Edited by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Online Edition
Before he died in 1903, Alf Doten might have wondered what would happen to his journals. Seventy-nine volumes recorded daily events during a 53-year period that he would have known was a pivotal time in the development of the American West. He might have guessed they would be preserved in an archive for future historians. He might have even been able to imagine that a distinguished author
Walter Van Tilburg Clark (1909-1971) received his B.A. and M.A. degrees in 1931 and 1932 from the University of Nevada where his father served as the President. At the age of 30 he was a literary success with his first novel, The Oxbow Incident. The book was made into a well-received movie starring Henry Fonda. His third book, The Track of the Cat, was also made into a Hollywood film, starring Robert Mitchum. Clark’s second novel The City of Trembling Leaves was less successful, but is still considered a Western American classic. Several of his short stories have been published. Clark was one of the first two writer inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 1988. After his early years as a writer, Clark devoted his professional attention to teaching. He taught writing classes at the University of Nevada while editing Doten’s diaries.
would devote 10 years to editing the diaries for publication and that subsequently, thousands of students, researchers, and history enthusiasts would benefit from his account of life in California and Nevada.
Doten liked to speculate about the technology of the future
June 5, 1876 …Day by day, the annihilation of time and space is becoming perfected and who shall tell what a century may bring forth in mechanical science …
. But he could never have imagined that 114 years after his death, his diaries would be freely available to millions of people throughout the world, in their homes, on a glowing glass surface, and that any of those people could instantly query his writing with a tool that resembles a "type writing machine
December 19, 1899 …I worked Harry Day’s type writer this evening short time, very successfully – never tried one before – wrote: “This world is all a fleeting show for man’s illusion given” – my first lesson – It is a 35 “Blickensdorfer” machine …
." Walter Van Tilburg Clark believed that the collection of Doten’s journals was “the most important and revealing document of the period of the history of the West it covers,” but even he would have been astounded by the expanded reach of this document 42 years after the publication of 3,000 copies. The University Libraries and the History Department of the University of Nevada, Reno are proud to build upon the amazing accomplishments of Doten, Clark, and the University of Nevada Press.
The University of Nevada Press was founded in 1961 by Robert Laxalt, with the support of the University of Nevada Board of Regents and University Administration. The launch of the Press coincided with the approach of the centennial of Nevada’s statehood (1864-1964), and with the acquisition of the Doten collection. The University received inquiries and offers from large New York publishers hoping for a contract to publish the Doten diaries, but opted for a history book based on the diaries as the inaugural publication of the Press for the centennial.
Alf Doten’s first diary entry was dated March 18, 1849, at the beginning of his sea voyage from Plymouth, Massachusetts around Cape Horn to San Francisco
… Started from the wharf in boats just as the bells were ringing for church. At 10 AM hove up and got under weigh and stood out to sea, firing guns &c. Lots of folks on the burying hill. All sail set to the best advantage.
. He was 19 years old. As he continued to write in his diaries almost every day, they accompanied him through violent weather during his ocean passage, across the Sierra Nevada in saddle bags, in corners of tents and rooms in boarding houses with leaky roofs, occasionally lost and later recovered. They went through hell and high water
This phrase was popularized in a well-known Gold Rush song, “Sweet Betsy from Pike,“ in the stanza
They swam the wide rivers and crossed the tall peaks,
And camped on the prairie for weeks upon weeks.
Starvation and cholera, hard work and slaughter--
They reached California 'spite of hell and high water.
with him, and it is a wonder they survived, but he persevered. He certainly knew, after all, that he was documenting history. Some readers might be surprised, though, by the intimate details of his own life that are also documented, providing a window into some of the lesser-known particulars of nineteenth-century private lives. As a journalist in Nevada covering the local beat, Doten also took notes in his journals for stories, and tucked into the pages were photos and letters he received and newspaper articles he wrote or saved. It is an extensive and diverse compilation.
For the first 40 years after Doten's death, his diaries were stored by family members, until they were eventually sold to the John Howell Company, a dealer of Western Americana in San Francisco. They came to the attention of a history professor at the University of Nevada, Effie Mona Mack
Effie Mona Mack , PhD (1888-1969) received her B.A. degree from Smith College, her M.A. from the University of Nevada, and her Doctorate at the University of California. She taught history at the University of Nevada, Reno and at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas when it was known as Nevada Southern. She wrote Nevada history textbooks for K-12 and college classes and other books on Nevada topics including Mark Twain in Nevada and William Morris Stewart, 1827-1909. The Mack Social Science building at UNR was named in her honor.
, who led an initiative in 1961 to secure the $55,000 purchase. The legislature was in session that year, and a special law appropriated $20,000 from the state budget for the purpose. Subsequently, the university raised the remaining $35,000 through a grant from the Fleischmann Foundation.
The Fleischmann Foundation (1951-1980) was established with the death of Max C. Fleischmann (1877-1951) to distribute his estate. The Fleischmann wealth was generated from the production of yeast, vinegar and gin. Max, who inherited the company in 1928, moved its headquarters to Nevada for tax benefits (the “One Sound State” enticements promoted in the mid 1930s). The Fleischmann Foundation awarded almost 2,000 grants totaling $192 million. The University of Nevada System received 45 grants that totaled over $19 million, including two grants to help purchase and later publish the Doten journals. Other grants helped establish the Desert Research Institute, in purchasing the College Inn, funded scholarships, and supported hospitals, libraries and civic organizations throughout Nevada and in other states. The Fleischmann name lives on at the University of Nevada, Reno thanks to naming grants for the Fleischmann Planetarium, the Sarah Fleischmann Building, and the Fleischmann Agriculture building.
The diaries were then housed and preserved in the new Special Collections Department in the University of Nevada Libraries.
Shortly after the purchase and a receiving ceremony, the university contracted with Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Nevada’s most successful and well-known novelist, to write a book based on the diaries for the Statehood Centennial in 1964. Clark ultimately rejected the idea of a derivative book, proposing instead to lead the project in another direction, preparing as much of the original content of the diaries as feasible for publication, with some editorial interpretation. He spent the final ten years of his life on this publication project, becoming ill but finishing the majority of the work shortly before his death at age 64 in 1971. His son, Robert Clark, worked with Robert Laxalt and Nicholas Cady of the University of Nevada Press to launch the three-volume, 2,381-page publication in 1973. See Robert Clark’s introduction for more information on the editorial process.
Bringing so much of Doten’s chronicle to print was a heroic effort, and the result has been valued for 42 years by readers seeking an inside view of daily life in Gold Rush California and the Comstock. The Journals of Alfred Doten, 1849-1903 has maintained its esteemed position as a Western American History classic, but has long been out of print and not readily available to modern researchers. The University of Nevada Press has generously allowed permission to provide free access to The Journals on the university’s website, not only extending the availability of this source tremendously, but also enabling search capabilities that open up Doten’s accounts for deep exploration as never before.
Long-term plans are underway to further expand and enhance the presentation of the Doten diaries and add to the enjoyment and understanding of this unique primary source.
- Donnelyn Curtis, Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries
- Dr. Christopher Church, Digital Humanities, Department of History, University of Nevada, Reno