormon Station," a rough-and-ready trading post when Nevada was part of Utah Territory. This is a noble gesture, but it appears to be a year late and a few facts short. Recent news reports claiming Utah merchants "settled Genoa in June 1851" are wrong. The problem started when Hampton S. Beattie recalled the town's founding for historian H.H. Bancroft. Beattie, later the manager of ZCMI, said Mormon Station got its start in 1849. Bancroft printed Beattie's mistake in his History of Nevada. The rest, you might say, is bad history.
In 1943, after years of controversy over the date, Utah historian Dale Morgan used the memoirs of Abner Blackburn to prove that Mormon Station was founded in June 1850. Age twenty-three that spring, Blackburn was many things--Mormon Battalion veteran, Indian fighter, mail courier, teamster, gold miner and "chief cook and bottle washer" for Brigham Young's family in 1846--but he was not your ordinary merchant. Like the other Mormon frontiersmen who helped him start Nevada's first trading post, Blackburn was an adventurer.
The previous spring he had found "color" panning at the mouth of Gold Canyon on the Carson River. Bancroft credited Blackburn with the first mining strike in today's Nevada. "There are various versions of the first discovery of gold in western Utah," he wrote, "but none more authentic."
On his way back to California in 1850, Blackburn and his friends found the road over the Sierra Nevadas blocked with snow. "We concluded to start a station for trade," Blackburn recalled years later, and he picked the spot. "There was no better place" in Carson Valley for this site had "cold watter [sic] comeing [sic] out of the mountain and pine trees were plenty on the edge of the valley. There was [sic] oceans of good feed for stock." Blackburn headed for Sacramento to buy supplies. When he learned snow was selling for $80 a ton in Sacramento, he loaded up. "We killed two birds with one stone," he wrote, "hauling down snow and carrying back provisions."
As tens of thousands of hungry gold rushers passed though Carson Valley, "trade flowed in onto us." It was hard to keep supplies on hand. Some travelers complained about the high prices--James Abbey called it "a perfect skinning post" but others couldn't help notice "a good many handsome well dressed women that added much to the beauty and pleasantness of the place." As the money poured in, "the boys at the station would get on a spree" cutting up harnesses, bending guns around trees, burning abandoned wagons and "run amuck generally. There was no law or gospel to hinder them."
During the summer, Blackburn went prospecting again in Gold Canyon after fighting "the famous old Winnemucca." He and his companions worked several places with rockers but thought they could do better on in California. If they had kept at it, they might have discovered the immensely rich Comstock Lode. "We mist [sic] the great Bonanza," Blackburn recalled.
The current 1851 date seems to be an attempt to claim the title of "oldest permanent settlement" in Nevada over nearby Dayton. Blackburn and his friends left in the fall, but there is no doubt that Mormon Station was founded in June 1850. If the folks in Genoa are celebrating its 150th birthday this month, let's hope they started a year ago.
Will Bagley edited Abner Blackburn's narrative, "Frontiersman," which provides chapter and verse on the founding of Mormon Station.