Educated at Princeton and in England, being part of Carl Jung’s inner circle of patient-prodigies, leading new movements in the field of psychology -- these features seem far removed from Joseph L. Henderson’s roots in the pioneer history of northeastern Nevada.
“When I first learned Joe Henderson had been born and raised in Elko, Nevada, I hesitated to mention it to him for fear it would embarrass him,” wrote C. Jess Groesbeck, pointing out that Henderson was associated with more important places, such as Zurich and London. “It seemed to me the town of his birth and early life would be of least importance to him, especially since it was such an obscure place. To my surprise, I found just the opposite was true. He told me his Elko heritage was so significant to him that it came up frequently in his dreams while in analysis with Jung.”
Joe’s story begins back in the early settlement days of the American West. His great-grandfather was Lewis Rice Bradley, an Elko County cattle baron who went on to become Nevada’s second governor. His grandfather was Jefferson Henderson, a Missouri pharmacist whom Bradley met on a wagon train to Stockton, California, before they both moved to Elko. Jefferson had married one of Bradley’s daughters in Missouri, where they gave birth to John Henderson in 1864. Eight years later they returned to Elko briefly, then moved to San Jose and eventually back to Elko.
“Both sides of his family possessed the pioneer spirit of the Old West,” wrote Thomas B. Kirsch in a short biography.
Jefferson founded a bank in Elko in 1880. “He was the only banker in that part of the state, and, because of his acumen and his connections in the livestock business, he was enormously successful where others had failed,” another biographer, Gareth Hill, wrote.
Joseph himself would later describe the family’s life in Elko:
“Jefferson and Sarah Henderson lived in Elko in a large, pleasant house of Georgian style reminiscent of the Palladian or Colonial houses in Virginia from which they originally came. It was made of red brick and had arched windows with white trim ...” He recalled how the whole town of Elko turned out for Sarah’s funeral in 1918:
“I remember that William Jennings Bryan, who was in town lecturing on the Chatauqua circuit, made a speech eulogizing her as an important member of the Henderson and Bradley families, well known for having contributed so much to the founding and development of Elko County, and of the State of Nevada.”
The bank was handed on to son John after Jefferson’s death. Meanwhile, John married Maud Henley of Red Bluff, California, the daughter of a mining engineer who moved to Elko in 1891 to take her first teaching position. They had three children, with little Joe born on Aug. 31, 1903, as the middle child between an older sister and younger brother.
When he was only three months old, Joe developed an eye infection “that threatened to make him totally blind,” wrote Kirsch. His uncle Joseph, an eye doctor whom he was named after, saved little Joe’s vision in one eye but he was left blind in the other. “In a ranching community, this loss of depth perception hampered his development in normal boyhood activities,” wrote Kirsch. Many years later, while under analysis in Zurich, Jung would remark that his diminished eyesight “enhanced his inner vision and his interest in dreams and symbols.”
It was during his formative years in Elko that Joseph had his introduction to native culture. “He has often related his early life impression of and contacts with the Indians of the West,” wrote Groesbeck. “He has told of significant dreams involving Indians in his later work and analytical development with Jung.” These early impressions included a native nanny who would look after the Henderson children.
In those days Elko businesses and residences were clustered near the train depot, one of many western stops built along the transcontinental railroad line by 1868. Shoshone Indians still lived in teepees and wickiups scattered along the Humboldt River and on the northern and western edges of town. When Joe was a child, the Henderson bank was in a small building at the corner of Fourth and Commercial streets.
Today, Indians still live in and along the outskirts of town -- but in modern homes that are part of federally established reservations -- and the former bank building is now a bar, suitably named the Silver Dollar Club. It sits across the street from Stockmen’s Hotel and Casino.
Joseph’s father objected to the legalization of gambling, he recalled, because “he believed that money should be earned honestly by hard work.”
“The Henderson Bank was established as a bulwark of capitalist integrity in Elko County and no one was allowed to borrow money who did not provide a good moral and financial probability of repaying it,” Joseph wrote.
Joseph described how his father John and uncle Charles formed the Henderson-Griswold Livestock Company, along with Chauncey W. Griswold, as “a final attempt to maintain the tradition of cattle barons in the spirit of ‘Old Broadhorns,’ L.R. Bradley.” It consisted of three cattle and two sheep ranches, which thrived between 1906 and 1925.
“One of the chief functions that my father performed in Elko County was to help the cattle and sheep ranchers to survive, to flourish and to exchange lands without too much distress to their owners,” Joseph wrote in a brief history of his family. “Some of the biggest ranch owners were periodically absent from the state, and he had no end of trouble untying the financial knots into which they tied themselves without knowing it.”
Henderson had fond memories of ranch life in those days, and how in his teen years he work during haying season at the “Miller Place in Pleasant Valley” with his cousins.
“One summer I had to trail six bulls with my friend Tom Griswold over a great expanse of sagebrush desert and mountains from Ike Griswold’s ranch near Halleck to another which took us on a three days’ journey that seemed like three years,” he wrote. “But we were partially rewarded by spending a night along the way at a large ‘buckaroo’ camp engaged in the great autumn round-up, with cowboys who rode all day and caroused all night, or so it seemed to us. This was something of the old West I had never seen before nor ever saw again.”
John Henderson did his best to groom young Joseph for a career in banking, just as his father Jefferson had done before him.
“It was a great disappointment to him that I, as his eldest son, had no aptitude for the banking business and no other young man of the family could be found as a successor,” Joseph later wrote.
When it became clear that he had no interest in managing money, he was sent off to prep school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. This was his aunt Ethel’s idea, and it certainly didn’t hurt that his uncle was U.S. Sen. Charles Henderson, a former Elko district attorney who had been appointed to represent Nevada in 1918 upon the death of Francis G. Newlands. It was an opportunity that would set Joseph on a path leading far beyond the remote high desert of Nevada. While at Lawrenceville, he was taught French by none other than Thornton Wilder, who would go on to write one of the most popular novels and most beloved plays of the century.
At around the same time, Joe’s uncle Charles was convinced by a local doctor to pass legislation providing for an Indian school in Elko. It opened in 1923 in the vicinity of what is now Eighth and Sage streets. The one-room schoolhouse had one teacher for all elementary grades, and received little funding from the school district. According to an account in “Nevada’s Northeast Frontier,” one school trustee remarked: “We give them a diploma as soon as they can make out an order to Montgomery Ward.” The school had about 30 students but attendance was poor. It closed in the late 1930s and Indians began attending regular public schools at that time.
Historian Edna Patterson later recalled how the local Indians were still being treated by “medicine men” in the 1960s. Her notes included this statement from a native in 1963:
“I was sick. The Elko doctors do no good. I go to doctor at Owyhee. He pray over me and make motions with hands. Tell me to get my man to carve arrowhead from mountain mahogany, and bring it to him. Man carve arrowhead and I take it to Owyhee. Doctor put red paint on it and make more motions with hands. Then put nail polish on over paint and put on chain and fasten around my neck. Tell me never take it off. Each day at noon say prayer. Stay inside house. Have nothing to do with other Indian people for two weeks. I feel much better now. Pay him money. Go back again before long, pay more money and feel much, much better.”
Patterson mentions another medicine man, named Pa-Mo-Tau, who died in 1967 at the age of 107. Known as Willie Dorsey among whites, he “had complete knowledge of medicinal herbs and his patients included Indians, Chinese and white people.”
Surely young Joseph heard similar tales of healing while he was growing up in Elko half a century earlier. He, too, would live a very long life, but healing people was not on his mind when he went to college.