By Bob Crowley
As ultra-endurance athletes and historical researchers, we have spent countless hours studying the past and pushing our physical limits in exploring western history. Through these experiences, we have come to realize that some narrative history, including the popular stories of the American West, is wrong.
We have encountered numerous tales and chronicles that have been passed down through the generations, often creating myths and legends that are accepted as fact. One such story that has piqued our interest is that of the Grosh brothers, who are often portrayed as folklore heroes in the American West. However, as we delved deeper into their story, we realized that what’s been passed down isn’t anywhere near the truth, and the Grosh brothers are just one of the many examples of how historical facts can be distorted.
It all starts with the style of storytelling. Most narrative history prioritizes entertainment over accuracy. This means that authors and filmmakers often take liberties with the truth, embellishing events to make them more exciting or casting historical figures in a certain light to fit a particular, convenient tale. While this may make for an engaging story, it does a disservice to the people and events being depicted.
Hosea and Ethan Allen Grosh, born in Pennsylvania, set out on a journey to the West in 1849 in search of gold. After eight years mining gold in Northern California with nominal success, they turned their attention to the “blue mud” that was clogging the sluices of the gold miners in Nevada. A little-known figure in history and a Mexican miner, Frank Antonio, had seen for himself traces of what he believed to be silver during his prior visits to Northwest Utah (now Nevada). He couldn’t get anyone interested in his find until he met the Grosh brothers. But the Groshes were not mere miners or prospectors; they were well-educated and quickly realized that this mud contained valuable minerals, primarily silver. The brothers began mining for silver in Nevada.
The Grosh brothers’ story is often told in the context of the Comstock Lode, which is widely regarded as one of the most significant mineral deposits found in the history of America. However, the brothers’ role in the discovery is often overlooked, and their contributions to the mining industry and America as a whole are not given due credit.
The beginning of the Comstock Lode was discovered in 1857 when the Grosh brothers came upon a rich deposit of silver ore while prospecting in the region below the shadow of Mount Davidson, nearby today’s Virginia City. They soon realized that they had uncovered, in the words written to their father, a “monster vein.” The Comstock Lode would inevitably revolutionize the mining industry and lead to a massive influx of miners, prospectors, and titans of commerce to the region.
However, the Grosh brothers’ success was short-lived. In the winter of 1857, Hosea was struck down by a fatal pickaxe accident, and three months later Ethan Allen died from exposure to snow and cold in Last Chance, Calif., while trying to reach San Francisco to raise capital to fund mining of their claim. Neither brother was able to lay claim to their stake at the assayers office in San Francisco before they died.
Despite their contributions to the discovery of the Comstock Lode, the Grosh brothers have been largely relegated to the realm of folktales. Their story is often told as one of unlucky miners who never struck it rich and led lives of extreme poverty and despair. This narrative is not only inaccurate, but also does a great disservice to their legacy.
The Groshes’ story is a testament to the American spirit of innovation, perseverance, and entrepreneurship. They saw a problem, identified a solution, and took bold action to make it a reality. They were not afraid to take risks, and they were not deterred by the challenges they faced. They embodied the American West ethos of rugged individualism, self-reliance, and determination over eight fruitless and frustrating years of gold mining, thousands of miles from home, in a rugged and unforgiving environment.
The impact of the brothers’ find would be felt in the years and decades to come. Their discovery of millions in riches helped the Utah Territory later become the territory of Nevada, whose eventual statehood would become a political centerpiece in President Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to abolish slavery. The admittance of Nevada and an amendment to the Constitution would be equivalent to a million more men to support the Civil War.
The Grosh brothers’ legacy is best summarized by the then-Speaker of the House of Representatives (later, vice president under Ulysses S. Grant), Schuyler Colfax, who presided at the ceremony erecting a tombstone over the grave of Hosea Grosh in the Silver City cemetery on June 27, 1865:
“The output in bullion had gone forth to swell the coffers of the world – to alleviate suffering on the battlefield – to play a part in national politics – to aid in freeing the slaves – to sustain the failing credit of the country – to provide the national armies with the endurance needed to win the war of rebellion. What more could the Grosches have asked of their discovery than that it had been of help to man? Last, but not least, their discovery had made it possible for President Lincoln to add a much-needed star to the galaxy floating over Sun Mountain.”
As historical researchers and athletes, we are acutely aware of the importance of accurate and truthful storytelling. Narratives shape our understanding of the past and they have the power to shape our perception of the future. We are committed to continual exploration of trails and tales of America West, unearthing the mysteries hidden in the shadows of history, and shining a light on the truth and stories that inspire us all.
~ Bob Crowley is an ultra-distance runner and amateur historian with an appreciation for the American West. He co-founded History Expeditions and lives with his wife along the American River in Fair Oaks, California. Learn more at historyexpeditions.org.