Don’t go to California, boys,
Don’t go to Oregon,
There’s wealth for you in the Buckeye State,
And wealth that may be won,
Aye, wealth that may be won, boys,
By true hearts, strong and bold,
Then don’t go to California,
Stay at home and gather gold.
Mrs. Frances Dana Gage (1852)
A.W.Webster of Kingsville had never known such thirst in his life.
Deprived of food or water during the first 35 miles of his trek across the desert, Webster and the other 49ers from Ashtabula County were losing hope. Desperate for water, Webster and a friend made the decision to break with the wagon train and set out on their own.
After traveling some distance, his friend “gave out.”
“All his (words) was water, water ... It was the warmest day I ever experienced. I could not stop with him. No human being (was) around to lend a helping hand,” Webster wrote of the difficult decision he had to make — continue on and save his own life, or stay with his friend and die there.
Webster continued walking, and eventually found water — but not much in way of gold.
Such was the magnetism of the precious metal, which was first found in California in 1842. Six years later, with the report of James W. Marshall’s discovery of gold flecks in the south fork of the American River (Sutter’s Mill) on Jan. 24, 1848, the great California Gold Rush got under way. Within months of Marshall’s and others’ discoveries, thousands were heading to California to become part of the “Gold Diggings” craze.
Eugene H. Roseboom, a professor of History at Ohio State University, in Volume 61 of “Ohio History” stated that in 1850, 5,500 Ohioans were in California when the 1850 census was taken, “and thousands more were on the way.” Fortunately, several of the local pioneers who made the journey kept either a journal or sent letters back to Northeast Ohio, where they were published in newspapers as both enticements and warnings.
Blazing a trail
An Ashtabula County connection to the overland California Trail was established seven years prior to the California Gold Rush. John Bidwell, who was born in Chautauqua County, N.Y., in 1819, came to Ashtabula County with his family at the age of 12. Five years later, John entered the Kingsville Academy and soon rose to the principal’s position. Around 1839, Bidwell migrated from Kingsville to Missouri, where he taught school.
Bidwell set his sights on California, and in 1841 paired up with John Bartleson to lead one of the first emigrant parties, known as the Bartleson-Bidwell Party, along what would become known as the California Trail. Emigrant parties, companies or societies, usually required financial investment from the members, adherence to a constitution and submission to an elected leadership. For many of the members, all of their earthly goods, and frequently their lives, were at risk.
Bidwell was just 21 years old when he and 68 other emigrants departed Missouri in May 1841. Their destination was present-day Contra Costa County, Calif.
“Our ignorance of the route was complete,” Bidwell wrote in his memoirs. “We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge.”
They traveled the Oregon Trail as far as Soda Springs, Idaho, where one group decided to continue along the less demanding road to Oregon. By that point, three of emigrants had turned back, one had settled down along the trail and one had accidentally shot himself.
With scant information to direct them (Bidwell, the academic, partially relied upon a book about celestial navigation), 33 pioneers, including Bidwell, headed west along the north shore of the Great Salt Lake, a wasteland of alkali and salt-encrusted flats. By the time they reached eastern Nevada, the party abandoned its wagons because of the rough terrain. They converted their wagon train into a pack train, wandered around until they found the Humbodlt River. They slogged westward throughout the late fall of 1841, surviving the difficult passage over the Sierras only by slaughtering and consuming their pack animals as they traveled.
The actual route of the Bartleson-Bidwell Route was refined in future years with a Salt Lake cutoff that stayed farther north of the lake and provided access to water and grass for the livestock. Nevertheless, Bidwell’s name became associated with the California Trail, over which tens of thousands of fortune seekers would stream in the years to follow.
After a very long and difficult journey through California that included navigating through herds of wild cattle and being held in a calaboose with fleas so thick “as to darken anything of a light color,” Bidwell found favor with John Sutter, who hired Bidwell to be his business manager. Shortly after Marshall made his discovery at Sutter’s Mill, Bidwell made a discovery of gold on the Feather River and established a productive claim ahead of the Gold Rush. He thus very quickly amassed substantial wealth, which he used to acquire land.
Bidwell had an amazing life in California, where he is known as “Prince of California Pioneers” and the founder of the city of Chico. He worked as a miner and ranch hand, rose to the rank of major while fighting in the war with Mexico and served in the California Senate in 1849.
He was a delegate to the 1860 national convention of the Democrat party, was appointed brigadier general of the California militia in 1863, was a delegate to the national convention of the Republican party in 1864 and served as a member of Congress from 1865 to 1867.
Bidwell ran for governor of California in 1875 on the Anti-Monopoly ticket, presided over the Prohibition Party state convention in 1888 and was that party’s gubernatorial candidate in 1890. His ticket received 2.3 percent of the nationwide votes, the highest percent of the vote received by any ticket of the party.
Two years later, Bidwell ran for the office of U.S. president on the Prohibition Party ticket.
Bidwell is remembered as a “regional version of Thomas Jefferson,” a man who had an interest in science, technology, politics, agriculture and the environment. He died in Chico, Calif., April 4, 1900, and is buried in Chico Cemetery.
A decade after Bidwell departed Kingsville for Missouri, a company of 18 men from Kingsville Township, Conneaut and Springfield (Erie County, Pa.) headed to California on the overland route that Bidwell blazed. The Kingsville men in the company were Charles Tinker, Chauncey Tinker, Lyman Luce Webster, Albert Webster, Hamilton Way, Lemuel Beckwith, John Perkins, A.N. Kent, Albert Kendall, John Packer, Henry A. Stone and Horace Tinker. John Capron and James Haynes of Conneaut, and James Bancroft, Alford Marsh, Henry Marsh and Augustus DeFor(?) of Springfield rounded out the company, which departed Kingsville March 20, 1849.
H.B. Stone was captain of this enterprise; Charles Tinker its lieutenant.
By April 16, 1849, the Kingsville Company plus one from Painesville with 16 men, had reached the St. Joseph River. All told, there were nine companies from Ohio there that day, more than from any other state.
The men procured provisions near St. Joseph, where they purchased 2,000 pounds of hard bread at 3.5 cents per pound, 500 pounds of bacon at 4 cents per pound and 300 pounds of mutton hams at 2.5 cents per pound. Also purchased was Indian meal, beans, sugar, flour, tea, vinegar, gun powder and lead, and various medicines.
Three wagons pulled by 10 yoke of oxen carried these provisions and the men, who took their leave of the frontier on April 24, 1849.
Tinker kept a journal of his 114-day journey, and A.W. Webster sent letters back home to his family as they made the trek.
Tinker wrote that the men supplemented their purchased supplies by shooting game as they traveled through the area of the Platt River, “one of the muddyest streams I ever saw,” wrote Charles Tinker, whose grammar and spelling will be left intact in this story.
Hardship eventually caught up with the men. In the Black Hills, a man named Mason, presumably from the Painesville Company, lost his horse to a rattlesnake bite. At a river crossing, two men from the Missouri Train nearly drowned while trying to cross the swift river on a horse. The high elevations made it difficult for the flatlanders to “get their breath up their and they had not the strength to walk very fast,” wrote Tinker.
Illness also threatened the company.
“I was taken sick with the mountain fever just as we drove into Camp,” Tinker wrote on June 21, 1849. The following day, he wrote, “I was hard sick all the way and had to ride it. Seamed as though the wagon hit all the stones on the road. Every bone in me was on the aiche. It made me think of home.”
Feed for cattle became scarce as the Kingsville Company approached the desolate Utah desert.
A.W. Webster wrote that the cattle that were traveling with their party covered 80 miles without food, and during that time drank water only once. The quality of the grass and water available to them was “poor.”
“... we had to leave 3 of our cattle by the side of the road, the fatiegue was more than they could bear,” Tinker wrote in his journal. “It was hard for us to part with animals to die with hunger and thirst, which had served us so long and faithful.”
Tinker notes that the roadside was “strewed with dead cattle, horses and mules” and he witnessed one of the company’s dogs was “scal(d)ed to death in an instant” when it jumped into one of the hot springs basins.
These experiences were typical of the 49ers who took the overland route. Indeed, the Kingsville Company was relatively fortunate that its losses were not greater. The California Trail became known as the “trail of the moldering ox.”
Indian attacks also claimed the livestock and beasts of burden. Often, when the oxen died, the pioneers were left without a means to haul their possessions, which had to be left behind, as well.
“When within about 280 miles of the Indian settlement, the Indians stole three of our cattle; and four more of our company having previously shot one of ours with an arrow, we then placed what of our effects we could in one cart, having but one team left, burnt the remainder, together with the wagons we were compelled to leave,” wrote Sally Chambers of Ashtabula County, who made the trip with her husband, Calvin, and their children in 1850.
John Packer, who was with the Kingsville Company, wrote in one of his letters that the Kingsville Company lost four oxen to Indians, who had shot them with arrows and then skinned the animals, at the Humboldt River.
By the time the Kingsville Company reached the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the animals remaining were “nearly dead, being all shriveled up.” The men were, likewise, in poor condition.
“The Thermomitor stood at 110 Deg(rees) above zero, the heat was almost unindurable but we left this hell of boiling liquid for Truckies river ... we got a little hard bread down our cattle before we left, the only thing that it was in our pow(e)r to give to eat.”
When Tinker and the Kingsville Company finally found a stream of pure water from the Sierras, it marked the first spot in 460 miles of travel that they had seen trees.
“You cant imagin our joy on our arrival here. We was parched to death by thirst almost. When within 8 or 10 miles of the river I lay down several times to rest, it did not seam as though I could go any farther but it was death to stay there, so I had to budge along as best I could through the burning sand till I reached the water. Water was all mny wants. I would have given all I posessed for a drink of cold water. My tongue and lips was parched and fured over so it took one hour to soak if of(f).”
Their spirits were raised as they crossed the Sierras and got their first taste of prospecting. Tinker wrote in his journal that he and and several other men from the party did some panning in a river and in a matter of two days found about $450 worth of gold dust.
“One day we made $30 apeace, water & wood is good here, but no grass. A baren mountainious place,” Tinker wrote, the final entry in his journal.
Packer’s account of their work states that the men proceeded to Sacramento, “where we disposed of our cattle and wagons, selling our oxen at $65 per yoke, and 3 cows at $150.61.”
The party appears to have split up at that point, having previously disbritued among the members the $268.50 remaining in the treasury.
While the Kingsville Company appears to have made it across the Sierras without incident, many other companies found the going very difficult. Walter Fitch of Wayne was in the first wave of 49ers, arriving in California late in 1848. He wrote that “The crossing of the summit was quite a task: twelve yoke of oxen were hitched to some wagons, and with difficulty got up. Going down was nearly as difficult. One place we had to take off all the oxen, and let our wagons over the rocks by and; other places were so steep ,that we fastened a rope to the hind axle, locked both hind wheels and then set sail for the bottom. The last hill, or mountain that we came down .. we chained a tree top to the axle, with two wheels locked, and then made our way down as best we could.”
The hardships of desert and mountains moved the pioneers to warm those back home to avoid California, but Webster wrote that if “they do come, not to cross the plains.”
The alternative was to take the sea route from the East Coast, which made about 200 miles per day, or to take a ship to Central America, cross the land at Panama, and resume sailing up the West Coast.
Zaphna Lake of Conneaut chose the latter option after his son, Henry Z., took the overland route the prior year. Born in June 1827, Henry would have been 22 when he made the overland trip to Sacramento City. Henry was reared on a farm, but suffered from “delicate health” as a young man. It was this poor health that drove him to go to California in search of wealth and climate.
His father, who had been a merchant and ship owner in Conneaut, started his journey on Jan. 17, 1850, from New York, along with 600 other passengers. The steerage passanger ticket cost $150.
“Our course has been nearly south for 2,000 miles — changing from cold winter to summer with its balmy breeze,” the elder Lake wrote from the Steamer Cherokee on Jan. 26, 1850. “The passage to most of those on board has been anything but a pleasure excursion, although we have had no gales; but steady heavy weather.”
Lake advised his readers who bring a minimum of clothing and plan on discarding whatever is worn on the trip once landfall is made. Essentials were a deep tin plate, tin cup, spoon, knife and fork, “as your rations out dealt out in messes and one without his dishes might as well be without his hands.” Another essential was ginger, with which a tea could be made to arrest the dysentery that was a way of life aboard the crowded, unsanitary ship.
It took Lake 35 days to reach San Franscisco by ship. From there, he traveled overland to Sacramento City, where he stayed with his brother, Merrill.
“I presume this is a beautiful place in a dry time, but at this season of the year, the streets are filled with mud and filth,” the elder Lake wrote back to his “Friend Allen” in Conneaut. “...there are plenty of nuisances in the streets, such as rotten beans, bread, hams, flour, peas, oats, meal ... shipped from the States and found spoiled when arrived, and thrown into the streets to breed the cholera; besides all the vacant places about the city, are strewn around with the dead carcasses of Horses, Mules and Oxen.”
The prospect of striking it rich drove these men to live in such filthy conditions and thereby risk their lives, limbs and health. The elder Lake wrote that in Sacramento City, 30 to 150 persons died daily out of a population of about 10,000.
“Tell father when he sees me again, it will be with a pile of money,” A.W. Webster wrote to his brother.
“Some of my acquaintances have done well and others have been sick the most of the time since they arrived ...” Henry Lake wrote.
Henry Lake found work in the mines and was digging out of them “considerable more than expenses this winter,” his father wrote. “H. Robinson, a nephew of mine, is with him, and had dug $5,000 since last fall; himself, wife and child are well. Whitmore and Haines are well now, but have been sick most of the time since they arrived.”
The senior Lake tried his hand at the mines, but “found the work too hard for my constitution; consequently, I abandoned the mines and commenced trading at this place, a business I felt at home in. I have built me a comfortable two-story building for a store, and am doing the best business I ever done in my life. My boys and friends furnish all the capital I can use to advantage, without interest ... I am more than realizing my most sanguine expectations in making money. I can make my ‘pile.’”
John Packer, a member of the Kingsville Company, reported that by late winter 1850, he had acquired “provisions enough to last until the first of May, $300 in gold and a good set of mining tools.” He expected to make $1,000 by May, and to do even better during the summer months.
The propectors soon discovered that the high cost of living consumed whatever good fortune they had in the mines. Potatoes sold for 50 cents a pound, eggs for a $1 each and sugar and rice 15 cents a pound. Many of the foods they enjoyed in Ohio could not be had at any price.
“I have not seen an apple or a peach in California,” wrote A. W. Webster.
Women were equally scarce.
“I think the squaws among the Sioux are the best looking,” Webster observed. “Some of them look as well as half the ladies in the States.” A squaw could be purchased for two ponies.
“Women are in more demand here, let me say, than anything else, and there are a great many arriving here every day from Sidney, the place where the English send all their convicts, and from Chili and other countries,” wrote T.W. Donaldson of Ohio. You don’t have to get a priest or a preacher to marry you in this county. If you want a wife, all you have to do is to go on board a vessel that has just arrived from Sidney or Chili and buy you one.”
The price? $500 to $10,000. Donaldson speculated that a “good looking young lady” from the “States” could fetch $30,000 for herself.
“There was a ship came from Chili day before yesterday, and let go her anchor within speaking distance of us, and had ninety-three women on board of her,” Donaldson wrote. “Today, at 12 o’clock, there was but one left, she was about 70 years old.”
Six months into his stay, a very disillusioned Z. Lake wrote that there was hardly “a shadow of truth” to the stories of rich discoveries and woderful success to be found in California. He estimated that the net wage, on average, was not even 50 cents a day.
Lake’s sons Henry and Edward evidently gave up on mining and went to work with their father in the store. A third son, Edwin, continued to labor in the mines.
Calvin Chambers earned about $300 in his first few months in California; Sally earned $50, and could have done four times as much had her health cooperated. But the travel and labor extracted a horrible price.
“We have been called to mourn the loss of our youngest boy, about 14 months old,” Sally Chambers wrote. “But we have the consolation that he has gone to a better world.”
In September 1850, the senior Lake wrote that it was useless to warn people not to come to California. “So you may say to all ‘Come, there is room; if you are lucky you can make money if you get here destitute and are taken sick, you are pretty sure to die.’”
And die they did. Cholera swept down from the north into Sacramento City in the fall of 1850. Daniel Brooks and W.W. Hawkins, two men from Conneaut, and several of their acquaintances attempted to escape the disease and disillusionment by boarding a ship for home. But by the time the ship had been towed down the river to San Francisco, the captain, mate and seven others had died of cholera. The fate of the Conneaut men was unknown.
Monroe Dibble of Conneaut succumbed in Lake’s store the 28th of October 1850. A Myron Dibble died almost a year later to the day, in Acapulco while on his way to California.
John Grover of Windsor, who started for California in the fall of 1852, died in Utah territory when an avalanche buried his cabin at the foot of a mountain.
At some point in the Kingsville Company’s trek or time in California, James Kendall was killed by A.N. Kent, who, in the dark of the night, mistook him for a prowler and “fired his pistol three times. Kendall was killed instantly; the jury declared it an “unfortunate mistake.”
Charles Tinker, the scribe for the Kingsville Company, stayed but several months in California, then took the sea route home. Back in Northeat Ohio, he got into the manufacturing of farming tools, first in Mantua, Portage County, and later, in partnership with N.S. Caswell, at Geneva and Garrettsville. He was called the “father of the Geneva Tool Works,” which contributed significantly to the growth of Geneva in the latter half of the 19th century.
And what became of Henry, his father and A.W. Webster of Kingsville? According to a Winona County, Minn., history, Henry kept a hotel in Sacramento for four or five years. His father moved on to Chicago, where he got into real estate and invested in property in Aurora, Minn. While on a business trip there, he suffered a stroke and died at the age of 63.
His son, meantime, had moved to La Crosse, Wisc., with A.W. Webster, and started a grocery store. From there, Henry Lake moved to Winona, Minn., where he started the Winona Deposit Bank. Poor health eventually sent him back to California, where he regained a measure of strength sufficient to resume his business, but he faltered in 1876 and died the 27th of May, 1877.
There were many other Ashtabula County residents who left the relative comfort and security of their homes and families to seek gold in California. Some died along the route, some once they arrived. And one man in particular, Matthew Turner of Geneva, hit the jackpot in California — but that is an Odd Tale for another day.