History by Non-Historians: First-Hand Accounts by Gold Rush Prospectors

Gold Miners in California, Currier & Ives, c. 1871

Gold Mining in California, Currier & Ives (c. 1871)

Writers of historical fiction look for first-hand accounts of the time to give their stories depth and verisimilitude. I wrote an earlier post about a book purportedly by a Gold Rush prospector, California: Four Months Among the Gold-Finders in California; Being the Diary of an Expedition from San Francisco to the Gold Districts, by J. Tyrwhitt Brooks, M.D. (1849). Although a riveting story of prospecting life, it was total fiction. Still, as a contemporaneous account of the era, it was useful in its way. But in my historical novels, I much preferred to rely on writings by actual prospectors, even if their stories were not as sensational.

Good first-hand stories by prospectors can be found on the website, “California Gold Rush: True Tales Of The Forty-niners.” Many of the anecdotes I used in Now I’m Found came from this site.

Johann Sutter’s own account of the discovery of gold at his mill is available in an article titled “The Discovery of Gold in California,” by Gen. John A. Sutter, on the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco website. There are several accounts by Sutter on this website, which make fascinating reading.

Stories of women pioneers in California can be found in the article “The Foremothers Tell of Olden Times” on this same website. And for another female perspective, there is Jessie Benton Frémont’s book about her arrival in California, which I’ve also mentioned before, A Year of American Travel, by Jessie Benton Frémont (1878). Mrs. Frémont doesn’t describe prospecting, but she does describe storing bags of gold from her husband’s mine in their hotel room, which made me laugh.

Another good book I used that contains first-hand accounts from prospectors is A Year of Mud and Gold: San Francisco in Letters and Diaries, 1849-1850, by William Benemann (Editor) (2003). Benemann has compiled excerpts from many early miners’ letters, and the book does an excellent job of depicting San Francisco in the early Gold Rush years.

Most of the letters in the resources I’ve described were written by ordinary people to their families in the East. They had no idea that someday their words would be interesting enough to include in a book or on websites (which they couldn’t even have imagined), nor that novelists would use them for flavor in books about the period. These letter writers were simply describing for their loved ones the experiences they’d had in a strange land, a land where they hoped to better provide for themselves and their families.

Sometimes I wonder whether anything I’ve written will be used for some future author’s research. I suppose the interesting thing about history is that ordinary people often don’t know it when they see it. Yet for all the publicity given to politicians and tycoons and celebrities, what really matters is the impact of their actions on the ordinary people. It is that impact that ultimately determines whether treaties and laws and business decisions, whether arts and entertainment—all the products of the famous—are successes or failures.

What history do you think we are making today?

No More Libby Jacksons

4 cousins Jul 87

Andy & Libby are the older two cousins. This picture is from the Libby Jackson days

My kids and their cousins often visited their mutual grandparents (my in-laws) when they were children. When it was time to leave, my father-in-law would call them aside and hand them each a $20 bill. I told my children not to expect Grandpa’s generosity and to thank him when it did occur. Nevertheless, Grandpa almost always did pass out the bills, and it became a regular part of their visits.

The oldest of the four cousins was Andrew. On one occasion, when Andrew was about seven or so, Grandpa called him over. “Here’s your Andrew Jackson,” Grandpa told him, as he gave him a $20 bill. (Andrew’s last name is not Jackson, but I won’t tell you what it is.)

Andy’s five-year-old sister Libby wasn’t around when her big brother got his gift. When she heard her big brother had received his Andrew Jackson, Libby went straight to Grandpa. “Where’s my Libby Jackson?” she asked.

Grandpa looked confused. “What do you mean?”

“You gave Andy an Andrew Jackson. I want my Libby Jackson.”

That set Grandpa to roaring with laughter. And, of course, he gave Libby her $20, no matter what she called it.

This story became one of Grandpa’s favorite family anecdotes, told many times over the years. Grandpa continued passing out his Andrew Jacksons until the kids were grown (and even after). In their teenage years, I think they relied on Grandpa to help with gas money. In their adult years, it was a fun (and practical) reminder of their childhood.

Libby is now married and about to have her fourth child. Her oldest two are almost of the age that Andy and Libby were when the Libby Jackson incident occurred.

I thought of our Libby Jackson family story when I learned that the Treasury Department is going to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. As they grow and are told our family’s stories, Libby’s children won’t understand the humor in this tale about their mother—Libby Jackson won’t mean anything to them.

And there’s no one in the family named Harriet to prompt a similar mistake.

As time passes, circumstances change, and history becomes history. What is relevant in one age is irrelevant in the next. That is as true in families as in nations and in the world.

When bad things happen, we frequently thinks “this too shall pass.” But we need to remember that the good things (and people) pass away also. Write down your family’s stories now, lest they be forgotten—but remember to explain their significance to keep your past alive.

Are there stories in your family that have lost their meaning over time?

The Boy Wonder


My son’s Batmobile, same bat-ride

When my son was about three, he went through a Batman phase that lasted several months to a year. He had Batman pajamas and underwear. He had a toy Batmobile, which is still in our basement. He ran around the house singing,


(Did I do that right? I know some of you out there are counting the “na’s”.)

And his favorite book for awhile was a large coloring book of Batman and Robin, in which the Joker was the villain.

Now, this was a really large coloring book—about three feet tall and two feet wide. Taller than my son at that time. Each page had a sentence or two of the story, combined with huge pictures to color and balloons with the words “POW!” and “BAM!” and “OOF!”

My son wasn’t very interested in coloring the pictures, but he wanted the story read to him every night. Often twice.

Soon he could recite the words himself. I doubt he was really reading it yet, but he knew exactly when to turn the page.

J on rocking horse circa 1984 cropped

The Boy Wonder . . . in cowboy mode. He’s younger than in his Robin days in this picture, but it’s one of my favorites and it needed digitizing because the colors are already fading.

Soon reading the story was not enough. He had to act it out every night with his father. My husband was Batman, and our son was Robin, the Boy Wonder. At that point, the kid was still in the hero worship phase with his dad, so our son didn’t mind being the sidekick rather than the star of the show.

And when my husband got the words wrong, our son corrected him. “No, Dad. It’s Ho-Ho-Ho, not oh-oh-oh.”

The story ended with Batman saying something like, “The joke’s on you, Joker! Leave the driving to us.” With this, Batman catapulted into the car and took the Joker off to jail. (If I’m wrong, Son, I’ll bet you can still correct me. You know all the words to every Seinfeld episode. Surely you remember this coloring book.)

Our son turns thirty-four this weekend. He’s still our Boy Wonder.

Happy Birthday, Son!

Siblings as Targets and as Friends

TTC & sister 20150725_112903

My father and his sister, probably not too long after the BB gun days

Both my mother and my father grew up in families consisting of two siblings—an older brother and younger sister. I’ve always wondered if that is part of why they were so compatible, although they each had an uneasy relationship with their sibling for much of their lives. I’ve written before about my mother and her older brother. This post is about my father and his younger sister.

I didn’t know a lot about my father’s childhood, but one family story that I heard frequently was about my father shooting his younger sister with a BB gun. The way I heard the story, she was still in diapers when it happened, though that would make my father (who was just 28 months older) only four or five years old. I cannot imagine giving a four-year-old a gun, even a BB gun. But then, I never lived in the rural Midwest in the late 1930s.

Anyway, as my father later told the story, his sister was sticking her white-covered bottom up in the air, and it was just too tempting a target. So he shot. Bull’s eye.

She cried, but no damage was done, except to her toddler’s pride.

Though if I had been his parent, I would have made sure his bottom hurt more than hers. But their mother, my grandmother, doted on her son, and I don’t think he got punished much as a kid. (Except by his grandparents, who made him toe the line, but those are other stories.)

The family moved from small-town Kansas to Pasadena, California, to Klamath Falls, Oregon. My dad loved the freedom he was allowed in Pasadena. I don’t know if my aunt—younger and a girl—got the same freedom to roam the entire Los Angeles area. My dad was not happy about the move to Klamath Falls. I don’t know what my aunt thought.

Just after my father graduated from high school, his family moved to Seattle, but he only lived at home part-time during his college years. My aunt finished high school in Seattle, got married, and my father and his sister never spent much time together after that. They didn’t have much in common, it seemed, and they went their separate ways in building families.

Their father died in 1975, and their mother in 1990. Still the brother and sister rarely communicated.

55th Anniversary Marilyn Visit 007 cropped-001

My father and his sister, 2009. I think that’s his hat on her head, so they must have been getting along.

Until sometime after the turn of the century, maybe around the time my parents moved to Port Ludlow, Washington, in 2006. Long after both siblings had raised their children and retired from work, they became reacquainted. They didn’t meet often, but they emailed and phoned. “I’m closer to my sister now than I ever have been,” my father told me at the time.

She had health problems, but her death in January 2013 was sudden and unexpected. And as I have written, he died suddenly almost exactly two years later, in January 2015. But I’ve been glad the two siblings found each other in the last years of their lives.

I wonder if my dad ever apologized for shooting his sister.

What family stories do you know about your parents growing up?

Real Life Does Not Make Good Narrative

burroway coverI’ve been reading Janet Burroway’s book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. I started it a few months back, and every so often I dip into it again. I’m not reading it linearly. I started with the chapters on character, then moved to theme and setting, and last week I read the first chapter of the book on “The Writing Process.”

In that chapter, Burroway discusses the old advice to write what you know. She says that writing exactly what happened to you at a particular time is the least likely way to produce good fiction (her emphasis). She states:

“To the extent you want to capture ‘what really happened,’ you remove your focus from what will work as narrative.”

That sentence stopped me cold and made me think.

Burroway goes on to say,

“Between the fiction writer and reader it is the revelation of meaning through the creation of character, the vividness of scene, the effect of action that take priority over ordinary veracity.”

Writers, think about that. What happens to us in real life does not make good narrative. When we attempt to recount the literal truth, we lose the story and its meaning. Only by shaping our narrative can we get at what matters.

Real life doesn’t have a story arc. It doesn’t have characters designed to reveal a theme or an archtype. (Real people are too complex and inconsistent to be good fictional characters). Our real life takes place in settings that are messy and usually mundane.

Writers have to shape real life to make it into story. Burroway focuses on fiction writing, but she acknowledges that even in memoir and other nonfiction writing, which must “maintain a basis in fact,” some shaping is necessary to make it compelling to read.

“Even the most factual account of a personal experience involves choices and interpretations—your sister’s recollection of the same event might be entirely different.”

I repeat: What happens to us in real life does not make good narrative. As we tell our stories, whether we are telling them to ourselves, to friends and family, or fictionalizing them, we are making choices. We edit as we tell the story. And that becomes the basis for our memories, our myths, and our epics. There’s a reason that in French “histoire” means both story and history. Both story and history come from our editing of real life.

As I write about my life for this blog, I have found this to be true on a small scale. Some of my posts contain “truthy” dialogue—true to the spirit of what happened and how I and my family members interacted. But rarely could I attest that the words in quotes were actually spoken. Still, adding the dialogue makes a better story.

In other posts, where I’ve tried to be more factual, I find I’m fighting boredom—mine in writing about the event, and most likely the reader’s in reading about it. Sometimes humor doesn’t translate without the backstory. Sometimes an event that was meaningful to me seems pointless as I try to tell it to others. There’s no story in my telling, unless I reshape history.

I’ve written before that one nice thing about writing fiction is that I can make up the facts. I’m not bound to the literal truth, as I was as an attorney making a case. I can edit out the extraneous and the inconvenient.

And so I do, both in this blog and in my novels.

Our stories are more meaningful when we shape them, for ourselves and for each other. Unfortunately, we must always come back to real life. It may not make good narrative, but it has to be encountered and embraced as it is.

When have you edited a story from your life for others?

Mystery of the Old Doll Solved

MTH first doll croppedWhen I was cleaning out my parents’ house last spring, I found an old doll. Its body was corduroy, it was stuffed with something soft, but had a hard plastic face.

I remembered the doll from my childhood, but I didn’t know where it came from. Was it mine? Or my mother’s? I couldn’t remember ever playing with it. All I knew was that the doll had been around as long as I could remember. Because it was so old, I kept it.

My sister, brother and I also found boxes and boxes of pictures in the house. Everywhere we looked, it seemed, there were more pictures. We didn’t go through them at the time. We stowed all the boxes in my sister’s minivan, then put them in her dining room in a Seattle suburb.

In late July, I visited my sister and went through the photographs my father had kept. I spent most of a day in her dining room, thumbing through envelope after envelope of snapshots. If one envelope was mostly me or my family, I dumped it in my stack. And envelopes that were mostly of my sister or my brother and their children went into their stacks.

I didn’t have the time nor the energy to sort picture by picture. Envelope by envelope was all I could handle.

Then I boxed up my stack of pictures and put the boxes in the back of my rental car. My husband and I were headed from the Seattle area to Cannon Beach for a family reunion with his side of the family. In Cannon Beach I transferred the boxes from the rental car to my sister-in-law’s car. She had driven out from Missouri and agreed to drive the boxes back to Missouri for me.

After my sister-in-law delivered the boxes to my house, I stashed them in my dining room, still unable to go through them one by one.

Finally, sometime late this fall, I decided to organize the pictures at least by generations. I thought some of them might be helpful in jogging my memory for this blog. There were a few old pictures of my parents. Many of my childhood. And many more of my children’s childhood. I found some gems, but I’m still missing pictures I know I saw in my sister’s dining room. They must be someplace—perhaps in one of my siblings’ stacks, if not in some box of mine I’ve misplaced.

One of the photographs I noticed as I went through the pictures this fall was of my first Christmas in 1956 and all the presents I received from Santa Claus as an eight-month-old.

Xmas 56 (cropped)

What Santa Claus brought me for my first Christmas in 1956

And there in the photograph next to Humpty Dumpty was the little doll I found almost fifty-nine years later in my parents’ house. So the doll was mine—probably my first doll.

(And as a side note, I think the cat-shaped rug on which the doll sits was the rug I later took to kindergarten, when I argued with another little girl over which of us got to use our favorite cubby. Many of the items I received that first Christmas remained in our family for many, many years. The rocking horse is still in the family today.)

I don’t know why my parents kept this doll. Since I can’t recall playing with it, it doesn’t have much meaning to me. Unless the meaning is in the fact that my parents kept it—it must have had meaning for one of them, probably my mother. Perhaps the doll brought back memories to her of her first Christmas as a mother, of a time in her life she treasured.

When has a photograph solved a mystery for you?

The Thanksgiving That Almost Wasn’t

Last Wednesday morning, I made pumpkin and pecan pies. Wednesday night, my husband made apple pie, and he cooked green beans Thursday morning. We were ready with our contributions to Thanksgiving dinner.

Our two adult children had flown to Kansas City to be with us—our son on Monday and our daughter late Wednesday evening. They were ready for Thanksgiving also.

About 12:30 Thursday afternoon, we loaded food and overnight bags into our two cars (to facilitate separate returns after the holiday) and headed to Marshall, Missouri, to have dinner with my husband’s mother, sister, and brother-in-law.


Sign for the ER where I spent a couple of hours on Thanksgiving

Our kids took the faster route. About 2:10, I had a call from my son. “We just got to Grandma’s house. Her hip went out, and the ambulance is taking her to the hospital. Aunt Nancy is headed there, too.”

My husband and I were just approaching Malta Bend, Missouri—ten minutes away from Marshall. “We’ll go straight to the hospital,” I told my son. “We’ll call when we have something to report.”

When we arrived at the hospital, my mother-in-law was in X-ray. She had had a hip replacement two months earlier, and after the X-rays came back, the doctor confirmed that her new joint had separated. “We can’t fix it here. She’ll have to go to Columbia. They might be able to pop it back in the ER there. Otherwise, she’ll need surgery again.”

My husband waited for an ambulance to arrive to take his mother the 45-minute ride to a larger hospital in Columbia, Missouri. My sister-in-law and I returned to the house.

About 5:00pm, the ambulance set out for Columbia. My husband stopped by the house to drop off the green beans and eat a quick sandwich, then followed his mother to Columbia.

Meanwhile, my sister-in-law and I put our Thanksgiving dinner in the oven and salvaged our meal.

So our holiday was changed by an emergency. Still, we had many things to be grateful for. Here are a few:

1. I am grateful my mother-in-law’s hip was fixed in the Columbia emergency room. She and my husband were back home at 10:00pm. The next morning she was walking, albeit with a limp.

2. I am grateful for the medical personnel in Marshall and Columbia who were pleasant and competent, despite missing their holiday with family and friends.

3. I am grateful the roads between Kansas City, Marshall, and Columbia did not ice over. The rain was constant and cold, but the highway did not turn treacherous.

4. I am grateful we had planned a turkey roll and stuffed salmon for dinner, rather than a whole turkey that would have taken hours to cook and been hard to delay. As it was, we could put the meal together in an hour.

5. I am grateful everyone other than my husband and his mother had a pleasantly relaxed dinner. We didn’t dress up, but came as we were. We didn’t use the Waterford crystal, only everyday wine glasses. We served ourselves buffet style and didn’t light the candles in the dining room. But we laughed and joked and told stories, as families are supposed to do on a holiday.

6. I am especially grateful that I am married to a man who didn’t hesitate to give up his Thanksgiving meal to follow his mother to Columbia. He and his mother did get pie when they returned, and I bought him a turkey breast for later in the weekend. But this emergency—which occurred on our 38th wedding anniversary—reminded me how fortunate I am to have him.

This year I learned that there is always something to be thankful for, even when plans change due to an emergency.

When have your holiday plans changed suddenly?