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Letter from Wild West - October 2009

By Gregory Lalire 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 07, 2009 
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Frontier Editors Go the Way of All Press
Forbes is forgotten, but not so Dutton Peabody

Newspapers are dying (off-line that is), even as old editors like yours truly cling to those obsolete, tree-killing daily rags with our needy, ink-stained arthritic fingers. Earlier this year the Rocky Mountain News celebrated its sesquicentennial and mourned its closing simultaneously. Ah, for the good old days, like 1859, when William Byers set type for that Denver paper in the attic of Uncle Dick Wooten's saloon. Or four years later, when a saloon opened in Unionville, Nevada Territory, and the whiskey-loving editor of The Humboldt Register wrote, "There is no lead pipe, as yet, connecting it to this office." That editor, William Forbes, was witty, feisty, influential and never backed away from a fight. What's more, as he wrote, he only drank the hard stuff "to limit the supply."

Sound familiar? It will to fans of TV and Hollywood Westerns, which were loaded with flawed but nearly noble newspapermen. In fact, Forbes sounds like a dead ringer for Dutton Peabody, the slovenly and inebriated ("Courage can be purchased at yon' tavern!") but still impeccably honest and well-respected editor and publisher of the Shinbone Star in the 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The fictional Peabody takes a strong stand for statehood (just which state goes unmentioned) and against the title villain, who thrashes him within a pica of his life for writing an unflattering article. The real-life Forbes stood up to powerful Territorial Governor James Nye (who, fortunately, did not utilize a whip as Liberty Valance did) and also took a strong stand on the statehood issue (against, though, as he thought Nevada lacked the infrastructure to support a state government).

Peabody unwittingly perpetuates the myth that his lawyer friend Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) shot Liberty. It's debatable whether he would have printed the truth had he known it, but well after Peabody's death, a 20th-century editor in Shinbone makes the endlessly quoted point: "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Why, that's almost as famous as New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley's "Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country." Peabody's version for his old boss Greeley: "As for you, Old Man, go West and grow young with the country." Greeley did in fact go to California in 1859.

Long before Greeley's westering words, Forbes went West and newspapered in several California Gold Rush boomtowns. Like more famous Western newspapermen Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce, Forbes plied his trade with fun-loving wit and satirical bite. The trio's motto could have been: "This is the West, sir. Never mind the facts or the legends. Go with the satire." In 1861, two years before Forbes hauled his press across the Sierras to Unionville, Samuel Clemens came to that inhospitable town and failed to find silver. Hating to work a shovel, and with The Humboldt Register not yet born, Clemens moved on in 1862 to Virginia City and reported, under the name "Mark Twain," for Nevada's first newspaper, the Enterprise. Forbes used the pen name "Semblins" while making his tongue-in-cheek observations over in Unionville. Later in the decade, he too went to Virginia City and founded the short-lived Trespass (so named because the town already had several papers), but by then Twain had moved on to bigger things in California.

In 1875 Forbes was in Battle Mountain, Nev., publishing his final newspaper, Measure for Measure (after the Shakespeare play). Forbes, of course, never measured up to Twain as a writer, but Carson City journalist Sam P. Davis called him a "genius" who "lacked the faculty of making and saving money and lived in communities where his mental brightness was more envied than appreciated." Like most newshounds, Forbes is now nearly forgotten. Newpapers will become memories. Our satirical journalism fixes will come from TV's The Daily Show and Colbert Report and countless news bloggers without any lead-pipe connections.



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