A hundred years ago or more, folks looked to newspapers for what precious word there was about the world around them–and, for a variety of reasons, journalism had a different flavor to it. In many ways, those old-timers were much more interesting with their own style of writing, which was a great deal like reading someone’s mail.
Those 19th-century newspaper stories could be aggravating, though. Reporters and editors never seemed to worry about using first names and completely identifying those they were writing about. “Mr. Jones” was all anyone needed, it seemed, and that was all many readers got. Browsing through those early papers still evokes a sense of “being there.” And with hindsight what it is, some of the stories bring a smile.
For instance, when Col. R.B. Mason, commandant of the 10th Military Department, Monterey, California, wrote his official report to Washington, the New York Tribune in December 1848 published his impressions of the gold rush. Col. Mason put his own interpretation on why members of the Mormon Battalion were leaving the gold fields for Great Salt Lake City and the families they hadn’t seen for almost two years. No one could pass up the easy pickings the Sutter’s Mill discovery had made possible, Mason decided, so this is how he explained the exodus: “Gold is believed to exist on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada; and–at the mines I was informed by an intelligent Mormon that it had been found near the Great Salt Lake by some of his fraternity. Nearly all the Mormons are leaving California to go to the Salt Lake, and this they surely would not do unless they were sure of finding gold in the same abundance as they do now on the Sacramento.”
The Associated Press was still some years in the future, and the country’s editors worked a little harder getting a variety of news to their readers. It was a common practice for journals of the day to extract interesting items from other newspapers as part of an informal exchange agreement with due credit to the paper of origin. Occasionally, such an arrangement became a tad complicated. Consider an item originally published by the Frontier Guardian in Kanesville, Iowa, quoting sources in Great Salt Lake City, extracted and printed by the St. Louis Republican, and reprinted in the New York Tribune of March 27, 1849. The story reported the murders of three men of the Mormon Battalion (Daniel Browitt, Ezra H. Allen and Henderson Cox) by Indians in the California mountains in late June 1848–nine months earlier. The word was a bit slow making the rounds, but it was news.
Ofttimes, even the most innocuous item from the past can have a tantalizing touch. It was a policy of the Deseret News in those days to publish for a nominal fee (25 cents) the names of emigrants and travelers passing through Great Salt Lake City, and to mail a copy of the newspaper back home. It was a service to the emigrant–plus it circulated the newspaper. The listing not only reported the wayfarer’s progress, but also eased the anxiety of family and friends. It was not unusual for a traveler to request an additional word or two: “Fat and healthy” after his name.
So it was that on Aug. 31, 1850, the weekly contained a brief column of names including one “N.P. Limbaugh, Cape Girardeau, Mo., arr. in the city August 8 and dep[arted] Aug. 17” in a company of Missourians headed for the gold fields of California. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t arrest anyone’s attention. But since 1990s radio and television talk-show host Rush Limbaugh has often mentioned that his family, and his 102-year-old grandfather, Rush Hudson Limbaugh (a lawyer still active), reside in their hometown of Cape Girardeau–well–Is it possible that this gold-seeker could be one of Rush’s ancestors? The Limbaughs can’t be certain; the family has lived in Cape Girardeau for as long as they can remember, and N.P. Limbaugh might well be related.
Those emigrant rosters contained a number of familiar names. On Sept. 12, 1855, the News listed among the new arrivals: Robert Redford. And then there were the truly short stories. As this succinct squib from the Deseret News of September 28, 1850, testifies: “There has been no trout in the Valley this fall.” That’s it, no frills.
One more report from the Deseret News, this from the issue of Nov. 21, 1855: “In September , while excavating in Parowan, Messrs. Pendleton and Barton [there’s that ambivalence with first names again] found a copper medal in cemented gravel eight feet below the surface. It was in excellent preservation. About 1 1/2 inches in diameter and has upon one side in relief, the representation of a town with flanking towers and vessels in the harbor attacked by six ships. Around the border the words: He took Porto Bello with six ships only.’ Nov. 22, 1739. On the reverse, also in relief, are the figures of a man, a cannon, and a ship, and around the border, The British glory revived by Admiral Vernon.'”
It makes a reader wonder how long before Utah Territory was settled was that medal lost so that it would collect in gravel eight feet underground, and who might have dropped it. An Indian? A fur trapper? Perhaps an engage’ of the Hudson Bay Co.? But the compelling aspect of those 19th-century newspapers was their outspokenness. When Nevada horse thieves were caught in Utah, The Salt Lake Herald treated the story on September 28, 1878, as an object lesson for aspiring outlaws. Here is The Herald’s report: “The following dispatch contains a valuable suggestion to horse thieves: St. George, Sept. 27.Jerry Sloan and W.P. Tuttle, horse thieves, with a band of stolen horses from Nevada, were followed to near this place by James Pierson, a deputy sheriff from Pioche, and posse. They were caught and the sheriff started for Pioche yesterday afternoon, and upon reaching Damron valley, twelve miles from here, four masked men took the prisoners from the sheriff and shot them dead. Sheriff Pierson sent back word, and the coroner has gone to examine the bodies.” Unfortunately, there is no way of determining whether The Herald’s approach to crime and punishment had any effect.