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Jefferson County's '49ers

The Fairfield Tribune
Feb. 24, 1892

Following the discovery of Gold in California in 1848 and the confirmation of its truth, a group of residents of Jefferson County, Iowa, began organizing and undertook a journey across land to distant California. This adventure was recorded in a dozen or so newspaper accounts during and following the journey. Listed below are some of those articles. We are grateful to Judy Neu for transcribing these articles from Jefferson County Records, Vol. 3 compiled by Mary Prill and published by the Log Cabin Chapter of the DAR.

"The Fairfield Tribune, Wed., Feb. 24, 1892, Page 1, col. 4.

The Jefferson County 49ers Who Made the Overland Trip to California.

By Hiram Heaton

On the 27th of April, 1849, a considerable company of men started from Fairfield to reach California overland. The greater number were young men, many of them in their teens, although a few were old men, Mr. Dickey, who had kept a hotel in early days, being one of them. Others were John Fee, Robt. Hill, John and Isaac Boyle, James Freeman, James Hardin and brother Evan, J. Nelson Bell, Shuffleton, Baker, and many others. With them were two boys from what is now known as the Glendale neighborhood, John Kyle and Eugenus Parsons. Parsons was a son of J. R. Parsons. Their teams consisted of four yoke of cattle, of which one yoke were cows.

The roads to Council Bluffs were fairly good, almost all the streams were bridged, and except a few sloughs that were swampy, there was little to hinder very good progress. The Missouri was crossed on a steam ferry-boat. At Dupin’s trading point the company organized by electing a man from Missouri for captain. His only recommendation was that he had served in the Mexican War. Proving utterly incompetent, Wm. Bonnifield, whom we have heretofore met at parties at Whittaker’s courting Malvina, and defeating Whittaker at law before ‘Squire Smith Hall, was chosen captain.

Before reaching Fort Laramie the cholera broke out in the company. Notwithstanding, it was impossible to call a halt on account of the scarcity of pasturage and the danger of Indian attacks, no one died until Fort Laramie was passed. Before reaching that point John Kyle had a very severe attack of the dreaded disease, but thanks to the prompt efforts of a Dr. Derman, one of the company, and J. Nelson Bell, a medical student, he soon recovered. At the crossing of the Platte, after leaving Fort Laramie, Dr. Derman complained of having symptoms of cholera. The crossing was very difficult, being accomplished by a good swimmer taking a line in his mouth and swimming the stream, then with the line drawing a large rope over, then a wagon bed was used as a ferry boat. Much trouble arose from the cattle being unwilling to enter the water. Dr. Derman got wet urging them in and trying to expedite the search to a point beyond, where it was hoped plenty of grass was to be found. He had taken a large dose of calomel and he soon was unable to move. McWhirter, Wm. And James Walmsley, and Robt. Hill stayed with him until he died and then buried him.

Young Bell, a son of the Presbyterian minister of Fairfield, proved himself a capable physician and was held in high esteem.

The company numbered 62 wagons, and as each wagon was drawn by four yoke of cattle it made quite an imposing array. When the headwaters of the Platte were reached, very severe hail storms were encountered and in one storm the wind was so violent as to blow one wagon into the river. The lightning seemed to break just overhead, and some of the men fancied that the log-chains jingled from the discharges of electricity. At any rate they were not mistaken in thinking that terror made their hair to stand on end, and almost force their hats off. Poor as the cattle had become, it was difficult to prevent them from being stampeded. On arriving at Green river crossing, a wagon was already there in camp. Joe Thorn, who had carried mail between Fairfield and Keokuk, a great talker, found an old acquaintance in the wagon named Eliza Davis, although now married to a French trader.

At another stopping place on the same river a wagon had halted, in which a woman had just died after giving birth to a child. The man was distracted, crying, and wholly at a loss what to do with it. He wanted Mrs. Ross, wife of Col. Sullivan Ross, the only woman in the train, to take the child, but she had a number of children with her and one of them an infant, so was unable to take the little one. However, another train came along the same day, in which was a woman who took it.

Arriving at Salt Lake, a young man named Asa Daniels, came to the train and gave the information that the Mormons had been told that a man named Cornell, who had taken part in the mob that had shot the Smiths, was with the company, and that they had determined to kill him. Hastily leaving on horseback with one companion, Cornell succeeded in crossing a bridge just as the Mormon guard arrived to prevent his passing. Terrible were the hardships endured by him and his companion while separated from the train. They subsisted on the carrion of the dead oxen of preceding trains. In the heat of the day, to protect themselves from the sun, they would stand their horses as close together as possible, and spread their blanket from one horse to the other, and sit in the shade thus made. When overtaken they were almost at the last gasp, their tongues protruded from their mouths, black, and terribly swollen.

Reaching the headwaters of the Feather river, a wonderful spring, a man from Indiana determined to take a short cut across to the Pitt river mines, and induced quite a number to follow him, among whom was Tommy Thompson, and others of the company. They wandered about in the mountains until they had consumed all their provisions, and seriously considered the idea of killing one of their number, for food. A fat Irishman was one of their number, and had always been unable to keep up with the company, and it was on him their hungry eyes were cast, but he succeeded in returning to the trail, and they all eventually succeeded in reaching Feather river again.

On the second of October the company reached Lawson’s and Redding’s ranch, on Feather river, and their long journey was at an end. Blessed with youth and health, their journey, with its out of doors free life, the camp fire, and the sound of songs and jollity, had left a pleasant memory with all who still remain to tell of it."

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