John Steele and Peter Lassen

In Camp and Cabin with John Steele — part 4

On Saturday, February 1, 1851, John Steele and his friend John Donnelley left “Downie’s Diggings on Poorman’s Creek”, with the goal of hiking to Big Meadows to rejoin their company. Downie’s Diggings (not the same as Downieville) seems to have been somewhere between Downieville and Washington, which is on the South Fork of the Yuba River. Someone who is better acquainted with the area than I might know where they were and be able to trace their route.

One object in selecting our route and making our journey in this way was to obtain a general knowledge of the gold mines. We might have selected an easier way, but we wanted to visit the best mining region, and this took us across the spurs of the great Sierra Nevada. (p. 164)

They didn’t have much luck prospecting along the way, and they had only packed enough food for two weeks. The terrain was rough, with steep ascents and descents and icy rivers to cross. (Just imagine taking off all your clothes, so they won’t get wet, and doing a polar bear swim in February in the mountains.)

They worried that the natives would be hostile and did their best to avoid encountering Indians. By February 14 they reached Big Meadows, only to find that their company was nowhere to be found. Reluctantly and with hungry stomachs, they started back to Downieville. (On the map, Big Meadows was located where Lake Almanor is now.) It is roughly 100 miles from Big Meadows to Downieville.

Feather River drainage. By Shannon1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Steele and Donnelley tried to stave off hunger by chewing pine bark. Soon they began to hear faint voices, or the clang of mining tools, but they couldn’t find any humans. After some hunting around, they decided the sounds must be an illusion.

However, in several miles we were surprised and delighted to find Mountaineer Lawson’s mining camp. There were several while men and Pah Ute Indians working a placer mine on the bank of the river. Coming down the river, we saw that when we had taken for the valley of the north fork of the Feather River was only a deep gulch, and the main stream, which we had visited above the Big Meadows, lay over the mountains toward the northwest. (p. 184)

Who was “Mountaineer Lawson”? It must have been Peter Lassen, who was famous as an old settler and pioneer who loved exploring the mountains. Contemporary sources often spell his name “Lawson,” because that is the way he pronounced it. Influenced by the spelling, we today pronounce it like “lass”, but that’s not the way he said it.

Lassen had set off to prospect for gold in the summer of 1850, and is known to have mined at Rich Bar, which was located on the East Branch of the North Fork of the Feather River. That’s where Steele and Donnelley found him.

From Mr. Lawson we obtained some flour and bacon, and in a few minutes I had a cake baking in one of their skillets. While waiting for the cake, Lawson, who was familiar with all that region, inquired of Donnelley about our journey, which was candidly described. Whereupon Lawson bluffly replied, “Don’t tell me any such stuff as that; I know that country; it’s not far from a hundred and sixty miles; you fellows never made that trip without eating.” (p. 185)

Sounds like Peter Lassen. Steele and Donnelley were insulted at “having our veracity questioned . . . and as we had already paid for the flour and bacon, refused to have any further conversation with him.”

The starving men had to pay for their flour and bacon! You think Lassen could have spared them a meal.

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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