Stories of the Humboldt Wagon Road

According to the back cover, Andy Mark’s new book promises “Thrills, Chills & Mills.” You could say that it also features Spills, ‘Villes, and even Kills. In Stories of the Humboldt Wagon Road he tells the history of the road from Chico, through Jonesville, to Prattville, and all the way to Susanville, with many a stop along the way at wayside watering holes and busy sawmills. Here are the loggers, the miners, and the families who ranched and ran hotels along the road.

Andy has garnered his stories primarily from newspaper accounts of the day from the 1860s, when work on the road began, up through the 1890s. The road was a vital link in the region, opening up the mountains to mining, logging, and summer recreation. Accidents were common on the road, and there are accounts of snowbound travelers, runaway teams, and overturned wagons. Not to mention stagecoach robberies and encounters with grizzly bears. Whether human or animal, some of the creatures met on the road were dangerous.

Perhaps even more dangerous than travel on the wagon road were trips down the flume that ran through Chico Creek. The book features a number of exciting stories of upsets in the flume and falls from great heights.

A trip down the flume on a raft was a quick and easy way to get to town and the scenery on view was magnificent, but a weakened flume section or a collision with a log jam could mean injury or worse. It was a tempting but perilous means of transportation.

Andy has a great interest in local history and it is clear that he knows the landscape and the layout of the Humboldt Wagon Road. As the author of The West Branch Mill of the Sierra Lumber Company (History Press 2012) he brings his expert knowledge of logging in the Sierra Nevada to this effort. Journey the road with him and find out what adventure awaits on this historic route.

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Alvin A. Coffey, African-American Pioneer

Alvin Aaron Coffey arrived in California in the fall of 1849 in company with his master, Dr. William Bassett. Coffey was born into slavery in 1822 or 1824 in Mason County, Kentucky, the property of Margaret Cooke. Bassett was his third master, who promised him that he could earn the money to buy his freedom, and the freedom of his wife and children, in the goldfields of California. It was a promise that Dr. Bassett would not keep.

Coffey told his story in his Autobiography and Reminiscence of Alvin Aaron Coffey, recorded in 1901 for the Society of California Pioneers. You can read it here. He was the only African-American member of the SCP. Members had to have come to California before 1850, and Coffey was a genuine forty-niner.

Most of his short autobiography is an account of that 1849 overland journey.

When we got pretty well down the Humboldt to a place called Lawsons Meadow, which was quite a way from the sink of the Humboldt, the emigrants agreed to divide there. . . . We camped a day and two nights, resting the oxen, for we had a desert to cross to get to Black Rock where there was grass and water.

(His use of the name Lawson shows how out pronunciation of Lassen’s name has changed.)

Starting to cross the desert to Black Rock at 4 o’clock in the evening we traveled all night. The next day was hot and sandy. . . . A great number of cattle perished before we got to Black Rock. When about 15 miles from Black Rock, a team of four oxen was left on the rad just where the oxen had died. Every thing was left in the wagon. I drove our oxen all the time and I knew about how much an ox could stand. Between 9 and 10 o’clock a breeze came up and the oxen threw up their heads and seemed to have new life. At noon we drove into Black Rock.

The oxen perked up at the scent of water. They still had a long way to go and Coffey mentions wolves, the dangers of hot springs to cattle, poor feed, and hard traveling. They came down Deer Creek to the Sacramento Valley and then went up to Redding Springs and began mining. In 1851 they returned to Missouri, where Coffey hoped to buy his freedom and reunite with his wife and children.

I worked thirteen months for him in California. I saved him [earned for him] $5,500 in gold dust. I saved $616 of my own money in gold dust. Going home in 1851 we went by the way of New Orleans. He said, “Let us go to the mint and have out gold coined.” He kept my money (616 dollars) and when we got up into Missouri, he sold me for a thousand more.

My labor on his farm [before they went to California] amounted to $360, I made $5500 for him in California, he kept my $616 I had saved and sold me for $1000; in this way clearing $8,876 clear profit.

Some say slavery is not profitable!

Coffey persuaded his new owner to allow him to return to California to earn money to purchase his freedom, and returned to the goldfields in 1854. By 1856, he had earned $1000, enough to purchase his freedom. He continued mining and working at other jobs until he had earned another $3,500. In 1857 he returned to Missouri and came back to California with his wife and three sons. Another son was born free in California in 1858.

The Coffey family first settled in Shasta County, and then later bought a farm in Tehama County. During the Modoc War, Coffey provided livestock to the U.S. Army and served as a teamster. Alvin A. Coffey died in the Home for Aged Colored People that he had helped to found in Oakland in 1902. The following obituary and tribute appeared in the Red Bluff Daily News.

Red Bluff Daily News, 30 October 1902
Red Bluff Daily News, 31 October 1902
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Meeting President Lincoln

John Bidwell believed fervently in the Union cause. In 1864 he was a California delegate to the Republican National Convention in Baltimore on June 7-8, where Lincoln was renominated for president. Bidwell was in the delegation sent to the White House to inform Lincoln of his renomination.

Upon his return home, he spoke to the Butte County “Lincoln and Johnson Club” on August 10th, 1864, about his experiences. He was pleased to have met with President Lincoln and gave this description, as reported in the Weekly Butte Record:

While at the Capitol, I had the pleasure of several interviews with the President. I found him to be a man possessed of that great and most precious of all natural gifts, plain common sense. Still he was not exactly the man I had expected to see. I had been told that he was continually inclined to jest, and that he did not appear to appreciate the magnitude of our national troubles. Suffice it to say that much injustice has been done Mr. Lincoln in reference to his personal traits. What are called jokes should in most instances be styled apt illustrations. He is calm, reflective, quite fluent in speech, and evidently feels the weight of the responsibility resting upon him. The more I saw of him the better I was pleased, and the more he looked like a President.

(Weekly Butte Record, 20 August 1864)

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A Valentine Poem by the Miner Poet

Here is a Valentine poem from our own Bard of Butte, first published in the Butte Record on February 28, 1863. He signs himself ALP, his nom de plume based on the initials of his name, Alexander Preston Longley,

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Gold on the Feather River — A Timeline

When did John Bidwell discover gold on the Feather River?

As you can see from the following timeline, he made more than one discovery, culminating in finding rich deposits at Bidwell’s Bar. It is also interesting to notice how much traveling Bidwell did in the six months between January and July 1848.

Sources: New Helvetia Diary, two dictations by John Bidwell for H.H. Bancroft in 1877 and 1891, and letters written by John Bidwell.

Jan. 24: Gold discovered at Coloma by James Marshall (this is the date usually given, but it may have been a couple of days earlier or later)

Feb. 29:  Bidwell shown gold by John A. Sutter at Sutter’s Fort (New Helvetia Diary)

March 2-7: Bidwell searches for lost horses, then leaves for Sonoma and San Rafael, where he intends to buy fruit trees. Sutter has entrusted him with a gold sample to take to San Francisco.

The very spring that gold was discovered, I was preparing to set out my farm, and had dug the first irrigating ditch in the Sacramento Valley. As soon as I got my ditch ready and the ground prepared, I went over to San Rafael and Sonoma to get my trees. I crossed over to San Francisco and reported the discovery of gold.. (NHD, JB-91)

mid-March:   Bidwell has gold assayed in San Francisco (JB-91)

March 27:  Bidwell arrives at Sutter’s Fort and leaves on the 29th. (NHD)

March 29-April 1: Bidwell camps on the Feather River near Hamilton, washes gold out of river. “While my horse was off feeding, I took a tin cup and went down to the river; washed the sands as well as I could, and every cupful took out small particles of gold.” (JB-91)

early April: Bidwell and friends look for gold on Butte Creek and the Feather River. “A week or two later myself and a few men found gold on Butte Creek, on the West Branch of the Feather River, and in several ravines and on main Feather River at White Rock.” (JB to A. Ekman 17 Jan 1898)

April 22:  Bidwell and William Dickey go to Sutter’s Fort and Coloma, where they stake mining claims.

I went up, as others did, to see the place [Coloma], and made arrangements to hold mining claims there. Marshall built a little cabin on my claim so that I could hold it. (NHD, JB-91)

Apr 30: Bidwell and Dickey return from Coloma. (NHD)

May 2: Bidwell and George McKinstry check out the Consumnes River. (NHD)

May 8-13:  Bidwell busy surveying Sutterville, a job he had contracted to do for Sutter. (NHD)

May 21: Bidwell writes to McKinstry from Sutter’s Fort about the influx of  gold diggers and the need to invest in cattle and provisions because “everything in the provision line is about to command an exorbitant price.” (JB to GMcK 21 May 1848)

May 22: Bidwell leaves for Upper Sacramento Valley.  (NHD)

late May:  Bidwell assembles friends and supplies and they go prospecting on the Feather River. “I think it was late in May before we made our first mining camp on Feather River at the mouth of Morris Ravine.” (JB to A. Ekman 17 Jan 1898)

On reaching Chico an expedition was organized but it took some time to get everything ready. We had to send twice up to Peter Lassen’s mill to obtain flour, meat had to be dried, and we had to send to Sacramento for tools. In our party were Mr. [William] Dickey, [John] Potter, John Williams, William Northgraves, and myself. We passed near Cherokee and up on the North Fork.

In nearly all the places we prospected we found the color. One evening while camped at White Rock, Dickey and I in a short time panned out about an ounce of fine gold. The others refused to prospect and said the gold we had obtained was so light that it would not weigh anything. At this time we were all unfamiliar with the weight of gold dust but I am satisfied that what we had would have weighed an ounce. (JB-77)

June 19: Bidwell writes to George McKinstry from Sutter’s Hock Farm.

I have been up to my Ranch, moved camp down to the bend of Feather river with a quantity of meat and coarse flour, and have come down to take up the things that were sent up in the canoe. Tomorrow I shall land in the “diggings.”

June 24: Bidwell writes to McKinstry from “Feather River below first camp.”

Last week we did tolerably well washing the sands along the river – we made something not far from $1000 – This week we have done but little – The first camp above where we were when you came to us, was good – the first day of our arrival there we took out not less than 300 dollars. – but the place soon became exhausted it being small, and we have not been able to find as good a one since – In fact if Mr. McCall had not arrived I should have sent an express to you yesterday. We are not making over $50 per day with all our Indians – and if we do not find a good place in one or two days at most, I want to go down either to Yuba or the American Fork.

California State Library

On the same date (June 24) Bidwell makes a note of “Articles taken to camp belonging to Pierson B. Reading for use Bidwell Mining Co.” He is getting organized and making plans, but hasn’t yet found rich diggings. He keeps exploring the Feather River and sometime in the next ten days he finds what he is looking for.

July 4: Bidwell discovers gold at what becomes Bidwell’s Bar. “On July 4 I discovered Bidwell’s Bar, and the next day moved up and took possession.” (JB to A. Ekman 17 Jan 1898)

This letter, written fifty years later to Dr. Adolph Ekman, a pharmacist in Oroville, is the only place I have seen Bidwell give a date to his gold discovery at Bidwell’s Bar. The letter is in the archive at Lake Oroville State Recreation Area. A copy was sent to me by Chuck Smay, author of The Town of Bidwell at Bidwell’s Bar: Boom and Bust, 1848-1860. (Thanks, Chuck!)

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Best-Sellers at Bidwell’s Bar

Take a guess — What were the best-selling items at John Bidwell’s store?

When I wrote a biography of John Bidwell in 2010, I wanted to include a photo of a page from his 1849 store ledger. I paged through the ledger at the California State Library, looking for a good representative page. But there were a couple of problems.

One was simply that half the ledger was written in pencil. Too hard to read.

Secondly, on many pages almost all the purchases were for brandy or other alcoholic beverages. I wanted my book to be suitable for young readers — I needed a page that showed a variety of products.

I settled on this one, with brandy, yes, but also sugar, flour, vinegar and quinine:

But this one is more typical:

That’s a lot of brandy!

Brandy, at $6 a bottle, was far and away the best-selling beverage. Miners could also buy ale or porter ($3), wine ($4), or whiskey ($6). I imagine that if you wanted to get drunk, brandy was the quickest way. Not to mention that it was also considered to have medicinal value.

It’s no wonder when ordering supplies from George McKinstry that Bidwell wrote “Let the cargo consist in a considerable quantity of Liquors in Bbls (barrels) & cases both” and “It will be necessary to send a few empty bottles.” (10 July 1849)

Keep in mind that this was long before John Bidwell met and married Annie. He was a businessman who knew his market and how to supply it.

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Jennie Wimmer and the Gold Discovery

Happy Gold Discovery Day!

January 24, 1848 is the date usually given for the discovery of gold at Coloma on the American River, where James Marshall found those first few flakes of gold in the millrace. It may have been a few days earlier, or a few days later, but January 24 is the date most generally accepted. And everyone knows that James Marshall was the man who discovered gold and touched off the California Gold Rush.

But how many know the names of Peter and Jennie Wimmer? They have just as good a good claim to be gold discoverers, and Jennie was the only person in the camp who actually had experience in gold mining, and knew gold when she saw it. In fact, she had been telling the men for some time that the shiny specks in the water were gold. But what would a woman know about that?

Jennie Wimmer

Elizabeth Jane “Jennie” Cloud Wimmer was born In Virginia in 1822. In 1838, when she was 16 yeas old, her family moved to north Georgia where Jennie helped her mother run a boarding house for miners. In her free time Jennie went out with her gold pan to do a little prospecting for herself. She developed a good eye for the signs of gold-bearing ore.

She moved to Missouri with her first husband and two children. After his death, she married widower Peter Wimmer, who had five children of his own. In 1845 they joined a wagon train headed for California. Peter went to work for John Sutter and became James Marshall’s assistant in the building of the sawmill at Coloma. Jennie was hired to cook for the men.

There is some debate whether it was Marshall by himself, or Marshall and Wimmer together, that first spotted gold in the tailrace of the mill. Marshall liked to take sole credit, but Peter Wimmer claimed he allowed James Marshall the credit since Marshall was the one who picked up the little nugget.

J.W. Marshall and Mrs. Wimmer Testing Gold. From California Gold Book; Its Discovery and Discoverers by W.W. Allen and R.B. Avery, published in San Francisco in 1893.

But there is no doubt that Jennie Wimmer was the first to test it. Although others were skeptical, thinking it might be iron pyrites that had been found, she recognized the first nugget as true gold. In an interview published in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1874 she stated: “I said, ‘this is gold, and I will throw it into my lye kettle, and if it is gold, it will be gold when it comes out.’”

Jennie was making soap that day with lye she had made from wood ashes. She threw the nugget in the kettle with the mixture of lye and grease, and left it overnight. After she took off the soap, the nugget of gold was found in the bottom of the kettle the next morning, even more bright and yellow than when it had gone in.

No one could doubt it. There was gold in the American River, and soon gold fever would sweep the nation.

The Wimmer Nugget. Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

That first little nugget of gold remained in James Marshall’s possession after he showed it to John Sutter. In gratitude for her assistance, he gave it to Jennie Wimmer. She carried it in a leather bag around her neck for the next 40 years.

Today it is on display at The Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley campus. The little nugget is about the size of the end of my thumb.

The fortunes of the Wimmer family fluctuated through the years, as did those of so many pioneer families. They lived in various locations in California. Three more children were born into the Wimmer family, bringing the total to ten. Jennie Wimmer died in San Diego County in 1885.

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Gold Rush Medicine

Say you’re a young miner, come to Bidwell’s Bar to dig for gold in 1849. You are generally a strong and healthy young man, but the work is hard and your meals are not exactly mom’s home cooking. Beef and beans and biscuits are your daily fare; sometimes you have rice with molasses, or rancid butter or cheese. You drink tea or coffee, when you can get it, with a little sugar. Dried apples, stewed up into applesauce, make a treat.

Alonzo J. Doolittle. Courtesy of Bancroft Library

What’s missing from this diet? Fresh fruits and vegetables. Potatoes, onions, cabbage, and carrots are expensive and rarely seen. You have managed to ward off scurvy though, because you bought a jar of pickles at Bidwell’s Store.

What if you get sick or injured? Is there a doctor in the camp? There may well be, although his training and credentials might be sketchy. But he can bandage a wound or set a broken bone, so you are glad to know that he is on hand in case of accident.

If you are sick, the available treatments are limited. If you came to California on the Panama route, you might have picked up a case of malaria. A dose of quinine will help. Quinine was available and used to treat all kinds of chills and fevers in addition to malaria.

Other medicines you could buy at Bidwell’s Store were:

Seidlitz powders. This was a best-selling digestive treatment. The packet contained tartaric acid, potassium sodium tartrate, and bicarbonate of soda, which fizzed when mixed together in a glass of water. It was good for evacuating the bowels.

Brandreth pills. A purgative that was said to cure many ills. It contained sarsaparilla and other herbs, and would do a powerful job of cleaning out your digestive tract.

Bitters. A herbal remedy that was supposed to aid digestion. Ingredients varied; quinine, which has a strongly bitter flavor, was often included.

Ipecacuanha. An emetic. It would make you throw up. If you are old enough, you may have kept syrup of ipecac in the medicine chest in case your child ingested something they should not have.

Laudanum. An alcoholic tincture of opium, the favorite medicine of the Victorian era. It doesn’t show up in the Bidwell Store ledger, but on a shopping trip to Sacramento on 6 July 1849, Bidwell bought a vial of laudanum for $1.00 from Dr. A.J. Ward.

He also stocked up on Seidlitz powders, Brandreth’s pills, bicarbonate of soda, spirits nitre, castor oil, olive oil, lime juice, and a half-pound licorice ball. According to Bancroft’s Pioneer Register, Dr. Ward was a physician at Sutter’s Fort in 1847-48.

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Merchants of Sacramento

When John Bidwell or his partner George McKinstry went shopping for goods to supply their store at Bidwell’s Bar, Sam Brannan & Co. wasn’t the only business they patronized. There were a number to choose from, and they went to whichever one had the goods they needed. And they needed plenty.

Placer Times 28 April 1849

Sam Brannan advertised heavily and usually led the way. Then there were Samuel Hensley and P.B. Reading, both good friends of John Bidwell, and Priest, Lee & Co., prominent Sacramento merchants. I haven’t seen any receipts from Murray & Lappeus. But note Peter Slater, where you could combine grocery shopping with bowling.

These were businesses that first had their premises at Sutter’s Fort, and later moved to the Embarcadero on the Sacramento River, where Old Town Sacramento is now.

Other merchants they dealt with were W.H. McKee (later McKee & Dring) where they bought sailcloth, calico, and thread, and Magnant & Kearny, who sold tools and groceries. Oliver Magnant was a French Canadian who came to California with the overland Stevens Party in 1844. Here’s a receipt:

California State Library

This receipt is faint, but it reads as follows:

Feather River Mining Co. Bot of Magnant and Kearny   Aug. 2nd 1848

Salt                                          $1.00

2 Bags                                       1.50

1 Shovel                                    6.00

1 Crow Bar                               6.00

1 Pick                                        6.00

4 Tin Pans                               12.00

2 Stew [?] Pans                         6.00

2 Butcher Knives                      2.00

4 Jack         ditto                         2.00

As you can see, they bought tin pans for $3.00 each. Pans were sold for anything from $10 to $16. A butcher knife cost $1.00 in Sacramento, and they sold them for $2.00.

One item that puzzles me is the pick. Here one pick costs $6.00, and in 1849 another receipt shows 8 picks bought for $48.00 — still $6.00. In the ledger the only two picks sold were $5 and $6. It ought to have been more. And maybe it was — we don’t have all the sales records. We do know that picks were in high demand. On 10 July 1849 Bidwell wrote to McKinstry asking for:

50 Picks, these should be of the medium size, not the largest – or smallest – these if sent soon will sell well.

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Sam Brannan, Gold Rush Capitalist

When news of the gold discovery on the American River reached Sutter’s Fort, John Sutter did his best to keep it quiet. He knew if word got out his sawmill would never be finished and his crops would never be harvested. He sent John Bidwell to San Francisco to have the sample assayed, but he asked him to keep the news to himself.

Undoubtedly John Bidwell did his best.

But the news leaked out. On March 15, 1848 the Californian newspaper published the news, although many were skeptical that there was anything much in the report. It would be another two months before the rush to the hills began.

Meanwhile, Sam Brannan was buying up all the picks, shovels, crowbars and pans he could find. Flour, salt, knives, gunpowder, blankets, and foodstuffs of all kinds — anything that a man heading to the mines might want, Brannan stocked at his store at Sutter’s Fort.

Then he went to San Francisco and famously rode around Portsmouth Square with a flask of gold in his hand, shouting, “Gold, gold from the American River!” The rush was on, and Sam Brannan was ready for it.

So when John Bidwell and George McKinstry wanted to buy goods to sell at their own trading post on the Feather River, they first went to Brannan’s store at Sutter’s Fort. A receipt records that on June 23rd and July 6th, 1848, goods such as 200 pounds of flour, 6 pounds of lead, bags of salt, a bottle of pepper, knives, forks, buckets and fish line were “Bot of S. Brannan & Co.” by George McKinstry. John Bidwell was up on the Feather River, looking for gold.

California State Library

(Brannan’s name is on the third line. Kemble and Rolfe were his agents. The word “bought” was typically abbreviated as “Bot.”)

Powder (gunpowder) sold for $3.00 a pound at Brannan’s store in the summer of 1848. In 1849 Bidwell sold it for $12.00 a pound at his store on the Feather River. The Emigrant’s Guide to California (1849) lists the price of gunpowder in the States at $.22 a pound ($5.50 for 25 pounds — the recommended amount.).

Flour, which sold for $.02 a pound in the States, cost $.14 a pound at Brannan’s store in Sacramento, and $.50 a pound at Bidwell’s Bar.

The list goes on and on, and we will see more examples of inflation as we continue. It’s no wonder that immigrants to California marveled at the prices and wondered how they could possibly get by.

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