Silver Satire: The Frontier Humor Of Newspaperman William Forbes

Silver Satire: The Frontier Humor Of Newspaperman William Forbes

By Scott Smith
3/26/2018 • Wild West Magazine

He was hard-drinking, fun-loving and witty.

When the first issue of The Humboldt Register rolled off the press on May 2, 1863, the information and entertainment-starved citizens of Unionville, Nevada, greeted it and editor William J. Forbes with a parade through town. One journalism fan donated a case of liquor to lubricate the festivities. It was a gift Forbes could particularly appreciate, for while the intrepid editor kept his ear to the ground and his finger on the pulse of the community, his nose, more often than not, could be found stuck in a whiskey tumbler.

In his account of the opening of a new saloon in Unionville, Forbes noted wistfully, “There is no lead pipe, as yet, connecting it to this office.” Later that first summer in Unionville, Forbes thanked the local Original Saloon in print for a most welcome gift. “Compliments of the Original, in liquid form, received,” Forbes wrote. “Tried. Good. More.”

Forbes learned the printing trade in Ohio and chronicled the lives of the Forty-Niners with newspapers in several boomtowns—Coloma, Marysville and Downieville—on California’s Mother Lode. He had become a hard-drinking, fun-loving and bitingly satirical journalist by the time he left the California goldfields to ply his trade in the Silver State.

Despite the town’s name and the Register’s tagline (“Patriotism is not sectional — it embraces in its sympathies and purposes the cause of good citizens everywhere”), Unionville and its newspaper remained largely outside the Civil War fray. But writing under the pen name “Semblins,” the Unionist Forbes couldn’t resist the urge to chide Rebel sympathizers who argued the South would win because its people were inherently better than their Northern brethren. “Semblins has been watching the record of the ‘superior race,’ which [Confederate General Braxton] Bragg’s army has made from Kentucky to Georgia. He thinks some very noble blood must run in the veins of Bragg’s soldiers.”

Influential and feisty, Forbes never backed down from a fight. Believing Nevada lacked the infrastructure to support a state government, he lobbied hard in print to defeat a vote for a statehood charter. While the measure passed, the majority of Humboldt County—no doubt spurred by Forbes’ editorials—voted no.

Forbes even took on powerful Territorial Governor James Nye in his humorous, cynical way. On one occasion, a sizable appropriation to build a dam and a mill ran dry with the job only half complete. Forbes blamed Nye. “Governor Nye has a dam by a mill site,” Forbes wrote. “But he has no mill by a damn sight.”

Still, Forbes preferred to hone his wit on observations of the mundane daily life in a boomtown—work, avoiding work and drinking instead of working. Challenged on his love of whiskey, Forbes took mock offense. “We’re nowise fond of the article,” he wrote. “Merely hoist in a little of it once in a while to limit the supply.”

Little wonder that many of the Register’s front-page advertisements touted the virtues of saloons and spirit suppliers in Unionville and nearby Star City, Humboldt and Mill City. Many of these come-ons made use of Forbes’ flair for copywriting. One saloon ad Forbes wrote invited miners to relax with a cigar, “so soothing, when it’s been bought with the last quarter, and a fellow’s busted….Come and see us anyhow. If you don’t want to buy, sit down in the shade and chew your tobacco, just as if it was paid for.”

In another ad, Forbes enumerated the joys of drinking and smoking to while away the day and night. “What is so enlivening when a man is arousing from the lethean embrace of balmy sleep…as a delicious cocktail?” Forbes wondered. “What so invigorating, when the burthen of the day is heavy on you…as ‘something straight’ to stiffen up with? What so soothing, when the labors of the day are ended, and you are about betaking yourself to your virtuous sheets, as a generous draught? And what so agreeable and natural after the draught than another?”

Forbes’ quill and wit were just as sharp when he wrote an ad for a general store, urging readers to purchase “Something to Eat!” and “Something to Wear!” Forbes’ copy continued with “Something to Drink! Painfully aware that some of our most honest and industrious fellow citizens decline to eat or wear anything as long as they can get a drop to drink.”

Forbes empathized with his target market in the summer of 1864, when drought conditions left insufficient water either to run the local mill or irrigate residents’ vegetable patches. Forbes made his priorities clear while insisting citizens get theirs in order. “This county was never intended by God Almighty to distinguish itself in potato growing,” he argued. “We like potatoes; but we can’t get along without the mill. A man may do without a shirt…if he has plenty of whiskey.”

Semblins might have applauded the miners’ gardening activity, as he often lampooned their lack of industriousness. In August 1863, a tongue-in-cheek Forbes was “of the opinion that a gymnasium would be a good thing in Unionville, as affording healthful exercise for the numerous miners about town.” A week later, he took cheer at “the large number of miners congregated about the saloons day and night, evidently waiting for the blacksmith to get their picks and drills sharpened.”

The coming rainy season found Forbes worried about the miners, as after two years of digging, most “haven’t got their tunnels in far enough to protect themselves from the rain.” Such poor weather, combined with dubious supplies of quality building materials, Forbes decided, made construction in Unionville a dicey proposition. In an 1864 column, he passed judgment on the local lumber supply: “About half is what it is cracked up to be and the other half is knot.”

Perhaps it was bad lumber that led Forbes to lament, “The courthouse is a fine place, except when it is dry and the sun [is] beating down upon the thin, flat roof; or when the snow is melting and dripping through; or when rain is falling through. Happened in Tuesday during the shower and found Mr. Whitney with all the records and stationery, gathered snugly in the corner, where the rain fell no thicker than it did outside.”

When mining operations slowed, Forbes often turned his eye toward the town’s domestic scene. When town father Isaac Miller married in 1864, Forbes chronicled the blessed event with all the seriousness he could muster: “Miller has been so infernally happy ever since that he neglected to inform us of former name of the unfortunate Mrs. M. There was much congratulating and kissing and other nonsense, and we doubt if poor Isaac didn’t forget his own maiden name.”

Marriage and love triangles made for as good gossip in Unionville as in any other town in any era, and Forbes dutifully dished the dirt. Discussing recent gunplay, he reassured readers: “No woman in this case. It grew out of a dogfight.”

The July 9, 1864, edition of the Register carried this note: “An elopement took place in Santa Clara last week. Nobody hurt.” When he received a dispatch from a friend stated simply, “It’s a girl!” Forbes feigned confusion. “Frank was married about 10 months ago. If the ‘girl’ is his daughter, he has been commendably industrious; if it’s his wife, he has been woefully slow to make the discovery.”

The itinerant newspaperman’s life was every bit as hard as those of the miners he chronicled, and Forbes’ Register often shed light on the editor’s tribulations. He noted with interest a neighboring town’s newspaper account of a breached weir, under the headline, DAM BROKE. “That’s what’s the matter here, though we don’t commonly use such language.”

When he neglected to print sufficient quantities of the April 6, 1865, edition, Forbes apologized—sort of—in the next issue. Anyone who didn’t get a copy was advised “to recollect something mean he has been guilty of, some time in his life, and consider it a judgment from Heaven for his wickedness.”

In January 1867, Forbes realized the Humboldt region was played out. He sought—mostly in vain—greener pastures throughout Nevada, including newspapers in White Pine, Virginia City and Battle Mountain. Shortly before he left, Forbes complained that too few of Unionville’s citizens were willing to dole out the $5 for an annual subscription. “‘Can’t afford to take a paper.’ Yes, you’ll hear men say that; and you can see those very men spending $5 a week for miserable whiskey instead of paying it to us, to be spent for something fit to drink.”

Forbes went on to spread his wit throughout Nevada and Utah, never quite making ends meet. Closing up one newspaper office, Forbes explained, “We cease the publication because we did not bring enough money with us.”

Perhaps the only profitable business Forbes ever owned was a saloon in White Pine, Nev. “Of 20 men, 19 patronize the saloon and one the newspaper,” Forbes wrote. “I’m going with the crowd.” But ink ran in his veins, and he soon sold the saloon and set type again. He died on Oct. 30, 1875, in Battle Mountain, Nev., where he published the Measure for Measure.

As Forbes had foreseen, his death garnered little notice: “Semblins says death cannot be a matter of much moment for an editor—no 30 days notice, [just] a few days as advertised on the fourth page, a few calls by subscribers not in arrears. A short, quick breath—then the subscription paper for burial expenses.”

 

Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here

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