The 49er

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The tales of, and about, George Dennison Lathrop, as recorded by his son, Dr. Eugene Grant Lathrop, Sr. (There is also a fairly detailed biography of George's life into his 40s, which corroborate many details below, attributed to his grandson, Harold Rodney Lathrop. It can be found here.)

A PDF file created from scanned images of an old mimeographed copy of the following stories can be found here. (And a more legible copy here.) What follows below is a transcription of the PDF file (since the original can be difficult to read in places). Every effort was made to maintain the exact spelling and presentation as in the original document.

Forward (by Dr. Clarence Adoniram "Duke" Lathrop)
The '49er' of this story was George D. Lathrop, who lived through, and took part in, one of the most adventurous periods of our country's history - the Gold Rush across the continent to California in 1849. I've ever thrilled to the stories of grandfather's great adventure into the really wild west of '49, as told to me by my father, Dr. E. G. Lathrop. During a recent visit home, I ask Dad to write these stories down for us. Some of the glory is perhaps lost in the writing, but to those of us who have heard Dad tell them so often, the picture is vivid indeed, and we say 'Thanks, Dad' for a job well done.
C. A. L.

(So the following was written by Dr. Eugene Grant Lathrop, Sr. and in it, the “49er” or “father” was George D. Lathrop, “grandfather” (or "his father") was Rodney Lathrop, and “great-grandfather” (or "his paternal grandfather") was Walter Lathrop.)

"The 49er"

You see the 49er we are talking about was my father. In childhood and early manhood I listened to his California stories and I could have written them down entire. Some I have heard many times, but could never discover any divergencies. Now, in the twilight of life, I will try to remember and put down what I can of his tales of adventure.

You ask what kind of man was our 49er? Well, he was genial, optimistic, of a happy disposition, a lover of life and mankind, and the best story-teller I have ever known. Now, being a firm believer in the old saw, 'the boy is father of the man', I will tell you something of the boyhood of our 49er.

He was born in 1822 in New York City. His father was a master mechanic and builder, and was willing and able to give his boy good schooling. The 49er graduated from some private academy. He was proficient in math, but while he committed to memory every word of Pineo's Grammar, the vaccination did not take. He threw the book away as he went home after graduation and promptly forgot it all. In those days it seems the teachers were earnest and virile and believed that lickin' and larnin' went together. Father blamed grammar for many lickings, hence his distaste for grammar.

Our boy friend always had a distaste for city life and gladly spent his vacations and any time he could get away on his paternal grandfather's farm. This grandpa and boy were chums, but the future 49er did not get along so well with his step-grandma. At one time he gave her a saucy answer and his grandpa told him he must apologize. Am sorry not to be able to give the subject matter of this apology, but it was evidently not very abject, as his grandma bade him to get out, that the apology was worse than the insult.

His grandpa had a hired hand who must have been like Riley's 'Raggedy Man'  because he was good to the little city boy and promised to make him a horsehair fish line. The line was finished Saturday, too late to go fishing that day, and fishing on Sunday was taboo. As we all have some human frailties in our make-up, we can understand the little boy's plight. He decided that he just couldn't wait for Monday to try out his new line, so he tied his new line to his pole and slipped away to the little creek that ran through his grandpa's farm. It seems that one must not stand where brook trout can see you while fishing for them, else they will refuse your lure. Mindful of this, our boy quietly approached and poked his line out over the bank and into the water. With throbbing heart and bated breath he waited for a strike. Finally there was a little nibble but no strike. After waiting what seemed to him ages, he drew in his pole and what was left of his new line, about eighteen inches. Some varmint, likely a crawfish, had eaten it thru at the surface of the water. Only by remembering some poignant sorrow of our own youth can we realize the devastating grief of our little New Yorker.

The winters in New York state are long and severe, with heavy snowfalls usually. Three or four feet on the level was not uncommon. The roads were alright provided you stayed in the beaten track. If you got off that, you shoveled out yourself, horse and sleigh. Everyone carried a shovel for that purpose. The beaten track was wide enough for sleighs to pass if each one gave one-half the road. His grandpa drove one horse to a sled called a pung. Wealthy neighbors of Holland descent prided themselves on their big fat horses and fine sleds. They would wait for winter to haul their wheat to market. When one of these big teams met grandpa and his one-horse pung, the Dutchman kept the middle of the road. Grandpa had to shovel his horse and pung out of the deep snow and listen to the jeers and laughter of the Dutchman. His grandpa went into conference with himself with the result that he fastened an old cross-cut saw on the side of his pung with the teeth out. The old man started blythely out. The first big team with load of wheat that he met kept the middle of the road as usual. Grandpa turned out just enough so that the saw caught the Dutchman's wagon bed (which happened to be a new one) near the bottom and ripped it open from end to end. I hope great-grandpa did not laugh and am sure the Dutchman did not. This action of great-grandpa's may not have been strictly scriptural, but it had the merit of bringing about justice. Thereafter the one-horse pung and its venerable driver were given a generous one-half of the road.

Soon after father graduated from his academy, grandfather took his family and went west, locating at Sandusky City, Ohio. Father decided not to follow his father's trade and hired to a Mr. Shawn, a merchant in the small town of Venice, Ohio, not far from Sandusky. Mr. Shawn decided to build a large grist-mill, but could find no one able to build it. One day father told Mr. Shawn that his father was a master builder and could build the mill. Mr. Shawn said, ‘Why didn't you say so long ago. Now you go at once and tell your father to come and see me.’ My grandfather must have been somewhat psychic. He seldom dreamed but when he did, the dream was a preview of coming events. When father gave him Mr. Shawn’s message, Grandpa said he knew all about the projected mill, dimensions, etc. It had been revealed to him in a dream. The timbers were rough-hewn in the forest and dragged to the mill site, where grandfather counter-hewed each one himself. The mill stood for many years, giving yeoman service to the community. Unfortunately it was destroyed by fire some years ago.

Father was a fine manager and salesman for others but when he went into mercantile business for himself, he was a failure due to the fact that he was unable to say no to those who asked for credit.

It is 1849 and the air is full of the news and rumors of the discovery of gold in California, the land of mighty rivers, running over sands of gold. By this time father had despaired of financial success in business and was in a receptive mood for the great adventure. Leaving his wife and little girl with her folks, father joined his company at Independence, Missouri, where they outfitted. They elected Dr. Chesney of Findlay, Ohio, as their captain.

After leaving the settlements their captain’s word would be law until they reached the Land of Promise.

On their first Sunday on the road, they had a surprise, the captain told them to rest their teams, grease their wagons, fix harness, etc., and get ready to start early Monday morning. Some of the men grumbled mightily as other outfits kept passing all day, saying the gold would all be taken before they got to California. These scenes were repeated for many Sundays in the first part of the journey, but during the last half they began passing these hurry-up boys, their skinny horses and mules turned out to graze, recruiting their strength until they would be able to proceed. This seemed to prove that horses and men can go farther in six days than in seven in the long run. Also it proved that their choice of captain was wise.

The company had one wagon-box in their train that was made water tight, so when they came to a river too deep to ford they unloaded this wagon, put the box in the water. One man swam his mules across to carry a rope fastened to the box. Another rope was fastened to the other end of the box. Now they were ready to load. Wagons were unloaded, taken down and wagon and load put in the boat and pulled across. This was repeated until all were across. The mules and horses swam behind the boat. This looks like a slow business, but you must remember there was plenty of manpower and while one crew on the far bank was putting together the wagon and loading it, another crew on the near bank was unloading and taking down another. Not many such rivers were encountered.

Once they arrived on the banks of a wide, muddy stream and while they paused getting ready to ferry, some loose mules wandered out into the river to drink. However, by the time they were finished drinking they had sunk to their knees and experienced some difficulty in extricating themselves. The bed of this river was the dreaded quicksand, of which they had heard, however they found that in running water quicksand becomes quite firm and can be safely forded if one keeps moving.

One day they came to a shallow river that seemed to be full of fish, mostly buffalo, so-called perhaps because it has a kind of hump back of its head. It is a fat fish and excellent eating. Some of the men cut willows and made a kind of seine with which they caught a lot of fish. Father was a bit under the weather that day and did not go into the water. He was sitting on the bank which was about eighteen inches straight down to water at that point and slightly under-cut. He saw a big fish there with its head under the bank. Reaching down, father grabbed it in the gills, expecting to lift it out. But, the fish was too much for the fisherman, so presently they were both in the river and the fight was on. The men with the seine yelled, ‘Hang on to him, Lathrop. We are coming.’ It was the biggest fish caught that day and made two meals for father's party of six. If they all liked fish as well as father and could eat as much at a time, it must have been some fish.

Part of the men drove teams and part rode mules. Father was a rider. Depending as they did on springs and rivers for water, they sometimes had to make dry camps. One time after two dry camps, as the saddle men rode ahead of the train on their weary mules, just as they topped a small rise, the mules pricked up their ears and broke into a canter down the slope. The canter became a run and when the four foot vertical banks of river were reached, the mules plunged over the brink into stream, rammed their heads into the water up to their eyes and gulped the water. As a man of some veterinary experience, I should have expected a lot of sick mules, but it seems no bad effects followed.

The Indians they encountered were friendly and anxious to swap. One man traded a calico shirt for a beautiful buffalo robe.

The first big tree they saw was off the trail a bit and discussion arose as to its size. The highest guess was six feet in diameter. Finally they decided to ride over to it and measure it. They took a thirty foot lariat, a man to each end, and when it was stretched, the men could not see each other. Another lariat was tied on and it took half of that to go around.

The doctor of the train kept his medicine in a chest. One day as the doctor had his chest open, one of the men slyly took a bottle of alcohol and tried to take a drink. Of course, he strangled. The doctor handed him a cup of water and said, ‘Here, dilute it, damn you, dilute it.’

At last this overland train from Independence, Missouri, reached California, the land of their dreams. All were anxious to look for gold. They had heard that ‘gold is where you find it’. The hunt was on.

One Christmas father's party of miners agreed to send their takings for the day to their wives. Father washed out sixteen dollars for the little woman in Ohio. Some are lucky, some not.

Two young Swedes, brothers, working on their placer claims found two nuggets about the size and shape of the third of the big end of a rail-splitters wedge – solid gold. The boys did no more work that winter, but spent their time going around showing the nuggets and talking about them.

There was ‘gold in them thar hills’, but nuggets and big strikes were scarce and anyway there are always richer diggings farther on. So our friends figured to go look for greener pastures. Father and his partner found a small mountain stream that flowed over solid rock in a sort of rapids or riffle for one-fourth mile or so. This rock was soft in spots and the action of the swift water and gravel had worn out holes like stone kettles.

Here was a natural gold washing machine. For centuries the swift water had been washing the gold-bearing sand into and out of these stone kettles. The sand and gravel would wash out and away but the gold would stay in the bottom of the kettle because it is much heavier. So they figured to build a dam at the head of the rapids and sluice or channel to carry the water past the rapids to river channel below. They built a cabin and hired some men and went to work. The men were to receive so much per day and board. These men were Missourians and it seems had good appetites. Father did the cooking and complained to his partner about the enormous amount of grub it took to fill the men. His partner would always say, ‘Give ‘em beans, partner, give ‘em beans.’ One day there was a bucket of molasses on the table which the men did not notice until they had finished the meal. Then they saw it and gathering about the bucket with tablespoons finished it. The men were fired, the partner saying he could stand a lot, but when it came to eating molasses with a tablespoon it was time to quit. A new crew was hired, the dam completed and one kettle cleaned out, from which they took eleven hundred dollars. As there were a lot of these pots, the prospects for riches were very bright. That night there came a hard rain. Their dam was washed out and Hope left the camp.

One Sunday as a party of prospectors were strolling thru the forest they startled a grizzly bear that was lying asleep in a slight depression filled with leaves. A young fellow slightly in advance almost stepped on the bear, who grabbed the young man's arm, breaking it in three places, dropped the arm and loped off. It would seem that the grizzlies of that time craved no truck with man and would leave alone if let alone.

One winter father and a partner went into the mountains prospecting. They had a mule on which they packed bedding, grub, tools etc. After finishing an unsuccessful treasure hunt they were headed for Cadwallader's camp and civilization. The trail followed a ridge pretty much, dim in places and in others lost where wind had blown snow over it. Finally, they lost the trail completely. Going ahead in the general direction they have been traveling for a mile or so they came out on the brink of a precipice of one or two thousand feet in height. Retracing their steps to where they had left the old trail, they trailed for a time and finally struck a likely looking trail which they followed down to the before mentioned cliff. Coming to the cliff for the third successive time as night was approaching, they prepared to spend the night. Coming back to the point where they had lost the trail, they build a fire against the trunk of a large pine log, piled spruce limbs to keep their bedding out of the snow, spread their blankets and retired.

When father wakened in the morning he saw a written record in the snow of what happened during the night. A big grizzly had come to his bedside, smelled of him and turned and walked off. Without leaving his bed, father reached out an arm, put his elbow in the heel track and his fingers in toe marks. Just a fit. Some bear.

After a breakfast of sow-belly, flapjacks and coffee, the mule was packed and the search for the trail resumed. They had gone but a short distance when a covey of grouse flew up into the trees ahead of them. Pa’s pard yelled, ‘Give me the gun’. The gun (a cap and ball musket) had been laid on top of pack before roping same, so it was quite a job to get it out. Pard standing behind the mule became impatient, took hold of gun muzzle and jerked. The gun was discharged. The pard clapped his hand to his side and said, ‘My God. I'm shot.’ It was some time before father could persuade his pard to move his hand, who seemed to think that if he did, the entrails would come tumbling out. Finally he cautiously removed his hand to find the skin unbroken. However, his clothing was so powder-burned that a round of it fell out during the day. Pard must have been a man of excellent nerve, for in spite of his near escape, he shot the head off one of the grouse.

Packed up once more and on their way, they were overtaken by a party of horsemen. The leader, a large blustering sort of man riding a powerful buckskin horse, asked our prospectors where they were going. They replied that they were lost but wanted to get down to Cadwallader's camp. The big man replied, ‘I'm going to Cadwallader's camp, follow me. Jim Beckworth never was lost.’ So our friends followed Jim Beckworth and his party down the trail they had made the day before, until they came to the jumping off place. Jim rose in his stirrups and pointing out over the cliff said, ‘Right over there is Cadwallader's camp.’

Our friends knew that, but ahead was no thorofare. Jim Beckworth was lost. Retracing their steps they were finally on their way to the cliff, when they were joined by an old man driving an ox. Presently the old man and ox left the trail and took off thru the bushes to the left. Our prospector friends having lost confidence in Jim Beckworth, followed the old man and ox. Jim Beckworth noticed the desertion and called, ‘The old man is just heading his ox, this is the trail to Cadwallader's.’ Our friends stuck to the old man and in a few rods farther on were out of the bushes and on a plain trail to Cadwallader's camp. Father spoke of Jim Beckworth as a ‘breed’ and I always supposed he was part Indian, but have learned since that Jim Beckworth was a mulatto.

After a year or so in search of gold as a prospector and placer miner, our 49er decided to try merchandising. With a partner he started a store way up in the mountains along the placer mines. As father liked best to be out in the open, it fell to his lot to freight the goods in from the West, while his partner kept the store and the books. Inside a year or two, father’s partner told him they were busted merchants. The partner came back to Ohio and started a wholesale store in Sandusky.

It was during his first year in California that father had bad news from home. That was the year of the great cholera epidemic in Sandusky. Grandfather sent his family away into the country but refused to go himself. During the course of the pestilence he made coffins and often acted as undertaker. There were hardly enough well men to bury the dead. Grandfather was the last case in the city, and was so worn out by labor and lack of sleep, that he quickly succumbed to the disease. ‘Greater love has no man, than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’

Father left the diggings and tried his luck in San Francisco, or Frisco as they called it. The bay was full of anchored vessels. Vessels would sail in and the sailors would desert in a body for the gold mines, leaving the vessels stranded for lack of men. Cargos of hides and tallow awaited these vessels but manpower was lacking. Vast herds of cattle, owned by rich Spaniards, grazed central and southern California. If you needed beef, you were allowed to kill one, peg the hide flesh side up on the ground, pile the tallow on it and take the meat. Father told of one incident where a couple of men traveling in a wagon shot a cow and were dressing the carcass when the Spanish owner and one of his vaqueros rode up. Somehow there ensued an altercation. Suddenly the Spaniard threw his riatta over the man's head and put spurs to his horse. The man had a knife in his hand, so he quickly cut the riatta and reached into his wagon and brought out his rifle. The Spanish horseman disappeared in a cloud of dust.

Conditions in Frisco at this time where deplorable. It was unsafe for anyone to walk alone on the streets at night. Civil authorities were afraid of the thugs and the police were given a part of the stolen swag. There were rumors of a vigilance committee, but no one seemed to know much about it.

One evening a man came into a store near the bay shore and asked for some article. As the storekeeper stooped to get it under the counter, the customer struck him over the head with a billy, put the store’s cash box into a gunny sack and made for the bay shore where he had a skiff. He jumped in and pulled out of the bay. Pursuers reached the shore just before the robber went into a fog bank that was settling down on the bay. Six men can pull a boat faster than one, so they soon overhauled the robber. Just before overtaking him they heard a splash as the robber jettisoned his plunder. After securing the thief they were lucky enough to fish up the bag and box with a boat hook. That night the vigilantes met in a vacant warehouse and gave the man a fair trial, sentenced him to die, and the next morning his body swung from the gable of the warehouse. Father said the man had been a tall man to start with but that he stretched some and looked to be seven feet. The vigilance committee didn't have to hang many. Some of the thieves left town, thinking it best. Many shady characters received notice from the vigilance committee to leave town by a certain time. I asked father what happened when a man refused to go and he said he never heard of any refusals. Frisco became a law-abiding, peaceful and prosperous city.

In California at that time the Spaniards held bull-fights much as we have rodeos now in New Mexico. Father told of going to one. The fence on three sides of the corral was made of poles tied to posts with strips of raw-hide. The lower pole of the fence was about ten inches from the ground. The fourth side consisted of an adobe house. One of the bull-fighters (footman) when charged by the bull would drop to the ground and roll under the fence. Finally, not realizing that he was on the house side, he dropped down by the house and was instantly killed by the bull.

It finally dawned on our 49er that the real wealth of California lay in the soil and climate of that great state. One man sowed a field to oats. They cut the oats with a reaper called a dropper. Father helped to bind the oats. He said the oats were so tall and thick that the dropped bundles over-lapped eighteen inches and required ten men to bind them as fast as the machine cut them.

Father worked quite a lot on a farm owned and managed by a Mormon by the name of Horner. Mr. Horner employed an Indian whom he had converted to Mormonism. The Indian was a faithful worker, but if he went to town on Saturday, which he usually did, he would come back Sunday evening drunk. The first chore Mr. Horner had to do Monday morning was to take the Indian into the irrigation ditch and immerse him. Mr. Horner had his men cut down a giant redwood tree and make up into posts and rails. This tree furnished enough posts and rails to fence 160 acres. One fall they were short of mule feed, but had plenty of potatoes. Mr. Horner told father to feed the mules potatoes. The mules were tied to fence posts and each given a box of potatoes. One mule refused to eat the potatoes, but ate up the redwood post. The next night he ate another post, but the third night he ate the potatoes.

The last summer father was in California he grew a crop for himself. I am not sure, but think it was potatoes. This crop he sold on or in the ground and took the buyer’s note. This note was never paid; so father had nothing but some rich and varied experiences for the five years he spent in California.

Many of father’s California tales I have heard many times, but here is one I heard but once and that but a short time before his death. Together with many ex-miners and prospectors, father took ship for the Isthmus of Panama. After he had gone on board, a poor homesick, penniless man begged him to let him have the loan of his ticket so that he too might make the voyage, as a stowaway. Father’s tender heart could not resist the plea, so he gave the man his ticket. For some reason the captain became suspicious and came to father and asked to see his ticket. Father told him that he had been shown his ticket once and that was enough.

This company of disgruntled gold-seekers went steerage and complaints were plenty about the food the ship furnished. Thursday would be duff day and they waited for that: but when the duff appeared no one could eat it. Six-shooters came out and there were loud calls for the captain. When the captain inquired the cause of the ruction, he was invited to eat some of the duff. Captain took a bite but spit it out. He told the men they should have duff the next day, made from the best flour the ship carried, and guaranteed wholesome victuals for the balance of the trip.

Arrived at the Isthmus, they left the ship to cross on foot and muleback and take a ship on the north side for New York. Father elected to ride a mule. Each mule was followed by a native carrying a prod-pole. The first day out their party met another going in the opposite direction. The trail was very narrow at the meeting point, with stone cliffs on either side. All went well until father had to pass a big fat lady of German extraction, riding her mule astraddle. The mules crowded together and father's knee and the lady's knee locked and halted the procession. There was bad language on the part of the lady. Father put his hand on her mule and pushed, the native used his prod-pole and the passing was effected.

They found lodging in the garret of a house of sorts that night. They were awakened sometime during the night by the lamentations of one of their party (a German). ‘Mine vatch iss gone and my small monies iss gone, and oh mine Gott, my tree hunder tollar iss gone. I vouldn't care for mine vatch or mine small monies but, oh mine Gott, mine tree hunder tollar iss gone.’ There were a number of natives lying about on the floor, each with a big knife, or machete. The party persuaded the German to pipe down lest his head followed his tree hunder tollar. Poor old Dutchman, my heart has been bleeding for him for seventy-five years.

Next day they stopped for dinner where a house advertised ‘pork stew for dinner’. Fresh pork had been very scarce in California, so they hailed with delight the prospect of pork stew. They liked the stew and all was lovely until a doctor in their party, who had been laying aside and observing the bones, pushed back his chair and exclaimed, ‘Gentleman, these bones never came from a hog’. The ready six-guns came out again. They called for the proprietor and offered to shoot him if he did not come clean. Said the proprietor, ‘Vell, it iss monkey, but it iss schust so good as pork’. Many of the men got sick and threw up the stew. Father said that if he had known the meat was monkey he should not have eaten it, but as long as he had eaten it, he could see no point in getting sick.

The balance of father's journey home was uneventful.

Now we take leave of our beloved 49er. He is now in a country that has more gold than California ever had, where even the streets are paved with it, and where all the other 49ers are together on the Footstool talking over their adventures.

E.G. - his 4th son

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