click to view original photo

Gold Between the Census Returns

Gold miners during the mid-1800s are very much a part of American history. But how do you find who they were?


Content Details

Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by:
Word Count: 747 (approx.)
Labels: Census 
Short URL:

Pioneers who made it as far as the central United States already had wanderlust in their blood. It should only follow that they were keen on seeing even more of this huge country when Gold Fever struck in the middle of the 19th century.

It is unlikely there will ever be a complete list of every miner who tried his luck, especially since some turned back before ever seeing the mines. Miners were a transient lot and, unless they were mining during a census year, they would not have been documented as living near their mining ventures. It was not possible to document every miner who sought a fortune from the ground. At best, miners might have been counted in their home-town census by well-meaning enumerators, assured by family members that the miner would return. And return, they did.

As a result, one way to identify miners is through local biographical histories. Scattered among the many descriptions of one-room schoolhouses and log cabins, you're likely to find a sentence or two about a local resident who spent his younger days in the mines.

These stories are about men who mined for fortune but returned to farms and businesses back home, far from the newly discovered gold mines. The stories also show that the California '49ers were not the only era of miners, even though the Gold Rush is considered to have lasted from 1848-1855. During that time, gold was on many people's minds, and not just in the United States.

A Livingston County, Illinois, historical biography published in 1888 includes several stories about miners. While the stories are brief, they probably are not documented anyplace else.

When John Wyllie arrived from Scotland, he settled, for a short time. in Galena, Illinois, and worked in the lead mines. By 1848, he joined a company of speculators and headed for California. He spent two years in gold mines near Sacramento. Reports of his success were probably true. Fearing he might be robbed by highwaymen on the return trip, Wyllie sailed to New York and then traveled across country back to his home in LaSalle, Illinois. He had enough money left over to return to Scotland for a visit before returning to Illinois where he began investing in land.

Henry Hilton left for California in 1850, during the heyday of the Gold Rush. After about a year, he moved to Oregon, then back to New York, and finally he settled in Illinois.

In 1853, John R. Knox's parents moved to Australia to mine for gold for four years. In 1857, Knox's father used his capital to open a store in his native Canada.

Francis Donohoe settled for a short time in Kendall County, Illinois, before heading for California the same year as Hilton. Donohoe nearly died along the way before he had his chance to seek fortune at Placerville, Gold Hill, Cold Spring, and Cedarville Mines.

Donohoe then joined a prospecting party and enjoyed some success. In 1858, after nearly a decade in the western mines, Donohoe crossed the entire width of North America, returning to his childhood home in Leesburg, Virginia.

The year Donohoe left the mines, Perry M. Potter sailed to San Francisco. Arriving in 1858, he spent two years searching for gold before he moved on to Vancouver Island and up the Frazier River, in Canada. He returned to Fairbury, Illinois, in 1861, where he remained the rest of his life.

In 1858, John D. Marks decided to try his hand in the California gold mines in earnest. His first wife died after one year of marriage. He remarried and apparently left his wife to raise their eight children in Illinois. Reportedly, he came home no richer, "excepting that his property in Illinois had increased in value."

In 1859, Richard Rush Puffer headed to Pike's Peak in search of gold. Puffer never saw Pike's Peak. He met too many empty-handed gold seekers returning. He went as far as Kansas Territory before heading back to green pastures.

David Huntley didn't catch "Western fever" until 1862. He went to Idaho and spent his time farming and mining for gold for one year. He earned about $200 per month. That would be almost $3,000 in today's currency, making him a very wealthy man in his day.

All of these individuals lived the remainder of their lives in Livingston, Illinois, after their various gold mining efforts. Most became farmers. Regardless of how much gold they returned with, each left a treasure of a story behind in their biography.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

<< GenWeekly

<< Helpful Articles