The Union Democrat
A miner’s Christmas
49ers brought the yuletide spirit to Gold Rush California
First person accounts of Christmas during the Gold Rush can be found in diaries and letters written at the time and in memoirs penned years later.
Christmas Day was often a time of reflection for Argonauts far from home, camped in the wilds of Native American country, among strangers from half a dozen continents, beset by searing summer heat and wet, cold winters, and struggling to fill their pockets and pouches with gold they so avidly sought.
These eyewitnesses to history tell of holiday fellowship with other miners, good and bad luck, events of the day, fixing a special Christmas meal and, for the luckless, when to make the trip back home. Most share a common theme: a yearning for the love and companionship of family and friends so far away.
Capt. John A. Sutter’s festive Christmas party at his thriving New Helvetia settlement in 1847 preceded by a month James Marshall’s famed encounter with a few nuggets at Sutter’s new sawmill 50 miles east in the Sierra foothills. This momentous discovery kicked off the Gold Rush, but it went into high gear after President James K. Polk used his State of the Union address to Congress on December 5, 1848, to confirm there was indeed “an abundance of gold’ in United States territory recently acquired from Mexico.
Dr. Lewis C. Gunn traveled over land and sea for five months to answer the call of gold. Christmas of 1849 found the Philadelphia physician sharing a dinner of pork, beans and plum pudding with two fellow miners at their camp on Wood’s Creek near Jamestown. In the distance the men could hear other gold hunters firing guns and pistols in a salute to the holiday.
A deeply religious man, Gunn spent part of the day in prayer and in remembrance of past Christmases with his wife, Elizabeth, and their children a continent away. Unsuccessful like so many hopefuls, he returned to his profession and was soon riding from camp to camp tending 49ers with such ailments as scurvy and dysentery. His patients paid in gold dust, and Gunn did well mining the miners.
This reversal of fortune led to Gunn staying in California and sending for his family in 1851, as well as investing in the nascent Sonora Herald newspaper four months after its founding on July 4, 1850.
Unbeknownst to Gunn, a future Herald employee who would play an historic role in the paper’s founding, Enos Christman, was aboard a ship sailing north off the coast of Chile.
On Christmas Day of 1849, Christman and his partners in the California Gold Mining Association of Pennsylvania were eagerly awaiting “an excellent dinner” promised by the ship’s captain. Sea routes to California offered certain advantages compared to land travel, but good food generally wasn’t one of them.
Disappointment reigned at the table when the men were served meager portions of chicken and turkey with a side of “two small potatoes each,” Christman wrote. First class
passengers fared much better, but were short a platter that was hijacked by a hungry association member when the cook wasn’t looking.
Christman, like his fellow Pennsylvanian Gunn, failed to prosper in the placers of Tuolumne and Mariposa counties and resumed his trade as a newspaper compositor to make ends meet. Most significantly, he put the skills he learned at the West Chester Village Record to assemble wooden type and strike off the debut issue of the Sonora Herald, the first newspaper in the Gold Country. Christman stayed on after Gunn became editor and was invited to the Gunn family’s Yuletide festivities. The printer reciprocated with gifts for Gunn’s children.
William Perkins’ Christmas in 1849 proved to be a working holiday. Since his late spring arrival in Sonora, he and a partner, Hiram Theall, opened a trading post approximately where today’s Sonora Inn turns the corner at Stockton Road.
Between daylight and 9 p.m. on Perkins’ first Christmas in California, he made a round trip to Knights Ferry on foot in mud too deep for his horses and wagons. Two shipments of stock for his store were stranded there by the roaring Stanislaus River. Perkins wrote in his journal: “I managed to dispose of the merchandise to the ferry boat company,” but cargo he could not leave behind was 10 feet of pipe for the sheet iron stove that would warm the store and attached living quarters. On that long day he had plenty of time to think about “the good folks at home” and what an unusual Christmas Day he had.
Next Christmas in 1850, Perkins was in a more reflective mood when he wrote; “Christmas Day! But why mention it in this country! It makes me sad to write these words, for they bring memories of home and civilization and household affections.”
Perkins was 24 when he spent his last Christmas in Sonora in 1851. The holiday dawned in the midst of a five-day “deluge” of rain. He was cheered by letters from family in Canada and wrote they made his day “a peaceful time” for thoughts of past Christmases with his parents and siblings.
Perkins, 22, developed a friendship with Ramon Gil Navarro, an Argentine exile camped near San Andreas. On Christmas Eve 1849, Navarro and two other miners “gathered around a great bonfire to drink maté (a popular South American drink made from holly leaves) and wish each other a Merry Christmas.” The weather was stormy and the men were “covered in soot, with our brows furrowed from the heat,” adding, “I have a vivid recollection … from the night last year” when he attended midnight mass in Catamara Chile.
Like Perkins, Navarro operated a mine supply store, and it was open for business on Dec. 25. Two sales that day were a bottle of cooking oil for an ounce of gold ($12-16) and another bottle full of castor oil ($50), both lucrative transactions. Perkins and Navarro were such good friends that, after the latter returned to Argentina following a regime
change, Perkins joined him and lived there for the remainder of his life, even marrying Navarro’s sister, Parmenia.
Christmas Day in 1849 found Benjamin Butler Harris alone and without shelter while he and his two partners headed for Sonora to replenish their dwindling larder and bring him a tent. The East Texan was too incapacitated with dysentery to accompany his friends on the round trip from their campsite at Paseo de Pino, also called Pine Log, on the Stanislaus River two miles north of Columbia.
Drury Loveall and Frank Clark promised to bring back some medicine for Harris, who waited three days in the rain for their return. He journaled, “I was left alone among bears, wolves and hostile Indians … wondering oft whether I would ever get out alive from the cavity of the hills.” Of some comfort those cold, wet days was his loaded rifle within arm’s reach and plenty of firewood.
Harris’ partners arrived back the day after Christmas with medicine as promised — a pint of brandy. Over the course of an hour Harris downed the bottle’s intoxicating contents which, he said, gave him a late Christmas gift — renewed health. So much for the curative powers of hot tea made from oak bark, on which he had been dosing for days.
Christmas breakfast and supper at the Mt. Lassen area camp of J. Goldsborough Bruff and partner in 1849 tested the culinary abilities of men in the wilderness. In the morning the pair “chopped up the fragments of the old ox,” put them in a cast iron kettle, added the edible parts of a dead squirrel and three deer leg bones … for the marrow.” For seasoning, they stirred in “some dead ginger we found, salt and pepper.” The stew simmered for an hour and a half over their campfire, and Bruff pronounced the meal “a noble breakfast.”
Supper that night called for something more substantial. The men dined on “a roast from another dead ox” that was tender, but “tasteless.” After chatting about Christmases past, the men sang holiday songs without the eggnog and ale of home.
A classic account of the 49ers on Christmas was written by William Kelly, a
member of a mining company hailing from England. Their treasure hunt began shortly after reaching San Francisco in July 1849.
By Dec. 25, they had prospected their way to Middle Creek near the town of Shasta in Siskiyou County. Kelly’s encampment was like many others: lacking a woman’s touch at mealtime. However, Kelly wrote he was truly “delighted to find the miners, without exception,” were eager to have a feast. There would be no mining on that day, so the men would have time for cooking and baking chores.
Kelly’s job “was to rig out a table.” He used the front and end boards for the table top and “willow sticks” for legs. The wagon’s canvas covering became a tablecloth set with cutlery short on knives so he substituted Bowie knives and small swords. His handiwork held up under the communal meal of loin of grizzly bear, roasted venison, bacon, three kinds of bread, pies made from dried apples and two bottles of wine.
Saved for a final course was spicy plum pudding oozing with a rum sauce so “exquisite … as to leave one in doubt whether to prefer the pudding or the sauce.” This dessert treat was purchased at Sutter’s store as the company passed through Sacramento, and apparently stayed well preserved.
It was Christmas Eve 1852 and tears were running down the cheeks of the Widow Jones.
With a baby resting in her arms, Jones sat on a wooden crate close to a wood stove that gave her primitive cabin some measure of warmth while a rainstorm raged outside. Her other five children, all under 10, were asleep, huddled together in a bed moved out from under a major leak in the roof.
Jones wept for her husband, who was killed in an encounter between Native Americans and the wagon train that brought her to Sonora four months earlier. Although grateful for the modest shelter caring miners built for her, her meager existence hardly fulfilled her idea of a new and better life in California. Needless to say, there were no stockings to fill nor gifts for the children.
The story of Molly Jones was recorded for posterity by Charles B. Rutherford, who owned a paint and home supply store on North Washington Street in Sonora, about a half
block south of Elkin Street — and two blocks south of Molly’s cabin.
Rutherford’s story, “Kaintuck in Old Tuolumne,” was published in the Union Democrat during the Christmas season of 1903 and billed as true. It echoes themes of poverty, hopelessness, hunger and grief found in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
The transformative power of miracles touched Molly and family on that holy night, thanks to the same miners who cobbled together a home for her and her kids and mined the placers in Woods Creek near the site of today’s Sonora High School.
That night, they were riding out the storm around a woodstove in the store of Sam Kanuke, nicknamed “Kentuck.” He joined the rush to California in 1849 and did very well as a carpenter turned miner. Rather than returning to Kentucky, he built a store catering to miners and offering fresh fruits and vegetables so important to stave off scurvy.
Sam’s store was across North Washington Street from Molly’s home, and it was a gathering place for the men who kept an eye out for Molly and “the kids.” They regularly gave small sums of money to the children and stopped by so they could pay her for sewing a button or mending a torn shirt. Sam did his part by seeing that she got an extra measure of whatever she bought, often with gold dust or small nuggets her older children brought back from the creek.
It was while the men were together that they thought of Molly’s plight and their holiday spirit bloomed.
According to Rutherford, Jonathan Todd spoke up first: “Now boys, let us see what you are made of. Here is a poor, lone woman, struggling to live and keep those little ones from going hungry.” Todd offered up an ounce of gold dust and asked Sam to get out his scales so his buddies could do the same.
“Don’t do it Sam,” said Frank O’rourke, “that’s no way to give. Weighing out charity is no charity at all. Give for the love of giving and you will feel good after you have done it.”
Soon, quite a bit of dust made its way from the pouches they all carried to the counter where Todd’s stake lay. Once their gift for the Jones family had settled into a poke, Sam, Todd and Jack Green dashed across the street to the widow’s door and came upon the scene described earlier.
Drying her eyes, Molly accepted the gift with many thanks and a desire to express heartfelt appreciation to the others at the store. Todd volunteered to stay with the still sleeping baby; “I haven’t held one in my arms for three years and I’d just love to hold it,” he said.
While Molly was at the store, O’rourke said the cabin, with its leaking roof and other shortcomings, was no place for a family, but his suggestion that Sam cede his living quarters behind the store to them was modestly declined by Molly. Bob Gardener offered a solution — that the two “get married, right here, and now, and that will settle all the business.”
The startled Sam took the equally startled widow’s hand in his and proposed: “What do you say, Molly, is it so?” Cheers filled the store after she offered a gentle “Yes.”
O’rourke summoned Todd, who was on his knees in Molly’s cabin, praying for his own little ones far away in Connecticut. O’rourke teared up at the scene. Green went to the nearby Irving House hotel to get Judge Anson Arkenside Hull Tuttle, who was living there temporarily following the sale and conversion of his own home into a brothel. John Kelly’s fiddle added to the merriment, and the bleary-eyed children were escorted into the store and a new life.
The Kanuke family stayed in Sonora until spring, when Sam sold his property at a handsome profit to a mining company convinced the ground beneath it held rich gold deposits. They moved to San Francisco’s new Rincon Hill neighborhood, today the site of the Bay Bridge’s west anchorage and ramps.
Once more a stranger knocked at Sam’s door wanting to buy his property. The persistent lawyer persuaded Sam and Molly to accept $20,000 for their home, a large sum at the time.
Rutherford, then living in San Francisco, ended his tale by saying Sam told him “he was going home to God’s own country, ‘Old Kentuck.’ ”