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…

Arrival of the steamer Cherokee in NYC

The article begins with the facts of the Cherokee’s arrival and time in transit.1 Additional information is given about which east- and west-bound ships did, or did not, rendezvous with the Cherokee before its departure from Chagres, Isthmus of Panama. This is important information for bankers, investors, shipping lines and other with business interests in the west.

There is news about lost ships and river canoes (used to transport passengers and their goods up and down the Chagres River, to and from the Pacific side of the isthmus). Other items include news of a devastating cholera outbreak in Kingston, Jamaica (one of the ports of call for the Cherokee on its trip to New York), and a brief plea for a change in mail-handling and ship-scheduling procedures.

Money, money, money

New York had been the financial capital of the nation since colonial days. During the mid-century gold rush, investors, bankers and the curious reader all wanted to know how much money (in the form of specie— that is, hard-money coinage) was returning east from the gold regions. As you can see from the published list, the major corporate and indivdual players in this voyage transported enormous amounts of coin:

On just this one voyage the Cherokee shipped over two million dollars in coin from Chagres to New York. Among that total, some $300,000 of that belonged to the passengers who, individually, were not carrying enough to be included by name on the main list. This “Specie List” also does not include the value of gold dust that many brought home in the ship’s strongboxes or on their persons.

Although we do not have detailed financial documentation for our local men, chances are Henry Bonniwell and P.M. Johnson carried home at least some hard-earned specie and/or gold dust when they returned on December 20th, 1850.

The passenger list

The New York Evening Post did not publish the names of all the passengers on a given ship. The names of steerage passengers—the economy-class travelers of the day—were usually omitted from published passenger lists. So, when we read down and find our men, listed here as “P M Johnson” and “H B Bonwell” [sic], we can assume they traveled in a more comfortable, and expensive, class than steerage.2

The latest news

Readers back east were eager to know the latest news of the west and the gold rush; the Cherokee brought lots of this news, mostly by delivering copies of (relatively) recent California newspapers. This was published in the Evening Post’s column as “From California,” a summary of hot stories from the California press:

This roundup of “From California” news features many of the topics most popular with 19th-centuy readers. After beginning with some shipping and gold dust news, the column outlines the cholera deaths in San Francisco and Sacramento. “Mining” news occupies the next two paragraphs.

A fragmentary sentence about legislative news looks like a typo, and suggests that most of this item was cut for space by the New York editors. The “From California” news closes with two paragraphs detailing some recent conflicts between certain California Indians and their white allies, versus the white miners and the California authorities, including the U.S. Army.

Marriages and Deaths

The California papers can also be a unique and valuable source of what we would consider “vital statistics.” In an era when local governments were not yet systematically collecting birth, marriage, and death (BMD) records, some (but not all) of these events would be recorded and printed in local papers, and some of those notices (but not all) would be reprinted elsewhere. If you are looking for gold rush era information about an ancestor’s BMD facts, you might consider searching through the newspapers of the day. It’s a long shot, but could be worth the trouble.

The California BMD records reprinted in the December 20th, 1850, New York Evening Post do not include anything of particular interest for Clark House history fans, but I include it below as a representative sample of the kind of BMD information that appeared in California papers and was reprinted in papers across the nation throughout the middle of the 19th century:

Or, perhaps, there is an item here related to our Bonniwell expedition. Near the end of this column is this report of a death:

On the 27th ult. [ultimo, i.e., on Nov. 27, 1850] on upper Forks of Yuba river, George W. Hand, aged 28, son of ex-Ald[erman] Hand, of Albany.

Could young George W, Hand—or his father, “ex-Alderman Hand, of Albany”—be the mysterious “Mr. Hand” that was a member of the Boniwell’s 1850 overland expedition? It seems like a long shot, but might be interesting to investigate.

The Cherokee’s passenger manifest

The undoubtedly incomplete and sometimes error-prone lists of passengers arriving at the Port of New York and published in the local papers are an invaluable clue to the comings and goings of many 1850s travelers. But how can we be more sure that this “P M Johnson” and this “H B Bonwell” are really our Phineas M. Johnson and Henry V. Bonniwell?

Well, once a news report suggests a probable ship, date, and port of arrival, we can start looking through the surviving passenger manifests for that ship, on that day, at that port. Here’s the top of the first page of the Cherokee’s actual hand-written passenger manifest from a microfilmed collection of originals in the collection of the National Archives.3

Henry Bonniwell and Phineas M. Johnson can be found on the lower half the sixth (of eight), oversized manuscript pages of the passenger list. “P M Johnson” is recorded as 33 years old (he was actually about 43 years old) and a “Merchant” by occupation (correct). “H Bonwell” is recorded as age 32 (correct) and a “Farmer” by occupation (also correct). Both men are noted as belonging (i.e., being citizens of), and returning to, the United States (correct for both):

Winter, 1850/51 — New York to Wisconsin

Henry V. Bonniwell and P. M. Johnson, two members of the original, smaller, land-and-sea Bonniwell expedition of early 1849 appear to be the first to return home from the California gold fields. At the moment, we know nothing of how and when Henry and Phineas returned from New York City to their homes in old Washington County, Wisconsin. More can be learned by examining each man’s subsequent census returns; dates of births of any children born after December 20, 1850; land purchase records, and other local documents.

We can presume that Henry did not tarry long in New York; his son Edward G. Bonniwell was born in Wisconsin in September, 1851, just a little more than nine months after the Cherokee arrived in Manhattan.4



  1. The second headline, “Fifteen Days Later from California” suggests that the Pacific steamer from San Francisco left there on December fifth and made a direct line for Panama (City) with no extended stops along the way. Then the passengers, and freight, made a quick crossing of the isthmus by foot and canoe, and were then able to board the Cherokee before it departed Chagres on December 9th. This seems implausible and, in fact, the Evening Post’s description of the comings aand goings of the steamers at Chagres is rather confusing.

    But I looked through the shipping ads in the San Francisco papers (that still exist) for late-November and early-December, 1850, and I found this likely candidate for the first leg of Henry Bonniwell and P.M. Johnson’s trip to New York, published in San Francisco’s Daily Alta California, Nov. 29, 1850, page 1:

  1. Probable prices for Bonniwell and Johnson’s passage home can be found in the advertisement in note 1, above. The two men must have done well in California, as the $250 cost of a “mid-price,” lower cabin ticket for the San Francisco to New York voyage could buy 200 acres of government land (at $1.25/acre) back in Wisconsin.

  2. The full source citation for the Cherokee’s Dec. 20, 1850 passenger manifest (above), as published on Ancestry.com, reads:

    “Ancestry.com. New York, U.S., Arriving Passenger and Crew Lists (including Castle Garden and Ellis Island), 1820-1957 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
    Original data:Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897. Microfilm Publication M237, 675 rolls. NAI: 6256867. Records of the U.S. Customs Service, Record Group 36. National Archives at Washington, D.C. Passenger and Crew Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1897-1957. Microfilm Publication T715, 8892 rolls. NAI: 300346. Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; National Archives at Washington, D.C. Supplemental Manifests of Alien Passengers and Crew Members Who Arrived on Vessels at New York, New York, Who Were Inspected for Admission, and Related Index, compiled 1887-1952. Microfilm Publication A3461, 21 rolls. NAI: 3887372. RG 85, Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787-2004; Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service; National Archives, Washington, D.C. Index to Alien Crewmen Who Were Discharged or Who Deserted at New York, New York, May 1917-Nov. 1957. Microfilm Publication A3417. NAI: 4497925. National Archives at Washington, D.C. Passenger Lists, 1962-1972, and Crew Lists, 1943-1972, of Vessels Arriving at Oswego, New York. Microfilm Publication A3426. NAI: 4441521. National Archives at Washington, D.C.”

    Looking at the above, you might think—correctly—that the Ancestry passenger list database combines several NARA microfilm publications into one massive, searchable (and useful) database. I believe our passenger manifest is originally part of the NARA publication Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897. Microfilm Publication M237, 675 rolls. NAI: 6256867.

  3. The birthdate of P. M. Johnson’s daughter Harriet might seem to conflict with his supposed arrival in New York on December 20, 1850. It appears that Harriet may have been born in April, 1850. I know nothing else about Harriet, other than she appears on the Johnson family census, in Grafton, in 1850. That census, recorded on October 22, 1850, gives Harriet an age of 6/12, or six months. Six months prior to the census date of October 12, 1850, gives Harriet an estimated birth date of early- or mid-April, 1850. Nine months prior to that gives Harriet a conception date of, very roughly, mid-July, 1849. We know that P. M. Johnson sailed from New Orleans to Chagres on September 6, 1849. So a conception place and date for daughter Harriet, of Grafton, Wisconsin, in mid-July, 1849, is entirely plausible.

    Complicating matters somewhat, the date and circumstances of P. M. Johnson’s return from California are described thusly in a biographical sketch published 30 years after his death in the Commemorative Biographical Record of Prominent and Representative men of Racine and Kenosha Counties Wisconsin […], Chicago, 1906, page 201:

    “In 1849 he went to California, by way of Panama, prospecting for gold, and returned two years later, coming through Mexico on horseback.

    The first part of that sentence agrees with our other sources: “In 1849 he went to California, by way of Panama, prospecting for gold,”[…] And a return to Wisconsin date of early 1851—allowing time to travel from New York to Wisconsin at the very end of 1850—would make “returned two years later” substantially correct. The last bit, “coming through Mexico on horseback,” is questionable. I suspect this is a kind-of-accurate paraphrase describing how he took a ship from San Francisco to Panama (City), crossed the Isthmus of Panama on horse- or mule-back and then took a steamer to New York in December, 1850.

2 thoughts on “Farewell to California! The Bonniwell party returns (part 3)

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

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

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