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:

The U.S.M.S Cherokee, of course, is the ship that several of our Bonniwell men chose to travel on for their 1850 and 1851 return trips from Chagres to New York. And the U.S.M.S. Falcon was the one of the steamers that made a regular run between New Orleans, Havana, and Chagres (for more on the Falcon, see our post A (new) Bonniwell Gold Rush timeline).

As for “any insult that may be offered by the Spanish vessels of war,” I confess ignorance. I have looked at just enough Spanish Colonial history, and the 19th-century history of Mexico and some of the Central American countries, to realize that I really only know the vaguest outlines of this incredibly rich and complex subject. And I’m particularly stumped by “Spanish vessels of war” in the Caribbean Sea in the 1850s. What’s up with that? Readers: can any of you enlighten us?

Map of Historic Chagres

Speaking of Chagres, I thought you might be interested in this map of the harbor, fort, and town of Chagres, originally drawn and published by Giovanni Tommaso Masi in 1777 as “Plano della città Rada, e Porto di Chagre. Viol. Vanni fe ; Giusep. Pazzi scriffe,” later copied and translated to English and included in the Historic American Buildings Survey in 1964.

The Chagres River (Rio de Chagres) flows from south to north, emptying into the harbor. The ancient Fort San Lorenzo dominates the bluffs on the northeast side of the harbor, adjacent to the town of Chagres proper. A smaller fort, Fuerte de la Punta occupies the point on the northwest side of the harbor, not far from the Custom House.

Prior to the start of the California gold rush in 1848, old Chagres was a small town and Fort San Lorenzo had long been abandoned. As the gold-seekers began their shortcut across the isthmus, a new “Yankee Town” or “Yanqui Chagres” sprang to life on the west side of the harbor. That is the Chagres that the Bonniwell travelers would have known.

There are some interesting surprises here, too. At the far northeast corner of the map is the note “The English landed here in 1670.” And at the mouth of the harbor are the Alaja Rocks, “where five of Adm[iral] Morgan’s ships were cast away.” For more details, you might start with the Wikipedia pages for Chagres and Fort San Lorenzo and Sir Henry Morgan. For a high quality reproduction of Giovanni Tommaso Masi’s original 1777 map, see the David Rumsey Map Collection.


As you may have noticed, the initials “U.S.M.S” preceding a ship’s name, such as the U.S.M.S Cherokee or U.S.M.S. Falcon, stand for United States Mail Steamship. The primary function of ships of the mail service was to quickly and dependably deliver the U.S. Mail on regularly scheduled national and international routes. So, presumably, the Clarks or their neighbors could mail a letter in 1850 from the Mequon River post office and, with the correct postage, send it to California or Oregon, and it should arrive within a month or so.

What was the correct postage? That could be complicated, in the quickly expanding United States of the early-1850s. Here’s a helpful explanation published in the (Milwaukee) Daily Free Democrat, on July 25, 1851:

UPDATE, May 28, 2023: In the article above, and in many similar contemporary articles, when there is a reference to “Chagres” and “Panama,” that indicates the towns/cities of Chagres and Panama (aka Panama City) on the Isthmus of Panama. The town of Chagres is on the Atlantic/Caribbean side of the isthmus and Panama (City) is on the Pacific side. At the time of the California gold rush the political status of the modern nation of Panama was in flux. Some maps and documents of the period refer to the political entity by its earlier name of “N.G.” or New Grenada, and later just Panama. If I understand it correctly, when members of the Bonniwell party transited the isthmus (c. 1849 to the mid-1850s), it was officially Panama, a province of the adjacent Republic of Columbia.2

And speaking of postage, if you’re near the Clark House on a Thursday this summer, you might like to visit the Mequon River Postal Museum and Stamp Gallery located in Mequon’s oldest building, the Isham Day House.1 Cool stuff.

That’s all for now. Back soon with more Clark House history.



  1. UPDATED, May 28 2023: The Mequon River Postal Museum and Stamp Gallery at the Isham Day House will be open on Thursdays, starting this Thursday, June 1, 2023, 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

    FYI, I could not locate Summer, 2023, opening hours for the Mequon River Postal Museum and Stamp Gallery. As of Summer, 2021, the museum—in the historic Isham Day House located at 11312 N. Cedarburg Road—was open on Thursdays from 10 A.M. – 4:00 P.M. and by appointment. For more information, contact the Mequon-Thiensville Historical Society at 262-242-3107. I don’t know if this information is up to date, or when summer hours begin this year, so you may want to call and find out.

    Or just drop by; even if the museum is closed, the exterior of the Isham Day House (and a peek through the windows) is well worth a look, and then be sure to stroll down the boardwalk and and enjoy the park and the serene river views.

  2. The history of Panama is complicated. If you’re curious for more info, the Wikipedia articles on Panama and Colombia are good places to begin.

2 thoughts on “Random bits of Gold Rush history

  1. The Isham Day House will be open on Thursdays, starting this Thursday, 10:00 – 4:00. Stop in and say “hi” to Sam Cutler.


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