Two Forgotten Henry Van Sickle Stories . . . .
If you’re from Carson Valley, you’ve probably heard the name Henry Van Sickle. After all, he was one of the first settlers in soon-to-be Douglas County, Nevada, arriving in September 1852. And if you live here you’ve probably passed his famous Van Sickle Station, built south of Genoa in 1857.
You may also have heard how the intrepid Van Sickle shot and killed an infamous badman named Sam Brown in 1861, much to the relief of local citizens. “A just dispensation of an all-wise providence,” was reportedly the verdict of the coroner’s jury.
But here’s a couple of stories you may not have heard about the long-ago local everyone knew as ‘Van.’
For one thing, his first marriage ended with a bit of drama. He’d wed Mary Gibson in Carson Valley in October 1855, with the solemnities performed by infamous Judge Orson Hyde. Van was 33 at the time; the young and impressionable Mary was just 20. But after a few years and four children together, Mary reportedly had had enough. According to one source, she skedaddled over the mountains to California in the mid-1860s — while pregnant with her fifth child. And by 1880, she was married to someone else.
But Van didn’t waste too much time lamenting his departed bride. In June 1871 he married young Julia Van Vleck. And young she was. His blushing new bride was just 18 years old at the time – her husband a stately 49. Together they had at least five more children: Uma (born abt. 1871); True (born 1874); Harry (born 1875); George (born 1878); and Amy (born 1879).
By 1881, Van Sickle owned quite a spread: 1,800 acres of ranch land, valued at an astonishing $25,000. He’d already fought one prolonged legal battle with J.W. Haines over water rights to Daggett Creek, a dispute in which Van Sickle eventually prevailed. But that wouldn’t be his only brush with the courtoom; even by the 1880s Van was still being sued left and right. Opponents included H.F. Dangberg, Fred Dressler, and a man named Osgood.
And then the strangest story of all: On April 7, 1885, Henry Van Sickle mysteriously disappeared. Nobody, including his wife, had any idea where he was.
Local citizens scoured the banks of the Truckee River for nine miles below Reno, hunting clues to Van’s whereabouts. The Governor of Nevada and wife Julia Van Sickle jointly posted a $1,000 reward for information about about Van’s condition, “dead or alive.” Reports trickled in that he’d been sighted in both Texas and New Orleans, with rumors Van was headed next to Wisconsin.
Strangely enough, Van simply reappeared in Genoa in early June, two months after he’d gone missing, with no public explanation given for his lengthy disappearance. It was a “wonderful surprise” to his friends, the local paper noted, quoting Van himself as denying “any trouble whatever” had prompted his two-month vanishing act.
In hindsight, we can only speculate. Perhaps he was seeking a break from creditors or legal matters. Or it’s possible family issues had gotten him down; his beloved five-year-old daughter Amy may have fallen ill right before he left. She would die just a month after her father’s departure (while he was still gone), of “inflammation of the bowels.”
In 1892, at nearly 70 years old, Van was still a vibrant man. He was said to be able to “handle a six-horse team or roll a bale of hale nearly as well now as [he] could thirty years ago.” Perhaps all those years as a hard-working blacksmith kept him hearty.
Van went out of this world just as he lived, in a larger-than-life way. In November 1894, he was thrown from his buckboard wagon when his team ran away, dragging the wagon across a flume near his house. Van was pitched out and landed on his head. He lived only another eight days before succumbing to his injuries. He was 72 years old.
Although Van had once been an extremely wealthy man, all those lawsuits – and the changing fundamentals of the local economy – had slowly eroded his holdings. By the time he died, his obituary said, it had “all slipped away from him.”
As for wife Julia, she would live another forty years, passing away in Oakland, California in June 1934.
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