A (new) Bonniwell Gold Rush timeline

Continuing our look at old and new evidence about the Bonniwell family’s trip west to the gold fields of California. If you’re keeping track, this is also part 9 of our series documenting the life of Clark family neighbor (and in-law) Alfred T. Bonniwell and his family.

We closed our previous post, Gold! – The Bonniwells go west…but when? and who?, with a surprising news item 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.

This April 7, 1849, announcement raises a number of questions, and complicates—if not contradicts—our understanding of the Bonniwell family’s better-known overland trek to California in 1850. I think I have figured out what happened, and the easiest way to explain full story of the Bonniwells and their trip West to the gold fields is by making a timeline of our new evidence. And before we do that, we need to remind ourselves that…

There was more than one way to get to California

When “gold fever” first hit the nation in 1848-1849, traveling to California via wagon trail from one of the major departure points—such as Ft. Independence, Missouri, at the head of the Oregon Trail—was the least expensive but most treacherous option for would-be gold seekers. On the one hand, the overland route was the shortest, about 3,000 miles from the eastern states, but it was fraught with dangers that included bad “roads,” lack of food and water, a whole spectrum of diseases and illnesses, as well as potential attacks by Native Americans or wild animals. Whatever their reason, it appears that sometime during the first stage of their journey, between April and September, 1849, our lads decided to skip the overland route and try something safer and faster, if more expensive:

The Panama Shortcut

“For California, Via Chagres,” advertisement for USMS Steamship Co., New Orleans Daily Crescent, Wednesday, 12 Sept 1849, p 3 (tinted, sharpened). As always, click each image to open larger copy in new windows.1

By far the easiest and most popular route was the “Panama shortcut.” This journey was 7,000 miles and took approximately two to three months. Gold seekers would sail down the eastern coast of the United States to Panama. There they faced a thirty-five mile overland journey through the jungle, cutting across the Isthmus of Panama to reach the waters of the Pacific Ocean. They then boarded another ship which took them north along the western coast of Mexico to San Francisco. As California’s major port city, San Francisco became the gateway to gold.2

Would-be Panama route travelers would take a ship, often a U.S. Mail Steamer such as the “Falcon”—as advertised above— from the eastern U.S. to Chagres, a village at the mouth of the Chagres River on the Caribbean side of the isthmus of Panama. Then, after a strenuous trek though the jungle to Panama City, our travelers would board another ship for California or Oregon, perhaps from the Pacific Mail Steamship Company.

“Pacific Mail Steamship Company,” advertisement, New Orleans Daily Crescent, Wednesday, 12 Sept 1849. p. 3, newspapers.com, accessed 27 May 2022.

A new timeline for our ’49ers

How do we know that the Milwaukee men took the Panama shortcut? For that matter, how do we know that they actually left Wisconsin in early April, 1849, and went to California? Well, we have new evidence, found in the newspapers of the day. If we organize them chronologically, we will learn a good deal about this first Bonniwell expedition to gold country.

Saturday, April 7, 1849 – depart Milwaukee

Milwaukee Sentinel and Gazette, Sat. April 7, 1849, p. 2.

Note the names of these 1849 travelers. George Bonniwell was the chronicler for the Bonniwell’s 1850 expedition. Did he go along with the other men in 1849, perhaps to scout out the options for the 1850 wagon train? Did this party of five Washington County men leave on the announced date? We don’t know. But it appears that they did leave in time to be in Louisiana in early September.

We also know that Henry V. and Alfred Bonniwell make an appearance or two in George Bonniwell’s 1850 diary3, but they are only mentioned after the main party arrived at the diggings. They could have already been in California and met up with the overland party after their arrival in gold country on August 11, 1850.

There are other questions. Joseph Loomis was one of the very early white settlers in Mequon, as was, I believe, Richard Taylor. Yet neither man is mentioned at all in the 1850 diary. Did they go to California in 1849? We’ll see.

Meanwhile, nothing further is heard from this party until early September, when some of their names—and other known Mequon men—appear in the New Orleans papers.

September 6, 1849 – New Orleans, passengers for Chagres

There are two published announcements dated September 7, 1849, listing passengers about to depart New Orleans for Chagres. Both announcements include familiar names, some from the April 7, “For California” item published in Milwaukee, and some that we know from George Bonniwell’s Gold Rush diary. Adjusted to correct for a typo or two, both New Orleans passenger lists include P.M. Johnson, Thomas Day, A. T. (Alfred T.) Bonniwell and Richard Taylor. George Bonniwell is missing from both lists. Perhaps he returned to Mequon to help his brother William T. Bonniwell organize the larger 1850 expedition.

“Passengers—Per steamship Alabama, for Chagres,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, Friday, Sept. 7, 1849, page 2, (annotated), via newspapers.com

“For California and Oregon,” New Orleans Daily Picayune, Friday, Sept. 7, 1849, p. 2 (annotated), via newspapers.com

These lists were published on Friday, September 7, one day after sailing. On the day of departure, Thursday, September 6, 1849, the New Orleans Times-Picayune published this short announcement on page 2:

FOR CALIFORNIA.—The steamship Alabama, Capt Wright, will positively leave for Chagres this morning at 9 o’clock. Passengers will have to be stirring early, as she will leave promptly at the hour.

The steamship Alabama seems to have been a regular and reliable way to make the New Orleans to Chagres run.

“For California via Chagres.—Regular Monthly Packet,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, Saturday, August 18, 1849, p. 3.

And the Alabama—compared to prices on the U.S.M.S. Falcon (see above)—was a more cost-effective choice, too. Still expensive, by normal 1849 standards, but not as much as the competition. On the Alabama, a berth in a nice cabin, or “Saloon” to Chagres cost $90. A “Lower Cabin” berth was $75 and a berth in Steerage was only $45, but you had to mess (eat) with the ship’s crew.

October, 1849 at Chagres, Isthmus of Panama,

The next communication about our travelers is either dated or—more likely—published, December 1, 1849. It is from a longer letter sent by P. M. Johnson from Panama to the Ozaukee Blade newspaper, that was republished on page 2 of the Milwaukee Weekly Wisconsin on Wednesday, December 5, 1849.

As you’ll see, the Weekly Wisconsin editor’s preface to the letter includes the phrase “under date of the 1st.” Does this mean the letter was written on the 1st of December and has been published in Wisconsin only 4 days later? That’s unlikely. For reasons that will become clearer in a moment, I believe the Blade published it on Dec. 1st, and that the dates referred to in the letter refer to October, 1849. The digitized image of the original is hard to read; here is an abridged transcription of the relevant bits.

PANAMA—A Row—Americans doing justice on one of their countrymen—The Ozaukee Blade contains a letter from P M Johnson from Panama, under date of the 1st. His letter is very interesting. He writes of a row there among the gamblers, and which was designed to enlist the prejudices of Americans in their favor—but in vain. It is creditable to our countrymen to evince so honorable a spirit […]

We will skip over P. M. Johnson’s account of this “disgraceful affair.” The essence of it is that some gamblers caused a fight which almost evolved into a riot between about 600 hundred Americans and an equal number of Chagres citizens. The local soldiers were called up, but before things got out of hand, the Americans delivered the instigator to the local authorities.

The fact that there were as many as 600 Americans in Chagres is a demonstration of how the land route across the Isthmus of Panama was a tight bottleneck in a key Atlantic-Pacific trade route of the time. California gold-seekers were often delayed days or weeks as they waited for river and land transport across the isthmus. (By the time this letter was written, investors were already contemplating a railroad across the narrowest part of the isthmus; it was built during the 1850s and would prove very successful.) Johnson closes with a mention of the railroad idea, along with his planned date of sailing to California of “the 8th inst.” on the ship Panama. Given our next piece of evidence, that sailing date must be October 8, 1849.

If the Railroad is built, this will in a few years, be decidedly an American city, and may exert a powerful influence over the whole Republic of New Granada, and all the Republics of South America. […] We sail on the Panama the 8th inst. PMJ

Before November 4, 1849 – California!

We have one more source that places members of our Washington County crew in the California gold region by early November, 1849. It is a “Letter from California,” from Henry Allen to his former law partner G. M. Waugh, back in Wisconsin. Allen, from Port Washington, Washington county, was one of the area’s early lawyers and legislators. He may, or may not, be related to the “Thomas Allen” that we know took part in the Bonniwell’s 1850 expedition. His letter is interesting, and gives a sense of the wild early days of the California Gold Rush.

“Letter from California,” Milwaukee Sentinel, Tuesday, January 22, 1850, p. 3

The essential information, for our Bonniwell Gold Rush timeline, is found in the final paragraph. First, Allen mentions “our friends Bates, Stoddard and French” and “Baylies and company.” These names are new to me. They may well be additional early Washington or Milwaukee county pioneers, but I don’t believe they are part of the Mequon and Grafton circle of friends and acquaintances that partnered with the Bonniwells for either of their 1849 or 1850 voyages to the California gold fields.

What is relevant for us, is Allen’s statement that “P. M. Johnson and Day, of Grafton, are here.” P. M. Johnson is, as we have learned, a co-investor, with William Bonniwell, in the 1850 overland expedition, and a passenger on the voyage from New Orleans to Chagres in 1849. The other man, “Day, of Grafton,” is probably the same “Thomas Day” listed with the passengers on the Alabama, and sailed to Chagres with P. M. Johnson and the others.

What about Henry?

Remember our initial April 7, 1849, clue that there had been a Bonniwell expedition to California before 1850?

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.

I’ve found no additional evidence that shows that either George Bonniwell or Joseph Loomis did—or did not—participate in the 1849 expedition. It’s highly unlikely that George Bonniwell got as far as Chagres, let alone California, before returning to Mequon to begin (and chronicle) the Bonniwell’s overland trek in April, 1850, And as far as I can tell, Joseph Loomis was not part of the 1849 or 1850 trek, or at least never made it to California.4 Perhaps, in 1849, George and Joseph got the other men as far as the Mississippi River—or Ft. Independence—and then turned around and rode back to Wisconsin.

But what about Henry Bonniwell? There is one more bit of evidence. Pages 506-508 of The Illustrated Album of Biography of Meeker and McLeod Counties, Minnesota […], Chicago, 1888, contain a biographical sketch of Henry’s life, including these remarks:

During the gold excitement of 1849, the subject of this memoir went to the Pacific slope, and spent two years there, looking the country over. He then returned to the ” Badger State,” and made his home there until coming to [McLeod] county in June, 1866.

That would put Henry with brother Alfred and the rest of our party, in California from late-1849 through sometime in late-1851 or early-1852. He was certainly (still) there between August 11 and September 8, 1850, when George Bonniwell wrote about returning from a trip to Sacramento and finding brothers Alfred, “Hanery” and William at work in the “dry diggings”:

Me and the rest of the men started and walked 160 miles through a pleasant country and saw a great many diggings, and 1 or 2 quite flourishing villages and a great many people of different nations. We arrived in 7 days and found them all well. Alfred Hanery and William was working on the bar.5

I don’t know a lot about Henry’s life, but this (mostly) fits the facts that I have, though I wonder when did Henry come back to Wisconsin, exactly? One clue is that Henry’s fourth child, his son Edward, was born in September, 1851, which suggests that Henry was home in Mequon with his wife Catherine by about January, 1851, at the latest.

End of the (1849) Trail

Henry Allen’s letter, published January 22, 1850, but dated November 4th, 1849, is the last 1849 Bonniwell Gold Rush information that I have located. Our next related source is George Bonniwell’s diary of the second group’s overland expedition, that began on April 12, 1850.

With the information we now have, I think we can safely conclude that “the Bonniwell expedition” occurred in two parts. One part began when Clark family neighbors P. M. Johnson, Thomas Day, Alfred T. Bonniwell, Richard Taylor and probably Henry Bonniwell—perhaps accompanied by others—left Milwaukee in April, 1849, got to New Orleans, sailed to Panama, and then arrived in San Francisco and the California gold fields around late-October or early-November, 1849. I also believe these men remained in California until well after they met up with their companions that had left Washington County in April, 1850, and finally arrived at the gold diggings on August 11, 1850.

Next time

After all these words and blurry old news clippings, I’m going to try and organize the timeline(s) on a beautiful and informative historical map. And we have a holiday to commemorate, too.

See you soon.



  1. All of the newspaper clipping images and transcribed content in today’s post were accessed via newspapers.com (paysite). The Milwaukee Sentinel and Gazette, Sat. April 7, 1849, p. 2. clipping was also found at genealogybank.com (paysite).

  2. “The Gold Rush and Westward Expansion,” Smithsonian American Art Museum, page 4, https://americanexperience.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/The-Gold-Rush-and-Westward-Expansion.pdf accessed 27 May 2022. The mileage for each route is based on a starting point on the east coast. This source explains that there was a third option, also by sea:

    “Although it was the longest in terms of distance, nearly 15,000 miles, it was also the safest route, despite the risk of high waves, frigid temperatures, and a lack of fresh food. Travelers would sail south from the U.S. east coast past South America, down around the tip of Cape Horn, and back north through the Pacific Ocean to California. This route took approximately four to eight months.”

  3. George Bonniwell (b. 1813) kept a diary of “Captain” William Bonniwell’s 1850 overland trek. As of 1999, George Bonniwell’s original diary was in the possession of Barbara Sumner (the wife of Thomas Sumner, a great-grandson of the diary’s author). 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. Any excerpts quoted here or elsewhere on Clark House Historian are published under fair use educational provisions of applicable U. S. copyright law.

    For more on the diary and the 1850 expedition, see our previous post, Gold! – The Bonniwells go west…but when? and who?. 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.

    For the bibliographic record, I originally accessed part 1 of the diary transcription in 2008, via this now-defunct link: http://www.emigrantroad(dot)com/gold01.html

    If you are interested in Emigrant Road’s other Oregon Trail information, the Wayback Machine archive of their old Contents page is here.

  4. In fact, I think—but I’m not 100% sure—that the April 7, 1849, “Joseph Loomis” is probably the same man as the “J. L. (or J. I.?) Loomis” that enumerated half of Washington county in mid-1850. J. L. (or J. I.?) Loomis enumerated the Jonathan Clark house on October 7, 1850. For details, see our post The Clark Family in 1850, part 2.

    He may also be the Joseph Loomis that married Ruby Bigelow, daughter of one of Mequon’s first white residents, Issac Bigelow and his wife Lavinia Loomis. Yes, that is confusing, thank you. One of the big genealogical messes in early Mequon that I have not sorted out (yet) is the tangle of relationships between the various Loomis and Loomer families. Someday, perhaps…

  5. George Bonniwell, Gold Rush Diary, entry for September 8, 1850. And by the way, if George Bonniwell was correct, and these men walked 160 miles in 7 days, that means they averaged almost 23 miles per day for a solid week of walking. In the Sierra Nevada. Suffering from dysentery. Think about that.


The Library of Congress online has a great collection, “California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849 to 1900.” Here’s a link to 207 of those narratives, sorted by earliest date of publication: https://www.loc.gov/collections/california-first-person-narratives/?sb=date It’s a mother lode of detailed information and colorful stories for the interested reader.

16 thoughts on “A (new) Bonniwell Gold Rush timeline

  1. Reed,Wow!  Great research!  I have goose bumps.  It is so exciting to learn the full story of the Bonniwell’s Gold Rush.  You pieced it together so well.Much gratitude,George


    • Thanks, George!

      It *is* exciting when the pieces finally come together and we can solve one of our “history mysteries.”

      And when it comes to all things Bonniwell, I couldn’t do what I do without (frequent) reference to your book, and to you. I appreciate your ongoing support and assistance.



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