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:

Time to go home?

Unknown photographer, Daguerreotype of miners, c. 1849-1860, Smithsonian Institution, NMAH (copyright status: usage conditions apply).2

By late-1850, there were at least seventeen Clark House neighbors—members of the Bonniwell expeditions of 1849 and 1850—seeking their fortunes in the California gold regions. They had survived arduous journeys to get from Wisconsin to California. Many of them had already spent months in the parched and dusty conditions of summer and autumn in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. By the end of 1850 they would experience one of California’s unusually wet winters and a catastrophic flood.

How were they doing, as 1850 turned into 1851? Well, with the exception of Henry Allen’s published letter of November 4, 1849, and George Bonniwell’s 1850 diary (which ends in September, 1850), we have no primary source documentation of how the Bonniwell expedition members were doing. Were they alive or dead? Healthy or ailing? Rich or broke? The short answer is, we don’t have the full picture, but we can fill in some of the blanks by investigating some previously unknown sources.

First, before we can “bring them home,” we need to remind ourselves: which Wisconsin men were in California with the Bonniwell party by the start of 1851, and what do we know about them?

What do we know about our fortune seekers, circa 1851?

The glib answer is “not much, and most of it is misleading” (see here and here for details3). So let’s recap what we do know about our Wisconsin prospectors. At least four of them—Alfred T. Bonniwell, Henry V. Bonniwell, Thomas Day and Richard Taylor—left the Milwaukee area in April 7, 1849, and headed to the gold country with neighbor P. M. Johnson by the land-and-sea route: from New Orleans by ship, across the Isthmus of Panama by mule and canoe, and then on to San Francisco via another ship. We believe they all arrived in San Francisco in mid-October, 1849.4

Another dozen or so local men headed west in 1850, as members of the second Bonniwell expedition. Traveling overland, they arrived in the California gold region around mid-August, 1850. These men included brothers William T. Bonniwell, Sr., Charles Bonniwell , George Bonniwell , and William’s son William T. “Billy” Bonniwell, Jr. There were also a handful of other men on the 1850 expedition. Figuring out the exact names and number of these men is difficult, as our main source of information about them is George Bonniwell’s 1850 diary and—as its author was quick to admit—spelling was not his strong point.

If we take George’s diary and note all the men’s names—and variant spellings—that he recorded in 1850, we have a list of about a dozen names. Some of those names are distinct enough so that there is little confusion as to who is who, in spite of variant spellings, namely Peter Rattery, Thomas Mun(n), Andrew Bloxom (or Blossom?), Thomas Allen, Mr. (Francis?) Twentyman, Mr. Giffied and Mr. Page.

I believe another (single) person is represented in George Bonniwell’s diary by all three of the following names and spellings: Mr. Han, Mr. And, Mr. Hand. I’m guessing (and it’s only a guess) that the typical spelling of this man’s name is Hand, but that’s only my surmise.

In a similar manner, I believe another individual in the diary is represented by four variants of his name. I believe that the “Thomas Mun” mentioned on May 16, 1850, is identical with the Mr. Mun, Mr. Murm, and Mr. Min mentioned elsewhere in the diary. (And I wonder if “Murm” is a mis-transcription of “Munn”; I don’t have access to the manuscript to check for myself.5)

New (old) sources

Those are the Clark House neighbors that were in California at the start of 1851. And we know from later censuses, documents, biographical sketches and other records that all the members of Bonniwell family that went to California—and almost all of the other local adventurers on their expedition—lived and returned to Wisconsin, all (?) of them no later than the mid-1850s. Some of them even made some money in the gold fields.

How and when did they get back? The answers to those questions are a work in progress. I’ve been digging through digitized newspapers and ship’s passenger manifests of the era, and I’m starting to piece together details of who returned, when, for several of our local men. There is a large “cast of characters” to account for, and there are many details to organize and present. So instead of one huge, overly-complex blog post with all the info, I’m going to break up these new documentary finds and lay them out in several upcoming posts.

I hope you enjoy the trip. See you soon with more Clark House history.



  1. Image credit: Unknown artist, A View of Sutter’s Mill & Culloma Valley. On the South Fork of the American Line, Alta, California, published by Sarony & Major, c. 1843–1853. Public Domain, Yale University Art Gallery.

    By the way, I really recommend clicking on both the images on today’s post. That will open a high-resolution copy of each image in a new window. Take some time to zoom in on each, scroll around, and enjoy the many, many details of life in the California gold fields of the ’40s and ’50s.

  2. Regarding this early non-studio daguerreotype, the Smithsonian curators commented: Outdoor landscape scenes were less frequently made than the familiar early studio portraits by daguerreian photographers of the 1840-1860s. Cumbersome wooden cameras and equipment for developing the plates proved difficult to transport across rough terrain. Yet, this daguerreotype of miners panning for gold in the Western United States provides in clear detail the landscape and miners with their equipment. The photographer or his assistant has even hand-tinted small gold specs in the pan of the miner at the front of the image. Smithsonian Institution.

  3. For more on expedition members—and Clark House neighbors—P.M. Johnson, Thomas Day, Francis Twentamon/Twentyman, Peter Rattery and Richard Taylor at the end of 1850, be sure to read our recent post 1850 census: more neighbors “in Wisconsin”– while prospecting in California

  4. Phineas M. Johnson appears to have left Wisconsin some time after the Alfred Bonniwell group’s departure from Milwaukee on April 7, 1849 and met up with them, at a place unknown, later. We know that Johnson had joined Alfred Bonniwell and his small party by the time their ship departed New Orleans for Chagres on September 6, 1849. See A (new) Bonniwell Gold Rush timeline for details.

  5. Speaking of “Thomas Mun,” Munn is the surname of Charles Bonniwell’s wife, Sophia Elizabeth Munn (1809-1894). Like the Bonniwell brothers, Sophia was born in Kent Co., England. I believe she is the daughter of Joseph and Mary (Packham) Munn. She and Charles Bonniwell were married at Higham, near Gravesend, Kent Co., England, on June 28, 1828, four years before the Bonniwell family migrated from England to North America. Was 1850 expedition member Thomas Mun(n) related to Sophie? A brother, perhaps? I compared notes with (living) Bonniwell chronicler George Bonniwell, and the short answer is, we don’t know. Are any readers familiar with the genealogy of Kent County’s Munn family? If so, please let me know!

5 thoughts on “Farewell to California! The Bonniwell party returns (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Farewell to California! The Bonniwell party returns (part 3) | Clark House Historian

  2. Pingback: Farewell to California! The Bonniwell party returns (part 4) | Clark House Historian

  3. Pingback: Random bits of Gold Rush history | Clark House Historian

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