Gold Mining Days in the West

Gold was discovered in California in January 24, 1848 and by 1849 the rush to the gold fields was in full swing. From every state went the gold seekers and each ship was filled to capacity, and still there was a long waiting list. Many Chenango County men were among the adventurers.

In March 1849 Lyman D. Lewis, Thomas L. Cowan, Ira B. Haynes and David D. Davis of Greene, Albert Grant of Smithville, James W. Mandeville of Coventry and Harry Terry of Triangle were among the members of a Company formed at Binghamton, bound for California. Harry Terry subsequently remained in California near Sonora the rest of his life as did J.W. Mandeville. The latter was Comptroller of the State of California at the time of his death in Sacramento in 1876.

When the gold fever was at its height in 1851, Simeon Davis who owned and operated the Yellow Tavern at Lower Genegantslet, had a son who wanted to visit the new Eldorado and Simeon obtained the money necessary for him to go. Then the son backed out, so "Uncle Sim" went in his place, with a party of five who left Greene that winter. He was about sixty years of age and George C. Roberts was sixteen, the youngest of the group, and the one to whom we are indebted for the following anecdotes. Mr. Davis stood the voyage well until going up the Pacific the ship touched at Acapulco, Mexico, where he ate a hearty dinner of beans that were not thoroughly cooked. This caused an illness from which Mr. Davis did not recover. After lingering along a number of days, he died at Stockton, California. Dr. George W. Roberts and Joseph D. VanValkenburgh were two more members of this party, and the latter is said to have run a saw mill and worked a gold mine there from 1851 to 1856.

On March 7, 1852 (says the Norwich Chenango Union) 13 or 14 men from Greene left for the gold coast "Having been fitted out by Colonel Joseph Juliand who was to receive one third of the earnings of each for a specified time". Augustus Wheeler must have been one of these for in 1853 he sent his nephew, Joseph Wheeler, a gold 25 cent piece "About the thickness of a wafer and 5/16 inch in diameter". Among those who went were William Gray, Kendrick Leach, Miles Callander and John Elliott.

During 1849-1850 the men had many trials and tribulations as transportation up to the mines was not of the best, and if the three or four months winter, or rainy season, was severe, the rivers and roads became impassable, making it difficult to cart supplies up into the mountains around Sonora. During that winter L.D. Lewis, D.D. Davis and Albert Grant were located near Jamestown, and as the rainy season was too wet to mine they spent their time hunting some twelve miles back in the mountains. They had a good cabin and Mr. Lewis did the cooking and mending while Davis and Grant hunted, for about three months. Fresh meat was high so the deer and bears they killed that winter, after paying expenses, netted each $1,400. Miners had more money than meat, and venison sold for 50 cents to 75 cents per pound.

The next winter was an especially wet one, and for a number of weeks it was impossible to get food into the mines, and all kinds of stores ran low so prices advanced to fabulous figures. Potatoes, beans and flour sold at $1. per pound and were hard to get at that price. Tom Cowan chose to stay in the mines those rainy seasons. One day he went down to Sonora and bought 15 pounds of beans and 15 pounds of flour for which he paid with three ten dollar gold pieces, and started back for our camp with a sack under each arm. At one place he had to cross Wood's Creek upon a small flume beneath which the water had undermined the foundation. When he reached the center of the structure the flume gave way and down went Tom, flour, beans and all, the flood sweeping all away and nearly taking Tom to a watery grave. He was glad to get out with his life, even at the cost of a jacket and $30. worth of food supplies.

Some of the boys during the rainy season when mining was suspended, built huge log bear traps which they baited with venison to catch grizzly bears, which were then put into cages and taken to San Francisco or shipped out of the country, at considerable profit. This was a highly dangerous sport.

Now for George C. Roberts' personal experiences: "We took an ocean steamer at New York and landed after nine days at Chagrese on the Isthmus. From there we were poled up the Chagrese River in small boats by natives and landed at Gorgona, then on mules for three days to Panama on the Pacific side. At Panama we took another steamship and after a fifteen day voyage landed at San Francisco. From there we proceeded to Sonora in the Southern Mines. The thrilling experiences of this whole journey would fill a book.

"At that time Sunday was a day set apart to stock up on supplies for the coming week at the nearest settlement, and pack it back to Camp. Son on this first Sunday we, with thousands of other miners, found our way to Sonora, surging around with as mixed a crowd as ever before congregated in the same space.

"Lyman D. Lewis was then working in Wells' and Fargo Express Office in Sonora, and knowing him well, I called at the office to see him. While there, a great uproar arose on the street, and we both hastened out to learn the cause. The sidewalks were blocked with a motley crowd of men in the highest state of excitement. Pistols were being fired, and men brandishing large knives were rushing madly through the crowd. Just as I stepped upon the walk beside Mr. Lewis, a wild frenzied man ran up behind him with a drawn pistol and would have shot him in the back had I not instantly given the wild man a most vigorous kick and a might push which sent him flying into the crowd, he in turn being shot at by several others as maniacal as he, and Mr. Lewis came out unharmed.

"Our attention was then directed to the middle of the street where most of the commotion was centered, and there we saw two men, an American and a Mexican, shooting at each other. The latter fell to the ground, a dead man. During the fight several were shot and the fracas was over three lay dead on the street, a sickening sight, indeed. then someone said that three Mexicans were to be lynched in a short time just outside the city so we were drawn along with may others toward the hanging. When the bodies were cut down they were tumbled into abandoned prospecting holes. I was thoroughly initiated on that first Sunday in the California mines.

"Later we learned the cause of all this: A City Government had been formed in Sonora to check the lawlessness that prevailed, and some defied the authorities. An attempt was made to arrest a number of Mexicans who were indulging in bull-fighting against the City Ordinance, on this particular Sunday, causing a general fusillade between Police and Mexicans. The trouble began near where we were standing and we saw one man killed and several wounded before order was restored. The police were victorious and cleared the streets of the crowd of bull-fighters. At the same time a mob had captured three Mexicans who had killed Captain snow, a miner, for his gold, and hanged them in a gulch, a mile distant from the city.

"While we were working in the mines our company took out two gold nuggets within two days which were worth $1,475 and $1,073, and these were not large in comparison with others taken out near us."

After four years in the gold fields George had saved $8,000 and was returning home by boat with it when shipwrecked near Lower California. He lost everything, so returned to Sonora for two more years.

August 8 1895: "In looking over some old papers recently we found an account of a shipwreck on the Pacific Coast which occurred 41 years ago - on October 2, 1854. Fate had placed me aboard that ill-fated steamship, the Yankee Blade, which at that time was the finest ship afloat, and vivid scenes of the wreck stand out in my memory.

"There were 1,200 miners aboard, each with several thousand dollars in gold dust in bags and in partitions in vests made for carrying gold. Immediately after the ship commenced sinking the decks were covered with thousands of dollars of gold, thrown away by those miners who expected to have to swim for their lives, life being more precious than gold.

"During the frantic efforts of the passengers to save themselves, a beautiful young lady was running wildly about the deck of the fast sinking ship imploring someone to save her. She had become separated from her father in the confusion that followed immediately after the steamer had struck the rocks, and she was wild with fear. Comprehending her perilous position, I determined to rescue her, if possible. At this moment a lifeboat that was being used to carry passengers from the ship to the rocky shore came alongside. Nearly every one of the terror-stricken passengers was trying to get into the boat. I grasped the girl firmly in my arms and pushing desperately through the crowd to the side of the ship and raising my voice high above the noise of the crowd, commanded those in the boat to take the girl aboard. A rope was thrown up from the boat, which I fastened around her waist, and with a smile of gratitude that spoke volumes and a prayer for our deliverance, she jumped into the sea, and was saved!

Source: Gold Mining Days in the West: Page 149-151: "From Raft to Railroad", A History of the Town of Greene, Chenango County, New York, 1792-1867 by Mildred English Cochrane, Town Historian: Page 78.

Contributed by Lynda & B.J. Ozinga - 2002.

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