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Early city directories good resource for local history

The Union StaffResidence of Judge John Caldwell of Nevada City as it appears in the 1880 History of Nevada County.
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History is in the eyes of the beholder. Much of what we know about the history of our area is recorded in diaries, letters, newspapers and, oddly enough, early city directories. The last source is often

ignored as a resource to

those unfamiliar with local history because of the title “directory.”



The earliest city directories contained sketches or concise histories of the area the directories covered. The early directories were typically written by the most literate, highly respected citizens living in the county, whom we would call the “movers and the shakers” of the early days.

The first such directory published in Nevada County contained a 50-page history of the three early towns. The 1856 Brown & Dallison’s Nevada, Grass Valley and Rough and Ready Directory was written by one of our early settlers, Aaron Augustus Sargent, a printer, journalist and attorney who became a congressman, U. S. senator and minister to Germany.




Sargent arrived in September of 1850. He worked as a printer in San Francisco prior to settling in Nevada County. Later directories published in 1861, 1865 and 1867 would draw from this first early history written by Sargent.

We can rely on the histories from these early directories as factual because they were written by men who were living here, witnessed the events that took place, and/or interviewed the original settlers in the first couple of years of settlement.

Many of these early residents would move on due to good or bad luck in mining.

Another reason we accept them as factual is that since we had so many newspapers published in Nevada County during the early years, the newspapers would be bombarded with letters to correct and “set the record straight” on any errors by those in the know.

There have been more than 23 local newspaper titles published here and that number increases if you consider the many weekly papers that changed to dailies and were published for a short time.

In spite of the many first-hand accounts and original documents and writings on the early history of Nevada County, the most widely used and read history of our area continues to be the 1880 History of Nevada County California, published by printing partners Thomas Hinkley Thompson and Albert Augustus West.

Thompson and West published a series of 17th county histories from the late 1870s through 1892, including the histories of Los Angeles and Sacramento counties in 1880.

Beginning in the late 1870s through the early 1920s, county histories were being published in the United States as quickly as publishers could write, illustrate and print them. Nevada County was no exception.

Our now famous history, known by local histories and researchers as the Thompson & West, was reprinted in 1970 by Howell-North Books; this is the edition most of us are familiar with. A copy of the original 1880 edition is rare and very expensive.

The publishers of county histories would assign young writers the job of going into a county and, according to the introduction to the 1970 edition of the 1880 history, “… these men used methods in vogue at the close of the nineteenth century …” Once business agents of publishers had secured subscriptions sufficient for financial underwriting, the authors went to work.

Where appropriate, they liberally excerpted passages from well known, and in some cases classic, works of California by distinguished personages.

In the case of Thompson and West’s History of Nevada County, the sources were courteously identified and quotation marks liberally used.

While Thompson & West writers compiled the text, unidentified artists were sent throughout the county to sketch views that had been commissioned by patrons.

Our 1880 history was produced in eight months, and although it is unlike many of the histories written during the late 19th century – well- known today as “mug books” – the biographies written were flowery and complimentary.

Instead of the usual full-page formal photographs that subscribing citizens would submit, Thompson and West chose to use drawings of business establishments and homes of prominent citizens drawn by artists they employed.

Most all of the beautiful drawings are the size of a full page, although a few span two of the large odd-size pages.

Omission is the most apparent short-fall in these histories – they leave out a great majority of people who were living in the county but did not pay to be included in the history.

They may have viewed these books as frivolous, and the expense may have been a deciding factor for a majority who weren’t included.

The other significant factor is the inaccuracies that mix up people, locations and events. Even interviews conducted with long-time residents often suffered from distance and time passing after the actual events, with residents trying to recall events and names of 30 years prior.

Many of the early citizens had died or left the area, and their presence or contributions were long forgotten.

Maria E. Brower is a local researcher and member of both the Nevada County Genealogical Society and the Nevada County Historical Society. She works at the Doris Foley History Branch Library


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