The University Record, May 8, 2000

Bentley display chronicles Michiganders’ gold rush travails

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

David O. Woodruff wrote from the California gold fields to his six-year-old son in Niles on stationery pre-printed with scenes depicting some of the activities and lifestyles of the Gold Rush. Woodruff had ‘placed’ his son with relatives when he set out to search for gold. The paper most likely was purchased in a ‘big’ town such as San Francisco or Sacramento. Illustration courtesy Bentley Historical Library
First dismissed by Michiganders as tall tales when news of gold in California reached the state in 1848, believers began packing for the trek west after Anthony Ten Eyck sent word via the Detroit Free Press that it was all true.

But the Golden State did not give up its riches easily or to all who made the journey from the Midwest. Letters, journals, diaries, field notes, sketches and contemporary newspaper reports from, by and about Michiganders seeking their fortune describe the hardships those who panned and mined encountered. The accounts of Michiganders in the California gold fields are part of “There’s Gold in the Collections,” a display at the Bentley Historical Library, available for viewing 8:30 a.m.–5 p.m. through the end of the month.

“Except to the few engaged in business or speculation, nothing is obtained here without great labor and exposure and none but those possessed of strong constitutions and able to work should try it,” David O. Woodruff wrote to his mother in 1850. “I would not like to advise any of my friends to come.” Woodruff didn’t strike it rich, but did make enough money to “free [his] farm from the incumbrance (sic) upon it . . .”

Exhibit curator Kathy Marquis says that the letters and diaries do not record the intentions of those heading to join the Gold Rush. But they do reveal that a spirit of adventure, a desire to see what everyone else was doing, or outstanding debts were often the impetus for the long and dangerous journey.

“Though few expressed regret at making the trip or digging for gold,” Marquis says, most advised relatives and friends at home “don’t come to California!”

One of Ann Arbor’s founders, John Allen, wrote to his mother in 1850 that the work in the gold fields was difficult and tedious and that, “No labor of a farm will at all compare with it.” Six months after leaving Michigan, Allen wrote, “On our arrival we pitched our tent among the numerous tents we found there for it was, and is, quite a village of tents and contains several hundred persons. Here there are miners, tavern-keepers, stores, victualing tents, gambling tents, etc. . . .The next day after our arrival, we set out on a ‘prospecting’ tour. That is, we purchased a pick, a shovel, and tin pan and commenced our search for gold. . . . When we discovered a place that gold may have been deposited by the current in the present or in past centuries, we got to work with pick axe and shovel among the rocks. . . . ‘Green ‘uns,’ as we were, generally dig inefficiently, and with ill success.” Allen died in California.

The letters recount the harsh life and frustrations of a miner’s life. There simply was too much dirt, not enough water, worthless money and rumors of gold not “panning out,” Marquis says.

Woodruff wrote to his sister that, “Hundreds are daily leaving this country at present for their homes in the Atlantic States. Some with their ‘piles,’ but I fear the majority with but little more than will carry them there.”