Dr. Townsend in California

Dr. John Townsend came to California in 1844 with the Murphy-Townsend-Stevens wagon train, the first to bring wagons all the way over the Sierras. He was the first qualified physician in California and the first non-Mexican alcalde of San Francisco.

When gold was discovered he went to the goldfields in search of wealth. Here is a letter written to his wife from his camp “at the falls of Ubo River.” (No one was sure how to spell the name of the river — later they settled on spelling it Yuba.)


Dearest I received your letter by Farnham today, and by Brannan yesterday. I regret exceedingly that I have had neither ink nor paper to write. I wrote you by Stetson one month ago or more, and he certainly did not take it to you. I also wrote by Mr. Davis and Foster ten days ago which you will certainly receive. Buchanan and I are working still on our claim at the falls of Ubo, We have no hands and are working very hard ourselves. Some days we make fifty dollars a piece, and other days twenty-five dollars. We have now seventeen hundred dollars between us, and we hope in a few days to have one thousand a piece.

How could you who have known me so long believe that indifference or carelessness could induce me not to write. Judge when I tell you that I have not only three days since received my Trunk. I could get no account of it. I was out of shirts and all my clothes were worn out, and I never expected to hear of the trunk in the world as many trunks were lost. But I had no paper to write to any one about it. I could neither buy paper or shirts. Dr. Fourgeaud has been very sick of fever a[t] Johnsons I have be[en] called to see him twice as his wife did not expect him to live. I suppose she did not expect to want favours of me when she treated you as she did about Eliza.

I do not expect to return under one month as I shall probably quit for the winter. A great many have returned to San Francisco and I hope you will be able to buy some wood. Try and manage as well as you can I want to bring home all the gold that I possibly can.

Mr. O’Farrel is waiting for this and will speed it on its way but is not going to San Francisco. I will write when I can and do be satisfied with that I think you are doing well to walk in the morning for your health. Take good care of yourself dearest as all my gain would only be my curse if ill should come of you.

Yours as ever, J. Townsend

Mrs. Townsend was pregnant at the time with their first child, which explains his concern for her health.

I think these letters from the gold rush are so interesting. They tell us whether or not the miners had hired Indian workers, how much money they were making, and how much trouble it was to get supplies.  He mentions places: Johnson’s Ranch (Wheatland) and Cordua’s Ranch (Marysville).

This letter is held by The Society of California Pioneers at the Presidio. There are more Townsend papers in the San Jose Public Library.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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2 Responses to Dr. Townsend in California

  1. John Gallardo says:

    Hi Nancy- on the page you have shown, of Dr. Townsend’s letter, it looks to me like “fifteen miles above Gordons.” Is that what you believe it to be? I grew up not far from the homesite of William Gordon in Yolo County. He was the first “American” to settle in Yolo County, probably 1843. He and Townsend probably knew each other. Do you think that it could be the same? It is more than 15 miles, however, as the site is some 6 or so miles west of present-day Woodland. It seems that many of the distances stated in those old days are not the most accurate.There just weren’t many people around there then, and Gordon’s was a stopping point, and “rejuvinating” post for years. The Gordon family cemetery, near the homesite, is still extant, and its earliest burial was in 1844. Thanks. -John Gallardo

  2. nancyleek says:

    Hi John– I am pretty sure that he means the ranch of Theodore Cordua, maybe because I’ve had Cordua on the brain lately, (see here: https://goldfieldsbooks.com/2017/01/04/the-man-who-founded-new-mecklenburg/ and subsequent posts.) Cordua’s ranch was at the conjunction of the Yuba and Feather Rivers, and everybody stopped there.
    But thanks for letting me know about Gordon — I’m always interested in early settlers that I haven’t heard of.

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