By Ron James
The Desert Canary, known locally as the Washoe Canary – “Washoe” was then a common term for what would later become Nevada – was a playful name for the prospector’s donkey in the late 1800s. He was a beast of burden, a stalwart companion, and an icon of the old Mining West. “Canary” referred to the ass’s braying, ironically compared to a songbird’s pleasing call. Smaller than a horse, a Washoe Canary was once described in a Virginia City tall tale as having been blown into air and traveling about for a bit, thanks to another famous local institution – the Washoe Zephyr.
A common Nevada legend about the desert canary involves the discovery of an important ore body after the prospector pursued an errant donkey. A similar (but less rewarding) chase of a stray canary featured Allen Grosh and his business partner in a discovery trek across the Sierra. Grosh, together with his brother Hosea, followed an ass’s trail and are now credited with being among the first to realize silver existed in the region that would later be known as the Comstock. Unfortunately, Allen’s November 1857 journey was delayed by a horrific snowstorm. Hosea had previously died of an infection after striking his foot with a pickaxe; Allen succumbed to exposure from the snow – but not before slaughtering the hapless donkey and trying to subsist on its remains.
Had it not been for Allen’s Washoe Canary, we might today be celebrating the Grosh Lode rather than the one named after Henry Comstock, who merely bluffed his way into the strike. But that is another story (and he owned a horse!).
Ron James is executive director of the Comstock Foundation for History and Culture, founded in 2013. He is also the co-editor of a book on the letters by the Grosh brothers: Ronald M. James and Robert E. Stewart, The Gold Rush Letters of E. Allen Grosh and Hosea B. Grosh (2012).