December 18

On this day in 1858 two printer-newsmen, W.L. Jernegan and Alfred James, set up a printing press in the village of Genoa in the Utah Territory and produced the first issue of a sheet which they called the Territorial Enterprise. The town was but a freighter’s way-station between California and Deseret. The paper managed to subsist, although it was moved, within its first year, to Carson City. When gold and silver were discovered at the Comstock Lode in 1859, making Virginia City the center of the wildest and most extravagant area in America, the Enterprise made its last move, under the guidance of a new editor, Jonathan Williams. By 1861 the paper had become a daily, with another change of ownership. Editors Goodman and McCarthy were reputed to have hauled the daily receipts home in water buckets, their sheet having struck an even richer vein than the Comtock itself, which within twenty years had produced over a half billion dollars worth of silver and gold.

Of the prospectors who were arriving by the thousand, one was a journeyman printer named Sam Clemens, who, finding that he could do better with a pen than with a shovel, began to write for the Enterprise. Discussing this experience, many years later, Clemens stated, “At first I roamed about the country seeking silver, but at the end of ’62 or the beginning of ’63 when I came up from Aurora to begin a journalistic life on the Virginia City Enterprise I was presently sent down to Carson City to report the legislative session. I wrote a weekly letter to the paper; it appeared Sundays, and on Mondays the legislative proceedings were obstructed by the complaints of the members as a result. They rose to questions of privilege and answered the criticisms of the correspondent with bitterness, customarily describing him with elaborate and uncomplimentary phrases, for the lack of a briefer way. To save their time, I presently began to sign the letters, using the Mississippi leadsman’s call, ‘Mark Twain’ (two fathoms—twelve feet) for this purpose.”

Reporter Clemens distinguished himself in reverse during his tenure on the frontier sheet. “In those early days,” he recounted, “dueling suddenly became a fashion in the new territory of Nevada and by 1864 everybody was anxious to have a chance in the new sport, mainly for the reason that he was not able to thoroughly respect himself so long as he had not killed or crippled somebody in a duel or been killed or crippled in one himself.

“At that time I had been serving as city editor on Mr. Joe Goodman’s Virginia City Enterprise for a matter of two years. I was twenty-nine years old. I was ambitious in several ways but I had entirely escaped the seductions of that particular craze. I had no desire to fight a duel. I had no intention of provoking one. I did not feel respectable but I got a certain amount of satisfaction out of feeling safe. I was ashamed of myself, the rest of the staff were ashamed of me—but I got along well enough, I had always been accustomed to feeling ashamed of myself, for one thing or another, so there was no novelty for me in the situation. I bore it very well.”

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