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California, There He Went

Charles Greifenstein is in charge of researcher services, the manuscript department, and security policies. He has an MA in English...

The APS recently acquired a small archive of papers of Abijah Chauncey Owen, a Westfield, Massachusetts, man who participated in the California Gold Rush.

The 24-year-old Abijah was a true Forty-niner, taking ship on January 13, 1849 on the S.S. Edward Everett. He was accompanied by other Massachusetts men; a list of 15 of them aboard is found in the papers. Abijah very likely had a grubstake from his family. He had with him a letter attesting to his character, signed by town worthies, that calls his father a “highly respected and wealthy individual.”

Abijah kept a record of the latitude and longitude of his ship as it sailed around Cape Horn, landing July 10 at Benicia, California, which was then becoming a thriving port north of San Francisco and a way-station to the gold fields. His diary starts on that day. He heads upriver, crosses the Central Valley to the gold area. Members of his “company”—numbering 90, he says—start digging. The company itself breaks up soon afterward, Abijah at last digging on his own on August 16.

list of handwritten names
List of names of men from Massachusetts on the Edward Everett

He does not have much luck in 1849, but when he heads back up into the mountains in 1850 after spending the winter in Sacramento and Benicia, he goes to Bidwell’s Bar, an area proven to have gold, and stakes a claim. He begins to find respectable amounts: between $6.00 and $33.00 a day during March. After he purchased a “quicksilver machine,” an apparatus that uses mercury to capture fine grains of gold in an amalgam, he has his best single day: $104.  

The diaries note in their short entries not only the gold he finds, but also his general activities and circumstances. He frequently records the weather. He is often sick. Fever or chills are mentioned, and he treats himself: emetics, quinine, a “sweat.” On May 26, 1850, he badly scalds his feet with boiling water; an “Old Dutch Doctor”  prescribed flour to put on his feet, which Abijah declares to be “the best thing in the world for a burn.” He mentions two miners’ deaths, including one person from his ship: Benjamin Vanhorn, who died August 13, 1849.

Abijah is peripatetic. By modern standards he does not roam far, but he does not stay in one place for very long. He does not dig just his own claim, but assists others with theirs.  There are trips to Sacramento. Often he mentions going somewhere to see if he’d received a letter from home, and frequently he has one (or more). Sometimes he gets work when he can: cutting timber, hauling hay.  

The longest single passage describes an “Indian hunt,” an event all-to-frequent in early California. In this case, the Native Americans kept the murderous whites away from their encampment. Two skirmishes over two days resulted in two whites being wounded, and with provisions low and the Indian camp being “two days away” over rough terrain, the whites retreated. (The skirmishes took place Dec. 30-31, 1850. The tribe was probably MiWok.)

An early arrival, observant and optimistic, Abijah wrote in the one letter (Nov. 24, 1851) of his in the collection, that “The cream has been taken out principally of the Gulches & Rivers, yet there is a little left in the banks, & will be for ages, altho the principal diggings hereafter will be deep hill diggings & quartz.” But before the easy diggings were picked over, he had managed to send (on Nov. 23) $1,000 worth of gold to his family.  According to a receipt in the archive, it was sold to the US Mint for $1,156.09.

receipt for gold
Receipt for gold from the U.S. Mint

The last entry in a diary is December 10, 1852. In September of that year he had contracted “collera.” “Language cannot describe it,” he wrote. Grinding labor, poor conditions, exposure to temperature extremes, frequent bouts of sickness, all probably contributed to Abijah’s death at age 29 in April, 1853, in Sacramento. His family managed to have his body shipped east to have Abijah buried in Westfield.

photo of gravestone