Monday: Map Day! — the Bonniwells & Co. and the 1850 census (part 2)

UPDATED, Jan. 9, 2023, to correct a few minor errors.

Our December 15, 2022 post, The Bonniwells & Co. and the 1850 census (part 1), ended with a cliffhanger:

So the members of the overland Bonniwell overland expedition were not enumerated on the decennial census while on the trail [in Nebraska] in the summer of 1850. According to George Bonniwell’s diary, the party did not arrive in the gold country until August 8th, eight months after the disastrous California floods of January, 1850. […] Would the census still be in progress in the hills and valleys of the mining district? 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 enumerate all the miners and merchants and other California settlers? Would the paper census forms survive the wilderness, weather—and wild times—of 1850 California?1

Today we’ll see if we can answer those questions.

Gold rush counties, c. 1850

Since the federal decennial census is always enumerated by counties, let’s get our bearings by looking at this contemporary map of the California gold region, showing the various county boundaries at that time:

Jackson, Wm. A, and Lambert & Lane. Map of the mining district of California. Revised second edition published 1851, based on first edition published 1850. Library of Congress.2 As always, click the images to open a larger, higher-quality image in a new window.

First look

There is a lot to see on this map, and much of it is pretty accurate for its day. But this is an early map of this part of California, and there are errors and omissions in geography, and some place names and county boundaries have been added or changed over time. But if the Bonniwells had a map of the California gold region, this may have been it.

Both Bonniwell parties—Alfred T. Bonniwell’s 1849 “Panama shortcut” land-and-sea expedition and William T. Bonniwell’s 1850 overland trek—would have found this map helpful. George Bonniwell’s gold rush diary,3 and the other documents we have uncovered, document the Bonniwell presence in at least three of the counties on today’s map: San Francisco, Sacramento and El Dorado. It’s possible that our prospectors traversed parts of the adjacent counties as they searched for gold, supplies and provisions in the gold region.

The Bonniwells in California

Let’s zoom in on our map for a closer look at the Bonniwells’ gold rush era world. The first Bonniwell group, including brothers Alfred and Henry Bonniwell and neighbors Thomas Day and P. M. Johnson, arrived in San Francisco sometime prior to November 4, 1849. They had traveled by ship from Panama City, departing on October 8, 1849.4

And as we’ll see in an upcoming post, it appears that most, or all, of our prospectors returned to Wisconsin by ship, circa 1851-1852 or so, probably retracing the route of the 1849 land-and-sea “Panama short cut” expedition. It’s highly likely this would have included passing through the rapidly expanding port and city of San Francisco. This detail shows the San Francisco Bay area as it looked circa 1849-1850:

Jackson, Wm. A, and Lambert & Lane. Map of the mining district of California. Revised second edition published 1851, based on first edition published 1850 (detail, showing the San Francisco Bay area). Library of Congress.

To travel between San Francisco and Sacramento and other parts of the gold region, the Bonniwells could have traveled by foot (or horse or wagon, if available), but that would have entailed a long detour south and east through San Francisco and Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties. It’s much more likely that they traveled by sail or steamship via San Francisco Bay, through the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and then up the Sacramento River to and from the mining district.

The 1850 route

We know a few more details about the route taken and places visited by the 1850 overland party. George Bonniwell’s gold rush diary mentions these dates and place names. Here is a list5 of California places named in the diary, and the first date of mention (all dates for the year 1850):

  • Pilot [?] River, Aug. 2-4
  • Pleasant [?] Valley, “at the base of the […] Sierra Nevada Mountains,” Aug. 5
  • Kannion [?] Valley, Aug. 7, first mention of “diggings” in the area
  • Leep [?] Spring, Aug. 9, “40 miles from Hangtown”
  • “diggings” […] “within 9 miles of Hangtown”

It’s not clear when the 1850 trekkers entered California proper. Some of the places listed above are now located in Nevada. I’m not sure where the “Pilot River” is located. It may be a creek or river near Pilot Mountain in present-day Nevada. George Bonniwell’s August 4 diary entry, written at Pilot River, states that they are “yet 140 miles from Sacramento City.” Pleasant Valley may be in present-day Washoe county, Nevada. “Kannion Valley,” presumably now spelled “Canyon,” is a mystery.

El Dorado County

It is clear that by August 7 the party was on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, entering California’s gold country. The daily diary entries end, temporarily, with the August 11th entry. They begin again with a diary entry dated September 8 that summarizes some of their adventures from August 11 through September 8. Places mentioned in this September 8 entry, and in subsequent diary entries, include:

  • Sacramento [city]
  • various unnamed “diggings” seen when they “walked 160 miles through pleasant country”
  • rendezvous with “Alfred Hanery [Henry] and William working on the bar” after “7 days” of walking

The diary includes many descriptions of nature, diggings, camps and a variety of geographical features as seen by George Bonniwell on his travels the gold district. I don’t have the knowledge to connect these descriptions of various valleys, hills, bars and streams with places on a map. Perhaps someone with a better knowledge of the gold rush and of California topography would be able to do so.

But it is reasonably clear that the 1850 Bonniwell party entered California via the “Overland Emigrant coule” route shown on today’s map. It runs east to west through El Dorado County and on to the county and city of Sacramento. And given that George Bonniwell records various unnamed “diggings” seen when they “walked 160 miles through pleasant country,” I would assume that the party later passed by many of the bars, veins and diggings in adjacent Sutter and Yuba counties, too. I’ve highlighted some of these places on this detail from our map:

Jackson, Wm. A, and Lambert & Lane. Map of the mining district of California. Revised second edition published 1851, based on first edition published 1850 (detail, showing the likely route of the 1850 Bonniwell party). Library of Congress.

Map Key

  1. “Overland Emigrant coule” [sic, coulee], probable route of Bonniwell party, about August 8 or 9, 1850
  2. approximate location of “Hangtown,” later Placerville (see below)
  3. “Culoma” [sic, Coloma], El Dorado county seat until 1857
  4. Sacramento City, at the junction of the Sacramento and American rivers


George Bonniwell’s diary mentions an important El Dorado County town that, for reasons unknown, was omitted from today’s map. It was originally the location of a Maidu settlement which they called Indak. After the discovery of gold by white settlers, in 1848, a mining town was established there and called Dry Diggings. Within a few years the place became known to many gold rush participants as “Hangtown.” And, yes, this name implies all that you might imagine in terms of frontier mob “justice.”

During the early years of the gold rush the town grew rapidly in size, population and importance. Only a few years later, in 1857, it would replace Coloma as the seat of El Dorado county. And so, as you also might imagine, the city leaders of 1850s Hangtown were eager to leave behind their wild and woolly (and somewhat exaggerated) reputation—and name—in the interests of civic progress and respectability. So in 1854 Hangtown was officially re-named Placerville.7 It was an important place during the gold rush, positioned at the meeting of several important foot and wagon trails, and miners like the Bonniwells would have visited or passed through the town for supplies, food, banking and transportation.

The 1850 federal census in California

With all that as prologue, we come back to our original cliffhanger questions:

  • Could the government’s enumerators get up into the scattered high-country mining camps?
  • Did they enumerate all the miners and merchants and other California settlers?
  • Would the paper census forms survive the wilderness, weather—and wild times—of 1850 California?

And most importantly: could the Bonniwells and their companions be enumerated in California in 1850?

The short answers?

  • Yes, they did. And it took a while, often many, many months
  • All? probably not. But they enumerated thousands in the gold district alone
  • Many did. But all? I’m not sure

So, could the Bonniwells and their companions have been enumerated in California in 1850? Yes, they could. In fact, the enumeration of El Dorado and adjacent counties continued for months after the arrival of the 1850 Bonniwell expedition. So our Mequon prospectors should have been enumerated in California in the second half of 1850.

But were they? Well, there is a good deal more to the Bonniwell 1850 census story, and this post is already running longer than planned. I’ll be back next time with the rest of the story…



  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. But as we discussed previously, 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 usually took weeks—or even months—to complete the enumeration of some 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. And while free persons—including free persons of color—were to be enumerated individually by name, enslaved Black Americans were not named; they were enumerated only by age, sex (male or female), and the various racial categories of the day (usually “Black,” “Negro,” or “mulatto”).

    And if you missed it, our deep dive into the Clark family and farm and 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

    Naturally, these posts contain a lot of information about the Clark family in 1850, but they also discuss various aspects of how the 1850 census was enumerated and what sort of information was collected on the various non-population census schedules.

  2. The Library of Congress provides this additional information about today’s map:

    “This map, produced in two parts in the early years after the California Gold Rush of 1849, shows the regions where gold was discovered in the territory. Accompanying the map was a 16-page appendix that gave further information on the location and significance of the gold strikes. The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill on the American River in January 1848 attracted migrants from the east coast of the United States, as well as from Europe, Central and South America, Australia, and Asia. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican-American War, signed within two weeks of the discovery at Sutter’s Mill, made California a U.S. territory after centuries of control by Spain and Mexico. The influx of some 300,000 people accelerated the pace of political change in the territory. Elections, the drafting of a constitution, and the rapid achievement of statehood followed within a few years. The admission of California to the Union as a free state was a part of the Compromise of 1850, which was aimed at heading off a split between North and South over the issue of expanding slavery into the western territories. San Francisco, only a small village before the Gold Rush of 1849, became a boom town and then a significant metropolis. Captain William A. Jackson, the cartographer, was an engineer who had personal experience of the mines. The map and appendix shown here were published in 1851 and are revised from the first edition produced in 1850.” World Digital Library.

  3. For more on George Bonniwell’s gold rush diary, including links to the full text, see the notes to our post Gold! – The Bonniwells go west…but when? and who?

  4. Full details in our earlier post, A (new) Bonniwell Gold Rush timeline.

  5. For the record, I have probably missed a place name or two while making this list. Corrections and additions are welcome.

  6. Coulee, per Wikipedia, “is a term applied rather loosely to different landforms, all of which refer to a kind of valley or drainage zone. The word coulee comes from the Canadian French coulée, from French couler ‘to flow’.

  7. Placerville has several buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For an outline of the town’s history, and a few nice photos, here is a good place to start.

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