Westward Ho! Cincinnati Men Caught The California Gold Fever In 1849

Cincinnati was fully possessed by visions of riches, but those seeking their fortune often discovered panning for gold was not exactly as advertised.

It took a long time in 1848 for news to travel from California to Cincinnati. Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, northeast of San Francisco, in January of that year, but Cincinnatians remained blissfully unaffected by gold fever until the middle of September.

Cincinnati men went west looking for gold, but most found wealth by resuming the careers they left back home.

From Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, April 1860, Vol XX No CXIX Digitized by Google Books

By December 1848, Cincinnati merchants were placing advertisements in the local papers, offering camping and mining supplies to young men heading westward. As the new year of 1849 dawned, Cincinnati was fully possessed by visions of gold. Local newspapers printed dozens of announcements similar to this one, from the Commercial Tribune [23 February 1849]:

“A party of enterprising gentlemen of this city, completed their arrangements yesterday, packed up their trappings, and took passage on the steamer Chief Justice Marshall, for California. They design to sail from New Orleans, and either cross the Isthmus, or take the land route, via City of Mexico. The choice of these routes depends on contingencies. The party is composed of the brothers Moses, Mr. Collins, jeweler, and Messrs. Varney, Light, Vater, and the brothers Fagan.”

The Cincinnati Commercial [9 March 1849] reported on a company of 20 Cincinnatians setting out on the overland route to California, with a plan to cover expenses by selling gunpowder:

“They take with them one hundred kegs of powder, which on their arrival will be distributed, five kegs to each man – thus furnishing each a handsome capital to start on.”

In April, the “Independent Pacific Dispatch Company,” composed of 25 Cincinnati men, departed, also on the overland route. They loaded their pack mules onto the steamboat John Hancock, bound for Independence, Missouri, where they would commence hoofing across the continent.

As a major port along the Ohio River, Cincinnati not only witnessed local boys departing for the gold fields, but steamboats full of similarly determined young men passing through town. The Commercial Tribune [14 April 1849] was agog at the mass of virility floating westward down the Ohio:

“The tide of emigration to California is, in its extent, beyond all historical parallel; and will, in future times, stand prominent as the great event of the Nineteenth Century.”

Many of those adventurers, especially those from rural districts, stopped in Cincinnati to stock up on the supplies required to operate a basic gold-mining operation. Our shopkeepers were delighted to welcome the business. Gustav Sellin, purveyor of tin goods, advertised a gold-washing machine “of the most ingenious construction,” along with wash bowls, scoops and strainers. Philip Pike touted his “Imitation French Brandies, Holland Gin, Rum and Wines,” guaranteeing that a thousand-dollar investment in his beverages could be recouped for twenty times that amount in the thirsty gold fields. Miller Cornelius Sanders Bradbury boasted about his novel “steam-dried flour” warranted not to sour or get moldy for two years—ideal for the long trail westward.

No matter how they traveled, California emigrants faced a long journey; at least four months overland and six months by sea.

From Daily Cincinnati Commercial 9 March 1849 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Some Cincinnati businessmen just surrendered and joined the migration. Real estate mogul Thomas Hurst put a flour mill out near Sedamsville up for sale along with eight houses in the city. He was, as they say in the trade, a motivated seller. He closed his advertisement with this explanation:

“As I am making preparations for California, application should be made soon.”

Once folks arrived in California, they often discovered that panning for gold was not exactly as advertised. For instance, Benjamin Cory (Miami University Class of 1842, Medical College of Ohio Class of 1845) was busily engaged trading clothing to Native Americans in exchange for gold. Called to attend to a wealthy ranchero, Doctor Cory found himself trapped. In a letter home, Cory complained:

“My patient is quite smart this morning; he says I shall not leave him till all danger is over. ‘Charge what you please, Doctor,’ he says, ‘and it shall be paid; here is my ranch, with its horses, cattle, &c. &c. and I have a good large bag of gold.’ I am sorry, dear brother, that I ever had doctor stuck to my name; it is more trouble than profit; I am vexed to death; I tell people that I can get more gold in the mountains by digging and trading, than my conscience will permit me to charge my patients.”

Doctor Cory ended up doing okay for himself. The 1909 Miami University alumni directory notes that, before he died in 1896, he was elected to the first legislature of the new state of California in 1850 and had a distinguished medical career in Santa Clara and San Jose.

Joseph Talbert, a carpenter, who left Cincinnati in February 1849, wrote home that his traveling party of 50 had arrived safely in the gold fields. Talbert, however, after trying to mine gold for a couple of weeks, learned he could make more money as a carpenter, building cabins and gold-washing sluices than he could actually trying to find gold.

The Guysi brothers quit their jobs at B.F. Greenough’s lamp oil distillery on Main Street and endured a sea voyage of 160 days to round the tip of South America. They arrived in a San Francisco of 30,000 souls mostly housed in tents and suffering from dysentery. The only water available was polluted with copper, a spot of ground large enough to pitch a tent rented for $150 a month, and gambling was rampant. At least one of the brothers, Jacob, stuck it out; he was buried in the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay when he died at age 79 in 1906.

Joe Heywood had a solid career and sterling prospects here in Cincinnati. He was a butcher by trade, and regularly made the newspapers for the quality of his provender and the skill with which he decorated his shop. He was repeatedly referred to as a very handsome man who cut a dashing figure as a volunteer fireman. He was also known as a dependable “b’hoy”—a tough character—in the days when volunteer fire companies battled over which would put out the fire and collect the insurance money. Still, the Cincinnati Commercial of January 9, 1849 recorded the westward emigration of Heywood, along with Mathias Oliver, James Wilson, Alexander Burns and James McAlpin, all stalwarts of the “Rovers” fire company.

While most young men trudged west in hopes of sending pounds of bullion home, Heywood had no intention of digging anything once he got to California. Instead of packing a pick and shovel, Heywood had 1,500 cards printed to announce his business as a butcher and provision merchant. He seems to have succeeded admirably. After a sea voyage of 156 days, Heywood arrived in San Francisco and set up shop. A letter from a fellow firefighter reported that Heywood replicated the annual Cincinnati Christmas meat parade at his shop that December. Heywood himself wrote a long letter home describing his adventures aboard the ship and promising to write as soon as he could to “Lizzy.” He must have been persuasive. Joseph Heywood and Miss Eliza L. Hensley of Cincinnati were joined in matrimony on July 1, 1856 at San Francisco’s International Hotel.

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