Meanwhile, in California…

It’s been a while since we explored the documentary record of Mequon’s Alfred T. Bonniwell and his family and friends. Previously, we learned that the Bonniwells’ gold rush saga involved not one, but two, expeditions. The second trek westward was overland, chronicled in George Bonniwell’s gold rush diary. That trip, and the diary, began with the party’s departure from Milwaukee on April 12, 1850, continued through their arrival at the California diggings in mid-August, and closed—still searching for gold—with a final entry dated Tuesday, September 24, 1850. For more details, take another look at Gold! – The Bonniwells go west…but when? and who?

The first journey involved a smaller group, which included Alfred T. and Henry V. Bonniwell. As we discussed in A (new) Bonniwell Gold Rush timeline, that trek appears to have begun in April, 1849, with an overland wagon trip from Milwaukee to points unknown, with the party eventually arriving in New Orleans. On September 6, 1849, this first party continued West, mostly via ship: New Orleans to Chagres (Panama), by canoe and overland trail across the isthmus to Panama City, and then by steamship to San Francisco. They appear to have made it to California no later than November 4, 1849. They likely docked at San Francisco and then headed up to Sacramento, the main point of entry to the gold fields, which looked something like this:

Parsons, Charles and George Victor Cooper. Sacramento city, Ca. from the foot of J. Street, showing I., J., & K. Sts. with the Sierra Nevada in the distance / C. Parsons ; drawn Dec. 20th , 1849, by G.V. Cooper ; lith. of Wm. Endicott & Co., N. York, before March 2, 1850. Library of Congress. Click to open larger and very detailed, image in new window.


Alfred and Henry Bonniwell, together with Mequon-area neighbors P. M. Johnson, Thomas Day and Richard Taylor and perhaps one or two others, made it to the gold fields in 1849, as part of the first wave of fortune seekers. They are, therefore, bona fide “Forty-niners.” George, Charles and both William T. Bonniwells (senior and junior), and the rest of their overland party would not arrive until August, 1850. It would appear that Alfred and the rest of the Wisconsin 49ers had a lucky head start on the others. Or did they?

The Great Sacramento Flood of 1850

Sarony, Napoleon, Lithographer, Henry Bainbridge, and George W Casilear. View of Sacramento City as it appeared during the great inundation in January/ drawn from nature by Geo. W. Casilear & Henry Bainbridge; lith. of Sarony, New York. United States Sacramento California, ca. 1850. Library of Congress, color and brightness lightly adjusted. Click to open larger and very detailed, image in new window.

Unfortunately, our Mequon men arrived in gold country at the same time as an unexpectedly early rainy season. Heavy persistent rains began in November, 1849, and continued into early 1850. At higher altitudes, the rain also caused unusually early and heavy snowmelt. The roads became impassible, many mines and sluices were washed out, and the booming city of Sacramento was inundated. Here’s a contemporary account from page 2 of the January 31, 1850, San Francisco Weekly Pacific News:

The eventful year of 1850

All in all, it appears that Alfred Bonniwell and his companions must have had a rough start to their gold mining adventure. What happened during the next few months is not known; we lack sources for Alfred and the other Mequon men until they are mentioned in the August and September, 1850, final pages of George Bonniwell’s gold rush diary.

1850 was also the year of the seventh federal decennial census. This was, happily for historians, the first “all-name” federal census, in which every (free) person was supposed to be listed on the census schedule by their full name. This means we should be able to find our prospectors on the 1850 census, which was officially enumerated on June 1, 1850 (although, as we have seen elsewhere, it might take weeks or months to completely enumerate a single census district).

We believe Alfred and Henry Bonniwell and their Mequon associates were in the California gold region in mid-1850. Were they enumerated there? Did the census enumerator make it to all the remote mining camps? Did the paper census schedules survive the rough and tumble of the gold rush?

And what about George, Charles and William T. Bonniwell (senior and junior) and their overland trekking companions? According to George’s diary, June 1, 1850, was the 51st day of their journey; they were not yet halfway to California. The previous night they camped at Chimney Rock, Nebraska, pretty much “the middle of nowhere” in 1850 America. Was it possible that they were somehow enumerated on the 1850 census?

We’ll see what we can find out, next time.

2 thoughts on “Meanwhile, in California…

  1. Pingback: The Bonniwells & Co. and the 1850 census (part 1) | Clark House Historian

  2. Pingback: Monday: Map Day! —the Bonniwells & Co. and the 1850 census (part 2) | Clark House Historian

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