The Young Mountaineer

Some time ago I wrote about Dr. James O’Brien after seeing his amputation kit at the Society of California Pioneers in San Francisco. That was in 2014, but I recently received a comment on that entry, from the doctor’s great-great-great-granddaughter.

She said that the doctor, his wife Eliza, and their two little girls came to California in 1849, and that they “had a son born during the journey through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They named him Pius Sierra Nevada O’Brien.” What a fine name! I thought.

Was 1363037

Self-portrait of J. Goldsborough Bruff

Now I have just turned up another reference to Dr. O’Brien and his family. I am looking through the journal of J. Goldsborough Bruff, who is famous for his account of his overland trek, his winter in the Sierras, and his drawings of life on the trail. (See Gold Rush: The Journals, Drawings, and Other Papers of J. Goldsborough Bruff (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949). The book is expensive to buy, but free to borrow from the library.)

J. Goldsborough Bruff came to California by way of the Lassen Trail, which should have landed him at Lassen’s Rancho on the Sacramento River in the fall of 1849. But he had a falling-out with his his trail mates, who abandoned him in the mountains. He suffered through a winter in the mountains and nearly died. He wasn’t rescued until April 1850.

During that 1849 fall season, he aided many other stragglers on the trail, including the O’Brien family (“clever folks” he calls them). He first met them on the Lassen Trail in September. On November 4th, he encountered them again, at the camp of the Fairchild family.

At their camp I found Mrs. O’Brien, with 2 beautiful little curly-headed girls, and a mountaineer, 3 weeks old only! I remained till night, and then walked with Mrs. O’B. back 200 yds. to her wagon & campfire. I carried young Nevada under my poncho, to protect the little fellow from the snow, the mother held on to the folds, to assist her in walking over the wet & slippery trail; and the poor little girls, hand & hand, followed, slipping & tottering, and crying with cold & wet. Quite a snow storm.

The young man Dr. O’B. had employed as a teamster, was asleep in the wet, under the wagon; and the fire was nearly out. I saw Mrs. ensconced, with her beautiful children, handed in the young mountaineer, made the young man turn out, get limbs and stocks and build up the fire, and bade them good-night.

The O’Brien family made it safe and sound to Sacramento, where little one-year-old Pius Sierra Nevada O’Brien appears on the census record, taken November 4, 1850.


James O’Brien, M.D., and family. “Do” after each name stands for “ditto”.

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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