UPDATED, May 27, 2022 with a few minor edits for clarity.
Today, in part 8 of our series documenting the life of Clark family neighbor (and in-law) Alfred T. Bonniwell and his large extended family, we begin a fresh look at some documentary evidence that complicates and enriches our understanding of how the national “Gold Fever” that began in 1848 shaped the years around 1848-1851 in the lives of Bonniwells and some of their Mequon neighbors.
Gold, Placerville [formerly Hangtown], El Dorado County, California, Smithsonian Institution, NMNH-79-9911 (public domain, CC0). Click to open larger image in new window.
Our current knowledge of the Bonniwell family’s California adventures is nicely summarized by George B. Bonniwell at the start of chapter 12 of his book, The Bonniwells: 1000 Years.1
In January, 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California. By 1849, the gold rush was on. The Bonniwells couldn’t resist another adventure. William Bonniwell, as Captain, led a wagon train of six wagons and 16 men, including Charles, James, Henry, George, Alfred and young William who was only 14 at the time. They started from Milwaukee on April 12, 1850, headed down into Illinois, through Iowa, joined the Oregon Trail in Nebraska, proceeded through Wyoming, into Idaho, down into Nevada and finally to Sacramento, California and the gold region. After four months enduring sickness, hostile Indians, more sickness, mountains, desert, more sickness, lack of water, starvation, etc., they finally made it to their destination in California on August 11, 1850.
Then, after “remaining anywhere from two to four years, they returned to the ‘Bonniwell Settlement.’ It is believed that they returned by the Isthmus of Panama (although some thought that they returned home around Cape Horn.”2
The whole story reads like a tale from a movie script or Western novel, but it’s not. It is, indeed, a true story. But what do we really know about the Bonniwells’ epic trek, and how do we know it? Well, we’ve got some outstanding contemporary sources; some are well-known and some are newly-discovered. Let’s start with what we know.
George Bonniwell’s Gold Rush Diary
We are lucky to have a first-hand account of this difficult journey from Wisconsin Territory to the California gold fields, as brother George Bonniwell kept a diary during the trip. He made almost daily entries at first; later there are shorter and longer gaps between diary entries. The diary begins with the party’s departure from Milwaukee on April 12, 1850, continues through their arrival at the California diggings in mid-August, and closes—still searching for gold—with a final entry dated Tuesday, September 24:
I now must close this book, and I hope that all that reads it will excuse all bad writing, spelling, and as I find by looking at it, there is plenty I should have corrected it before I set it down, but had not time. I hope every allowance will be made. -Geo Bonniwell
The “Gold Rush” chapter of The Bonniwells: 1000 Years includes a generous sampling of representative diary entries on pages 76-79. A transcription of the complete[?] diary was available online for many years at an interesting, but now-defunct, website called Emigrant Road: An Oregon Trail Adventure.
Fortunately, you can still find all five parts of the Bonniwell Gold Rush Diary via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine; the first part of the diary is available here. For the other four sections of the diary, click the “The Adventure Continues” link at the end of each of the archived diary webpages.3
The whole story?
So we have a detailed first-hand account of the Bonniwells’ westward trek, filled with all the kinds of events and adversities that we would expect from a Gold Rush tale. Is that the whole story? No. Not surprisingly, there are many gaps and omissions in the diary. One key item that the author omitted was a list of all the participants on “Captain” William Bonniwell’s wagon train. So if we are going to track who traveled where, when, and with whom, we need to start by reconstructing a more complete roster of the would-be prospectors.
Who is named in the diary?
To get started, let’s list all the names of the participants the 1850 expedition as recorded in the diary. We’ll begin with the members of the Bonniwell family, with their birth years and the date of their first mention in the 1850 diary.
• George Bonniwell (b. 1813, author of the Gold Rush diary, makes first entry on April 12)
• “Captain” William T. Bonniwell (b. 1809, first mention in diary April 13)
• Charles Bonniwell (b. 1806, first mentioned April 15)
• William T. Bonniwell, Jr. (b. 1836, mentioned as “Little Bill,” June 26 and “Billy,” Sept 22)
Altogether, only four members of the Bonniwelll family are mentioned in the diary’s account of their overland travels to California: George (as author), his brothers Charles and William, and William’s son, William, Jr. Several other members of the family do show up in the diary, but not until after the overland travelers arrive at the gold fields in August. It is possible that they these other Bonniwells were on the overland trip and just not mentioned in the diary, but new evidence suggests that they came to California at another time or via other means. We’ll catch up with them in a moment.
Other members of the 1850 overland expedition
The non-Bonniwell members of the wagon train included neighbors from Meqon and some other participants of whom we know very little. Presumably, these men signed on—and paid their fees—to join the party before it left Milwaukee on April 12, 1850. Here are the other adventurers from George Bonniwell’s chronicle, listed in order of their first appearance in the diary:
• Mr. Han (April 18)
• Mr. Rattery (April 19)
• Mr. Mun (April 19, same as “Mr. Murm” on July 27?)
• Thomas Mun (May 16, same as “Mr. Mun”?; spelled “Min” on June 18)
• Mr. And (April 24, and following; compare to Mr. Hand, below)
• Andrew Bloxom (April 29, transcription error for Blossom?; same as “Blovom” on July 15?)
• Mr Giffied (April 29)
• Thomas Allen (June 17)
• Mr. Page (June 19)
• Mr Hand (June 20 and other entries; same as “Mr. And,” above?)
At first count, there appear to be 9 or 10 non-Bonniwell men on this list. Yet after reading the transcribed diary, I’ve come to agree with George Bonniwell tha spelling was not his strong suit as he kept his journal along the westward trail. With that in mind, I wonder how many individuals are really represented by the man called “Mr. And,” or “Mr. Han,” or “Mr. Hand”? The Bonniwells were English after all, and many Englishmen drop initial H’s when speaking. I think these three names probably represent one man, possibly with the surname “Hand.”
And do we think “Mr. Mun” is the same person as “Thomas Mun”? Or might they represent, perhaps, a father and son pair? I don’t know.
California! and rest of the crew appears
[Gold miners, El Dorado, California, ca. 1848, before 1853.] Library of Congress. Click to open larger image in new window.
The following names appear in George Bonniwell’s diary on September 8, 1850. This diary entry covers the first weeks after the overland expedition arrived at the California diggings, from August 11 to September 8.
• P. M. Johnson (William Bonniwell’s partner in organizing the expedition)
• Mr. Twenteman (spelling unsure, possibly Twentyman or Twentamon)
• Henry V. Bonniwell (b. 1818, recorded as “Hanery” in the transcription)
• Alfred T. Bonniwell (b. 1826, recorded as “Alfred”)
Alfred is also mentioned on September 22. He and “little Bill” were both recovering from a touch of dysentery, a common ailment in the diggings.
Did these four men travel with the overland trekkers and simply didn’t rate a mention in the diary until after their arrival in California? Or did they get to California by other means and meet up with the overland party some time between August 11 and September 8? More on that, below.
Two men—elsewhere said to be members of the 1850 expedition—are not present in George Bonniwell’s diary at all. The most surprising of these is brother James Bonniwell (b. 1811). Page 107 of The Bonniwells: 1000 Years, states that James was part of the Bonniwell gold rush trek, but I do not have any other sources for that information. Did James actually make the trek to California?
The other expedition member mentioned in The Bonniwells—but not in the diary—is one Ephrain M. Ferguson. Page 79 has details of how Ferguson sued partners William Bonniwell and P.M. Johnson for non-performance on the expedition contract. (Ferguson lost the case, and a lien was placed on his Washington county property.)
Who were these other men?
George Bonniwell’s diary does not often give full names or other information about many of the non-Bonniwell men. I have searched local histories, contemporary newspapers, and various census documents to try and fill-out our knowledge of who these other men may have been. In our next Clark House Historian post, we’ll have some more information about a few of the expedition’s Mequon men, especially William Bonniwell’s partner on this expedition, P. M. Johnson.
Beyond the diary
George Bonniwell’s 1850 diary is not our only source for Bonniwell Gold Rush activites. We now have access to newspaper clippings that reveal new, and intriguing, details of the family’s California adventures, such as this announcement from page 2 of the Saturday, April 7, 1849. edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel and Gazette.
FOR CALIFORNIA.—Henry V. Bonniwell, Geo B. Bonniwell, Alfred Bonniwell, Joseph Loomis, and Richard Taylor from Mequon, Washington county, are to leave to-day for California. They proceed to Fort Independence, to fit out.4
April, 1849? That’s a full year before “Captain” William Bonniwell’s overland trek to the gold fields. What’s up with that? And what about Alfred? It looks like he made it to California, but how? and when?
For more information—and a few surprises—get your sea legs ready, brush up on your Spanish, and tune in to our next installment.
- Bonniwell, George B., The Bonniwells: 1000 Years, privately published, n.p, 1999. Copies are still available through the author. If you would like more information, or a copy of the book, let me know via the Clark House Historian Contact form.
- Ibid., p. 79.
- As of 1999, the diary was in the possession of Barbara Sumner (the wife of Thomas Sumner, a great-grandson of the diary’s author, George Bonniwell). The transcription published on emigrantroad.com was credited to J. R. Tomkins. According to the emigrantroad.com site, the diary contents are protected by copyright. The excerpts quoted here are published under fair use educational provisions of applicable U. S. copyright law.
For the bibliographic record, I originally accessed part 1 of the diary transcription in 2008, via this now-defunct link: http://www.emigrantroad.com/gold01.html
If you are interested in Emigrant Road’s other Oregon Trail information, the Wayback Machine archive of their Contents page is here.
And if you are interested in additional Gold Rush primary and secondary accounts and sources, the National Park Service has put together a tremendous list called Across the Plains, Mountains, and Deserts: A Bibliography of the Oregon-California Trail, 1812–1912, edited by Will Bagley.
This bibliography “provides information for accessing more than 2,600 primary overland accounts and almost 2,000 secondary sources. Resources cited describe life on the trail, frontier justice, exploration with ox-teams, and encounters with Native peoples. Sources include books, magazine and newspaper articles, government documents, maps, and manuscript collections.” This document is available online at:
http://www.nps.gov/cali/historyculture/bibliography.htm and the pdf file is at:
- Clipping accessed 25 May 2022 at Newspapers.com