Still digging…

I’m still digging in the archives, trying to wrap up our ongoing exploration of the Bonniwell family adventures in the California gold fields, bring (almost) everyone back to Mequon, and finish our (unexpectedly long and thorough) look at the life of Jonathan and Mary Clark’s brother-in-law, Alfred T. Bonniwell.

I’m currently mining a rich vein of 1850 and ’52 census documents for California and Wisconsin, as well as contemporary ships’ passenger manifests and published newspaper announcements of maritime comings and goings. Once again, I have a large pile of raw material to sift through and write about, and it’s taking more time than expected. I hope to have things organized for you next week. In the meanwhile, I thought you might enjoy this painting, made in California at the same time as the Bonniwell expedition, Miners in the Sierra:

As always, be sure to click the image to open a larger, higher-resolution image in a new window.

Miners in the Sierra

Our painting is a scene of four miners, digging and washing potentially gold-rich California soil. In the background, smoke curls from the chimney of their log cabin as their laundry dries in the sun. These typical California mining activities would have been very familiar to the Bonniwell expedition members, as would the rocky pine- and oak-covered landscape of the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Miners in the Sierra was painted 1850-1851 in Sacramento by German immigrants Charles Christian Nahl and August Wenderoth. It is now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a gift of the Fred Heilbron Collection. This image is in the public domain, under a CC0 license.

The artists

Charles Christian Nahl was born in Kassel, Germany, in 1818 and died in San Francisco in 1878. His colleague August Wenderoth was born in Kassel in 1819 and died in Philadelphia in 1884. The Smithsonian’s gallery label has this additional information about the artists and the painting:

Charles Christian Nahl and August Wenderoth were refugees from Germany’s revolution of 1848. Like thousands before them, they came to California to find their fortunes, but as skilled entrepreneurs rather than adventurers. They built a studio in Sacramento and painted the first wave of prospectors. These miners wear red, white, and blue shirts, signaling California’s importance to the nation’s future. California became a state in 1850, and was already an economic powerhouse by the time the artists collaborated on this painting.

History “in color”

For many of us, nineteeth-century historical images—especially early photographs—often give the impression that era was visually dull, almost monochrome. Nothing could be further from the truth. Paintings like Miners in the Sierra, or the Currier & Ives lithograph Gold mining in California, featured in our earlier post The Bonniwells & Co. in California, 1849 & 1850, may not be as photo-accurate as a crisp daguerreotype, but sometimes they can give us a more life-like feeling of “how it looked” back in the day.

That’s all for now. I hope you enjoyed today’s painting. Fingers crossed, by next week I’ll have several more posts for you that will finally bring our prospectors home to Wisconsin with new—if more domestic—adventures near the Jonathan Clark house.


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