Debate on Nevada's oldest settlement turns on diary

RENO -- A library assistant at the Nevada Historical Society has rekindled the biggest historical debate in Nevada: the dueling claims of Genoa and Dayton as the first permanent settlement in Nevada.

Heidi Englund, the assistant, said the original journal of Lucena Parsons, who stopped a few weeks in the Dayton area in the spring of 1851, has never been found. And she thinks a typewritten copy of the diary prepared in 1928 could have been embellished.

That journal is the "smoking gun" in the debate between Genoa and Dayton, said Guy Rocha, former state archivist and a longtime Nevada historian. According to Parsons, the founder of Genoa passed by more than 200 people in the Dayton area panning gold on his way to resurrect Genoa, meaning Dayton got its start at least several weeks before Genoa was founded in 1851.

Rocha said Englund needs to produce a lot more evidence to discredit the diary. He said institutions commonly receive typed copies of journals because families wanted to keep the originals.

According to the journal, Parsons was on a covered-wagon train that arrived at Gold Canyon, as Dayton was then known, on May 28, 1851. The next day, she reported that about 200 people had packed over from California to prospect for gold in the canyon. And she and her husband joined in.

The smoking gun: On June 5, she reported that a man named Reese, a merchant from Salt Lake City, arrived.

"He had some 16 wagons, mostly loaded with flour, to supply Carson valley," she wrote. "He stopped near our camp."

She wrote that he left the next day.

John Reese, who built a trading post that summer, is regarded as the founder of Mormon Station, later named Genoa. Mormon settlers were there before but had left in the winter of 1850-51, abandoning their claim as the first settlement, Rocha said.

In 1928, Elizabeth Wilbur and Elene Wilbur donated the transcript of Parsons' diary called "The Woman in the Sun­bonnet" to the special Collections Division of Stanford University's library.

From her research, Englund said she thinks Elene is Parsons' daughter but is no relation to Elizabeth. With Parsons and Wilbur being common names, the family history is hard to nail down, Englund said.

Elizabeth Wilbur wrote an introduction to the transcript. In it, Wilbur romanticizes the American woman as the true hero in the great Western migration.

"It's very emotional," Englund said. It also includes details about Parsons' family that Englund thinks must have come from Elene.

Englund said Elizabeth Wilbur was a poet and songwriter. She wrote poems about being homesick. And she said Parsons had great difficulty controlling her homesickness in the diary.

Englund said scratched-off markings on the document indicate Elizabeth Wilbur had prepared the document for a movie script.

"I'm not disputing this is a diary," Englund said. "We don't know if it came from a list of letters or scraps of paper. We just don't know. No one has ever seen it. So we don't know how much Elizabeth wrote into the diary. We just don't know."

Englund said the manuscript was submitted to the library without any backup material.

The diary later gained fame when it was reprinted in "Covered Wagon Women," Volume 2, compiled by Kenneth Holmes, in 1983. Holmes noted the typescript was donated by the Wilburs to Stanford University. The chapter was given the title of "The Journal of Lucena Parsons."

"It was nothing more than a transcript. It was not the original diary," Englund said. "Without the diary, you don't have a primary source, and you can't prove that claim," she said, of Dayton's claim to being the first settlement.

Englund was raised in Gardnerville, not far from Genoa. She considers Genoa the first settlement in the state as Mormons from Utah began arriving in 1847.

Don Buck, a retired trail historian in Sunnyvale, Calif., has studied hundreds of diaries from pioneers in the West, mostly those who crossed Utah and Nevada. Buck said he recently reread Parsons diary and finds her account to be authentic.

Rocha said he has a hard time finding a good reason why Elizabeth Wilbur would have changed the diary, particularly the key passage where she describes Reese on his way to Mormon Station.

The battling claims between Dayton and Genoa evolved only in modern times.

"It's the biggest historical debate in Nevada. Those two women in 1928 could have foretold that?" Rocha said. "If you put this before a judge of history, Lucena wrote what she wrote in the moment."