Random bits of Gold Rush history

UPDATED, May 28, 2023 with additional information about Panama (City) and Postal Museum hours.

I’m still organizing a final roundup of what we know about the Bonniwell gold rush expeditions and when everyone returned to Wisconsin. Until that’s ready, here are three random bits of history that might interest you. All are closely tied to the homecoming experiences of the Clark House neighbors that went prospecting in California between 1849 and the mid-1850s. And if you missed our series of Farewell to California! The Bonniwell party returns, you can catch up with these links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.


In a follow-up question to part 4 of this series, reader Laura Rexroth asked: “Reading about the robberies on land, traveling from San Francisco to New York, I’m wondering if there was any piracy at sea with all these ships carrying so much gold dust?”

That’s a good question. As I mentioned in my original reply, the U.S. Mail Steamers that served the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the California mail route were considered the latest and greatest in ocean transportation and I suspect they could probably out run most other ships of the day. That said, I did find this interesting news item, “Arming of the Chagres steamers” on page 2 of the September 10, 1851, Milwaukee Weekly Wisconsin:

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Audubon, John James, artist, and John T. Bowen, printer, Lepus Sylvaticus, Bachman, circa 1845-1848, Smithsonian Institution, Peters Prints Collection, Creative Commons CC0 license.1

There they are: Mr. & Mrs. Cottontail and one of their many offspring. The Eastern Cottontail and its relatives were a common sight in Jonathan and Mary Clark’s world, just as they are today.

We seem to have a bumper crop of rabbits in our suburban Wisconsin yard this year and, no doubt about it, the bunnies are cute and entertaining. But for the gardener, rabbits mean trouble. If you are trying to raise vegetables and fruits to feed your pioneer family, these amusing little fur balls are the enemy. They can consume huge amounts of seedlings and sprouts in just a day or two. What’s a gardener to do?

Last year—after they ate through the plastic fence around our vegetable garden and then devoured our entire crop of green been sprouts—I went to the local big box store and got a roll of metal wire rabbit fencing and some steel posts to hold it up. That worked great for us, but it made me wonder: what did Jonathan and Mary Clark use to keep the ravenous rabbits at bay? Well, I don’t have any documentation from the Clarks’ farm, but during my researches, I have noticed some popular 19th-century methods of rabbit control.

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The farm garden

It’s already the third week of May, 2023, and summertime will soon be here. At our southeastern Wisconsin home the first spring flowers are done, and the next round of blossoms have been blooming for a week or two. The peas are in the ground and already about 8 inches high, the rhubarb is big enough to cut and make one or two pies, and we harvested the first half-dozen radishes today. We still have to put in the tomato and pepper seedlings and start the big patch of green beans. So with gardening on my mind, I thought you might enjoy a slightly-belated repost of this annual favorite, which first appeared here in April, 2021. Cheers!

Planning the garden

It’s early April, and the growing season is not far off. For a farmer like Jonathan M. Clark, it’s a little early yet for plowing and sowing, but not too early to make plans and sharpen the tools. For a farmer’s wife, like Mary (Turck) Clark, it’s not too soon to think about the farm garden, its crops and layout.

I don’t know if Mary and Jonathan were regular readers of the popular and affordable farmers’ almanacs of their era; I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. There were many to chose from. Perhaps they had a copy of something like:

The Cultivator […], New Series, Vol. VII, Albany, 1850, title page. Click to open larger image in new window.

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Farewell to California! The Bonniwell party returns (part 4)

If you’re just joining us, you may want to read the first three parts of this series: (part 1), (part 2), and especially (part 3) before continuing with today’s Part 4.

April, 1851: Alfred T. and (George? or Charles?) Bonniwell to NYC

Based on the documents that I have been able to locate so far, the next members of the Bonniwell expeditions to return from California were Alfred T. Bonniwell and one of his older brothers.

Like Henry Bonniwell and P.M. Johnson at the end of 1850, in the spring of 1851 Alfred and his brother had a choice of routes and providers for the return home from San Francisco.

“Vessels Advertised,” for Panama and New York City, San Francisco Daily Alta California, January 10, 1851, page 1.

Like Henry Bonniwell and P.M. Johnson before them, Alfred and his brother appear to have chosen to travel on the ships of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. They probably sailed on the steamer Sarah Sands from San Francisco to Panama (City). then crossed the isthmus of Panama (via some combination of horse, mule and/or canoe) and boarded the U.S.Mail Steamer Cherokee for the trip to New York:

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Farewell to California! The Bonniwell party returns (part 3)

UPDATED, May 13, 2023, with a few minor text edits and additions for clarity.

If you’re just joining us, you might want to read the first two parts of this series: Farewell to California! The Bonniwell party returns (part 1) and Farewell to California! The Bonniwell party returns (part 2), before continuing with today’s Part 3.

Since its beginnings in 1848, news of the California Gold Rush was highly sought after across the nation. U. S. newspapers published all the latest doings, and raced to print the latest updates before competing papers could do so. Readers were breathlessly informed of the amounts of gold and cash (usually in the form of specie, or money as coins) that regularly arrived at eastern ports. Lists of passengers departing to and arriving from the gold fields occupied inch after inch of column space. Ships arriving from the west fed America’s appetite for the latest developments by carrying eastward the U.S. Mail and the latest California newspapers. Ship captains prided themselves on delivering the news more quickly than their competitors.

December, 1850: Henry Bonniwell and P. M. Johnson

The result of this insatiable need for California news—available to 21st-century readers via digitized and searchable historic newspaper collections—is that I have been able to identify the names of several of our returning Bonniwell expedition members, along with their date of return and means of travel. From what I’ve learned so far, the first two of our Wisconsin adventurers to return were Henry V. Bonniwell and Phineas M. Johnson, who arrived in New York City harbor on the morning of Friday, December 20, 1850, as passengers on the steamer Cherokee.

Today’s Clark House Historian post uses just one of these gold rush articles as its source. The original article occupied the complete first column (and a bit of the second) of page 2 of the Friday evening, December 20, 1850, New York Evening Post. There’s a lot of news packed into the original article; to make that news easier to digest, I have divided the unbroken column of type into several smaller parts. Let’s take a closer look…

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Farewell to California! The Bonniwell party returns (part 2)

The Bonniwell party’s prospectors had gone to the California gold fields via two very different routes. The 1849 party went west using a combination of land and water transportation to get from Milwaukee to El Dorado via steamship from New Orleans, then across the Isthmus of Panama by foot, mule and canoe, and then another steamer to San Francisco. Compared to the overland route, it was quicker, more reliable, and safer, but more expensive.

The larger Bonniwell party of 1850, led by “Captain” William T. Bonniwell, took the shorter but more strenuous—and risky—overland route. After fitting out their wagon train at Independence, Missouri, they headed west, across the vast plains and the great western desert, and then struggled up and across the Sierra Nevada. This route was much less expensive, and much less secure. They faced constant dangers, including lack of adequate food and water, unpredictable weather, equipment failure, the threat of bandits, and the possibility of Indian attack.

Both Bonniwell parties survived their journeys and made it to the gold region. They appear to have had some success, mixed with much tedium and many futile efforts. Eventually, our Wisconsin prospectors—like many, if not most, California gold seekers—decided to return home. And then the question became: how to get home safely, economically, and reasonably quickly? For most adventurers, especially those with even a modest amount of gold dust or specie in their baggage, it was clear that the overland route was too long, impractical and dangerous. So some kind of (mostly) ocean voyage seemed like the best bet, and the San Francisco newspapers were full of enticing deals for homeward travelers.

San Francisco to Panama, and beyond

San Francisco newspapers regularly featured advertisements for competing steamship lines. Here’s one from the Daily Pacific News of January 21, 1850, for the Empire City line, promoting the trip from San Francisco to Panama [City] on their newest ship, the Sarah Sands.

This 1850 lithograph, like the ad above, suggests the iron ship Sarah Sands was new, modern and cut a sleek line through the sea. Just the thing for a returning miner’s comfortable trip homeward:

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Farewell to California! The Bonniwell party returns (part 1)

I’ve never been to California’s gold rush country, so I don’t know how accurate this unknown artist’s View of Sutter’s Mill & Culloma Valley. On the South Fork of the American Line, Alta, California might have been.1 It’s drawn in the Romantic style of the time, although it’s clear the unspoiled, natural, “sublime,” view of El Dorado county’s hills and mountains are quickly giving way to the shelters and “diggings” of the immigrant gold miners and the nearby rough-and-tumble mining town of Culoma.

I wonder, did the Bonniwell party’s miners have the time, or inclination, to savor such exalted vistas? Perhaps. During the Bonniwell’s overland trek in the summer of 1850, George Bonniwell mentioned in his diary a number of “beautiful ” views of rivers, bluffs and other natural wonders. But after a year or two of toil in the harsh conditions of gold-rush era California, I expect the day-to-day existence of our Mequon men had become much less awe-inspiring. The typical experience of gold rush miners—whether successful or not—tended to be much more…mundane:

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The Cooper

In the 1800s there were no corrugated cardboard boxes or padded shipping envelopes. If you needed to store or ship any liquid—and most dry goods—the barrel (and its larger and smaller cousins) was almost always your container of choice.

Anderson, Alexander, engraver. Five Men on a Flatboat With Barrels and Sacks; One Man Operates the Keel from Above the Boathouse, the Others Are Resting on the Freight, circa 1830-1860, Library of Congress.

And when you needed a barrel, hogshead, keg, cask or firkin, or just an oaken bucket for your well, you would get it from a cooper.

Unknown photographer. Occupational Portrait of a Cooper, Three-Quarter Length, With Barrel and Tools, circa 1840-1860, Library of Congress.

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Have you voted?

It’s not too late to cast your ballot in the reader’s poll from our previous post, asking how I should archive the contents of my April 22 Cedarburg History Museum talk here at Clark House Historian. Should I publish the words and images as a series of usual-format CHH blog posts, or as one or more YouTube videos, featuring all the original PowerPoint slides, accompanied by my re-recorded narration?

The polls are still open, and the lines are short. Just scroll down to the Leave a Reply box, below, and where it says “Enter your comment here…” leave your vote for “Blog posts” or “YouTube videos.”  Questions? For the full story, just click this link and read the second part of Monday’s post, beginning at “That was fun!”

In the words of the late, great, Mayor Richard J. Daley, “vote early and vote often!”

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Time flies!

[Editor], daguerreotype with added color highlights c.1855 (slightly cropped, and color adjusted), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Charles Isaacs, (link), Creative Commons CC0 license. Click to open larger image in new window.

Hey! It’s almost been a month since my last post. Sorry about that. I haven’t gone this long between posts in several years, I think, and now I’ve got (the digital equivalent of) a towering pile of half-written posts to finish and topics to discuss. That said, I have been busy…

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