Death in Downieville

In Camp and Cabin with John Steele — part 3.

Map of the Yuba River. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Leaving Nevada City in January 1851, John Steele and several other men headed over the snow-covered ridges, aiming for Big Meadows and the North Fork of the Feather River. They didn’t seem to realize that this was a crazy and dangerous thing to do in the middle of winter.

When the morning of our departure dawned, a misty rain made us hesitate until 10 a.m., and then, like a train of pack mules, we filed up the mountain. Besides our blankets, some extra clothing, rifles and ammunition, Donnelley and I carried a pick and a spade, pan for washing gold, frying pan, and tin cups; and bread, flour, and bacon enough to last two weeks. (p. 151-152)

Three days later they camped near Downieville, “a mining village at the forks of the North Yuba.” One of the men came into camp saying, “I reckon somebody has struck it rich down there, and covered up their prospect hole so as to hide it.” Curiosity impelled investigation.

California Gold Diggers. Bancroft Library

With picks, shovels, and pans, three of us accompanied him to the bottom of a deep, wild glen; not that we intended to “jump” any one’s claim, but as a possible clue to diggings above and below on this side of the river. There was no snow, and on the mossy bank of a rill could be seen the outlines where the ground had been broken; but the turf was so nicely adjusted that but few traces were visible.

Spading away the soft earth to the depth of about three feet, we found — not a gold mine, but that which made us start back in horror — a blue shirt sleeve on the arm of a corpse.

Gently the body was uncovered and raised to the surface; water was brought and, washing away the mire, disclosed the features of a young man, of probably twenty years; about five feet in height; dark brown hair; his only clothing a blue woolen shirt, dark brown pantaloons, and heavy boots.

His pockets were empty and there was nothing about him to reveal his name. Traces on each side of his head indicating where a bullet had passed through, were the only marks of violence upon his person. Evidently he had been murdered a few days since and his body concealed in this wild glen. (p. 155-56)

The men took the body to Downieville. No one could identify the murdered young man. He was buried there in Downieville in a nameless grave. Mournfully Steele contemplated the father, mother, brothers, and sisters who would wait in vain for the return of their loved one, never knowing his fate.

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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