The Bonniwells & Co. and the 1850 (and ’52) census – part 3

Our previous post1 left us with two important, unanswered questions: Could the Bonniwells and their companions have been recorded on the 1850 federal population census in California? And if they could be counted, were they? After all, travel through the gold camps in the high mountains could be pretty difficult in the best of times:

Gold miners, El Dorado, California, ca. 1848, before 1853. Library of Congress.

Add the rain and snow of a typical fall and winter in California’s gold region and the enumerator’s task must have been very difficult. But the answer is yes, it was possible that our Mequon prospectors could have been counted in the 1850 census in California. The enumeration of the gold mining counties began well after the official enumeration date of June 1st, 1850, and the process continued in some gold region counties until the last weeks of December, many months after the arrival of the overland contingent of the Bonniwell expedition.

Enumerating El Dorado, 1850

For example, the enumeration of El Dorado county’s bustling mining area of Placerville (aka,”Hangtown”) and vicinity did not even begin until October 14, 1850:

U.S. seventh federal decennial census, 1850; Placerville and Vicinity, El Dorado, California; NARA series M432, Roll 34; Page: 263b (image 1 of 135)

The 1850 census’s enumerators may have made a late start in El Dorado county, but they made up for it with admirable thoroughness and attention to detail. Among the hundreds of surviving pages of El Dorado county schedules, there are 133 more pages like this one, just to enumerate “Placerville and its Vicinity.” Other parts of the county received similar, detailed treatment.2

We know from other sources that our Mequon prospectors were in California’s gold region while the 1850 census was still being enumerated. In theory, they could—and should—have been recorded in California in 1850. But were they?


I tried dozens of searches using the indexes and search functions at and Surnames were spelled various ways, including Bonniwell, Bonewell, and searched with wildcard variations like Bon*ll, Bon*l, *well, Bon*le and more. I searched with and without first names (or using only first and middle initials) and with and without additional census information such as place of birth (England or UK) or birth year (exact as well as +/-2 years and +/-5 years). I looked for other members of the 1849 and 1850 Bonniwell parties, including P. M. Johnson, Thomas Day and others.

But as far as I can tell, none of the members of either the 1849 or 1850 Bonniwell expeditions were enumerated in the State of California on the (surviving) 1850 federal population schedules. This is unfortunate, but not a surprise. Once they arrived in California, the Bonniwells were almost always on the move.

The final pages of George Bonniwell’s gold rush diary document some of the party’s travels back and forth between settled places such as Sacramento and Hangtown (Placerville) and numerous vaguely-named creeks, valleys, bars and diggings. George’s diary entry for September 8, 1850, give us an idea of how mobile the Bonniwells were—and how easily they could have been missed by the enumerator—in fall and winter, 1850 (I’ve added a few notes in brackets, and a few paragraph breaks for ease of reading):

I shall now pass over from the 11 of August to September 8 and state some of the particulars during that time, as it has been difficult for me to keep a daily journal. We came in to Hangtown [Placerville] and we did not find things so favorable as we expected. Here was a great many people and it is a place of great business. There is diggings, but it is hard to get a place to dig, as the diggings is all taken up and it is hard to get a days work.

[Brother] William has gone down to see P.M. Johnson [in Sacramento?]. I have been whiling about several days and can’t get anything to do. Me and Thomas Mun and [brother] Charles started for Sacramento. When we went downtown, Charles got a job and then we declined going. I met in with a man and he hired me to go to the American river to butcher for him. He was to give me 4 dollars per day and board. I worked for him 2 days and he could not find sale for his meat and so give it up.

I then went [to Hangtown?] with Mr. Twenteman [sp?], one of our company, and bought a whipsaw, and was going to saw lumber, and he backed out and I got the man to take the saw back again. Lumber was selling at 30 cents per foot, then me and another man went and bought a new set of mining tools. Cost us 42 dollars and went to mining. The first day, we took off the surface and did not realize anything the next day. We got 9 dollar, and the next day we got 25 dollars, and Mr. Johnson came and I had to sell my share of the tools and go with him. Lost 6 dollars and a weeks’ provision […]

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 [at the Bonniwell’s diggings? where?] in 7 days and found them all well. [Bonniwell brothers] Alfred Hanery [sic, Henry] and William was working on the bar. […] I went in with a man to mine and worked part of the day and made 4 dollars, and then we had to leave as they said we was on the [which?] river the next day. I went to work for William and Johnson on the bar. I am quite glad I have not to travel any more, yet I have to pay William and Johnson 400 dollars for my time.

Meanwhile in more remote regions

In 1853 the U.S. Census Bureau published its usual compilation of statistics drawn from the 1850 decennial census. Table I. (below) shows the aggregate population totals for California’s counties.

United States. Census Office. The Seventh Census of the United States: 1850 […]. Washington: Robert Armstrong, Public Printer, 1853, page 969.

Like many of their fellow California prospectors, the men of the Bonniwell party would have been a moving target for the census enumerators. We know the Bonniwell parties traveled through San Francisco, Sacramento and El Dorado counties; those counties are underlined in red. Our Mequon miners probably walked through, or tried prospecting in some of the adjacent counties. It seems very likely that they at least visited Sutter and Yuba counties; those are underlined in blue.

Notice the large variations in distribution of population among the counties that returned 1850 data in time for this 1853 publication. Clearly, the census enumerators were able to get up into the mining districts and record a large number of the (probably rather transient) “residents” of El Dorado, Calaveras, Sacramento and Yuba counties. No doubt, the census marshal and his deputies missed some of these residents, as well as some of the miners in the more remote high mining camps.

What about San Francisco?

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, marked to show the counties with lost schedules for the 1850 federal census.

The city and county of San Francisco were the entry point for almost all sea-going transportation to and from the gold regions. The city of San Francisco was growing in population at a staggering rate. So it is much to the disappointment of historians and genealogists— and, one assumes, to the 1850 federal census staff in Washington, D.C.—that all of the schedules for San Francisco and nearby Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties were lost; they seem to have never arrived in Washington to be tallied and published. Thus, in 1853 when the Census Bureau published statistics for California as part of their summary of the 1850 federal census, the information for San Francisco, Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties had to be left blank.

It was always possible that from June through December, 1850, the men of the Bonniwell party were off in a very remote location, or perhaps in transit from one place to another in the gold district, and simply missed being enumerated by the census marshal or one of his assistants. Now we know that they may have been enumerated on one of the now-lost schedules for San Francisco or neighboring Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties. Either way, we may never know exactly where our Mequon miners were during the second half of 1850.

The California state census, 1852

It quickly became clear that the 1850 federal population census of the new State of California—lacking data for three of its most populous counties—was defective. What to do?

To obtain a more reliable picture of the population, the State of California conducted its own census in 1852, the only one in the state’s history. The original census is housed at the State Archives, but it is available on microfilm in the California History Room. Because the microfilm is difficult to read, the Daughters of the American Revolution of California created a transcription of the census, as well as an index. The California History Room has both print and microfilm copies of the transcription.4

The 1852 California State Census is online at I searched that census with Ancestry’s indexes (with the same variables outlined above), and I could not find any members of the Bonniwell party on the 1852 state census. This is not surprising, as I believe most of the Mequon men returned to Wisconsin by sometime in 1851 or ’52.

Elsewhere in 1850…

The Bonniwell party’s experiences were typical for many of the immigrant California miners. As was the case for so many gold rush fortune-seekers, their many comings and goings made it easy for any and all the members of the Bonniwell expeditions to be overlooked by the census taker, or the record of their enumeration may have been lost before 1853.

Which leaves the question: were none of our Bonniwell expedition members counted on the 1850 census? Well, no. It turns out that while the Bonniwell men were physically present in California, (almost) all of them managed to be enumerated elsewhere.

Where was that? The answer lies close to home.

All will be made clear in our next post. See you then.



  1. This is part 3 of our look at the Bonniwells and their companions on the 1850 census. This post will make a lot more sense if you read parts 1 and 2 first:
    The Bonniwells & Co. and the 1850 census (part 1) and
    Monday: Map Day! — the Bonniwells & Co. and the 1850 census (part 2)

  2. Note that of the 42 persons enumerated on this single page, all are male, presumably white. 33 are “miners for gold,” 8 are “traders,” and one poor Englishman is a “laborer.”

  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. From the California State Library (link). Click the link for more detailed information on the 1852 California State Census and the library’s transcriptions of the difficult to read original schedules.

  5. Uniquely (in my experience), some of the collated data from this 1852 California State Census was included in the United States Census Office’s published summary of The Seventh Census of the United States: 1850 […]. (Washington: Robert Armstrong, Public Printer, 1853). That information, including population totals for the 1850 “missing” counties, is available online at See part XVI. State Census of California for 1852.

One thought on “The Bonniwells & Co. and the 1850 (and ’52) census – part 3

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

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