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100 Years Ago

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Feature Article on Gold Rush. Topic: GOLD RUSH
Written by Rich Wallace in May, 1996


Especially after a hard winter, the month of April brings to all of us a feeling of renewal and adventure. One hundred and fifty years ago, the warm winds of April carried not only the promise of good weather, but the hope of a new beginning for many in the frontier villages of western Ohio such as Sidney. Many had heard of the vast, uncharted lands west of the Mississippi. Could there be a better future there?

When Joel and Mary Walker left Independence, Missouri on April 30, 1840, with their four children to seek a better life in far away California, they could not have known the extent of the human tide that would follow them over the next sixteen years. The uncharted and inhospitable lands of what became known as the California Trail lay before them. They had survived the depression of 1837 and the lure of a better life seemed irresistible. The Walkers and four others made it safely to California. Beginning in 1843, many others would also take the Oregon Trail to the Pacific Northwest in search of rich farmland and a new life.

What started out as a trickle turned into a torrent of people after news of the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill first spread eastward in 1849. Over the next 15 years, more than 200,000 others would follow as word of the new life spread across America. In 1848, Sidney had just 1,500 inhabitants. After "gold fever" struck this tiny town, Sidney was to experience an exodus of people unlike any other time in its history. This is the story of some of those intrepid souls. Robert Houston was a farmer of some repute in Shelby County. He owned a 140 acre farm near the present day Houston, a village which was named in his honor. Times were hard, however. As rumors of the rich, inexpensive farm land out west filtered back to him, Houston became determined to make a better living for his family. After selling the farm and packing all their worldly possessions, Houston left home on February 28, 1848 with his wife and five children.

Walking much of the way, they eventually reached St. Joseph, Missouri. There they purchased an outfit consisting of wagons, horses, cattle and all manner of supplies that would be needed. Teaming with about 100 others, they struck out across the unknown expanse. Their destination: a new land of promise called Oregon.

News of the discovery of gold spread eastward with amazing speed when one remembers that a man on horseback was the quickest means of communication. It reached Sidney in just a few months. John Bush lived on the top of Sulphur Heights Hill, just south of Sidney on the Sidney-Piqua Pike (now county road 25A). When he heard, it did not take long for Bush and his brother, Charles, to make up their minds. It mattered not that Charles was a doctor with an established practice. They were going west. A friend, M.W. Jackson, joined up and the adventurers left Sidney on April 19, 1849. Thirteen others from Shelby County would follow their tracks west that year. 

By 1850, no news had been received from Bush and his fellow travelers. The tide of rumors about fortunes being made in the gold fields could not be stemmed. Seventy-seven more people left the county in 1850. Among them were Samuel Gamble and his sons William and Samuel, Jr.

The Gambles left with a wagon made for them by the local wagon maker, Jacob Piper. They did not have sufficient funds to pay for it, so Piper let them take it with the promise to pay him if they returned. Those who left in 1850 were gold seekers. In many cases, like the Bushes and the Gambles, all of the males in a family departed, apparently leaving the women to fend for themselves.

The destination of everyone was initially either St. Joe or Independence, Missouri. Bush and his friends arrived on June 1. These towns, then on the border of civilization, competed fiercely for the travelers and the money they brought with them. Although a few struck it rich in California, serious fortunes were more quickly made in these towns by "outfitting" the unsuspecting and often ignorant gold seekers.

According to an article written for the Smithsonian Magazine by Bill Gilbert, charges for goods were whatever the traffic would bear. In St. Joe, for example, the physicians got together and announced a schedule of charges. Patient visits within one mile would be one dollar, with a surcharge of 50 cents for each additional mile. A sample of the extra charges for actual treatment: 50 cents for a small blister, one dollar for an enema, and five dollars for the delivery of a child. Amputation of fingers and toes cost 5 dollars and an arm ten. A bushel of corn, costing 15 cents throughout the year, was one dollar in the spring when the adventure seekers arrived.

Imagine the fear that the Houston family felt as they began the two thousand mile trek across the wilderness. Rumors of attacks by savage Indians abounded. The deserts were described as vast wastelands that only the most hardy could cross. Robert Houston and his entire family made it safely to the valley of the Willamette River in Oregon. They had seen hundreds of Indians, all of whom were peaceful. At times buffalo covered the vast plains as far as the eye could see. After seven months, they were in the Promised Land.

A bit more excitement awaited John Bush and his friends the next year. After reaching St. Joe uneventfully, the men set out across the prairie. Mile after mile, the group moved westward. The dust was shoe top deep, and covered everyone and everything in its path. Those able to walk would do so to save the added strain on the horses and the oxen - the most valuable commodities of all.

They, too, saw herds of buffalo numbering, by Bush's account, "in the hundreds of thousands." One night in camp, all the horses, apparently attracted by the passing buffalo, ran off. John ran after them and continued his pursuit for eight miles. Exhausted, he barely made it back to camp. The horses were never recovered. Later in the trip, Indians raided their camp during the night. Bush led a party in retaliation. Surprising the Indians at dawn the next day, Bush and the others routed about 30 braves and recovered all their supplies.

Past Fort Bridger at the south pass in what is now Wyoming, Bush and the others turned due west to follow the California Trail through Donner Pass. In what John Bush later remembered as the "Great American Desert," the men had to abandon their wagons along with all the provisions. They struggled on by foot.

By the time Samuel Gamble and his party arrived in St. Joe on April 12, 1850, the trail was well marked and many of the trail rumors about Indians and the like had been disproved. Disease, however, continued to be a problem. Samuel took sick and died in St. Joe. Undaunted, his sons decided to continue the journey.

By the summer of 1850, the trail west was scoured into the earth by the thousands of wagons that had preceded the Sidney men. Gamble and his companions found the Indians friendly, but buffalo and other game almost nonexistent. The most treacherous part of the journey was the crossing of a desert Gamble recalled as 40 miles wide. Gamble and the others lost only one cow in that part of the journey. Others from Shelby County were not as fortunate. The inhospitable lands took their toll in men. Henry Devor died at the great salt lake in July of 1849. Robert Norcross and Michael Glitch succumbed along the way within four days of each other in June of 1850. Samuel Perry died on the trail in 1850. Survival for all those from Shelby County meant sticking together on the trail and sharing the work. Years later, at a reunion for those who had headed west, a Sidney Journal reporter present reported the sentiment of the group: "Those who manfully did their duty at watching and guarding without a murmur became endeared to each other, while those who shirked will always be remembered as such."

For the families back home, one of the most disturbing events was the word that a loved one was missing. That sad news was received by the relatives of Jarrett Miller, Christian Mann, Edward Meeker and John Leckey. Many others, too numerous to name here, never returned home.  Despite this fact, sometimes large groups of relatives would attempt the trip. In 1853, nine members of the Van Fossen family left for California. Four were women. By 1884, three had died out west, and none of the others had returned to Shelby County.

Reaching their destination in most cases meant more challenges. There is no record of any of these men striking it rich. William and Samuel Gamble, Jr. came close. After working their placer mining claims for about a year, they sold them and moved on. According to Samuel, the claims "subsequently proved to be very rich." Nathan Wyman labored in the gold fields for one year before starting for home in 1851. Robert Houston and his family found their riches in the land. Settling where the town of Albany is now located, Houston bought 640 acres of land. His family prospered. Newton Houston, twenty years old at the time he left Shelby County, returned fifty years later to visit the place of his birth.

Most of the Sidney, Ohio gold seekers did not put down roots in California. The rough life and frequent outbreaks of sickness claimed many lives. Nathan Wyman nearly died from the adverse conditions, and required several months of bed rest in Sacramento to recover. John Hurley, George Abbott and Jacob Singer all died within a short time of their arrival. George Kiser perished in a fire shortly after reaching his California destination.

John Bush remained in California for four years. With little luck at gold mining, he turned to hunting. Bush and his partner Nathan Travers eventually made a comfortable living by selling venison and bear meat to the miners. For many years after his return, Bush told the story of his narrow escape from a grizzly. After an encounter with her four cubs, Bush found himself climbing a tree with the mother grizzly in hot pursuit. When her paw raked his boot, he fell in a heap from the tree - with the bear right next to him. Bush barely escaped with his life. When he finished the story, he would proudly display the boot he had saved, with "the autograph of the bear plainly visible."

For those who had lost their lust for gold and wanted to return home, more challenges confronted them. The California and Oregon Trails were "one way" west. Returning to Sidney meant booking passage on a ship and attempting the treacherous journey around Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America, or another equally dangerous route. The plight of Harvey Guthrie, Nathan Wyman, and Dr. John McCullough turned out to be typical. Leaving San Francisco with no gold and precious little money, the men sailed southward. The vessel lost its way, and ended up near Nicaragua in Central America. Nearly out of supplies, the ship's stores were finally replenished and the journey resumed. The men made it safely home. Both Arthur Glasgow and R.C. Poland died at sea in separate journeys following the same route home. John Bush began his journey to Sidney by ship. However, he declined to tackle the treacherous Cape Horn route, and landed at the Isthmus of Panama. He and several others crossed through the jungles and swamps of Panama where the Panama Canal is now located, and boarded a ship there for the rest of the journey to New York City. Those with a real sense of adventure found all of it they could handle on the way home. William Van Fossen left Sidney in 1849 with his father. After staying just six months, they began their return home by sea. Their ship made a scheduled stop at Lake Nicaragua in Central America. William, just 18 at the time, decided to leave his father and explore the world on his own.

He was hired to sail a schooner on Lake Nicaragua for three months. After returning to San Francisco, Van Fossen enlisted under Captain Crabb to help man General Walker's expedition to Central America. He signed on as a cabin boy on a ship bound for Australia, and then served as a steward on a steamship working the Rio De Janeiro to San Francisco route. After arriving in California again, he worked the gold mines for seven years. He showed up quite unexpectedly in Sidney to resume his former tranquil life in 1859.

Frank Dingman sought adventure in Central America after striking out in the gold mines, but he died there in 1852. The tale of the most incredible adventure was told by Reynolds Knox Cummins. Although most of the details will be reserved for a separate article by this author, a few details about his plight will suffice. Cummins decided to stop on the way home to do a little exploring in Ecuador. He and some friends got mixed up in local politics, and were subsequently arrested for treason. He barely escaped the firing squad and safely returned to Sidney.

Most of those hardy men who left Sidney did return. Many, such as Samuel Gamble, Van Fossen, Wyman and George Ginn later served with distinction in the Civil War. Others later rose to positions of prominence in Sidney. Harvey Guthrie was elected to the offices of Justice of the Peace, township trustee, County Auditor and then Mayor of Sidney. Nathan Wyman served two terms as Probate Judge and was later appointed Superintendent of the Xenia Soldiers' and Sailors' Home by Governor Bishop. John Bush served two terms as county commissioner, beginning in 1881.

Others never lost their sense of adventure. Bush made a total of nine more trips to California after his return to Sidney in 1853. He was fond of his reputation as a natural nimrod, and often expressed his philosophy that one should "enjoy the passing moment, and not depend upon an uncertain future."

The Sidney Journal reported in its May 13, 1898 edition the surprise return home of Newton Houston. Newton, then a lad of twenty, had left with his father Robert and the rest of the family in 1848. Newton Houston returned for the first time at age 70. He delighted his Sidney friends with stories of his Oregon adventures, and shared his memories of the Houston and Sidney of his youth.

Many of the adventurers brought back momentos of their trip. Frank Geer returned with a gold nugget that has remained in the possession of the Mary Geer family of Sidney. A number of years after the great western migration had ceased, the survivors in Shelby County formed the Association of Early Californians. It met in Sidney annually for years. Records the group compiled showed 142 Shelby Countians had made the journey west over the years.The members would continually search for information on those still missing, much as the P.O.W. - M.I.A. associations do today. In words reminiscent of the feelings felt by the relatives of those missing in Vietnam, A newspaper reporter who attended a meeting of the association in 1884 reported the mood of those present as follows: "There is a peculiar pathos in the word 'missing.' Uncertainty gives rise to conjectures that are even painful; it continually keeps the wound open. But the grave stops our wonderings, and the grass that grows above the dust figuratively grows over one's memory. There is no sadder epitaph than 'Unknown.'

Gradually over the intervening years the survivors passed on. Their legacy of courage and adventure will never be forgotten. Today it is hard to imagine someone taking such risks and enduring such hardships. These men and women were pioneers and heroes in every sense, as they pursued their vision of the American dream.

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