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Friday, May 20, 2016

Gold Fever

I headed past Historian Bill Reynolds' desk at Campus Martius Museum, bound for the coffee pot. I often stop to chat with Bill when I volunteer at the Museum. On that day, he held up several yellowed, tattered pages and said, "this would make a good blog research project for you." 

The documents were two letters written by A. G. Hovey on his way to the California gold rush in 1849. "This could be a great story," Bill remarked, "but I have found little information about it." He showed me the letters. My research took me well beyond the letters to reveal a fascinating story.

Copy of A. G. Hovey letter Oct. 14, 1849

Gold fever swept the country in 1848. Publications such as Edwin Bryant's What I Saw in California and a similar book by John Fremont were best sellers. Thomas B. Clark, Jr., in his Gold Rush Diary book, reported that Marietta area men and boys "talked of the possibilities of gathering fortunes in the California gold fields as glibly as they spoke of harvesting wheat or corn..."

Gold Mines poster: Everyone tried to cash in on gold fever. This poster promotes a "lecture" about California gold fields. The poster includes a testimonial letter of recommendation for the presenter. Source: Villanova Library, History Between the Pages, Looking at nineteenth century American through the writing of Samuel Alanson Lane, "The Gold Rush," viewed at exhibits.library.villanova.ed

There were two groups from Marietta, The Harmar Company and "Marietta Gold Hunters", who ventured to the California gold fields. We learn of these travelers' experiences through the two A. G Hovey letters that Bill Reynolds showed me and prodigous journals kept by Mariettan Elisha Douglass Perkins. 

Corporations for gold mining in California were being formed all across Ohio. Such a company, The Harmar Company, (Harmar was then a village opposite Marietta) was organized with what the Marietta Intelligencer  newspaper described as "Yankee thoroughness." 

There were two boards of directors. The "Home Board" based in Harmar was to monitor financial and administrative matters. Its members included Darwin Garner, Agent; and Henry Fearing, E.W.T. Clark, L. Chamberlain, Asa Soule, advisors.  The "California Board" included Harlow Chapin, agent; Abijah Hulet, and A.G. Hovey, advisors. These men were part of the group of twenty who ventured to California to conduct mining operations.

Each member of the party going to California was required to sign a pledge:
"I am in good bodily health, free from disease, and will, to the best of my ability, promote the harmony and discipline, and faithfully labor to advance the interest of the Harmar Company, and....abstain from all intoxicating liquors as a beverage, from all species of gambling and dissipation, and as far as practicable to observe the sabbath...."

 The "Marietta Gold Hunters"was an informal group which included Elisha Douglass Perkins, J. Quincy Cunningham, Zeb Chesebro,  John L. Huntington, a visitor from New Orleans, Joseph L. Stephens, Samuel E. Cross, recently arrived in Harmar from New York. Others, such as George Hildreth, Douglass Perkins' brother-in-law, and Dwight Hollister were also were part of the group at various times.

Postage stamp image painted by John Berkey, based on research of artwork and actual photos. The man on the left depicts a free black man, many of whom were part of the gold rush. The stamp was issued June 18, 1999. Viewed at

There was elaborate preparation for the long arduous journey to California. The Harmar Company's gear and provisions filled five large wagons. 3600 pounds of pilot bread (aka "hardtack", a type of long-lasting biscuit) and a large supply of beans were among the food staples they took. The Gold Hunters - the smaller of the 2 groups - started with two wagons.

The Harmar Company departed Marietta on April 25, 1849 by steamboat. On board they organized supplies, made a few stops, and enjoyed life on the river, living like "Pigs in clover." They transferred at St. Louis for St. Joseph, MO, the usual starting point for the wagon trip west.

Soon disaster struck - in the form of cholera.  Several of the men - and hundreds of others in the region - were stricken with the deadly infection. Hovey reported in his May, 1849 letter that Gage Drown and Abijah Hewlett died at St. Joseph. Others became ill but recovered. The disease experience was traumatic. Hovey used terms such as "horrid," "I cannot give an adequate description," and "it's a miracle that cholera did not take us all." Click on cholera to learn more about the disease, if you dare.

The Marietta Gold Hunters left Marietta May 8, 1849. They rolled two wagons on to the Steamer DeWitt Clinton bound for St. Louis where they boarded the Highland Mary II for the trip up the Missouri River to St. Joseph.  

They missed most of the cholera outbreak. But Perkins' diary reported the grim sighting of the abandoned steamer Monroe at Jefferson City which lost 97 of 100 passengers to cholera. Those included a group of 27 from Indiana headed west, "only two of whom were spared to tell the sad tale to relatives & friends, whom they left only two weeks before in good health and spirits. How many broken hearts & widowed wives and fatherless children are made. God only knows."

St. Joseph was a bustling staging area for the overland trip west. The Gold Hunters were delayed in St. Joseph waiting for mules to become available. The demand for pack animals for wagons going west was phenomenal. Animals were hard to find  - and expensive. The St. Joseph Gazette on July 4, 1849 estimated that about 5,000 wagons, 34,000 mules and oxen, and 27,000 people were on the way west.

Starting out on the trail, there was the pervasive optimism and anticipation of "seeing the elephant." This was a nineteenth century expression referring to peak life experiences achieved by great effort or thwarted by adversity. In the gold rush, seeing the elephant usually referred to exciting high points of the adventure or to low points of hardship and disappointment. 

There were numerous elephant "sightings." Dramatic scenery was a frequent topic.In Wyoming, Perkins noted that "our present camp is by far the most beautiful I have seen since leaving St. Joe. The mountains tower above us with its dark ravines and banks of snow while below is the valley through which runs a fine creek of pure cold water fringed with water willows..." He marveled at a valley of huge boulders in Idaho. On one, there were nests of hawks which "have been whistling at us all the a state of great excitement and commotion far exceeding...our presidential elections."

Hovey's letter reports the scenery approached the Sierra Nevada from the Carson River as the "handsomest I ever saw in state of nature..." Yet the difficulty of the steep mountain passages was intimidating as they struggled over one peak, only to see another looming ahead. Hovey proudly compared the experience to Napoleon Bonaparte's epic passage with his army through the Swiss Alps. 

In Hovey's October 14,1849 letter from California, he was truly excited by the potential in California. He mentions a Mr. Conway who is reported to have made $1,500 (nearly $40,000 in todays dollars) in mining in the three months since he arrived.

Yet the "elephant" highs were inevitably mingled with lows: setbacks, disappointment, even desperation at times. Life on the trail was arduous and often monotonous. Sickness was a common complaint; many died from illnesses and rigors of travel. One source reported 500 graves between St. Joseph and Laramie.

Changed appearances reflected the strain of the trail. Hovey reports meeting two of the Marietta Gold Hunters group along the trail, "Met up with Zeb Chesebro and Joseph Stephens, part of the Argonauts group from Marietta. They were so altered in appearance...that I hardly (k)now them nor they us."

Logistics of wagon transport were a continuous challenge. Overweight wagons were a universal problem, as the Gold Hunters soon found out. Before they had gone the first mile, one wagon was too heavy to ascend a steep hill. They had to unload part of the wagon to get up the hill; then reload. Whew! On May 30, they discarded 300 pounds from their wagons. The trail west was strewn with baggage, equipment, food, and other goods which were left behind to save weight. 

                                  Wagons photo:
                Image from State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia, illustrating the trip west to California by two

Wagons broke down. Draft animals required forage, yet grass was often unavailable or worn down by grazing of passing livestock. Hovey mentions that their teams once went without grass for five days. They resorted to cutting oak trees, so the livestock could feed on the leaves. Some animals became ill or wore down from the relentless travel. Healthy, reliable livestock were essential for travel, even for survival. 

Hovey proudly stated at the end of their trip..."But Ah; we had 'the Teams.' The Harmar Company has been celebrated the whole way for having the 'Star Teams and Waggons' on the trip..." Perkins also took note of the Harmar Company teams when he met up with them on August 19, 1849, "Their cattle are in better order than any I have seen on the road."

Both the Harmar Company and Gold Hunters groups experienced personality clashes and disagreements. The Gold Hunters decided to split up and travel in pairs when they reached Fort Laramie in Wyoming. Perkins and John Huntington traveled together, foregoing wagons for mules as pack animals. They were able to achieve 20-30 miles per day until reaching California September 26. 

The Harmar Company dissolved on December 22, 1849, after a few months in California. Personality clashes were reported to be a primary reason. The California group bought out the Home Board investors for $100 per share - double the $50 original investment - and then owned all the stock.

Once in California, success was elusive. Gold mining produced mediocre results, at best. Since leaving Marietta, most endured privation, hard work, loss of much of their property and equipment, and poor health. Several died. Among the Gold Hunters, Samuel Cross and Zeb Chesebrough died soon after arriving. The Harmar Company lost several men, mostly to cholera, before they left St. Joseph.

Perkins said that his group all arrived in good health. Yet he said, "I have hardly met a man who is not disappointed and dejected and wished themselves back (home)." Most who endured the very hard work in the mines could barely make their expenses.

California Gold Diggers - A Scene from Actual Life at the Mines. Painting from University of California Berkeley, Bancroft Library, created by John Andrew, a British engraver. Viewed at

George Hildreth observed in a March, 1850 letter to his father Samuel P. Hildreth that "not one in a hundred will make a fortune." He experienced frequent sickness, lamented high prices, a lack of decent housing, and was generally discouraged. "Great delusion prevails with respect to this country (California)."

A. G. Hovey remained in the west, eventually settling in Oregon. He became a successful businessman and revered politician in Eugene, Oregon. Harlow Chapin returned to Harmar, eventually retiring there after serving as mayor of the village.

Douglass Perkins, whose journals provided the details of the trip west, was a particularly poignant figure. He struggled to find his way in California. Mining was a failure. He eventually became a steamboat pilot, apparently unable or unwilling to return home to the wife (Harriett Hildreth) and young child he had left behind in Marietta. His four year old son died in August, 1849; it is possible he never knew of it. Douglass Perkins died of dysentery in 1852. His dreams, like those of thousands of gold seekers, went unfulfilled. 

His wife Harriett remarried and later journeyed to California with her daughters to find Douglass Perkins' grave. She was unsuccessful. 


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