Jonas Winchester’s Wild, Crazy, Adventurous Life – Part 2

So, how did Jonas Winchester get to California?

Ah, that’s a story in itself!  (And if you missed  Part 1 of Winchester’s wild and crazy story, here’s where to read it!)

The eighth of 13 children, Jonas Winchester entered the world on November 19, 1810 in Marcellus, New York. At roughly age 16 he was apprenticed to Adolphus Fletcher, printer of the Jamestown Journal, a local weekly paper.

But by the time he was 18, Winchester determined to set off for adventure. He made his way to New York City, where he arrived (as he later put it) “a stranger, without friends, acquaintances, or recommendation of any kind.” He was sure a better life awaited him. “Destiny calls and I must follow,” he wrote to his mother in September, 1829.

Despite his lack of connections in the City and with only 2-1/2 years of apprenticeship under his belt, Winchester managed to land a job as a compositor for two  New York City newspapers. But the pay proved meager. Wages for compositors were so low, in fact, that in September, 1830 Winchester moved back home to Western New York, where he took a job with the Fredonia Censor.

Horace Greeley, Winchester’s printing partner (for a short time).

But the lure of the big city hadn’t left him. He returned to New York City again in the Spring of 1832.  And in 1833, Winchester eventually landed a publishing job with Horace Greeley, likely due to his friendship with Frank Story, Greeley’s partner. Winchester had a certain “larger than life” aura about him, and perhaps a certain amount of moxie helped win him the position. Somewhere in his youth Jonas gained the nickname “General” Winchester, a military honorific with “no foundation in fact,” as his descendants would later admit. (It may have been a bit of a family joke; brother Herman went by “Colonel.” And the oldest brother in the family dubbed himself “Patriarch.”)

Horace Greeley himself was a relative newcomer to New York City, too, having arrived in late 1831. By the time Winchester became an associate, Greeley had already launched and lost the short-lived Morning Post – a publication which cratered within three short weeks of its January 1, 1833 debut. A few months later another tragedy struck Greeley — his original business partner (and Winchester’s friend), Francis V. Story, drowned suddenly in July 1833.

Story’s death presented a fortuitous opening for Winchester, who stepped in to become Greeley’s partner. In March, 1834, Greeley and Winchester launched a new publication called the New Yorker — a “large, fair, and cheap weekly folio” based on Ann Street, New York, dedicated to literature with a sprinkling of news. Greeley handled the newspaper’s editing, while Winchester did what he did best — promotion — taking charge of the profitable “jobbing business” (contract printing). Before long Winchester would solidify his fortunes by marrying Story’s sister, Susan — the wedding taking place on Winchester’s own 25th birthday, November 19, 1835.

Although launched with only a dozen subscribers, the New Yorker’s circulation eventually reached 9,000. But it never became a rip-roaring financial success. Instead, it took “a terrible struggle on the part of its proprietors to keep it alive.” Greeley and Winchester eventually dissolved their partnership in September, 1836. Winchester carried on “job printing” on his own, then tried to make a profit by reprint literature from abroad. But he got himself deep into debt (thanks to what one observer called his “careless and venturesome way”), and about 1844 was forced to declare bankruptcy. The timing couldn’t have been worse for a new family man;  Winchester and his wife, Susan, now had two children: Frank S. Winchester, born in 1840, and Julia, born 1844.

Eager for a new start, Winchester was bitten by the “gold bug” when glittering tales of California gold began circulating in late 1848. It was a chance to redeem his fortunes!

News of the California gold strike at Sutter’s Mill was all over the newspapers in New York. Reports circulated that some $2 million in gold dust was already sitting in San Francisco, just waiting for transportation to the East. Despite stories of earlier “disturbances” in the mining districts, the New York Tribune assured its readers that “excellent order [now] prevails.” As for tales about “thousands starving,” those rumors were simply “greatly exaggerated,” the press reassuringly reported.

This advertisement for passage to California by way of Valparaiso, aboard the “fast ship” Tarolinta, ran in the December 19, 1848 issue of the Evening Post.

Winchester learned of a three-masted “half-clipper” ship leaving New York and headed for California. She was called the Tarolinta, Indian for “floating rose,” owned by the Griswold Brothers of New York and captained by William P. Cave. With a capacity of 549 tons and a crew of 27 (some 20 of them African-American), the Tarolinta expected to carry both a lucrative load of cargo and roughly a hundred passengers to the gold fields. Winchester was determined to be among them, and quickly booked passage.

The Tarolinta was initially scheduled to depart from New York harbor on December 28, 1848. But not enough passengers signed up at first, so the date was postponed until January 9, 1849 in hopes of recruiting additional passengers. Then arrangements for additional freight to be delivered to South America caused the date to be pushed off yet again, to January 13. You can only imagine Jonas Winchester tapping his toes in frustration.

Ads and handbills like this one lured passengers aboard “elegant” ships, promising “a very quick trip may be relied upon.” .

The morning of the 13th of January, 1849, dawned clear and cold. A huge snowstorm had dumped as much as three feet of snow on the streets of New York. Passengers were instructed to board promptly at the pier at the foot of Wall Street. And finally the Tarolinta pushed off.

Champagne was passed around as the ship was guided out of the harbor by pilot boats. She was heavily laden indeed. Freight was lashed into tall piles on deck, and included barrels of provisions, small boats, and “house frames.” Total passengers came to 125 – more than originally planned.

Winchester was among the passengers happy to turn his face toward California. He still owed thousands of dollars to his creditors. But he left behind his wife and two children.

This departure notice in the newspaper singled out Winchester and several other prominent passengers for recognition the day after the Tarolinta’s departure. His creditors may not have been pleased.

Ads for passage on the Tarolinta had promised travelers “superior accommodations.” In fact, however, space was minimal and the food less than ideal. One passenger reported a dozen men were sharing a 22-1/2 x 7-1/2 foot “stateroom” that was “nearly filled up with our trunks, chests, and other baggage,” leaving meager sleeping spots just three feet apart.

Passengers, of course, eagerly discussed their possible prospects in the California goldfields. At least 15 separate mining “companies” were organized aboard the ship, each with a name and its own distinctive pennant. Jonas Winchester was no doubt one of the founding members of the ten-person “Leyon Winchester & Co.”

Fellow printers James B. Devoe and Daniel Norcross of Philadelphia (later manager of the San Francisco New Age) were also included among the passengers. Others included an “accomplished Oriental scholar” named Caleb Lyon, and Dr. J.C. Tucker, whose diary of the journey would eventually be published.

A physician named Dr. Nelson whiled away the hours at sea by conducting “experiments on the porosity of glass” — a misguided effort to see if submerging a hermetically-sealed glass tube to 89 fathoms would cause water to penetrate the glass itself. (Not surprisingly, the answer was no. But Dr. Nelson nevertheless shared his “experiment” with the world in an issue of Scientific American.)

The Tarolinta was a three-masted ship that may have looked something like this.

The Tarolinta reached Rio in February, 1849, a happy milestone for the passengers as the stop offered fruit and “lots of mint juleps, and porter-house beef steaks.”  These were quite a treat indeed after the shipboard fare. One passenger filed a report from Rio describing typical shipboard fare as a “curious concoction of mouldy bread and frozen potatoes, boiled down in salt water” and “apple fritters, about two inches thick, eighteen inches around, and weighing four pounds and a half each.”

As they continued on around the Horn, passengers aboard the Tarolinta endured stormy weather, extreme cold, poor fare, and personality clashes. Perhaps predictably, disputes arose over food rations, hammock space, bathing water, petty thievery, and other matters. Some led to fisticuffs.

By and large, Captain Cave tried not to intervene. When two passengers got involved in a brawl on the poop deck, the Captain merely told them to move their dispute down to the quarterdeck so neither would fall overboard. But when eager passengers began trying to chop up barrel staves to make tent stakes in preparation for their anticipated mining adventures, the captain finally asserted his authority and stopped them. Barrel staves were a precious cargo.

Some would later say Cave was a “cold, ruthless and stubborn man, whose odious character would become clear to all as the voyage unfolded.” Others called him “big and blustering.” More likely he was just overwhelmed by trying to corral such a large group of eager, unruly passengers.

After 174 days, the Tarolinta finally sailed into San Francisco harbor on June 29, 1849 (July 6, 1849, according to other sources), much to the relief of all aboard, the captain no doubt included. But there they found the dock space completely occupied. They were forced to drop anchor in the harbor and hire rowboats to get their parties and goods ashore. And goods there were, a-plenty! Operators of the “Russian Store” at San Francisco soon advertised the arrival of assorted silk shawls, handkerchiefs, ladies’ fancy cravats, ribbons, plaid silk, buck gloves, silk scarves, plus a “superior assortment of cigars,” all courtesy of the Tarolinta.

Stepping on shore that summer of 1849 put Jonas Winchester among the very first eager members of the California Gold Rush. He and his associates briefly tried their hand at mining on the North Fork of the American River. They purchased steam-powered equipment, and built dams and even roads. But the fall rains washed all of their hard work away.

By the winter of 1849 Winchester turned back to what he knew best, securing a post as editor and part-owner of the Pacific News – one of the first San Francisco newspapers.  In May, 1850, Winchester also took over the appointment of H.H. Robinson, California’s first State Printer. The government printing contract offered plenty of steady work, but payment by the State was issued in semi-worthless warrants, making it difficult for Winchester to meet his obligations. He resigned the post in March, 1851.

The Pacific News folded in 1851, the victim of several fires. But Winchester was still intrigued by mining, and convinced that “greater things were in store for him.” He moved to Grass Valley, where it’s said he built the first sawmill and quartz mill in the vicinity, and acquired interests in mining companies.

Meanwhile, back in New York, Winchester’s wife, Susan, was suffering from consumption (tuberculosis). Winchester’s California mines had failed to produce the great returns he’d hoped for. So Winchester decided to return to New York.

Susan died in Brooklyn in February, 1855, at just 43 years of age.  Sometime after 1855 Jonas wed widow Margaret Bartholomew Brown in New York. Margaret was a supporter of women’s suffrage and an associate of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. But apparently that marriage did not last. In April, 1869, Winchester married a third time, wedding Laura Karner. Their first child, Ernest, was born in 1870 but died in infancy.

Advertisement for Winchester’s “Hypophosphite,” in 1887.

Winchester had launched a patent medicine business, “Winchester’s Hypophosphites” — proudly putting his own signature on the label. The endeavor helped him make ends meet, bringing in an estimated $3,000 per year. But he was still eager to try his hand at mining.

In the 1860s he acquired the Globe Gold & Silver Mining Co. and other mining interests in Monitor Canyon, in Alpine County. As early as 1867, Alpine locals were receiving letters saying Winchester intended to come out “next season.” And come out he finally did, moving to Monitor with wife Laura in 1871. They would have two children who were born there at Monitor.

So that’s how Jonas Winchester wound up in Alpine County. And that’s where our story picked up last time! (Here’s the link again, if you missed Part 1 of Jonas Winchester’s amazing story.)

Call it serendipity. But as luck would have it, Winchester’s 209th birthday was November 19th — just about the time this story came out in our 2019 newsletter. We hope you’ll light a candle to celebrate the birthday of the wild, wonderful, adventurous life of Jonas Winchester! What a life he had.

Happy birthday to Jonas Winchester on November 19th!

(More) Best Sierra History Books!

After our recent round-up of Sierra history books (you can find it here), we realized we’d left off a number of our own favorites — and we’ve also gotten some more great suggestions from readers!

So check out this additional list for more fascinating Sierra history reads — and be sure to let us know if you have a favorite book to mention for next time!

A Road from El Dorado, by Will Bagley (ed.). The  real-life trail diary of former Mormon Battalion member Ephraim Green, this is the true, day-by-day account of the pioneering Mormons who blazed what soon became known as the Mormon-Emigrant Trail over the Sierras in 1848 as they made their way eastward from California back to Salt Lake. If you’re not familiar with Will Bagley, here’s the Wikipedia summary about him.

Frontiersman Abner Blackburn’s Narrative, by Will Bagley (ed.) Another important work by noted historian Will Bagley, this is the story of Abner Blackburn, one of the original founders of Mormon Station in 1850 (the trading post which became Genoa). Blackburn’s adventurous life included multiple trips over the Sierra and discovering gold in Gold Canyon.

William Brewer and a member of his survey party.

Such a Landscape, by William Henry Brewer. We included Brewer’s familiar Up and Down California in our earlier list, and a reader urged us to include this title as well. Such a Landscape is the story of early survey expeditions through the Sierra, including the weather they encountered, equipment they brought, and how they mapped the landscape and measured peaks, back in the day. These “aggressively healthy” adventurers made impressive climbs, in impressive time. A coffee-table-style book filled with pictures, and a great companion to some of John Muir’s writings. For the fascinating backstory on Brewer himself (did you know he’d just lost his wife and son shortly before his 1860 exploring adventures began?), here’s the Wikipedia thumbnail.

The Humboldt, by Dale L. Morgan. Two extremely knowledgeable history friends both raved about this book, and Kirkus Reviews called it “colorful, adventurous, exciting reading.” Debuting in 1943 as part of a book series called “Rivers of America,” this volume’s reach extends far beyond the Humboldt itself to include the history of Carson Valley — an early and important historical work.

The California Trail, by George R. Stewart. First published in 1964 in Great Britain, this engagingly-written narrative details America’s  cross-continent migrations from 1841 through 1859, ending with a final chapter humorously titled “End of the Trail.” Great research is layered with unusual trail lore and beautifully-executed illustrations and maps. Among the line drawings are illustrations comparing three different styles of emigrant wagons, and detailing a trick for crossing a deep river with oxen. An excellent index at the back makes this a great find for history lovers and researchers.

John A. Snowshoe Thompson: Pioneer Mail Carrier of the Sierra, by Frank Tortorich. The most recent release by one of our very favorite Sierra historians, the inimitable Frank Tortorich. This is the seminal work on the heroic “mailman of the Sierras,” John (Snowshoe) Thompson. A great read, and the most complete work we’ve seen on this legendary figure. As you may know, Frank has also written Gold Rush Trail: A Guide to the Carson River Route of the Emigrant Trail, a long-time favorite for enthusiasts eager to find — and walk — the Emigrant Trail for themselves.

Hetch Hetchy and Its Dam Railroad, by Ted Wurm. A reader kindly suggested this well-illustrated book; it’s the fascinating story of the railway built by San Francisco to support the building of the O’Shaughnessy Dam (an improvement for the city’s water supply). In operation between 1917 to 1949 (when it finally was dismantled), this 68-mile railroad not only transported goods and supplies for the dam but also brought passengers out on sleeper-car excursions to view the construction, eat at the project bunkhouse, and enjoy the forest. Great photos make this an especially fun read.

Hope you enjoy, and let us know your favorite Sierra read!

Tragedy Spring

One of our recent rambles was a visit to the historic site of Tragedy Spring. We began by heading west on Highway 88 heading west, then took the right-hand turnoff toward Tragedy Springs. (To follow the directions that follow, stop here and set your odometer.) Continue a bit farther along the Tragedy Spring loop road and when you reach odometer reading .3 mile watch for the plaque on your right, embedded in a rock wall at the bottom of a hill.

This plaque was placed by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers in 1967 — 119 years after three Mormon scouts heading east in 1848 were killed. Just below USED to be a basin with a spigot where motorists could get water for their cars or to drink. Modern health worries intervened; the basin is filled with cement and the spigot is no longer there.

This picturesque plaque bears the names of the three scouts (Henderson Cox, Ezra Allen, Daniel Browett), murdered on June 27, 1848 as they camped nearby. Cox, Allen and Browett were part of the famous Mormon Battalion that blazed the original “Mormon Emigrant Trail” across the Sierra.

Although many folks think only about westward-bound gold-seekers, the Mormon band of wagons was actually traveling from west to east, heading back to Salt Lake. They brought with them some bits of gold they had found while in California (some of the men were working at Sutter’s mill when gold was first spotted). But despite the lure of gold, these folks were simply eager to return home. They almost certainly had no idea that the trail they were hacking through the wilderness would carry vast numbers of westward-bound wagons during the Gold Rush in the coming months and years.

These stairs are a picturesque start to your climb!

Look to the left of the plaque to find the stairs, and climb the trail. Here you’ll come to four different sites:

First is another plaque part-way up the trail, set into a rock. This memorial was erected by Sons of Utah Pioneers on September 2, 1967. Beside the stone monument stands a water fountain, where once you could quench your thirst from the mountain spring (but like the spigot at the bottom, unfortunately no longer operational).

 

 

This monument was erected by the Sons of Utah Pioneers. In the left foreground is the once-welcoming drinking fountain.
The spring house.

Slightly farther ahead is a spring house protecting the spring that once fed the fountain. This natural spring is what gave the site its name, “Tragedy Spring.” Imagine the thousands of emigrants and their animals who were grateful for its waters!

       Near the spring house is yet another plaque; this one replicates text carved into a large fir tree as a “gravestone” by the dead men’s companions:
To the Memory of Daniel Browett, Ezrah H. Allen and Henderson Cox who was supposed to have been murdered and burned by Indians on the night of the 27th of June 1848.

The artistic type style used on this 1931 plaque makes it especially beautiful.

The plaque was dedicated by Native Sons and Daughters of Amador County on August 30, 1931.

Finally, beneath a sheltering tree you’ll discover the actual rocked-covered grave of the three Mormon scouts who died here in 1849 while trying to blaze the trail for their companions, who were following with wagons.

Concrete has been added in later years to bind the stones together. But these may very well be the same rocks used by the saddened Mormons to erect a protective stone “cairn” over the communal grave.

A nearby wooden sign explains:  “When members of the Mormon Battalion camped here, they noticed arrows and a newly-made mound. Upon opening it they found the mutilated bodies of their three friends. They reburied them building a [rock] cairn to protect the grave. They also found Allen’s gold pouch, filled with gold dust, and carried it to his widow in Iowa.

As the sign mentions, a pouch of gold dust was found near one of the bodies. This plus a report of finding “arrows” fueled suspicion that it was Indians who had killed the three scouts. However, some modern historians question this conclusion since the Indians in this vicinity were generally peaceful and helpful to settlers. Could it be that white explorers or trappers committed the atrocity and deliberately left arrows behind as a ruse?

Beside the sign you’ll also spot an astonishing tree. Its curved and distorted trunk likely was the result of a heavy snowfall while the tree was young.

As you head back downhill, keep your eye peeled for a picnic table tucked into a shady grove on your right — a great spot to stop for a break or to eat lunch.

Great place for a picnic lunch!

To reach Highway 88 again, continue to follow the loop road (west). Turn right at the intersection to continue west — and we’ll pick up here in the next installment of this emigrant grave adventure!

Sloughhouse Adventure

Ready for an off-the-beaten-path adventure in Gold Country?

Okay, so you’ve done Highway 49, walked the streets of Coloma, and seen Sutter’s Mill.  Ready for a little different adventure in Gold Country? Here’s a recent discovery drive we took (with so much crammed in, we’ll finish it in Part 2!)

Ever heard of Michigan Bar? Placer gold was discovered here at a bend in the Cosumnes river in 1848 by two men from . . . well, of course . . . Michigan. And they weren’t alone; Nisenan Indians were already here, in a nearby settlement they called Palamul.

With the discovery of gold, of course, life was no longer nearly as quiet. During the 1850s and ’60s Michigan Bar became a thriving town, with a population of between 1,500 and 2,000 souls. There was a school, a post office, blacksmith shop, hotel, and that all-important amenity: a Wells Fargo office.

Some 1.5 million ounces of gold were said to be taken from the local gravels and gold-bearing cobble. But the real winner was a gent named Samuel Putnam with the foresight to build a bridge in 1863 across the river at Michigan Bar. And not just any bridge; a tollbridge. Samuel “carried away more gold than any miner,” as the local historians say.

 * * * * * * *

So just where is Michigan Bar? From Jackson, head north on Highway 49. You’ll pass through Drytown (so tiny now, don’t blink! But once the home of 10,000 people), and continue on toward Plymouth. At the T-intersection with Highway 16, turn left (west), towards Sacramento.

Here’s what Michigan Bar looks like today — golden grassland.

About 12 miles farther in the rolling hillside you’ll come to Michigan Bar — today as remote and isolated a spot as you can find in California. Stop and take the time to read the plaque explaining the tale of this “undiscovered” historic gold discovery site. Then try to imagine what the place looked like in the 1850 -1860s when as many as 2,000 people lived here, and it was the largest town in Cosumnes Township!

Contours were from early hydraulicking — and a recent fire.

Worth a short detour:  Follow this country lane back from the main highway to see the marks that early hydraulic nozzles wrought on the landscape (those miners weren’t going to give up after early placer diggings gave out!) According to the plaque, the Prairie Ditch (completed in 1858) is still visible nearby, and once brought the water for hydraulic mining.

Leave Michigan Bar and continue west on the highway another 6.8 miles to reach an oasis of magical fresh produce at Sloughhouse. Along the way you’ll pass a stoplight at Rancho Murrietta and then cross the Cosumnes River. Consider a brief stop there to snap a picture of the photogenic old metal bridge on your right! Another three stoplights will bring you to Davis Ranch’s wonderful roadside stand.

You’ll want to linger here — even in the heat!

Amid the fantastic assortment of fresh local produce, dried fruits, nuts, and local honey, don’t miss the books tucked away on a lower shelf toward the back — local author Elizabeth Pinkerton has captured the area’s history in two fascinating volumes called “History Happened Here” — well worth taking home to enjoy later.

A loader dumps fresh-picked corn before it is bagged.

And don’t miss the “corn experience” during corn season. Freshly-picked ears are dumped from a loader down a wooden chute, where workers remove the outer husks and bag it for  you. If you’ve ever eaten FRESHLY-picked corn, you know why this alone is worth the drive!

But fascinating as it is, the Davis Ranch produce stand isn’t the original Sloughhouse. To visit that site, venture on a mile or so farther west to what is now the Meadowlands restaurant, at the corner of Meiss Road (on your left). A hotel/stage stop was built here in 1850. After the first structure burned in 1890 it was promptly rebuilt, and this intriguing site is now a California State Historic Landmark.

The original Sloughhouse was here; and the Pioneer Cemetery is just to the east.

Turn around here at the parking lot to begin the rest of your journey. As you head back east, look carefully to your right just after you leave Meadowlands to catch a glimpse of the early Sloughhouse Pioneer Cemetery.  This land, part of a Mexican land grant to settler Jared Sheldon in 1842, is said to be the oldest pioneer cemetery in Northern California. Both Jared and his wife Catherine were eventually buried here.

The first two known burials were a young woman named Catherine Austin (who died of causes unknown in 1851), and a local gent named William Daylor, who died of cholera just a few days after Catherine. Daylor had gone for Sutter’s Fort 18 miles away to get supplies, and while there, kindly tended to a dying man; by the time he got home, Daylor himself was feeling unwell. He died less than 24 hours after assisting his unfortunate fellow man.

Even before these two burials in 1851, the spot was said to be a sacred site for the Miwok Indians, who cremated their dead here.

Don’t forget to take a few selfies while you’re at Sloughhouse!

On your return trip, slow down as you pass the Rancho Murrietta Country Club (on your left), and look for the turnoff to Ione Road on your right. For “Part 2” of this trip — the fascinating detour to Ione — watch for our next post!

Happy History Hunting!!  Please keep us posted about what you discover!

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Fiddletown Ghost

If this eerie Victorian doesn’t have a ghost, it should. Now tantalizingly rundown, this hauntingly beautiful Gothic Revival home was built in the gold rush town of Fiddletown around 1861.

Gold miner with pick and shovel.

No one seems to know who originally owned the house, but in later years it belonged to miner Isaac Cooper — a man with a Midas touch. Cooper first came to California with other eager gold-seekers in 1849 and, unlike many of his fellow prospectors, actually did quite well. Also unlike his compatriots, Cooper took his profits and ran — right back to Iowa, where he invested in real estate and soon became a Polk County civic leader.

But mining was still in Cooper’s blood. In 1875 he returned to Gold Country and purchased this amazing Victorian home. He also invested money in a mine located just outside of town, which proved to be yet another smart move: this mine reportedly produced a quick $3,000 in the 1890s with just a few days’ work.

Eerily, the glorious old house caught fire in 1975, exactly a century after Cooper purchased it. Although the home was partially destroyed, it has since been rebuilt.

You can find this beautiful and ghostly old home in Fiddletown at the corner of Main Street and American Flat Road, still looking as if it has secrets to tell.