Yorkers See the Elephant but Not the Gold
Cased photo of Henry L. Smyser, taken by the J. T. Williams Gallery in York, probably not too long after Smyser returned from California.
Not long ago I posted my York Sunday News column on the very organized California Company, which was composed of 16 young men from the York County area who set out to find their fortune in gold. They sailed on the ship Andalusia from Baltimore on April 19, 1849 and arrived at San Francisco on September 21. Click here for that post on their onerous sea voyage.
Did they find their fortune? Afraid not, but they certainly tried. Some of the accounts written back home by several of the company were published in the York newspapers and went into much detail about their quest.
Dr. Henry L. Smyser was perhaps even more candid and detailed, as his letters, now in the York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives, were only meant for family. He wrote to his parents only a week after they arrived, while they were still unloading the Andalusia, that he might stay for a while, but not necessarily continuing to look for gold, “if the practice of medicine would be more profitable and less laborious.”
Smyser had enough labor already by the time they arrived at Woods Diggings on November 25. He and the others wrote that getting there was the hardest work they had ever done, with mud up to their knees, sometimes having to pull the wagons and mules through themselves. It didn’t take him long to relate: “We had a full view of the Elephant.”
See below for my follow-up Sunday News column with more details on the California Company, their pursuit of gold and their return home.
Yorkers Seek California Gold, See the Elephant
On September 21, 1849, after five months of arduous sea voyage around Cape Horn on the ship Andalusia, the sixteen men from York who formed the California Company reached San Francisco. They described a town that had gone from a population of 2-300 to 15-20,000 in two years. Four thousand new emigrants arrived the same week they did. The bay was crammed with up to 300 ships that couldn’t sail because their crews had deserted to look for gold. Robert C. Woodward wrote that about 500 houses and 1,400 tents made up the cold dusty city. Gambling was rampant, with miners who had struck it rich wagering astonishing sums. In their letters, Yorkers said there was little crime, which they attributed to stiff punishment and quick hangings.
Wages for laborers were high, but so were rents and prices. Goods were marked up 400%. Mules, needed for transport, cost $500 each. Since they couldn’t leave until their supplies were loaded off the ship, fourteen of the men hired on to help unload the ship. They received $4 per day plus room and board, saving costs. Company leader Woodward had set out to scout prime mining sites, at least 90 miles away. Carpenter George W. Klinefelter earned $12 a day while waiting, erecting a house in town.
The adventurers soon realized that finding a quick fortune wasn’t assured. A week after arrival, Henry L. Smyser wrote his parents that he planned to practice medicine in California if they didn’t find gold. The company still intended to give it a try for the 18 months they had contracted to be bound together.
Woodward returned to lead them to Woods Diggings (now Jamestown) in late October. Letters described their four day by water to Stockton, crammed into a schooner so tight they couldn’t lay down. They then loaded their supplies into wagons pulled by two mule teams and started overland. Rain came down in torrents by the time they reached the Stanislaus River, bogging them down in mud for a 15-day delay. When they started again, they sometimes had to pull the mules and wagons by hand through knee-deep mud. They agreed it was the hardest work any of them had ever done and, as H. L. Smyser said “We had a full view of the Elephant.” (Popular term for having seen it all.)
The Yorkers built a comfortable log cabin to wait out the winter. Smyser sent about $2.50 worth of gold to his parents. He said Woods Diggings had been rich in the summer–50 to 500 dollars worth could be washed in a pan a day–but now there was very little. William C. Chapman agreed, saying they planned to move toward the Stanislaus, about 10 miles away. He said digging and washing weren’t bad, but prospecting (digging holes to look) was “the devil.”
By now the Yorkers were passing on advice to friends, who shared the letters with York newspapers, to stay home. Their last known correspondence from Woods Diggings was in February 1850. If the company tried another site, they only stayed until the end of the year, as they were drifting back to York County a year later. The May 20, 1851 People’s Advocate reported that Jacob Kent had returned and that R. C. Woodward and the “balance of Yorkers” were expected soon. The June 11, 1851 Pennsylvania Republican confirmed that Robert C. Woodward, Alexander Wentz, Henry L. Smyser, and George Rupp were home, after being absent more than two years.
William C. Chapman resumed law practice in York, eventually serving two three-year terms as District Attorney. Samuel Dick became a coach-maker. His 1897 obituary, probably exaggerated, says he made a fortune in California Gold. A Henry Hantz is listed as York County ore mine superintendent in the 1873 York directory. Cornelius Harbaugh, originally a carpenter, had various occupations later in life, including contracting. Jacob Kent, of York, married M. J. Sheperd in Pittsburgh in August 1851. He may have stayed in that area.
Henry Smyser, after another adventurous stint as a contract surgeon in Finland for Tzar Alexander II during the Crimean War, came home and returned to medical practice. He served as assistant surgeon at the Penn Common Army Hospital, just down the street from his home and office, during the Civil War. George Klinefelter was perhaps the soldier of that name in the 112th regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers and/or the builder of a five-story gristmill in Hanover in 1885. Two George Rupps were in Pennsylvania Civil War regiments; one was a York train dispatcher later, in 1889.
George B. Schmidt, identified in a family history as one of the California argonauts of 1849, died in Lancaster in 1854. David O. Prince became a York professional photographer as well as a Northern Central Railway clerk. His 1901 obituary mentions his 1849 journey to California. A John Stover is listed as a teacher in York directories in the 1880s. Thomas King, originally from Harford Co., Md., seems to have returned there.
An Alexander Wentz was elected York County Treasurer in 1855 and/or was Dillsburg postmaster from 1858 to 1861.
According to one account Samuel A. Henry, an original member of the company, decided not to go at the last minute. While in California, however, Woodward seems to indicate that there were still 16 in the company. Woodward himself eventually settled in Carlisle. An 1886 Cumberland County history says he spent three years prospecting in California. I haven’t yet found out what happened to teamster Henry Holtzman.
As can be seen above, most, if not all, of the California Company were content to return home. In a little over two years, they had seen enough of the elephant to last a lifetime.