Home Journalist W.J. Forbes

W.J. Forbes

W.J. Forbes — this is the only photograph we could find.

Born in Ohio, date unknown

Died October 30 1875 in Battle Mountain

He was famous as “a twister of words who hid a pun in a sentence . . . Unfortunately most of his good things are now considered too broad for reproduction.” He ran newspapers all over northern Nevada and was widely quoted around the USA.

W. J. Forbes — Who shall speak the fitting words in memory of W. J. Forbes. His own worst enemy, that lamentable fact is invariably brought out by his biographers. Doubtless it serves a useful purpose, and the custom need not be departed from even here among these words of appreciation.

But he was bright with the undeniable brightness of unquenchable genius. How else could he have borne himself so well and so long under the self-imposed burden of self-indulgence?

Pioneers still laugh about his quips and fancies. Writing under the pen-name of “Semblens” he discoursed on every subject known to man, and his shafts so often hit the mark that he became popular with all classes of readers.

Forbes simply could not keep out of a printing office. Journalism was his natural element. Quick at repartee, his bitter words often left scars that were slow to heal. After flaying a man and hanging his hide on the fence he would say, “Thus far we have been mild,” and would give his victim another basting.

Semblins has been watching the record of the “superior race” which Bragg’s army has made from Kentucky to Georgia, and he thinks that some noble blood must ‘run’ in the veins of those soldiers.

Some marks of hatred followed him beyond the bourne, and commenting on this exhibition of malice, a friendly hand penned these words :

“The enemies of Forbes seem to take comfort from the report that he was suffering from softening of the brain. There was nothing in his latest work to indicate such a condition. Be that as it may, he was a noble soul, misguided in some respects, mayhap, but he was faulted mostly by persons whom fate had munificently forefended against any such fate as they ascribe to him.”

Forbes declared that he would rather be the possessor of a handful of battered type and a rattletrap press, with a power to say his mind as he pleased, than to be the owner of any other business establishment, no matter what the financial returns, and he proved it by deserting a prosperous business to return to an editorial position, from the emoluments of which he was only able to eke out a bare existence.

It was in White Pine County he remarked, “of twenty men, nineteen patronized the saloon and one the newspaper, and he was going with the crowd.”

He started his saloon and it was probably the only paying business he ever engaged in, but in the midst of his prosperity he sold out and, drifting back to journalism, soon sunk all the profits he had made in the liquor business.

His witty sallies became quoted all over the United States, and probably the most quoted of all and one that has been credited to many different sources, was his thrust at Governor Nye, who secured the appropriation of $75,000 for the building of a dam and sawmill to manufacture lumber for the Piute Indians, all of which was expended with no tangible results. Forbes said that Governor Nye had “a dam by a mill site, but no mill by a d— site.”

Semblins has no faith in the effort to raise the ship Aquila by means of a coffer-dam. It reminds him of a cow in Ilinois which he saw swallow a thistle and coffer dam head off.

“Unfortunately most of his good things are now considered too broad for reproduction.” He ran newspapers all over northern Nevada and was widely quoted all over Nevada and California.

In 1865, he was the proprietor & editor of the Humboldt Register in Unionville. In 1868, he was back on the Comstock where he purchased the Daily Union (formerly the Silver Age in Carson City), which he memorably renamed the Trespass, operated it for only a matter of months and sold it again.

He was in Eureka briefly, with a newspaper called The Cupel, after an assayer’s tool for separating gold from dross.

In 1873 he started the New Endowment in Salt Lake and threw down the gauntlet to the Mormons. Later on he realized that there was no profit at that time in publishing a Gentile paper in a Mormon community and closed his valedictory with these words:

“We cease publication because we did not bring money enough with us.”

Returning to Nevada he started Measure for Measure at Battle Mountain. It was a wonderful paper, but did not pay, and a friend found him on the morning of October 30, 1875, lying stiff and cold across his shabby bed. He had fought a fight against odds all his life, was one of the brightest geniuses the coast had ever seen, but he lacked the faculty of making and saving money and lived in communities where his mental brightness was more envied than appreciated.

Ten years before, with a prophetic pen, he wrote: “Death cannot be a matter of much moment to an editor—no thirty days’ notice required by law—it is the local incident of a moment, a few days as advertised on the fourth page, a few calls by subscribers not in arrears. A short, quick breath—then the subscription paper for burial expenses.”

Forbes’s final resting place is Coloma, El Dorado County, California, where he lies buried alongside his wife.

Text by Sam Davis, Wells Drury and Donald Dickerson


  1. W. J. Forbes was the editor of the Humboldt Register in 1864 when Nevada’s Constitution was defeated by the voters in January. He and his friends from Unionville including Nevada’s second State Controller William K. Parkinson and future Arizona Territorial Governor Anson Safford passed their own Constitution for the State of Buena Vista. Mark Twain may have been the Governor of the Third House, but Forbes was the Governor of the State of Buena Vista, . The Register followed the state’s first legislative session, not only was the news of the new state reported in the paper, there was hand written volume in the Humboldt County Courthouse that appears to be the Journal of the First State Legislative Assembly. After a while there was no news from the new state, but when Nevada’s 1864 State Constitution was going befog ether voters in September, Forbes came out against the new state, writing that they didn’t need any more “bone-headed politicians”or something like that. It’s been a long time since I read the story. Forbes was indeed a Nevada original.

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