From the outside, this slim volume doesn’t really look like much. A small, ruled notebook about seven-by-nine inches in size, its 81 pages are filled with handwriting that requires a good deal of squinting to decipher.
But it’s one of Nevada’s historic treasures: the earliest land and governance records of pre-statehood Carson Valley. Historians call it the “First Records,” and today, it is carefully preserved in Nevada’s State Archives. But this precious bit of history almost didn’t make it there. And that’s a grand bit of history in itself.
You know, of course, that Col. John Reese pulled his ten-wagon expedition to a halt at the base of the Sierra in the summer of 1851, launching the trading-post/settlement that would soon become Genoa. This wasn’t Nevada yet, of course; at the time, it was the western edge of Utah Territory. The group built a stockade and a two-story building and began clearing land and planting vegetables to sell to oncoming emigrants.
But they were far from the hub of government back in Salt Lake, now. And that made things difficult. Just four months after the group arrived, on November 12, 1851, they convened a public meeting and formed their own upstart provisional government “to protect land claims and maintain civil order.”
Those two things were connected, of course. There was much more likely to be “civil order” when folks weren’t fighting over land claims.
One Col. Absolam Woodward chaired that first auspicious meeting. He was a partner of George Chorpenning in the “jackass mail” contract, providing mail service between Salt Lake in the east and Placerville on the west. (And he wouldn’t be around much longer; Woodward was wounded and eventually died from an attack along his mail route in 1852).
Serving as acting secretary at the pioneer citizens’ meeting was one Frank G. Barnard. So it was Barnard who penned the first entries in that small little notebook that would be come so very important, under a heading that stated “Publick Record” on page one.
The group’s goal, it was decided, was to petition Congress for their own territorial government and associated public officers. A “committee of seven” was formed, and given responsibility for ensuring the “observance of ordinances.”
Over the next three-and-a-half years, this small quasi-official record book memorialized land claims, timber rights, toll bridge licenses, and the designation of local officials. The very first land claim entered was that of John Reese himself: a full quarter-section of land, dated December 1, 1852.
Reese’s land claim, like those that followed, were written in terms that must have seemed perfectly clear to the settlers but today sound abysmally vague. The point of beginning for Reese’s land claim, for example, was “the first lone tree north of the Hot Springs.”
While Frank Barnard made the earliest entries in the First Records book, subsequent records were made by (possibly a brother?) E.L. Barnard, variously identified as Recorder or Justice of the Peace. And beginning about May 1853, the record-keeping seems to have been taken over by James C. Fain (who would become Sheriff two years later, when Carson County was formed).
With so many cooks in the kitchen, it’s not surprising the cake turned out a bit odd. Entries in the First Records book start at both ends and meet somewhere near the middle, and pagination isn’t consistent all the way through. But these pioneers tried their humble best to leave a record, and an amazing record it is, spanning the period from that first public meeting on November 12, 1851 through March 5, 1855 (an entry memorializing a document dated February 19, 1855).
The end of the First Records coincides with the arrival on June 15, 1855 of Orson Hyde, who’d been suggested for the post of local Probate Judge by Brigham Young. Upon election by the Utah territorial legislature, Hyde had been charged with organizing fledgling Carson County. It was Hyde who would suggest the name of Genoa for Reese’s station, and Genoa soon became the seat for the new county.
With the debut of a new, official county, of course, came the arrival of new, official county record books. Between 1855 and 1862, Carson County would amass 14 new volumes of land claims, as well as six volumes of Probate Court records.
The old First Records volume wasn’t cast aside entirely; while not all of those records were duplicated, the ten original land claims (including Reese’s) were confirmed in the first pages of the new official county records.
The first recorder for brand-new Carson County was a man named Henry Niles. But less than a year later, Judge Hyde appointed Stephen Kinsey to the post of Probate clerk, which made him ex officio recorder.
Kinsey was Reese’s nephew, and had been among the small party who arrived with Reese to operate the trading post back in 1851. Brilliant and curious, Kinsey was something of a Renaissance man: interested in everything around him. Among other things, he would later try his hand at gardening, dentistry, and bee-keeping.
As we’ve seen, Kinsey wasn’t the first scribe for Carson County. But from 1856 until 1860, he kept the new county’s records. When the Mormons were recalled to Salt Lake in September, 1857, Carson Valley quickly devolved into a hotbed of competing factions. Nevertheless, Kinsey continued to record claims as “deputy recorder”; he even won election as recorder the following year at the October 30, 1858 election.
But some settlers were eager to sever all connection with Utah Territory and start over. Six weeks after the fall 1858 election, the simmering dispute erupted into a boil – with the controversy aimed straight at Kinsey. On December 12, 1858, disgruntled citizens convened at Clear Creek Ranch and resolved to defy Salt Lake’s authority. They designated a “Committee of Ten” to pay an arm-twisting visit to Kinsey and demand that he turn over all his records to them. At best, this would have given the rebels the appearance of authority. At worst, it would have allowed them to destroy the prior paper trail (a far more likely motive). And the upstarts had no intention of being nice about it; according to Kinsey, they wanted the records “by force and at all hazards.”
Imagine standing your ground against ten angry men. But Kinsey did. Quickly and quietly, he arranged for W.J. Osborn to ferry the Carson County records to the Utah Territorial governor, Alfred Cumming.
The year 1859 slid by, and finally things settled down. In the spring of 1860, Gov. Cumming had judge John Cradlebaugh return the official records to Kinsey, who continued making entries.
Nevada became its own territory in March, 1861, and as part of the transition, Kinsey was replaced the following July, when Gov. Nye named Samuel D. King as recorder instead. But the story of Kinsey’s record-keeping doesn’t quite end there.
Douglas County was formed in November, 1861 (one of the nine original counties established by Nevada’s territorial legislature). It, like the other early counties, was entitled to receive a copy of the old Carson County records that applied to it. Kinsey himself apparently copied the records for Douglas County before leaving office in July, 1861. And Kinsey’s copy remains, to this day, in the kind protective custody of the Douglas County Recorder’s Office; the original volume is at State Archives.
That’s not quite the end of the old, early First Records book saga, either. The First Records predated Carson County’s formation, so the slim volume didn’t initially get passed along with the official Carson County documents. Instead, it wound up in private hands.
In 1880, when editor Myron Angel was compiling his famous History of Nevada, the First Records book was reportedly owned of Carson City resident Mark Gaige. In 1966, nearly a century later, the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly sadly declared the whereabouts of this priceless book were “unknown.”
Luckily for historians, in the early 1980s, tenacious local historian Grace Dangberg tracked down the whereabouts of the original First Records book and bought it with her own money. Researcher and historian Marion Ellison then indexed not only the First Records but also the Carson County records, a four-year labor of love culminating in an incredible reference work published by the Grace Dangberg Foundation in 1984. In March, 1985, Grace Dangberg donated the rare First Records book to the Nevada State Archives.
The First Records would have one more twist to its astonishing tale. In October 1989, this priceless early volume was stolen by a temporary worker who was helping to move the State Archives to temporary quarters. An accomplice attempted to sell the book to a local antiquities dealer, and law enforcement was soon hot on the trail. The book turned up soon thereafter in the State Library’s drop box, and – well, as they say, the rest is history. It’s back now at State Archives – and you can see it for yourself online: https://nsla.nv.gov/ld.php?
Grateful thanks to Douglas County Recorder Shawnyne Garren, for allowing us to see Douglas County’s Kinsey Record books in person, and to historians Bob Ellison and Jeff Kintop for their generous help and corrections for this story. Any remaining errors are strictly my own.