The Bonniwells & Co. and the 1850 census (part 1)

The seventh decennial federal population census was officially enumerated for all persons living in the United States on June 1, 1850. For the first time, all (free) persons were to be listed in the census schedules by their full names.1 But as we discussed previously2, while the actual enumeration of the 1850 census should have begun in every enumeration district on June 1, 1850, it didn’t always do so. And it often took weeks—or even months—to complete the enumeration of most districts. Yet according to Census Bureau rules, whenever the government enumerator did show up at your abode, the census forms were supposed to record the location and personal information for each free person in every household as of June 1, 1850.

So where were the members of the two Bonniwell Gold rush expeditions on June 1, 1850, and where were they enumerated? Or were they enumerated at all? Well, we know that on June 1, 1850, the second expedition, taking the overland route, was camped here:

Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. The iconic Chimney Rock, now a U.S. national monument, stands out in the distance in Morrill County, Nebraska. United States Nebraska Morrill County, 2022-01-02. Library of Congress (public domain).


According to George Bonniwell’s gold rush diary, June 1, 1850, was the 51st day of their overland journey, and George, Charles and William T. Bonniwell (senior and junior) and their wagon train companions 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 enumerated on the 1850 census while on the westward trail in Nebraska?

No. In 1850 no one was enumerated in the “unorganized territory” that would become the future state of Nebraska. Nebraska’s first census would not happen until the passage of the fateful Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. But in 1850, there were no census enumerators to be found anywhere on the great plains between the western border of the state of Missouri and the eastern edge of the soon-to-be Utah Territory.

This map is a detail taken from John M. Atwood’s Map of the United States, the British provinces, Mexico &c.: showing the routes of the U.S. mail steam packets to California, and a plan of the Gold Region. New York: J. H. Colton, 1849, originally from the collection of Millard Fillmore and now at the Library of Congress.4

I have added three highlights in red. Underlined on the right is the location of Independence, Missouri, an important intermediate destination for both the 1849 and 1850 Bonniwell expeditions. The red arrow in the middle of “Indian Territory” shows the (very) approximate location of the Bonniwell’s wagon train on June 1, 1850, near Chimney Rock, Nebraska. And the large circle to the west highlights the general location of the 1849 Bonniwell prospectors and the eventual destination of the 1850 Bonniwell party.

What about California?

So the members of the Bonniwell overland expedition were not enumerated on the decennial census while on the Great Plains in the summer of 1850. According to George Bonniwell’s diary, the party did not arrive in the California gold country until August 8th, eight months after the disastrous California floods of January, 1850, and nine weeks after the start of the 1850 census enumeration. Would the census still be in progress in the hills and valleys of the California mining district once they arrived? Would any members of either Bonniwell party have a chance to be enumerated in California?

Recording the census in the frenzy and wilderness of gold rush California must have been a daunting task. Could the government’s enumerators get up into the scattered high-country mining camps? Did they visit every hotel and shanty in San Francisco or Sacramento? Did they enumerate all the miners and merchants and other California residents and settlers? And even if they did, would the paper census forms survive from the wilderness, weather—and wild times—of 1850 California to the present day?

We’ll have answers to those questions in our nest post. See you soon.



  1. While free persons, including free persons of color, were enumerated by name, enslaved Black Americans were recorded by age, sex (male or female), and the various racial categories of the day (usually “Black,” “Negro,” or “mulatto”).

  2. Our deep dive into the Jonathan M. Clark family and farm as found on the 1850 census includes these posts:
    The Clark Family in 1850, part 1
    The Clark Family in 1850, part 2
    The Clark Family in 1850, part 3
    The Clark Family in 1850, part 4
    Harvest Time: 1850, part 1 and
    Harvest Time: 1850, part 2

  3. The Library of Congress provides this additional caption/information from photographer Carol Highsmith: The iconic Chimney Rock, now a U.S. national monument, stands out in the distance in Morrill County, Nebraska. One of the most famous natural formations in the American West, it was highly anticipated by, westward-heading migrants on the Oregon, Mormon, and California Trails. So excited about reaching the formation were thousands of travelers that they climbed the cone and carved their names near or on the top. The 470-foot spire has (as of 2022) lost about 30 feet of height over the past 150 years.

  4. For more information on this wonderful map, including a high-resolution copy of the full map, as well as several detailed excerpts, see our earlier post Monday: Map Day! – To the gold fields, 1849 & ’50. We will be returning to this map again as we trace the Bonniwell’s and their Gold Rush exploits.

3 thoughts on “The Bonniwells & Co. and the 1850 census (part 1)

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

  2. Pingback: The Bonniwells & Co. and the 1850 (and ’52) census – part 3 | Clark House Historian

  3. Pingback: The Bonniwells & Co. and the 1850 census–part 4: “in” Wisconsin! | Clark House Historian

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