After failing as a miner, William Wright (Dan De Quille) achieved modest success as a journalist in the Comstock Lode mining district of the Old West.
Young Sam Clemens, who briefly worked on the same Nevada newspaper staff as William Wright (penname “Dan De Quille”) during the 1860s, later encouraged Wright to write an account of life in Old West mining towns.
When it was published in 1876, The Big Bonanza carried an “Introductory” by none other than Wright’s old associate—penname “Mark Twain.”
William Wright Goes West
Born to a farming family in 1829 in Ohio, Wright began a westward transition when his family relocated to Iowa in the late 1840s. He meanwhile wrote articles for local newspapers, married in 1853 and began a family. Six years later, the silver boom lured him to the Comstock area, not far from present-day Lake Tahoe. He left his family behind to seek his fortune.
Wright’s success as a miner was abysmal. To help earn a living, he began writing articles from the mining region for a San Francisco newspaper. In 1862, he joined the staff of the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada. The same year, the Enterprise fleetingly engaged a wandering young writer named Sam Clemens, recently AWOL from the Confederate Army.
Under the alias “Dan De Quille,” William Wright became the newspaper’s star reporter—an honored role he kept for the next 30 years. Clemens went on to much higher accomplishments.
Dan De Quille: Voice of Rowdy Mining Towns
De Quille’s accounts, summarized most memorably in The Big Bonanza, included details of mining hardships and tragedies as well as successes. One chapter is devoted to the heartrending story of the 1846 Donner party. De Quille told of mine dynamics, intriguing characters, wild critters, crude romances, hard drinking, feuding, natives troublesome as well as amicable, exploration, speculations and twists of wealth. De Quille’s hallmark was his ability to mesmerize readers with extended, funny, exaggerated accounts of miners and the mining life.
In his chapter “Pay-Day at the Mines,” he wrote: “When the miners receive their wages the first business of the unmarried men is to pay the rent of their lodging-room, and the next is to pay their bill at the restaurant, while the married men settle their bills at the meat-markets, the grocery and provision stores, and the dry-goods store. Happy is the man who can square up every month and have a few dollars to put by for a rainy day.”
But many miners squandered whatever they earned at the gambling tables. “Much of the time they are working to pay for a ‘dead horse,’ for when they have lost their wages they borrow as long as they can find friends to lend.”
Mark Twain’s Tribute to Dan De Quille
Mark Twain observed in the book’s introduction that De Quille “has spent sixteen years in the heart of the silver-mining region, as one of the editors of the principal daily newspapers of Nevada; he is thoroughly acquainted with his subject, and wields a practiced pen. He is a gentleman of character and reliability. Certain of us who have known him personally during half a generation are well able to testify in this regard.”
De Quille’s accounts were published in many periodicals throughout America and abroad. In the mid-1890s, in failing health, he returned east to live with a daughter. He died of pneumonia on 16 March 1898 in West Liberty, Iowa.
- Berkove, Lawrence, & Ronald James. “William Wright, AKA Dan De Quille.” The Online Nevada Encyclopedia (2010).
- De Quille, Dan (William Wright). The Big Bonanza. Alfred A. Knopf reprint (1947).
- University of Nevada/Reno Knowledge Center.