California: The Dream Realized

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Our William Clarke arrived in California on July 11, 1849 after a journey of 107 days. I have lately been reading accounts of journey by wagon train and it seems like horrifying things happened frequently: In Catherine Sager’s account of her family’s journey West by covered wagon when she was a young girl (Across The Plains in 1844), she recounts how her leg was crushed when she was thrown under the wagon, her father and her mother died of ill-defined diseases halfway through the journey, her sister’s dress caught on fire and she nearly burned to death, and her brother’s powder horn blew up, badly burning him. Many pioneers died of illness—mainly cholera as well as scurvy—there were drownings during the many river crossings, and horrendous injuries occurred with little medical assistance available. I suppose I assumed that every journey west was one of hardship and tragedy. The hardship was probably fairly universal, but Clarke’s journey does not read as being terribly fraught nor tragic. The more striking theme is the amount of tedious travel, and the sheer hard work required. They had to both hunt for food and negotiate buying supplies when they were available. Wagons got stuck in mud and sand and had to be pulled out. River crossings sometimes required wagons to be unloaded and repacked. There were wild animals and occasionally hostile Indians to fend off. In fact, I believe there were only two deaths in Clarke’s party which occurred during a skirmish with Indians.

I will continue to post occasional excerpts from Clarke’s journal over the next three months (May, June, and July) on their corresponding dates 166 years after the original events. Meanwhile, let’s continue on with Clarke’s adventures in California.

Here is a letter written in his journal with no date but appears to be written while he is trying his hand at mining:

My Dear friend I once more take my pen in hand to inform you of how gold digging goes. I have now mined about 40 days but have not got my pile as yet. Nor don’t know [how] soon I shall get it as it is much more difficult to find than I anticipated but those great tales we hear off at home ain’t all gospel nor yet the epistles of inspired men. I have worked harder since I came here than I ever did at home or anywhere else and have about as good success as any of the diggers and I have never had more than sixty dollars in one day and that seldom.

Clarke left the mines after about six months due to illness. He went to Sacramento and there he went to work as a carpenter (he had been a cabinet maker in Illinois). He worked on the first brick building in Sacramento, called the Anchor House, for which he earned $20 per day. The Anchor House was a hotel built by George Zins, a German who had come to California with John Fremont in 1846. The location of this building was Front and M Streets.

In October of 1850 Clarke partnered with John Guron Stewart, an emigrant from the Isle of Whithorn, Scotland, for the purpose of starting a horse packing business. Apparently they figured out that selling supplies to miners would be more lucrative than mining. They were right, as they cleared $10,000 their first year.

Perhaps the most significant event that came out of their packing enterprise was Clarke’s discovery of the fertile land in Yolo County. Clarke and Stewart passed through this area on an aborted trip up to Oregon, where reports were emerging of gold washing up on the shores with every ocean wave. Deep snow around Shasta and the realization that the reports were bogus resulted in them turning around, but Clarke was so impressed with the area that he decided to settle there. He and Stewart bought a ranch just outside Knights Landing and began farming, stock raising, and making Spanish saddles. Clarke made the wooden frames while Stewart did the leather work, and as this item was quite in demand they sold all they could make.

Clarke was reportedly instrumental in demonstrating that northern Yolo County, which had been considered worthless land, was indeed suitable for farming. From these humble beginnings as well as the efforts of other ancestors who journeyed west and settled in this area around the same time, came the roots of my family’s generations of farming in Yolo, Colusa and Sutter Counties.

I’ve often wondered why Clarke left Illinois. A possible clue is contained in one of his diary entries, when he describes the Carson Valley: “…it is a beautiful place. The clover is here some three feet long and thick. If I had such land in Illinois I would stay there.” Perhaps he wasn’t able to find good land in Illinois. Perhaps it was always his intention to become a farmer in California after trying his hand at mining. I do not know.

Still to come: The farmer takes a wife and raises a family, while other branches of the family also settle in the area.

Sources:
*The Diary of William John Clarke, 1849 (both transcribed version and the original)
*Additional material in the back of the transcribed diary as compiled by Marilyn Kelly Ornbaum
*Sacramento, An Illustrated History 1839 to 1874, From Sutters Fort to Capitol City, by Thor Severson

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