Business was good for Edward McIlhany in 1851, with a store in Onion Valley and a ranch near Marysville where he could rest and feed his mules, and assemble pack-trains to carry goods to the miners in Onion Valley. But business got tougher in 1852; expenses were high and defaults by creditors were numerous. Ed McIlhany decided to quit the packing business. He sold his string of mules to four men who had come to California in the same Virginia company with him: Noblet Herbert, Robert Blakemore, and brothers Charles and George Cuningham.
Noblet Herbert was a great-grand-nephew of President George Washington. He was one of the men of McIlhany’s group that went to the Shasta Mines, then to Bidwell’s Bar and American Bar, where their efforts to dig a race failed.
In the spring of 1852 he bought the string of mules from McIlhany. The two Cuninghams were otherwise engaged, and Blakemore decided to return to Virginia, so Herbert was on his own, packing with two Mexican muleteers who came along with the mule train deal.
And then in the fall of 1852 Herbert disappeared, and so did the two Mexicans. $3000 in gold was missing, the mules were straying around, and the remains of the pack saddles were found burnt at a campsite near Butte Creek.
McIlhany got the word that Herbert was missing, and that “a train of mules, some twenty-five or thirty, had been running loose at Bidwell’s Ranch for some time and the mules were very fat and no one claimed them.”
I took the stage and landed at Bidwell’s Ranch. The Major was glad to see me. I asked him about the mules and he told me that such a lot of mules were there and had been for some weeks. I asked if he would have them driven up so I could see them, which he did. As soon as the mules came up I recognized them immediately, as I had owned them and the boys had put a plain brand upon them, every brand alike.
Bidwell explained to me that there had been a train camped about a mile from his place on a little stream [Butte Creek] where there was a cabin and some men living in it. I went down to see them and found that there had been a train of mules camped there . . . with a white man and only two Mexicans. One day they said that the men had disappeared, the mules were gone, and the camp with everything in it had burnt up. (Recollection of a ’49er, pp. 149-150)
They searched for Noblet Herbert, and even dragged the creek, but nothing was ever found. It was a sad end for a young man who had come to California to make his fortune.
Ed McIlhany stayed for a few more years in California, but a string of bad business deals and lawsuits left him with little to show for his investment of time in the Golden State. In December 1856 he returned to the States and his family, who had moved from Virginia to Missouri in his absence.