A Glimpse of the Goldfields


Here are two letters, written in July 1849, that give a glimpse of life in the goldfields on the Feather River. They were written by John C. Buchanan, who worked for John Bidwell and evidently supervised his diggings at Bidwell Bar when Bidwell was elsewhere. I can find nothing else about Buchanan — he doesn’t show up on Butte County censuses, for instance.

Buchanan wrote a letter to Bidwell, and enclosed another letter addressed to Dr. John Townsend in San Francisco. The first letter is in the Bidwell papers at the California State Library, and the second I found in the Townsend papers at the Society of California Pioneers.

Feather River July 4th 1849

Friend Bidwell

Do me the favor to place the enclosed letter addressed to Dr. Townsend in the hand of some person who will trouble himself with its safe delivery. Mr. Tucker paid me $300 will pay the balance some other time.

The fourth is a prodigiously warm and dull day with us, the diggers are all too lazy to dig and Hamilton is indisposed to day.

Cacama ran away last night, taking with a blanket not his own, and a small quantity of Gold from Rafael pocket. It would have been much better to have worked him at a Machine though the Bar is very poor in many places. Yesterday with two machines I made $32.00 horrible. To day a number of Rush bottomers passed up the River hunting Gold. I fear the River will be so overrun that we shall do but little in Indian Trade with out extraordinary exertions, bring up 12 dry good Brands. I neglected to place on the Memorandum a few pounds of Nails small size.

Seal my letter to Townsend. It is only stuck together with paste.

In haste

Yours &c

Jn. C. Buchanan

don’t forget steel Pans

Here is the second letter, to Townsend. Note how in both letters Buchanan remarks on the “laziness” of the Indian workers and the unwelcome influx of gold seekers.

Feather River, July 5th, 1849

Dear Doctor

A short time before leaving San Francisco I left in the hands of Mr. B. S. Lippincott the sum of $2040 in Gold dust at $16.00 pr oz. He is also indebted to me in the sum of $1800 Bal due on Pueblo Lots sold him making in all thirty-eight hundred and forty dollars for which I neglected to take any obligation or anything to show that the Amt. is due me. I believe him to be a man of too high a sense of honor to take advantage of confidence reposed in him. Yet in case of accident such matters should be properly attended to. As I shall not have an opportunity of seeing him for several months, I must beg the favor of you to obtain from him the amount as above with such interest as he thinks proper to pay, and deposit it with some responsible merchant in order that I may get it immediately upon reaching San Francisco as I shall be likely to want it very much.

My operation here in company with Bidwell, I apprehend will prove rather unprofitable. We have already been at an expense of $10,000 procuring supplies. Out of a Band of 320 head of Cattle we have already lost two thirds, which is a very severe loss, as Beef alone will command the Indian trade which though extensive is not very large. The mining region here seems to be filled up with Gold Seekers, many of whom are sadly discouraged, particularly the Oregon boys [?] , not a few of whom have already gone back. I wish they would all go.

I hear nothing transpiring in this part of California worthy of notice. There seems to be more peace and quietness among us here than in many other parts of the mineral region owing I presume to the scarcity of the Yellow dirt, which seems to breed more mischief than anything else. On Yuba very rich diggings have been found high up the River and many adventurers are already on their way from the [?] we had of the mountains last summer. I should judge there will be some hard climbing and perhaps some necks broken this summer.

My health continues very good although I have been most sadly tormented with innumerable boils from head to foot. Old Job would have had his patience sorely tried had he been as much tormented as myself digging gold at the same time.

I have made enquiries after You repeatedly of late, but have never had a word of intelligence. Therefore suppose you have had too much good sense to expose yourself among the mountains & outlaws this summer, and doubtless have been more profitably employed in San Francisco. I left in the hands of George McKinstry at Sutterville $225. requesting him to send you the amount in April last and presume you have obtained it if not, draw on him for that sum which will be paid at sight. I gave your horse and the old pack for an American man [one?]* which was stolen from me, a few days after the exchange at his claim, though she was tied close to the head of my Bed my slumbers were very profound and the Rascal a daring one.

I must close and go look after my Indian diggers who will not fail to cease working when I am off the Bar. Should you meet with an opportunity of forwarding a letter I should be most happy to hear from You.

Your friend

Jn. C. Buchanan

*He definitely wrote the word “man” here, but the sentence makes more sense if had written “one”, i.e., he traded the old horse and pack for an American horse, which was stolen.


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A Visit to the Bayliss Library


The Bayliss Library, in Glenn County, celebrates its centennial this year, and yesterday the community marked one hundred years of library service to this rural area with everything you could want in a community celebration: speeches, music, food, activities for the kids, and the chance to see a lovely old-fashioned library.

DSCF3579The Bayliss Library is a Carnegie library, built in 1917 with money donated by steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie financed 1689 libraries in the United States, and many more overseas. 142 were built in California, and 36 of those still operate as public libraries, including the Bayliss Library. The Biggs Branch of the Butte County Library is also a Carnegie Library. Other Carnegie libraries in the region have been put to other uses: the library in Orland became a community center, the one in Oroville houses the Butte County Law Library, and the one in Chico is now the Chico Museum.

The Bayliss Library is unusual because it is a rural library, in an unincorporated community, surrounded by agricultural land. All other Carnegie libraries that I am aware of were established in incorporated towns and cities, where the municipal government was responsible for the continuing staffing and maintenance of the library. Bayliss Library is now operated as a branch of the Willows Library, and is open one day a week, on Tuesdays.


Andrew Carnegie watches over the library, which has fine wood trim and bookcases throughout.



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My New Project

I am working on a picture book biography of Nancy Kelsey, the first American woman to come over the Sierra Nevada into California. Nancy was seventeen years old when she set out across the plains with her husband Ben and their one-year-old daughter Martha Ann. When the company split at Soda Springs, she was the only woman to travel into the unknown desert toward California (the few other women went to Oregon, the safer option).

When friends told her she should stay behind and wait for Ben to check out California first she said,

Where my husband goes, I can go. I can better endure the hardships of the journey than the anxieties for an absent husband.  

Steve Ferchaud, who illustrated my John & Annie picture book, is working on the illustrations, and his sketches look great.


Nancy Kelsey admires her handiwork on the Bear Flag


A mule tumbles over a cliff in the Sierra Nevada mountains

I feel sorry for that poor mule who fell to his death in a rocky canyon. Although if he had not fallen, he probably would have been eaten. Members of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party had to eat their oxen first, and when those were gone and they couldn’t find game, they had to eat their mules to survive.

I’ll keep you posted as the book progresses. If all goes well it will be out this fall, another story of early California from Goldfields Books.

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Another Final Word on Talbot H. Green


Where Green Street in San Francisco meets the Embarcadero, there are plaques embedded in the pavement telling the history behind the street name. Similar plaques adorn Fremont, Francisco, Brannan, Townsend, and other streets of the City.

All cities should do this so we can learn some history as we hurry along the street.


Embarcadero Working-149

One plaque is a portrait of Talbot H, Green, but it is almost certainly Samuel J. Hensley. The image is very much worn down by the countless shoes that have passed over it.

Embarcadero Working-150

Another plaque has a description of Green’s career in California. It isn’t entirely accurate, but it comes close.

There is an image of a mask (very appropriate!) The mask reminds me of something drawn by Edward Gorey.

Embarcadero Working-151

And, last but by no means least, there is a quote from Oscar Wilde. This is the perfect quote to match the story of Talbot Green.

Embarcadero Working-152

I am indebted to the website Public Art and Architecture from Around the World for these images.  Someday I’ll go look at them myself. They are just across the street from the new location of the Exploratorium at Pier 15.

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A Final Word on Talbot H. Green (with Picture!)

I couldn’t find a picture of Talbot H. Green online or in any books, and I assumed that while in California he avoided having his likeness taken. But I thought that there just might be a picture of his grave online, under his real name of Paul Geddes. And I got lucky!


Paul Geddes, from the Rob Leicester Wagner Collection

On findagrave.com there is a picture of the Geddes family tomb at the Lewisburg, PA cemetery, plus there is a picture of the man himself. I contacted Rob Wagner, who posted the picture, and he tells me that Paul Geddes was his three-times great uncle, and that his (Rob’s) grandmother, kept a family photo album in which this picture appears. It is definitely Paul Geddes, aka Talbot H. Green. The photograph was probably taken sometime around 1860 in Pennsylvania.

Looking at this photo, you can see why “Cheyenne” Dawson described him as “gentlemanly, kindly, genial, generous,” and “a favorite with all.”

There is some confusion about the group daguerreotype of Thomas O. Larkin and his business associates. The man at the back left is sometimes identified as Talbot H. Green, and they are similar looking. But the Bancroft Library identifies him as Samuel J. Hensley, and that accords better with other pictures of Hensley. SCPfounding members

The findagrave.com site also has a photo


Henrietta Geddes, from the Rob Leicester Wagner Collection.

of Mrs. Geddes, courtesy of Rob Wagner.  Here is Geddes’ long-suffering first wife, Henrietta Fredericks Geddes.

I am very grateful to Rob Wagner for making these pictures available online. I agree with him that “genealogists, researchers and just the plain curious should have free access to photos, documents, newspaper obituaries and ephemera.”

One last photograph. Talbot H. Green was a founding member of the Society of California Pioneers and its first treasurer. The Society is still in existence in San Francisco and has a wonderful little research library.

I was there a few months ago, looking for material on John Bidwell and Dr. John Townsend. In leafing through their membership book I found the entry for Talbot H. Green. Near the bottom is the note “ex-member,” with an explanation. I find it poignant that he was struck off the books like that, for in spite of his mistakes, he was indeed a California pioneer.


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The Sensational Saga of Talbot H. Green — Part 6

For four years, from 1851 to 1855, Talbot Green languished in Tennessee, writing plaintive letters to Thomas O. Larkin and watching the return mail. He maintained that his former partners and friends, W.D.M. Howard and Joseph P. Thompson, owed him a considerable sum of money. Moreover, the U. S. government still owed him money for goods he supplied the army in 1847. His pleas did not go unheeded, but it must have been easy to ignore a man who was in the powerless position that Green found himself.

The claim on the government necessitated a power of attorney from Green, and Larkin gave the task to his stepbrother Ebenezer Childs to execute. By this means Green’s whereabouts were revealed. This put him in a tizzy, but eventually it all worked out. He was able to meet with Sam Brannan and W.D.M. Howard to settle his affairs satisfactorily. After some dickering and discounting, he wrote to Larkin that the balance due him, which Howard promised to pay, was $67,118. He stopped by Lewisburg, Pennsylvania and gave his wife Henrietta $500.

He returned to San Francisco in the summer of 1855. It was not, however, the happy reunion with old friends that he had hoped for. William Francis White, in A Picture of Pioneer Times in California, reported that he looked “broken down and wretched.”

He appeared to shun every one, and every one shunned him. I met him once after his return. We had been intimate friends. The meeting was embarrassing and awkward. I did not know how to address him. With me Talbot H. Green was no longer in existence, and as to the poor, weak creature, Paul Geddes, I did not care for his acquaintance; so, without addressing him once by name, we parted.

Green/Geddes left San Francisco and traveled up the Sacramento Valley. He visited old acquaintances in Northern California: Pierson B. Reading, Albert G. Toomes, and Robert H. Thomes. The names will be familiar to residents of Shasta and Tehama Counties.

He left California in September 1856 and returned at last to his hometown in Pennsylvania. He wrote to Larkin:

I found everything about the house as I left it, nothing changed. It seems now as if I had not been absent a week, everything is so familiar. The hardest task was to have to become acquainted with my own children. One is 19 years old; the other 17. [Two children had died while he was absent.] My daughter is a very bright and smart girl and has improved her time at school very well; the boy is very quiet and, I think, rather dull, but I hope he will improve.


Geddes family tomb, from Findagrave.com

He didn’t stay in Pennsylvania. He moved with his wife and children to Texas, where he engaged in land speculation for a few years. By 1880 he was back at home in Pennsylvania, living on friendly terms with his neighbors, although he would never talk of his time in California. He died on July 2, 1889.

His name lives on in San Francisco: Talbot H. Green is the man that Green Street is named after. Notice it the next time you drive northward on Van Ness Ave (Hwy. 101), and think of the man who could have inspired the song, “What Was Your Name in the States?”


Bibliographical Note: The information for this series of posts came primarily from:

Hussey, John Adam. “New Light upon Talbot H. Green.” California Historical Society Quarterly, March 1939, pp. 32-63.

A Picture of Pioneer Times in California , by William Francis White, can be found on Google Books, and makes for entertaining reading.


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Lassen Volcano — 102 Years Ago Today

This is really neat footage of the eruption of the volcano in our backyard. Lassen Peak erupted on May 22, 1915 and the event was caught on film by Justin J. Hammer of Red Bluff. The film comes from the Shasta Historical Society.

According to the Lassen Volcanic National Park website:

On May 22, 1915, an explosive eruption at Lassen Peak, the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Range, devastated nearby areas and rained volcanic ash as far away as 200 miles to the east. This explosion was the most powerful in a 1914-17 series of eruptions that were the last to occur in the Cascades before the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Lassen Peak is the largest of a group of more than 30 volcanic domes erupted over the past 300,000 years in Lassen Volcanic National Park.


For more information, including eyewitness accounts, read The Lassen Peak Eruptions & Their Lingering Legacy, by Alan Willendrup, published by The Association for Northern California Historical Research.

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