Thursday, June 11, 2009

Diary of a (Momentary) Salmon River Miner

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time at the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. It just so happened that I was pregnant and overdue at that, and I knew that this was going to be a rare opportunity to take a look at a diary I had found in the UC Berkeley catalog some time ago. I had taken interest in the diary because it connects two places that are very special to me: Gloucester, Massachusetts and the Salmon River in California. I have spent summers throughout my life visiting the town of Gloucester, as there is an ocean front summer house there that has been in my family since the late 1800s. When I was eighteen I first visited the Salmon River and fell in love – with the region and with my future husband. The diary at the Bancroft was authored by a man who sailed from Gloucester to San Francisco (around Tierra del Fuego) in 1849, and then later travelled on to the Klamath and up the Salmon River, in 1851. Once I read the diary and realized how much interesting content it contained, my husband and I teamed up and transcribed its entirety.

The little handwritten book was authored by a man named Theodore Kimball, a carpenter. At the time of his journey, San Francisco was still a place where immigrants were able to stake a piece of land and build on it; the city was being built up quickly and people were flocking to it to get in on the economic boom there. Mr. Kimball did find some construction work in San Francisco initially, but fell ill with dysentery and then rheumatism, and when he recovered was unable to find much steady work. He realized that he was going to have to try something else or go home. There was a steady stream of men heading to the Klamath River "diggins" to strike it rich mining for gold, and Kimball decided to head that direction with a group of men he had met in San Francisco. They set out together first by ship to Trinidad, then by mule to Big Bar on the Klamath and finally, to Salmon River country.

In his diary, Kimball revealed his vulnerabilities and trials in what is largely a story of his persistent failure to get rich in the West (presumably one of the most common types of experiences of men during the gold rush). He also provided unique description of some places in northwestern California soon after the first white settlers had begun to arrive there. The following summary contains highlights from the portion of the diary covering northwestern California, but there is much more to be read from the full text. The text quoted here has been lightly edited to allow for an easier read. Feel free to email me if you would like a copy of the complete (and unedited) transcription.

Highlights from Kimball's journey to the Salmon River:

Kimball and his two partners, Mark Lane and William Thursby, paid $20 for their fare to sail from San Francisco to Trinidad. The first attempt to make the journey was met with poor weather conditions, and the ship had to return to shore before trying the route again weeks later. Once he finally reached his destination, Kimball was struck by what he found in the outskirts of the town of Trinidad:

"We landed on the 18th and pitched our tent about one fourth of a mile back of the town at the edge of the woods, where we found fifty or sixty men encamped, some of them in tents and some in brush camps and some in holler trees. I was into one tree where two men encamped with all their fit out for the mines. They had sufficient room for to keep a good fire and to sleep. This tree is twelve feet in diameter. There is another tree standing close by that contained three men and all their baggage."

Several days later, he described an uncharacteristic storm for Trinidad:

"On the 19th a storm of rain and some snow commenced, which lasted six or seven days. On the 22nd the rain blew a perfect gale. There were at this time five vessels laying at anchor in the harbor, and one brig and three schooners were drove on shore and lost. The weather continued stormy and unsettled up to the first of April."

Soon after they began their trek to the mines, they came across "Bedwood River", across which a large Redwood had been felled to allow mule trains to cross it. Kimball recounted this story he had heard about the tree:

"This tree was cut down by some men from Trinidad that carried on the packing business. They drove a large train of mules loaded with provisions to the mines. Soon after the tree was cut down, two Yankees from the state of Maine that were bound up to the mines stopped here and encamped in a holler tree, and took toll of every man that crossed on the log. Their price was one dollar for a mule and fifty cents for a man. They stopped here ten or fifteen days until the men that cut the tree went on to them, armed with rifles and revolvers, and drove them from their new toll bridge. They said they did a good business what time they were there. Some days they took near one hundred dollars in a day."

Their first mining stop was at Big Bar on the Klamath River. They were there for some weeks before heading over Salmon Mountain to the Salmon River. They started mining on the South Fork Salmon River, but decided after a short time to head instead to the North Fork. Their journey proved to be difficult:

"Here we made up our minds to cross over to the north fork of the Salmon River, it being about twenty miles across. On the 26th Mr. Thursby and Mr. Lane and myself started alone to cross the mountains. At 3 o'clock a heavy rain storm set in, and at 4 o'clock PM we found ourselves completely lost. There was but a few tracks that we followed all day, but here we could find none. It rained very hard at this time but we travelled on until night. When night came on we found ourselves high upon a mountain in a thick growth of white oak timber and some ten or twelve miles from any human being, and the rain poaring down upon us as if the windows of heaven were opened. This was the heighth of misery. We had nothing to eat or drink but a piece of cold bread and nothing for our mules but oak leaves, but here we pitched our tent and unpacked our mules and tied them to a tree and gave them some oak leaves."

The next day they found the trail again and some days later they reached the North Fork, which they found to be crowded:

"The river was all claimed five miles distance each way from us, and the men had just commenced damming the river. It was thought that there was fifteen hundred men then to work on ten miles distance on the river."

The men tried mining at many different spots, keeping on moving when it was evident that they were not profiting. The following passage is just one example, selected because it also describes the kind of dams that were being built on the Salmon River during those days:

"Mr. Lane and I bought to shares in a company called the Island Dam Company for which we paid two hundred and ten dollars for in cash before we began to work. On the 3rd day of June we begun to build the dam. There being eleven of us in number, we built the dam in twenty three days. This dam was about one hundred and sixty yards long and five feet high at the highest part. When the water was all cut off we found the bed of the river to be almost one solid bed of large rocks. We commenced prying up the rocks and digging gold. We worked here until the middle of July and found that we could not make any more than our expenses. We sunk holes in different places in the bend of the river, but by the time that we dug down eight or nine feet the water would come in so fast that we could not keep the hole clear of water with two pumps, and could not get out gold enough to pay our expenses."

In general, the men did not find mining to be profitable, though they did find one place where they were able to make money for a time:

"Mr. Thursby and Mark and myself then bought a small claim in the bank, about a mile up the river and went to work on it. When we first commenced on this claim we made about eight dollars a day, but in two or three days we begun to make twelve, fifteen and twenty dollars a day and from that up to twenty-seven dollars a day to each man. This was the highest wages that I ever made in the mines. But in about three weeks we worked this piece of ground out. We then went to work in the banks of the river in different places but could not make more than five dollars a day."

After this brief success, Kimball began getting sick again and decided to return to San Francisco. However, travelling would possibly entail contact with local Indians, and in one passage Kimball described how Indians were generally perceived at that time by the miners:

"At this time the Indians were very troublesome, and men did not travel except in large companies, and then they stood watch all night. At this time the Indians killed every man that they found alone. Ten men started from Besville the first of August to go down to Trinidad after provisions and the first night after they crossed the Salmon River. They stopped and built a fire and took supper and then lay down before the fire and went to sleep. The Indians saw their light and went to them and murdered nine out of ten of them and almost every day previous to our leave here we would hear of some men being murdered by the Indians."

Once Kimball returned to San Francisco, he continued to struggle to earn the money he sought, and he went on to Stockton to see what kind of work he could get there.

Chronology of Kimball's travels/activities:

December 21, 1849 - June 17, 1850 – sailed from Gloucester, MA to San Francisco, CA on the Barl Izete

June 19, 1850 – August 23, 1850 – worked as a carpenter on various jobs in San Francisco

August 24, 1850 – November 3, 1850 – took ill and was not able to work for most of that time, taking two short trips to Stockton from September 3-8 and September 15-26

November 4, 1850 – December 27, 1850 – went back to work "packing shingles" on the ship Bark Gallileo

December 27, 1850 – January 7, 1851 – performed odd jobs in San Francisco

January 7, 1851 – January [30], 1851 – took ill again with rheumatism and unable to work

January 30, 1851 – reports difficulty finding work in San Francisco

February 25, 1851 – March 6, 1851 – sailed on Bark Josephine from San Francisco headed for Trinidad, but had to return to S.F. to re-provision due to difficult weather conditions at sea

March 8, 1851 – March 17, 1851 – sailed from San Francisco to Trinidad

March 18, 1851 – April 7, 1851 – Trinidad

April 11, 1851 – April 23, 1851 – Trinidad to Big Bar (on the Klamath River) by way of mule train

May 10, 1851 – May 17, 1851 – Big Bar to Forks of Salmon

May 19, 1851 – May 20, 1851 – Up the South Fork of the Salmon River

May 26, 1851 – May 28, 1851 – South Fork to North Fork of the Salmon River

May 29, 1851 – September 10, 1851 – mined various places on the North Fork of the Salmon River

September 11, 1851 – September 16, 1851 – Salmon River to Trinidad

September 17, 1851 – September 19, 1851 – Trinidad to San Francisco by way of steamboat

September 20, 1851 – October 17, 1851 – worked odd jobs in San Francisco

October 17, 1851 – San Francisco to Stockton by way of steamboat


  1. Fascinating account; I'd be interested to read more. Loved the guys that charged a toll on the fallen tree bridge!

  2. gracefully done. Thank you for sharing your work.

  3. thank you so much for sharing. I would love to read more, especially about the Salmon River.

  4. Adrienne - Thanks for posting this, I enjoyed reading it and would love to read more. I worked for many years on the salmon river (forest service) and wonder if the big bar being referred to is actually big bar on trinity river. the reason I wonder this is because it was common in the mining days to travel from trinity river into the south fork salmon country. It struck me as odd that these folks would do it differently and travel from big bar on the klamath up the main fork to the south fork; and hence more logical that they would take the common route from trinity river big bar over the top and down to the petersburg vicinity on the south fork......jack w.

  5. Jack - thank you for posting your thoughts about the location of Big Bar. I talked tonight with Phil Sanders, a local historian and long-time Orleans resident, who agrees with your idea that the Big Bar that Kimball went through on route to the Salmon River was the Big Bar on the Trinity River. Perhaps the Trinity River was not yet named as such in 1851, and was just considered part of the Klamath. This would be a good topic for further research. Many minds together make better understanding! Thank you for sharing. - Adrienne

  6. What a great blog!
    I love reading about local history, and now I have three local blogs linked to mine that produce it.

  7. Thank you for a great blog. I love the country you write from. My father lived in Orleans for a few years and two of my sibs were raised there. I wonder if you will be writing about the local Native American basketweavers and "Following the Smoke". I met a few of them several years ago at the first "smoke" weekend. Also, would like to read about the Upriver Karuk area and people.