Gold rush of ’49 included Fayette men

The "Forty-Niners" took their name from the year the gold rush began. On Jan. 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold in the mill race of his employer, John Sutter, while making his daily inspection.
The news was told in a short paragraph in the March 15, 1848, issue of “The Californian.” In 1849 alone, it was estimated that 9,000 men traveled the southwestern route by way of Santa Fe, while 22,500 traveled the emigrant trails.
St. Joseph and Independence, Mo., as well as Council Bluffs, Iowa, were staging areas for the westbound wagon trains.
Several men from Fayette County were part of the westward tide. Among them were Sol and Sam Tuttle, who, with William F. Lee and his father, Lemuel, left their homes in Vandalia in search of gold.
George Leidig, with his uncle, Col. Frederick Remann, tried their luck and did fairly well during their four years in the gold fields. They returned via Cape Horn to New York.  
Charles Shenker, who came to America in 1848 from Switzerland, spent five years in the gold fields, coming to Fayette County in 1868. Myron Harding’s father, Eliphet Harding, drowned while crossing the Platte River on the way west.
John Thompson, another Fayette County man, admits to being one of the first to come down with the "fever." In company with his brother and a friend, he headed west.  Thompson’s account of his years in the mining towns of California, recounted when he was 90 years old, gives us a first-hand story of the days of ’49. Thompson writes:
“When the California gold fever struck this county, I was one of the first victims. So I fixed it up with John George, who had just returned from the Mexican War, and along with my brother, Matthew, rigged out the expedition.
“We had three yoke of oxen, George furnished the wagon and we each stood our share of the expense of provisioning the expedition. Matthew and I started the first of March 1849 and drove the oxen to St. Joseph, Mo. George went by way of St. Louis, and bought our tent and a year’s provisions, and took them upriver, joining us at St. Joe.
“We left there April 15, having had to wait 15 days for the grass to get started so our cattle could feed. When we left St. Joe, there were maybe 20 wagons bunched together, but, of course, there were hundreds of other outfits on the road. In some bunches, there would be as many as 100 wagons.
“The Eastern men traveled in large groups and had fine outfits. They would buy big government wagons, fill them full and hitch four to six mules to them.  
“From St. Joe to Ft. Carney, there wasn’t a house or a hut, not a tree, nothing but a barren country just as God made it. From Ft. Carney, we drove 200 or 300 miles up the South Platte River and crossed it before we reached Laramie. It was a quarter of a mile wide at this point, but not very deep.
"All along the way, we saw roving bands of Indians, and many times they came to our wagons and wanted something to eat.  At no time were we molested by them. We saw thousands of buffalo. After leaving Ft. Laramie, we got into a rough country, and when we reached the North Platte, we found it a very deep and dangerous river.
"We took our wagons over on a raft that had been made by others who had crossed.  Each outfit would buy this raft, paying $7 for it, and they in turn would sell it to the next bunch. We had to swim our oxen and horses across, and the current was so swift that they landed 200 to 300 yards down river on the other side.
“We had fallen in with old Mr. Lee’s outfit. He had two wagons, and the Tuttle boys, Sol and Sam, were with him. We stayed with them for about a month or more. Mr. Lee took sick, and we laid up a week on that account. We finally went on, but he died in the wagon and was buried on the plains.  
“We crossed the Truckee River 30 times or more, and in crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains, I have seen them double up 15 teams of oxen to a wagon to get it over certain portions of the road. And in going down the other side, we had to tie big trees on behind our wagons to hold them back.
“When we reached the goal of our long journey, Sacramento, we found it was a typical boom city; there was not a substantial business in the town. Tents and canvas-covered structures housed the people and the businesses which were to supply the ever-increasing multitude of gold seekers.  
“About the first man I met there was Col. Foreman (Ferris Forman), a Vandalia man who got there about two weeks before I did. He had secured a government contract to head a relief expedition, which was to go back over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to take provisions to travelers who were stranded and starving.
“He had bought 30 steers and 30 pack mules, each of which was loaded with 200 pounds of flour and bacon.  He paid me $6 a day to accompany him, and we were gone several weeks.
“During the year of 1849, many of the travelers loaded their wagons too heavy and the result was that they had to throw away their provisions and stuff in order to lighten their load. I saw enough log chains that had been cast off on that trip to supply Fayette County.
“All provisions cost one dollar a pound.  Everything had to be brought around Cape Horn, thousands of miles. We paid a dollar a pound for flour that had worms in it as big as my finger. I spent five years in the gold country, and struck it rich one winter when four of us took a wash tub full of gold. The older men in the party got the lion’s share of this, however.
“After I returned from California, I bought 80 acres of land and went to buying and selling stock. For a few summers, I bought and sold as high as 2,000 cattle during a season.”
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Of the Fayette County men known to have traveled west, all did well, bringing back some of their wealth and investing it in Fayette County. The Tuttle boys used some of their gold to purchase the site and build the Union Hotel.  
George Leidig built a home, and it was probably some of the California gold that enabled Frederick Remann to construct his large brick home, now used as the Fayette County Courthouse.
The days of Forty-Nine lasted barely 10 years.
John Thompson wrote, “My five years in California netted me – beside my wife, whom I prize dearly – not a great deal of money, for it cost a lot of money to live there and do the things I did.”
He concluded, “The experience was worth $1,000.”
 

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