Gold rush journey shared from California to Greene County

February 1, 2014
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The path taken by the Jefferson California Company in the 1850s to join the gold rush
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Lynn Gough, of Sacramento, Calif., holds a printout of her PowerPoint presentation on the Jefferson California Company, which took part in the gold rush of the 1850s. Her great-granduncle was a member of the company.

How a would-be author, writing a children’s book, ended up traveling more than 2,500 miles from California to Greene County is a story in and of itself.

Lynne Gough, of Sacramento, was entertaining her aunt, the last of her Morris family, and was planning to write a children’s book about her great-great-grandfather Asa Warren Morris’ famous cow, Tillie. But that is a story for another day, Gough said.

Her aunt suggested she go to the California cemetery where Asa Morris is buried. When Gough got there she found two Asa Warren Morris grave markers. And thus, a journey began to find out who the older Asa Warren Morris was that eventually brought her across the country to where her family started, in Greene County.

Her research would find that the elder Asa Warren Morris, her second great-granduncle, had made the same trip in reverse more than 160 years ago from his Greene County home as a member of Jefferson California Company in 1850 during the gold rush.

Gough traveled to Greene County last fall to give a PowerPoint presentation to Cornerstone Genealogical Society on her great-granduncle’s journey and has continued to delve deeper into the story since returning to her California home.

When her uncle and his compatriots in the company embarked to the gold fields of California, it wasn’t as easy as hopping on an airplane. The trip this group of men undertook is well-documented in journals kept by at least two of the participants, Dr. George Willis Read, who was named captain of the group, and William Heaton Black.

There were 29 men selected to embark on the trip to find gold in the California hills, based on their “good health and good character” as well as having enough money to pay for the travel. Twenty-eight made it there. One fell ill and returned home.

The trip was an especially arduous one. These were the days of the Wild West with American Indians still possessing much of the territory they would traverse. Group members took turns standing guard at night against “nefarious travelers who may come upon them.”

On a Pittsburgh steamship, bound for St. Louis, Mo., they encountered an especially rough storm that left some of them ill.

“The weather was of the most disagreeable kind. The boats were all crowded to excess, with adventurers like ourselves,” said Read in his journal entry of April 14, 1850. It was in St. Louis that the group decided to purchase pack saddles and riding saddles along with hundreds of pounds of provisions for the trip westward.

When they next landed by steamer at Wayne City, Mo., Read called it, “a most uninviting and dismal looking hole.” Fortunately, they only spent one night there before heading to Independence, Mo., where they had a change of heart. It was decided the trek would best be made by wagon. Although it would be a much slower journey, teams of mules pulling them could handle the terrain much better than if they were to embark on horseback.

At Independence, Read said, “We were amply compensated for our privations by seeing one of the most beautifully situated villages, perhaps, in the United States. Unlike the virtually uninhabited Wayne, Independence numbered about 3,000, according to Read. It was a bustling town where the group stayed for many days waiting for the cooperation of weather and vegetation for their animals to travel onward.

The daily travel varied greatly. Hills, creek and river beds, rough terrain, dust, extreme weather, broken axles on wagons and illness among them dictated much in the way of distance each day.

Read said he saw some of the most beautiful scenery he ever “beheld” in the prairies.

“What an extended and splendid country is this far west! Millions of acres rich, beyond conception, and capable of supporting millions of happy men, women and children,” he said. “Who can foretell the future greatness and wealth of this country?”

A day later, the company experienced both snow and rain simultaneously that created a slippery and muddy path for travel. Read noted the road was covered with wagons of fellow emigrants. It was estimated by Read that roughly 1,000 wagons were on the road to St. Joseph, Mo.

As they traveled on, they passed the fresh grave of a young man who fell on his own shotgun, accidently discharging it with the bullet traveling through his head. Not long after, the company passed several despondent men who had given up on the journey. Read never seemed entirely sure the company itself would reach California.

At times, they lacked water for miles. They saw the remains of animals, broken-down wagons and random graves miles from civilization. Eventually, they came to the mountains in Sierra, Nev., and snow drifts were 15 to 20 feet deep but they pushed on, “the scenery wild beyond description,” according to Read.

On Aug. 18, 1850, five months after they set out from Greene County, the company found themselves in Hangtown, where the digging would begin.

There is no real documentation of how well the individual members of Jefferson California Company did in the gold mines. Gough looked at the net worth of the men through the census records of the day to make an educated guess.

Her uncle, Asa Warren Morris, lost his mining equity in early 1852 and threw in the towel. He moved to Yolo, Calif., where he squatted on some prime farming land and remained. He died with an estate valued in excess of $250,000, the equivalent of about $5 million today. Ironically, his investments in working gold mines earned him much of his fortune.

Most other company members did well, bringing home about $5,000, the equivalent of $140,000 today.

After a stint in the mines, Read settled next to Morris on a 160-acre ranch in Yolo.

Others from the company who stayed in California were George Sharpnack, Barnet Neel, James Riley and Thomas Weaver. Four died there – James Hughes Roseberry, Thomas Ross, William Shatterly and Uriah Michener. One of the men was murdered inside a gold mine.

As Gough continues to share the story of her great-granduncle’s gold rush days, she is working on the beginnings of a book documenting the Jefferson California Company’s trip. Next to it, she works on the book that started it all, based on the namesake of Morris who came along in 1857, her great-great-grandfather, and his famous Holstein cow.

“When I saw the other marker, it kind of became my job to tell the story,” she said. Little did she know she would be telling it from one end of the journey to the other.

Tara Kinsell started her career in journalism with the National Geographic Insider Magazine and the Gaithersburg Gazette Newspaper in Montgomery County, Md. Tara has written and photographed sports, features and news stories for the Herald Standard, Greene County Messenger and Albert Gallatin Weekly. She holds degrees in journalism and graphic design from Waynesburg College, now Waynesburg University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, respectively.

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