William John Clarke’s Long Journey to California

I knew that Clarke journeyed from Illinois to California in 1849 for the gold rush, but I hadn’t been aware that his journey originated in Ireland, where he was born and raised. His father, Dugald Clarke, was actually of Scottish descent. The English had actively encouraged the colonization of Ireland by giving land (after taking it from the Irish) to people who would settle in northern Ireland from the 1600’s onward. I look forward to learning more about the history of the Clarkes before they got to Ireland as currently I don’t know if it was Dugald Clarke himself who moved from Scotland to Ireland, or if that move happened in prior generations. What I do know is that Dugald Clarke and his wife Jane Tease (a native of Ireland) lived in Carricknamart in County Donegal, Ireland and had seven children. William was the third-born child, but the first of the siblings to leave Ireland, sailing for America in 1839, when he was 19 years old. He was not the last. Four of the seven Clarke siblings immigrated to the states and three of those ended up in California.

William originally landed in New Orleans in1839. Within six months he had moved up the Mississippi River to Illinois, where he lived for ten years, in Mercer and Rock Island Counties. While living in Illinois he worked as a cabinet maker, and became a naturalized citizen in 1848.

One thing I have learned in researching family history is that every fact or answer only serves to bring up more questions. I wonder why William entered the states via New Orleans rather than New York or some other common port of entry? And then, why Illinois? Perhaps he had family or friends already settled in those areas. Perhaps some day I’ll come across the answers.

Meanwhile, continuing with what we do know, in 1849 Clarke joined a wagon train with his friend, John Adams, and departed from Camden Mills, Rock Island County, Illinois. Destination: the California goldfields. They left on March 27 and arrived at Johnson’s Ranch on July 11, 1849. In between were many tedious miles as well as adventures. Here are some early excerpts from his journal:

April 3, 1849  Eight miles west of Iowa City:

Still in our camp and all well and in good as spirits as could be expected on account of the weather. They tell us here that there has been four hundred teams passed this place for California this sping. It began to rain yesterday about ten o’clock AM and continued on to rain to about ten today and I think it rather uncertain when we shall leave here except it changes fast and dries up we cannot.

April 13, 1849 Warren County, Iowa

The night being so cold we had to take turns about and get up to build fire as our blankets was on our horses. Left camp and resumed our journey at 9AM. Traveled nine miles and nooned. Roads generally good with the exception of one slough. After dinner and feeding our horses we started again. Had two miles of good road but after that the farmers changed their fence which caused us to pass through about fifteen or twenty sloughs of the worst kind. Our horses mired down and we had to unload and carry on our luggage about one hundred yards after which we fastened ropes to our hind axle tree and pulled it back. Traveled to Chapman’s Grove, there camped for the night. Had to carry our water about one-fourth of a mile, making today twenty-one miles. This grove is in Warren County, Iowa.

April 20, 1849 arrival at Council Bluffs, Iowa

This morning had breakfast at a earlier hour than common and rolled out for the bluffs. Traveled to Kanesville [as Council Bluffs was then known] and stopped for some time. Got six bushels of corn at $1.75 cents per bushel and also one hundred weight of bacon at eight dollars per hundred. Registered our name in the register office. Paid ten cents to register our name and had a paper sent to [undecipherable–looks like Arainfro]. After noon resumed our journey and came to the upper ferry on the Missouri River where we met G.B. Davis, J.M. Gilmore and Johnathan Emes. We camped to Monday [April 22].

April 22, 1849 Council Bluffs, Iowa

We formed a company of twenty-five wagons and drew up a constitution and by-laws for to act by when we resumed our journey. Appointed James M. Gilmore Captain, Wm. Clarke wagon master for our trip. At four o’clock PM traveled three-fourths of a mile and recamped for the night. Our ferriage was nine dollars and twenty-five cents and work our passage.

I will move on with Clarke’s story now, but intend to post other excerpts of his journal during the next couple of months on their corresponding dates.

According to his diary, he and Adams got to the “diggins” on July 18, and commenced gold mining on August 1, 1849. (“Hangtown”, now Placerville, CA, is where he arrived per his later application to the Society of California Pioneers.)

He was a miner for about six months and was apparently rather successful but he became ill from the poor diet of hard-tack and rusty pork, and left the mines, traveling to the burgeoning City of Sacramento, some 45 miles to the west, to recover. As it turned out, he did not return to mining but after recovering his health turned his hand to various enterprises, and made some astute business decisions along the way. I admire his flexibility and his ability to form a new plan when his current plan proved unworkable, a skill which requires the ability to see one’s life and events as they are, not as one wishes them to be.

Next time: William John Clarke takes on a business partner, engages in a variety of ventures, and lands in Yolo County.

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