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Gold Fever

O cursed lust for gold,To what dost thou not drive the hearts of men? - Virgil

We are indebted to Gold Rushes & Mining Camps of the Early American West, Vardis Fisher & Opal Laurel Holmes (Caldwell, Idaho, The Caxton Printers, Ltd, 1979) for some of the ideas in this page.
A portion of a gold nugget is shown at right from the recovery of the ship Central America which sank in 1857 with the government's share of the California gold, as well as with the fortunes of many of the miners. (A relative of Web Master Nadine Holder was Captain of the Central America.) The loss of the government gold triggered the panic of 1857. The gold was not recovered until the early 1990's.

There were a number of gold rushes over the years including California in 1849, Pikes Peak in 1859, the Black Hills in 1872, Leadville in 1879, and the biggest of all, the Klondike in 1898. There were numerous small finds scattered over the country as well. (c.f. "Mercer County Advertiser" 3/24/1849 "The Clermont arrived at our wharf on the 13th...further discoveries in the gold region are reported... .Gold, it is also said has been discovered on the great Platte river, though the hostility of the Pawnee Indians has prevented effective mining. If this report proves true, many of those who start for California will stop midway in their journey. ") Characteristics that all the gold rushes shared were:

*A frenzy to participate, often triggered by newspaper reports, circulated flyers, and word of mouth.

*Long, arduous journeys to the gold fields. Many died on the way.

*Some participants became rich, most did not. Many did not even make a decent living

*Some returned to their homes or to good land they passed on the trip

*Some stayed and made a good living supplying necessities to the miners

The following poems give an excellent overview of the mixed emotions of the miners!


The One He Sung at Home

Tune - Susannah
Like Argos of the ancient times,
I'll leave this modern Greece;
I'm bound to California Mines,
To find the golden fleece.
For who would work from morn till night
And live on hog and corn,
When one can pick up there at sight
Enough to buy a farm?
CHORUS - Oh California; that's the
land for me.
I'm going to California the gold dust for to see.

There from the snowy mountains side
Comes down the golden sand,
And spreads a carpet far and wide
O'er all the shining land;
The rivers run on golden beds,
Oe'r rocks of golden ore,
The valleys six feet deep are said
To hold a plenty more.
Oh California, &c.

I'll take my wash bowl in my hand,
And thither wind my way,
To wash the gold from out the sand
In California
. And when I get my pocket full
In that bright land of gold,
I'll have a rich and happy time;
Live merry till I'm old.
Oh California, &c.

The One He Sings Here

Tune - Irish Emigrant's Lament
I'm sitting on a big quartz rock,
Where gold is said to grow;
I'm thinking of the merry flock,
That I left long ago;
My fare is hard, so is my bed,
My claim is giving out,
I've worked until I'm almost dead,
And soon I shall "peg" out.

I'm thinking of the better days,
Before I left my home;
Before my brain with gold was crazed,
And I began to roam.
Those were the days, no more are seen,
When all the girls loved me;
When I did dress in linen clean,
They washed and cooked for me.

But awful change is this to tell,
I wash and cook myself,
I never more shall cut a swell,
But here must dig for pelf.
I ne'er shall lie in clean white sheets,
But in my blankets roll;
And oh! the girls I thought so sweet,
They think I'm but a fool.

Often news of gold strikes were received when people were suffering hard times - and the exaggerated reports seemed to offer a way out from their difficult lives. As potential miners began arriving in California it became the custom to take a copy of their claim to the newspapers and ask them to publish a favorable report of the claim - generally the newspapers said only "indications are good" but it served to project the image that there was gold for all and it made it possible for many to sell their claims which would be the only money they would make from their venture. The Pikes Peak frenzy was fueled by the panic of 1857, combined with many of the Missouri River towns extolling themselves as outfitters based on their experience in serving the California rush. In other words, each succeeding rush fed on the previous one.

The trek to the gold fields signaled the opening of the West for settlement in great numbers. Many who had made the journey in the early 1850's and returned home went back to the West when the Homestead Act was passed in 1862. While the trips were long and hard they were not without their pleasures and the participants always noticed fair and fertile land as they passed through. A short history of such a trip "To California with 'The Ikenberry Party' in 1849" can be found on a Web Site. Captain Samuel Eikenbary who led the party was a distant relative of the Eikenbarys of Mercer County.

An absolutely excellent account of one family's trip was published in 1897 as "Journal of the Adventures of a Party of California Gold-Seekers Under the Guidance of Mr. Ledyard Frink During a journey across the plains from Martinsville, Indiana, to Sacramento, California, from March 30, 1850, to September 7, 1850. From the Original Diary of the trip kept by Mrs. Margaret A. Frink." (Typical of the grandiose titles of the time!). Fortunately this diary has been republished in Covered Wagon Women (Vol. 2), "Diaries and Letters From the Western Trails, 1850", Kenneth L. Holmes, Editor (University of Nebraska Press, 1983). Mrs. Frink was an unparalleled raconteur and particularly good at evoking the frenzy of getting to the gold fields before all the gold was gone! Anyone who had ancestors who made this trip would be certain to enjoy this account. Another diarist of the time expressed their feelings about the trip "...and if you have enemies persuade them for a land journey to California." (Covered Wagon Women, Vol. 1)

We have recently found another interesting book They Saw the Elephant, Women in the California Gold Rush. by Jo Ann Levy, that we can heartily recommend. It contains interesting juxtapositions of diary and letter excerpts about the trip with notes from a guidebook of the time. Some statistics from the book are also interesting: "The trail across Nebraska Territory was one immense highway jammed with wagons, animals and people. ...By July 13, 1852, the Fort Kearny register had recorded 25,855 men, 7,021 women, 8,270 children, 8,483 horses, 53, 853 mules, 90,340 cattle, and 2,166 wagons." San Francisco also recorded statistics for those coming by sea: "In 1851 San Francisco's sea arrivals totaled 27,202, with 15, 464 via the Isthmus [of Panama]." In 1849 15, 597 went by sea with 6, 489 taking the Isthumus shortcut. And surely Mercer County people were included in numbers of both routes.

Another interesting source for those who are members of is the memoirs of William T. Sherman, Civil War General, who lived in California between 1846 and 1861 and included descriptions of life in San Francisco and the discovery of gold in the territory.

Aledo Weekly Record, September 2, 1874: "RICH GOLD DISCOVERIES Bismarck, D.T. (Dakota Terriorty) Aug 22. Scouts just returned from an expedition report Custer at Bear Butte, August 15, in good health, with no trouble from Indians. They have completed the exploration of the Hills, which prove even richer than was before reported. Gold and silver are found in numerous places in placers, and in quantities so great that miners estimate with pick and pan a single miner may take $100 per day. The country is seldom visited by Indians and never occupied by them, and there are not troops enough in the department to keep the settlers from getting in. The distance from Bismarck to the gold region is 210 miles, over a practicable route. The citizens of Bismarck are greatly excited, and already expeditions are organizing." Misleading publicity carried on as in previous rushes!

To be fair the newspapers published both sides of the story (See Black Hills at the end of the page) but often too little and too late.

Still under Construction - More to Come

Known Mercer County Resident Trips to Gold Fields (More to Come)

The History of Mercer County, 1882 tells us that Milton Willits spent three years in California: "He crossed the plains in the summer of 1850, and returned in the spring of 1853 to New Boston, and started a lumber yard in partnership with Anderson Kirlin.
James Drury, son of John Drury, went to California from 1852 to 1855 (1903 Mercer County History).

William Danford, husband of Mary Alyea, died July 27, 1850 on the trail to the California gold fields.

Stanton V. Prentiss, went to California between 1852 and 1855 (1903 Mercer County History). We believe it was more like before 1850 to 1853 because he is not found with his family in the 1850 Rock Island County census and he bought land in Mercer County in June 1853.

Charles Bras went overland to California, enduring all the hardships connected with an overland trip across hundreds of miles of a wilderness where rain never falls, and vegetation does not exist. After arriving in California he clerked in a store one year, after which he was engaged in mining and running a pack train. Returned to Louisa Co, Iowa in 1853...came to New Boston in 1868 (History of Mercer, 1882)

Lyman H. the spring of 1852, when he started with an ox team for California, and arrived in Placerville in September of that year. He was engaged in mining and farming until the summer of 1855, when he returned to New Boston. (History of Mercer, 1882)

Endicott - John Batson Endicott, older brother of the Mercer County Endicotts, is indexed in Placerville in El Dorado County, California, in 1850.

Cyrus Beard, son of John & Charity Brady Beard of Indiana, a Mercer County resident went to California from 1852 to 1854 according to an Overbrook Kansas history.

Eli Cook MossmanMossman, son of George and Hannah Brown Mossman, went to California from Mercer County in 1850, returning in 1852.

Baldwin and Samuel Millikan went with a train of 76 men from St. Joseph, Missouri to California in 1850, missing the census altogether. Samuel died in California and Baldwin returned to his native Ohio, later moving to New Boston in 1855. (If you can't find a relative anywhere in the 1850 census look into the possibility they were on the road in the gold rush - actually this can be true of almost any year in the mid-1800's as families moved west.)

Isaac N. Bassett in his autobiography writes "I was advised by some friends to go to Colorado in the Pike's Peak gold excitement in the spring of 1860. I went by rail to St Joseph and met there friends who had teams in St. Joseph. From there we went by teams overland to Denver where we arrived early in May." Isaac is counted in the 1860 census in Mercer County which tells us either that his dates were off or that he was counted "in absentia" in the census. It is possible that he went in 1859 as he was writing in the late 1890's and memory may have failed slightly. We do know that he returned to Mercer County in 1861 - see Journal of James Lyons who met with and traveled with Isaac on the return trip in 1861. The story of Isaac's adventures in Denver will be continued on his family page. It is possible that James Lyons was also attracted to Colorado by gold fever. One of the friends Isaac mentions was John Atkinson of Aledo. Atkinson and Bassett partnered in a brickyard in Denver rather than seeking gold.

George Monroe and Amanda Welch Eikenbary went on the Black Hills Gold Rush (more at the bottom of the page). This was never mentioned in the family as their trip was nothing but terrible hardship, but their second child was born in Bismarck, North Dakota in 1872. Elliot Coues, the naturalist, writing of the winter of 1872 in Bismarck said the snow reached to the windows of all the houses. The only food to be had was capturing chickadees who came to the windows in the hopes of crumbs (will add an exact quote on this).

Miscellaneous 1850 California Census Records

These are not necessarily Mercer County people but the records are interesting as they give an estimate of the amount of gold the person is recovering.

1850 El Dorado County, California, U. S. Census Page 502 #4 Isaac Gibson, 20, miner for gold, born Illinois $200 per day assay
Page 502 #5 George Signor, 28, miner, born Illinois, zero gold (this appears to be too old to be George Signor of New Boston)
Page 513 #5 William Easley, 21, born Illinois, miner, $4.50 day assay
Page 513 #6 Green Lynch, 18, born Illinois
Page 514 #3 Francis M. Easley, 18, born Illinois

A "Realistic" Picture of the Dakota Territory Gold Rush

The Aledo Weekly Record published two stories that give us a more accurate picture of at least one of the Gold Rushes - that to Dakota Territory in the 1870's: "The Black Hills", August 15, 1875 and "Black Hills", April 19, 1876.

Aledo Weekly Record, August 15, 1875
The Black Hills - In the feverish excitement which some newspapers and adventurers have provoked with stories of the wealth of the Black Hills, perhaps the following candid letter from Lieut. John H. Coale, of the Second Cavalry Regiment, U.S.A., now in that region, to his father, Isaac Coale, Esq., of Chicago, will be read with interest, and perhaps gratitute by those who heed it: Camp Harney, Black Hills, July 18. Camp Harney, from which I write is situated in the Black Hills of Dakota,--to be exact, in latitute 43 deg 46 min 20 sec and longituted 103 deg 44 min 45 sec. We have a permanent camp here, and sent out surveying parties with small escorts to map the country within a radius of fifty miles. We are about through with the Southern part of the Hills, and tomorrow will move up to the northward, with the view of establishing a permanent camp, about 60 or 70 mies from here, where we will complete the survey of the northeastern portion of the Hills.

I notice that the Eastern papers are filled with lies about the gold discoveries. I have just as good opportunities of knowing as anybody, and I am satisfied that, so far, no rich diggings have been discovered, and I don't believe that one nugget has been found. The gold so far, is in very small scales; and I, not being an enthusiast, have failed to find out what the yield actually is. I am satisfied that most of the miners are not making $1 a day and that perhaps one or two parties are making $2 a day, by much harder work than they would be required to do on any railroad in the United States.

Provisions, as yet, cannot be bought at any price; so, when the stock which the miners have brought with them is exhausted, they will probably have to call on the Government to keep them from starving. I am satisfied that no rich quartz-heads have been found, all newspapers report to the contrary notwithstanding. If anybody thinks of coming to the Black Hills, he had better thin twice about it. I really believe that, so far, all the stories about rich diggings have been invented by a few speculators, in order to get people out here to buy claims. The miners here are really not doing anything, but are lying back for the rush, in hopes of selling out their claims at fabulous prices. I suppose there are about 500 miners here now, scattered through the Hills. We have no instructions to interfere with them, because we have other duties to perform. Most of them are a poor, deluded set, with no idea of the difficulties they will have to contend against. They seem to have come out here thinking they would find the gold lying around loose, and that all they would have to do, would be to load their wagons and start home with a fortune. I do not mean to say there are no rich deposits of gold in the Hills, because I am no prophet; but I know that, up to the present time, they have not been discovered.

Aledo Weekly Record, April 19, 1876 Black Hills - Those who seek death by slow starvation will doubtless be able to find it in the Black Hills. Flour is quoted at 10 to 11 cents a pound, and bacon 25, sugar 40, salt 12, and beans 15 cents a pound, while molasses sells at $2.50 to $3.00 per gallon, and tobacco at from $1 to $1.50 a pound. After traveling 250 miles by ox or mule team from the nearest railroad point, Cheyenne, the gold hunter finds himself at the diggings, where, if he is lucky enough to get a good claim and is an expert miner, he can by hard work make a dollar a day. A correspondent of the New York Times, who has carefully explored the diggings, reports that very few make that, while the largest amount realized has been $55 per month, which would scarce pay for provisions. The correspondent of the Kansas City Times says he has carefully gone over the diggings and has not yet seen a nugget; that no gold from the mines has been sold at Custer City; and that the opinion of old miners there is that the diggings are emphatically a fraud. The excitement is kept up, however, by the papers at Cheyenne and other outfitting towns on the frontier, which publish glowing accounts of the gold fetched back by returned miners. But it is more than ever manifest that no one has returned with as much money as he took with him; that more gold can be made digging ditches in Iowa or Illinois than in the diggings; and that those who are rushing to the Black Hills are hurrying to extreme destitution, and suffering, with all the chances that they will have to endure yet greater suffering in order to get back. - Chicago Tribune