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Dayton in the Days of '49

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on April 12, 1931


By Howard Burba


     Step out onto the street at any time and you can easily locate Daytonians who recall, as vividly as though it were yesterday, the last great gold rush in American history—the colorful Klondyke dash.

     But you can stand on these same streets the balance of your days and not find one who can remember the first—and greatest—upheaval aroused by the daddy of all gold strikes—the gold rush of 1849.

     It was but natural that Dayton should have had a part in that historic event, since from every nook and cranny in the United States men grabbed pick, shovel and canned goods and turned their faces to the west.  But it is a matter worthy of note that Daytonians were among the first to join in the wild campaign.  We find little of it in our local histories.  But the little four-page dailies published during that year devote liberal space to it.  Every day there was a whisper of new and fabulous strikes high up in the Sierras, or deep in the heart of the Sacramento valley.  And in those days, as now, gold was a lure that man could not overcome.

     Among the first to hazard a journey across the Rockies were Samuel M. Kiefer, John M. Clegg, Dr. J. F. Hibbard, Peter Baer, James Pease, J. W. McCorkle, J. M. Wentz, E. A. King and “Mack” and “Jim” Carson.  They were the pioneers in the gold rush from Montgomery co. They were the first local citizens to arrive at the scene of the wildest event of its kind in the history of the world.  Today their descendants, men and women of the same hardy stripe, are substantial citizens of the community.

     It is well to remember, in this day of palatial sleeping cars and luxurious automobiles, with hotels and inns and eating houses scattered along almost every mile of the trail, the sacrifice that had to be made and the hardships that had to be met by these pioneers.  There was no rail line beyond St. Joseph, Mo.  No one had blazed a trail beyond the Rockies.  It was almost an unknown territory, and unexplored.  The wilds of South Africa in the days of Stanley and Livingston offered no greater hazards.  The chance of getting gold was a hundred times greater than the chance of getting back with it.  Yet these men turned their faces to the west.  By foot and ox team, they trudged onward toward their goal.  Three thousand miles, with more than two-thirds of it the thickest of forests and the most desolate and barren desert, they went with a shout of victory and a frenzied cry for the spoils that Mother Nature had so long kept buried in her breast.

     We cannot talk to anyone who made that historic journey to the gold fields of California in 1849.  But musty letters, buried away in attics for all these years, still are found occasionally.  And these talk for them.  So without further comment, and to tell the story of Dayton’s part in the event, we present a letter written by Samuel Kiefer upon his arrival at the gold fields after traveling more than eight months under such handicaps as the present generation cannot even conceive.  This letter is in itself a history of the gold rush.  The fact that it was penned by the hand of a Dayton man makes it the more interesting.  It needs no comment here—it stands as mute witness of the lure of gold—and the bravery and hardihood of the race from which we have descended. Here it is:


                                                                                    “Gold Mines of California,

                                                                                     “Bidwell’s Bar, Feather River,

                                                                                                “Sunday, Nov. 18, 1849.

     Dear Mother:-

        “You will see by the place from which I date this letter that I have arrived at my journey’s end.  My last letter was dated from Humboldt river in August, and was sent to San Francisco by some persons who were going ahead of their teams from there.  I shall proceed in regular order to give you details of our journey from Humboldt river to this place, and since it was the most arduous it will prove the most interesting.

     “We left Humboldt river on the 26th of August in company with two wagons from Iowa, expecting it to be 142 miles to the mines.  The road this day lay over a large plain of alkaline earth.  We made the first water, some springs, by sundown, watered our teams and then started for ‘Rabbit Hole Spring.’  Want of sleep, to which I have been accustomed since I started from home, and driving all night made me sick, but a few hours sleep at the springs, made me all right again.  We lay by today on account of the road, which lay over a large salt plain.  At sundown we again took up our line of march and the plain in the dim moonlight presented the appearance of new fallen snow.

     “We found the road strewn with dead and dying oxen, caused by want of grass and water, a number of teams having started across without any.  We arrived at some warm springs near the ‘Black Rock’ next morning at sunrise, leaving one ox on the road which we had been driving loose.  The water here is so warm in some springs that it has to be cooled before a person can wash in it.  In one spring, a very large one, some persons let down chains and ropes 300 feet long but found no bottom.  We lay here until evening and went four miles to grass, but the water was the same.  Persons here boiled rice by placing it in a small bucket which they set in a spring.

     “As our cattle were weak from want of grass we left the main road to our right in order to get it.  Here we heard again the sounds of noise and laughter which had been suppressed by the gloomy road over which we had been coming.

     “We left this place on Thursday and started for ‘Mud Lake’ where we arrived on Friday morning, lay by all day, and left those two wagons we had been with, and from this time traveled alone.  The next place we camped was at ‘High Rock Canyon,’ which is a great curiosity.  The road runs through a chasm in the rocks for 20 miles, which are piled on either side from 100 to 500 feet high. This may be called the first pass of the Sierra Nevada.  The third day after leaving the canyon we came to ‘Little Mountain Pass,’ which lies 18 miles from the base of the Sierra Nevada, whose snow-topped peaks we could see.  Twelve miles from here was another set of warm springs, the water of which was salt.  Next morning, not feeling well, I resigned the ox gad, took a bath in a fine stream of warm water and went ahead of the teams.  Passed over the dry bed of a large lake and ate a lunch which I had brought along, at the base of the mountains.  The shade from the big pines, which I had not enjoyed for hundreds of miles, was very pleasant.  A man who had been up the mountain hunting gave me some plums, and as I had been deprived of fruit all summer I thought these bitter, but they were very fine.

     “September 7.  Started early this morning, and after climbing up for three miles, we reached the main ridge, which is nearly a mile high, by 10 o’clock.  I stood on the summit of the Sierra Nevada.  Six months within a day since I left my dear home in Dayton.

     “The view from the summit was fine.  On one side all was dreary and desolate; on the other side was spread a fine valley, clothed in robes of autumn which, with so many white tents spread on it, formed a scene I shall ever remember.  On the eighth we reached Goose lake, about noon.  It was covered with fog and as the waves broke along the shore I thought we had come upon the ocean.  It is about 20 miles long.  Next morning we passed the forks of the California and Oregon road.  On the 10th of September we camped on a fine mountain stream, which we then thought to be the Sacramento.  We traveled down it three days expecting every moment to see men deeply engaged in mining, but looked in vain.

     “We met a government train under Capt. Warner on the 14th and upon inquiry found it was 170 miles to the Sacramento valley.  We had been led by a paper in our possession to believe it was only 38 miles from the summit.  Judge our astonishment when we heard the true distance.  We camped by the forks of the road, made because the old road was so bad that it was nearly impassable.  Started early the next morning and found the road very bad indeed; camped at night on a fine mountain stream.

     “On the 19th we drove to a lake in the woods and lay for half a day.  On the 20th we drove four miles and ‘dug a well’ so as not to be without water again.  Camped on the 20th on the headwaters of Feather river, which consists of thousands of springs, one of which is a half-mile in diameter.  We lay here on the 22nd and had the pleasure of seeing Peter Baer, of Dayton, for the first time.  Their party started from St. Joseph within a day or two of the time that we did, yet our ‘slow’ oxen have kept ahead of their ‘fast’ mules.  When his team drove up to where we are camped Bickford, Smith and myself went up to his wagon.  He got out, looked at us, and was passing on when I spoke to him.  He then knew me and was glad to see us.  He looked bad, being worn out with walking, which he had done all the way.”

     (NOTE—Peter Baer was the first of the Dayton contingent to die in the gold rush.  He had been, as I learned, the life of the trains with which he had traveled.)

     “On Sept. 23 camped near some very large springs.  On the 24th struck Feather river again and lay by for a day and a half to cut grass for the desert ahead.  On the 26th camped on Deer creek and here saw J. M. Wentz, who had been in one month and was working for Uncle Sam.  A few days ago I was stung by a yellow jacket in the neck, which got very sore, so that I could scarcely speak.  We left Deer creek on the 28th and entered upon the desert, which is 50 miles long, and made 12 miles.  The 29th we made 10 miles, and camped without water.  The 30th we entered upon the rocky road of the desert and made 10 miles.  We had to drive our cattle a mile and a half to water over a very rocky road which came near knocking them out.  Next morning we had to leave an ox and were only able to make five miles and had to drive out cattle the same distance again to water, the result of which was that the next day we only made four miles.  Then had to lay three days on the mountain where we found grass and water and some fine grapes which grow there.

    “After three days’ rest our cattle were able on the 6th to draw our wagons nine miles, which at last brought us into the Sacramento valley, but we had to camp without grass.  Next day we drove to Losson’s ranch, on Deer creek, and at night camped on the Sacramento which at this place is nearly as large as the Ohio.   There are plenty of fine grapes here. They grow all over the valley.

     “Settlements in this part of the valley are few and are called ‘ranches.’  Every ranch has a number of Indians, held as slaves, or peons, who run around, men, women and children, in a state of nature.  Mr. McCorkle met us here and told us our future destination.  We stayed here one day.  Had a shower of rain, which was snow in the mountains 10 miles off.  On 9th and 10th we made Potter’s ranch on Little Butte creek.  On the 11th drove to Neal’s ranch on Big Butte.  The valley at all the places named presents a splendid appearance, being covered with a fine growth of oak. Two days from this time we were at the ford of Feather river.  There is an Indian village here.

     “On the 17th we brought up, all standing, at the place from which I date this letter, it having taken us 50-odd days, instead of 15 as we expected, to make the last lap of the journey.  Instead of 142 miles it was nearer 400 over very bad roads.  We came the northern route expecting to find a cut-off which, however, was not made and never will be.

     “Some that were with us at the forks of the Humboldt and came that route have been here a month, but perhaps if we had come that way we would have thrown our wagons away, as we have poor cattle.  There were hundreds of teams before and behind us on the  road which had to throw away more or less  and at the time of writing I have heard that in Deer creek valley a large number of wagons were caught in the snow, which is now three feet deep, and all their cattle have perished for want of grass.  They have been compelled to leave their all.  Families have been stripped of everything and mothers have had to carry their children on their backs and walk to the valley 50 miles distant.  From what I have heard I think all will get in.  I have as yet heard of no deaths.  Upon the whole we have much to be thankful for, though we did not get in as soon as we had hoped, yet we arrived with all we had.

     “But to return to my theme.  We found upon fitting up the washers we brought with us they would not work, so we had a cradle, or rocker, made.  The body has nearly the same shape as a cradle and is divided into several pockets.  On one end is placed a screen made of sheet iron and upon which dirt and water is thrown; the gold is then found in the pockets, with black or white sand and gravel. It then is taken out in a large tin pan and appears as you see in the sample I am enclosing.  Divide it up among the neighbors.

     “Within the past few weeks we have had rain at different times.  The first time it lasted about a week, then a few days clear weather.  Last week we had more rain, which leads us to conclude the rainy season has set in.  When it rains the mountains around us are covered with clouds, which descend very low.  Now and then the weather is pleasant and feels like spring.  Trees are all green, grass is springing up on all sides, so you can judge what winter is like here at the mines.

     “We may, after awhile, have a few inches of snow but I am told it is gone almost as soon as it falls.  We have a good tent that cost $16 at home, worth $200 here, and are building a shanty to cook in, so we shall pass the winter pleasantly, having plenty to eat during the time.

     “ A good many are leaving here for Sacramento City to winter.  They sell you a list of prices: Flour, $1 pound; cheap, without going there.  I will give their provisions, so we got ours, and fresh beef, 50c pound; corned beef, $1 pound; pork, $1 pound; sugar, 60c and 75c pound; beans, 75c pound; onions, $1.50 pound; potatoes, $1.25 pound; saleratus,$3 pound, and it has sold for $12; wages at mining are from an ounce ($16) to three ounces of gold a day.

     “The gold is found on bars and in the bed of a river, which is laid dry by building dams and turning its course, and in crevices of rocks.  But all the tales of finding it strewn over the ground in lumps, or in the sand, is all in my eye.  There is gold in California and it will not be exhausted for many years, but those who want it must work and work hard.  Now and then a man makes a lucky hit, but this is not done every day nor by every person.  The way to get it is to make a dam or keep a store.

     “As regards the character of the miners at this place, there are about 1000 persons, and I have as yet seen only one person drunk, owing perhaps to the price of liquor, which is 50c per drink.  I have known of but one theft, then the thief got 150 lashes for stealing a half-pint of molasses.  I have never heard any quarrels as to claims of ground.  You need only leave your tools in the hole you working on and all is safe.  As the poet says, ‘All join to guard what all desire to gain.’  That’s the reason it is peaceful and quiet.

     “There is no sickness to amount to anything, and then, only from imprudent exposure.  The location is elevated, the water fine and cold.  Do you wish to know how I like the country?  As well as I would any where there is no rain for nine months in the year.  Yet the land is good, and plenty can be raised by irrigation.  But that is not done here.  South of here, near San Francisco, the soil is more fertile.  All provisions come from abroad.  Flour from the states gets sour by the time it arrives here.  The best comes from Chile and Oregon, not much from the latter.  What we have for our own use came from Chile.

     “All of us from Dayton have been well.  E. A. King has gone into the grocery business; so has J. W. McCorkle.  Bickford and myself have grown very much.  I never felt better in my life.  When we reached the valley we had papers from home but no letters.  June 17th was the last date, but I have since seen a New York Tribune of August 19.

     “On last Tuesday there was a general election held here for adoption of a constitution and election of state officers and United States senators.  I voted for the first time in my life.  The constitution prohibits slavery in all its forms, for which reason it had my cordial support.  The senators will be at Washington this winter, present the constitution and claim the admission of California into the Union as a state.  Salary of governor is $10,000.  Members of legislature are to get $16 a day, and the same amount for every 20 miles traveled.  So you see that I am a citizen of California, the greatest state that can be found anywhere.

     “Bread sells at the mines at $2 per pound.  This is to say, hard bread.  Remember me to my friend Wolfe, the baker, and say to him that his bread beats any I have seen in California.  Tell him the cake he gave us to bring along was spoiled in the River Platte, and also it spoiled our Fourth of July.

                                                                                               “SAMUEL M. KIEFER.”