The following narrative was dictated by Ruben G. Wright to his wife in 18XX during his convalescence from a long and serious illness, at the earnest and repeated requests of his family.
I was born July 1, 1824 at Westfield, New York in a little house still standing on the creek flat above Rorigs Bridge. My parents were born in Connecticut but moved when quite young to Redfield, Oswego County, New York where they were married; they then emigrated to Ohio, which was then considered the “far West” with all their worldly possessions in an ox cart. They lived there for four years, then in 1817 came to Westfield, where they spent the rest of their lives.
When I was three years old, my parents moved to a farm a mile east of the village, which my father had just bought, and my first recollection is of the moving there and of riding with my three sisters in an ox cart, and, for safety, being put in a barrel half filled with potatoes.
My boyhood was spent on this farm. I attended school winter and summer until I was twelve years old, when my services began to be needed on the farm, and in consequence from this time on until I was eighteen, when I ceased going to school, I attended school only during the winter. At eighteen I became filled with the ambition common to boys at that time to become a merchant, and persuaded my father to allow me to go into a store as clerk. He finally consented, and I secured a position in Hungerford & Knight’s store, Thomas Knight, one of the proprietors. Being the husband of my oldest sister.
The business of a retail store in that day was a barter business and consisted of the exchange of goods for farm produce, and my duties for the first year or two were carrying bags of grain from the farmers’ wagons upstairs, packing pork in the cellar, drawing molasses, grinding sugar, and so forth.
All this proved a good school for me, and whatever insight I may possess of the relative values of property, I credit to my experience in exchanging everything raised on a farm, such as hoop poles, wooden bowls, shingles, lumber, butter, geese-feathers, beeswax, tallow, and so forth, for dry goods, hardware, boots and shoes , and groceries. There was very little cash trade, a silver dollar was considered a curiosity, and a bank bill was never taken without consulting “Thompson’s bank note detector”.
During the six years I remained there, I received some promotion, and from performing the more menial duties, became general salesman, kept the books and collected the accounts, being especially entrusted with the bad ones.
At the end of that time, I began to look around for some way of bettering my condition, and my attention was directed to the New West. In January of 1849 we began to hear extravagant accounts of the discovery of gold in California. I very soon decided that would be my destination, and I commenced preparations. One night while I was closing up the store, R P. Johnson, a lawyer in town, came in and said, “I hear you are going to California and I intend to go with you”.
We talked for some time, and it resulted in a correspondence with ticket agents in New York in relation to a trip by way of Panama. We learned that tickets had been sold for six months in advance, and after considerable thought and consultation, we decided to raise a company and cross the Plains.
The qualifications for membership were to consist of respectability, some gumption, and $50000 in money. This resulted in a company of ten, who answered these requirements, and with the exception of two, all were under twenty-five years of age.
The party was made of Seth Holmes, and Joseph Stockwell of Mayville, David Bemis of Jamestown, Spencer Douglas of Fredonia, Frank Stevens, Norman Rumsey, William Hynes, Joseph Dixon, Olney At a meeting of the company it was decided that Morse and myself should precede the company to St. Louis, to decide upon the route, procure the outfit, and so forth. An assessment of $400.pp each was made for the propose, and on the 24th of April, 1849, we started by stage for Pittsburg, there being at that time no rail road west of Buffalo. From Pittsburg to St. Louis the trip was made by boat.
On our route we had sufficient time to realize that our mission was responsible and important. We would be expected to do the right thing in the best manner possible. It was imperative that we should do so, and we felt as if we knew very little about it, so on arriving at St. Louis we decided first to seek what information we could.
We were fortunate in being directed to Col. Choteaux, who was at the head of the Fur Company, and whose business it was to fit out expeditions for trappers in the Northwest. He said at once, “Boys, you have come to the right placed, I can tell you just what you want to know,” and at once proceeded to give us the details of preparation for an undertaking such as was before us. Acting upon his advice and under his direction, I went to Independence to buy the mules, while Morse remained in St. Louis to attend to other matters, such as buying wagons, harness, provisions, and so forth, an outfit such as we found well suited to our necessities in the long and tedious journey.
Morse meanwhile had written to the rest of the company at Westfield, stating what progress we were making and setting a time when they should join us in St. Louis. When they arrive, they fortunately met a company from Buffalo who were preparing for the same journey. The two companies chartered a steamer, the Tammerlane, which took them up the Missouri River five hundred miles to Council Bluffs, stopping at Independence, where I had eighteen mules ready to put on board. We landed on the opposite side of the river from Council Bluffs, at the site of the present city of Omaha, which was then an Indian Agency with only a large log building, occupied by the agent, his family and helpers. At the time of our arrival, there were several thousand Indians there, receiving their annuities. Many of them had never seen a steamboat, and on hearing the whistle, they came running down the bank for several miles to meet us, and escorted us up, accompanying the march with such woops and yells as made our hair stand on end. On landing, however, we were assured by the agent that the tribe was friendly and would not harm us.
We remained there several days, setting up our wagons, matching the mules, fitting harnesses, and packing and adjusting the loads. Four wagon-masters were appointed, they were Stevens, Rumsey, Hynes, and myself, each having one or two helpers, as occasion demanded. The final start was made on the 28th of May, over the same route taken by the Mormons when migrating from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City two years before.
The journey in detail would fill volumes; it is enough to say that nothing but country boys and mules could have endured it, and it is a matter of record that in that year when the first fever of excitement over the finding of gold in California struck the East and filled the plains with emigrants, our party was the only one that went through without the loss off a man or an animal.
The road was nothing but a trail, with no improvements, no bridges, with deserts and mountains to cross, rivers to ford, and with not a human habitation for two thousand miles. It was too, the cholera season, and we were constantly passing newly made graves, simply marked with a board from the wagons, while the stench from decaying carcasses of horses and cattle filled the air sometimes for miles.
We were obliged to stand guard half of every other night to provide against surprises by the Indians, and to prevent the straying of our animals.
Notwithstanding our hardships, our dangers and privations, when in camp at night we never failed to hear an account of the ridiculous actions, speech, or behavior of some comrade, at which we could all laugh, and forget, for a time, our discomforts, and in all those months, which so severely taxed our physical resources, our tempers, and all our patience, we never had a serious quarrel or any other outbreak during the whole trip.
On arriving at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, we were obliged to part with the Buffalo Company for, on account of the overloading of their wagons, their animals became so reduced that they were unable to take them farther. We all camped and held a council. The Buffalo Company decided to abandon their wagons, cut up the harnesses, make pack saddles for their mules, and proceed on foot. Our party decided to lighten our loads, and every man was restricted to fifteen pounds of personal baggage. This process was somewhat amusing; each one chose a space of ground upon which he emptied all his personal effects, and the process of selection began. The first choice was, without exception, woolen shirts and socks. After selecting what seemed, to the mind of each, his absolute necessities, they were weighed, and considerable difficulty was experienced in selecting the exact amount. But at last we all succeeded in meeting the required restrictions, abandoning half of our belongings, which no doubt proved a lucky find for some wandering tribe of Indians.
We also abandoned everything in our loads except what we thought absolutely necessary to preserve life for the remaining half of the journey. At this time we did not occupy our minds with visions of rich gold diggings, but all our energies were directed toward getting ourselves and our loads over the mountains and reaching California alive.
The animals at once felt the relief in their loads, and we were able to make better time. We left the Buffalo party re-arranging their outfit, and did not see them again for several days. In the meantime, we had crossed a desert of sixty miles, without water or food, traveling night and day, and while in camp on Green River they overtook and passed us, taking a different route, and we saw nothing more of them until we reached Sacramento city, when we learned that three of their number had died on the Plains and that they were obliged to abandon all their mules and come on with nothing but the packs on their backs.
While the balance of the trip was without special incident, it was comprised of the hardest and most laborious work, and many privations, the roads being more difficult. It was a country without game, covered with sage brush and cactus, much of the time only alkali water, from which the mules had to be guarded, and at last the discovery was made, when still between three and four hundred miles form our destination, that our provisions were liable to fall short. We then made a careful calculation of the probable time required to reach there, and estimating the amount we could use each day, The last four days, however, we had nothing left by Indian meal, (and no full ration of that) which we boiled, without salt, but since that time no course diner has ever compared with it in keen relish.
We arrived at Lawson’s Ranch on Sacramento River, eighty miles above Sacramento City, on the 28th day of September, 1849, one hundred and twenty days after leaving Council Bluffs, foot-sore, exhausted,hungry, and all suffering more or less with scurvy, some even crippled with it.
This was the first civilized habitation we had seen since we left Council Bluffs. Here we purchased a500 pound sack of flour for $50.00 and a fat Spanish heifer for $40.00, and spent three days feasting on good bread and fresh beef, with an abundance of wild grapes for desert, the latter being exactly what we needed to purify our blood and drive out the scurvy.
We here received most favorable accounts from the gold-fields, and saw many specimens of pure gold.
These reports, and a sufficiency of food, raised our spirits and so filled us with courage that we apparently were a set of different men when we took up our journey down the beautiful Sacramento Valley from those who entered it a few days before.
Three or four days afterward we reached Sacramento, a city of three or four thousand inhabitants, with only canvas houses, not a wooden or brick building. Arriving in the suburbs, we were invited by Genl. Sutter to camp within his fort. This comprised about an acre surrounded by an adobe wall, with an adobe dwelling inside. Genl. Sutter gave us much valuable information about the country, gold mining, and so forth.
At Sacramento, we proceeded to dispose of our mules and wagons, for which there was good demand, and we sold them for as much as they cost us. Our company now divided up into prospecting parties for the purpose of finding the best location. In a few days we met and compared notes, deciding to go to Amadore Creek, sixty miles east of Sacramento, in the foot-hills of the Sierra Nevadas.
On arriving, all set to work to build a log cabin. In our first bill of provisions was a barrel of pork for which we paid $300.00; a dozen of eggs at $0.50 each; a barrel of flour for $200.00; potatoes and onions were $15.00 a pound. But as some compensation for these prices, the finest fresh salmon could be bought for a cent a pound.
We commenced mining as a company, but we soon found this was not practical, so agreed that each man should work for himself, but still remain as one household, each man being entitled to his individual earnings, a plan we found much more satisfactory. The only kind of mining then known was placer mining, gold being found in the beds of all the streams, of which there were many in that locality and which cut the county up into gorges, gulches and ravines, all more or less productive.
The following letter which appeared in the Feb. 12, 1850 issue of the Westfield Messenger, describes my impressions at that time:
Amadore Creek, Cal.
December 6th 1849
Friend Knight: As Mr. John Kipp leaves the diggings for the States this morning, I will spend a few moments to let you know how we are getting along digging gold etc.
California is a great country – it is everything I anticipated. It differs altogether from most new countries. The settlements are mostly on creeks and deep rocky canyons, and if you were permitted to look down upon the inhabitants you would be puzzled to know what they were at.
You would perhaps see one reaching his arms into the water, one with a milk pan shaking with all his might, another rocking the cradle, and a stranger might suppose he was putting the baby to sleep – but on listening you would be surprised to hear a jingling instead of a squalling.
We have our cabin built – it is 18 x 24 and provisions for six months, which is about the time the rainy season lasts. When it commences there is no such thing as getting around. Every one is obliged to stay where he is/ not because it rains constantly, but the soil is so soft here in the mountains that it will not support animals, and is not safe for men even in some places.
We have not done much in the way of digging yet. The most of the time since we arrived has been spent looking for a location, building a cabin, getting provisions from the city, etc. Yet we have dug something over $500.00 (that is, the seven who are here.)
I had the pleasure of taking out two ounces yesterday, although that is not an every day occurrence. A hard day’s work will bring one ounce, as sure as proper cultivation will bring a crop of corn on Allen’s meadow. Tell Uncle John that it is not all a lottery as he thought it was. For a man may wash out from the bed of almost any stream and make good wages.
Our provisions which were sent around the Horn have just arrived, but not till after we had purchased our winter’s supply. They are, however, now being sold, and afford a handsome profit. Pork is worth $65.00 per bbl., flour $45.00, and everything else in proportion. I think the profit on the provisions will pay the transportation. You may think that very high, but it is not. One day’s work here will bring double the amount of provisions that it will in the States.
Our trip across the plains was not as pleasant as it might have been. It was not just as I expected to find it. In place of it being a level prairie, it was rather more slanting – being mountains piled upon mountains for most of the way, and instead of being fertile country, it is a perfect desert from Council Bluffs to Lawson’s Rancho.
By following up little ravines we could find some grass for our animals, but when we would get at the head of the ravine, we would be obliged to make tow or three days drive without fodder before we could strike another ravine; in that case we always drove nights. The water is very bad. On the whole it is too much for man or beast; and if you or I have any friends coming to California who cannot come any other way than by the overland route, I want you to prevail upon them not to come, and I will pay all damages. Although we came through with all of our men and animals, it is something that very few do.
Messrs. Holmes, Hynes, Douglas and Rumsey have not be heard from since they left the company for Redding’s Diggings. I hope and suppose they are all well. We are all in perfect health, and enjoying ourselves first rate, yet I would like to hear from home. I have not heard a word since I left the Bluffs… Can’t say when I will return.
Successful mining was largely the result of individual sagacity in location, hard and persevering labor, and a fair share of “luck”. Of course, these varied greatly, but the average clean up was about twenty dollars a day in gold. In my two years experience in mining, the largest yield for one day was $800.00. One nugget of that day’s work I sold for seven hundred dollars, and four years after when in San Francisco previous to sailing for home, I saw the same nugget in the window of a bank, which made me realize that it was an unusually large and attractive specimen.
We all lived together in our cabin during the winter. There was no snow, in fact I do not remember that it came to freezing, and nothing but the heavy rain falls prevented our working all winter. In the Spring we separated, some going to Sacramento, some going onto a ranch, some choosing other obligations. I remained here two years, then went to Sacramento, taking with me seven thousand dollars, after having spent some six thousand dollars in wild cat mining, obtaining however, its full value in experience.
In Sacramento, I engaged in supplying the city with water. I bought eighteen horses and seventeen carts, and I leased land on the banks of the river for a water tank and an engine, with which I pumped water to an elevation whence it would flow into casks on carts, fitted with hose to deliver it into casks, barrels, pails, or any household utensil.
I continued in that business nearly three years, at the end of which I decided to return home. I closed up my business and found that I had realized about fifteen thousand dollars from my California venture, took passage in a steamer from San Francisco by way of the Nicaragua Route, and arrived in New York January 1, 1855. I came home with the feeling that I had a fortune, for when I left the East, ten or fifteen thousand dollars was considerable wealth.
I had a hard and busy life in California, and now felt that a life of ease and perpetual rest was desirable, but a few months were sufficient to convince me that the life of a drone did not constitute perfect happiness, and I began once more to look about for some active employment. When I had canvassed Western Missouri for mules on my way to California, I had thought it to be especially well suited for raising all kinds of stock, and I soon decided upon a venture of that kind, and began preparations
The emigrants to California had reduced the stock of horses in the West until, for the first time in the history of the country, they were higher there than here. I learned on inquiry that Clarion County, Pennsylvania, was considered a good horse -raising locality, and I went there for the purpose of buying a drove of horses to take to Missouri.
I purchased a few, and while doing so my was attention was directed to the beautiful groves of pine timber through which I passed in traveling from place to place. I had never seen anything like them, they seemed to possess a great attraction for me, and while staying over night with a farmer from whom I had purchased a pair of horses, I learned he was a lumberman also, had a mill and two thousand acres of pine land.
I thought this a good opportunity to investigate the business of lumbering, and spent considerable time in conversation with this man. He told me that his land was for sale, and the next morning he harnessed up my horses and we drove out to the mill. I spent three days there with a woodman, looking over the tract.
We afterward talked over the matter of purchase, and I learned that the price for the land was twelve thousand dollars. The next morning we were preparing to return when he said, “ Well, can’t we trade?” I answered, “Not at your price.” Then he asked, “Have you a price?”, and I told him that for his property, which included two thousand acres of land, the mill,boarding house, blacksmith shop, four yoke of cattle, one span of horses, and all the tools on the premises for the lumbering business, I would give ten thousand dollars, five thousand down and the remainder in one and two years, an offer which after a time was accepted.
I then called the men together, telling them that I had purchased the property, that I was going away to make necessary arrangements,and should probably be gone about four weeks, and that I would leave Mr.Graham, the foreman, in charge. I returned at that time and commenced learning the business. To begin with, I went into the woods to cut roads, under the orders of an ox-driver. In a few weeks, however, I began to give orders myself, those few weeks were sufficient to satisfy me that I knew something about stocking a mill, and what a day’s work should be. I then promoted myself to tail-dogging in the mill, gradually working myself up to beforemen.
After learning the business of sawing, I felt able to take full charge, and conduct the business. My apprenticeship had occupied about six months.
Early in the winter of 1855, Rufus Pier moved a store from Westfield to Strattonville, about fifteen miles from my place. He learned of my purchase, and wished me to sell him half interest in it, which after a time, I did, at an advance of two thousand dollars.
The first year we manufactured and ran to market one million feet of boards, which we sold for twelve thousand dollars, which was two dollars a thousand more than any previous price. The lumbering business continued to advance from that on, and during the war reached the highest figures ever known up to that time, the last sale I made being thirty dollars a thousand for the same kind of lumber that I sold the first year for twelve.
I had bought meanwhile, in company with Paul Darling, eight hundred and forty acres of pine which we worked together, and eight hundred acres which I managed alone. Carrying on the mercantile business, manufacturing boards, square timber, and shingles at each of these places, I continued in the business for about ten years, when I made up my mind that it was a good time to dispose of the business, and proceeded to do so. As a result, in the next year, 1866, I found that I had sold everything I owned in that country and that my business investments in the eleven years of lumbering had netted me something over one hundred thousand dollars.
I then returned to Westfield, which in a sense, I had always considered home, and again found myself without an occupation. I had realized that the pine timber lands of Pennsylvania were rapidly disappearing, and it would of necessity not be many years before a new market must be found, so hearing of the virgin forests of pine lands in Michigan and Wisconsin, I started for the West to look for investments in the spring of 1867, in company with Paul Darling. We looked through Michigan, but the bestlands there having been entered we decided that before investing we would look through Wisconsin, and there eventually we found better opportunities for investment.
At Menasha, Wisconsin, we procured minutes from the land office of the vacant government land, engaged two woodsmen and two half-breed Indian packers, and went one hundred miles beyond any settlement, and here we found what we were looking for. We remained here two months, exploring and taking minutes of vacant pine land, when we were driven out of the woods by mosquitoes. We then returned to Menasha, entered over eight thousand acres, and went home. About the first of September we again wen to Menasha, revived our minutes, engaged some helpers, and returned to the same locality in the woods, remaining there until the first of November, when a fall of six inches of snow forced a return.
At Menasha we left minutes for seven thousand acres more, making fifteen thousand acres located that year. The next year we repeated our explorations,Spring and Fall, locating seventeen thousand acres there, making in all thirty two thousand acres which we bought at $1.25 an acre, government price. This, with twenty four hundred acres that I had previously bought in Michigan, satisfied my ambition for pine timber atthis time, and I returned to Westfield, making my home with my brother Allen.
In the fall of 1866, I found that Allen was in great financial distress, as a result of endorsing paper for parties who had failed and whose notes were protested. He was also owing me large amounts of borrowed money, for the security of which he transferred to me various property, stocks, etc., amongst which was a large interest in a so-called paper mill which had practically been abandoned, there being a debt of $8000.00 against it. Allen owned the largest interest, having paid $7000.00 for his share,and naturally he was anxious that it should not be a total loss, and at last,through his advice, and through the rose-colored representations of various parties, I was induced to take hold of it and try to start up the business,although it was a venture in which I did not feel the upmost confidence.
In order to get control of the property, I was obliged to buy the other interests, which I did at a nominal sum, as the debt against it was considered all, and more, that it was worth. I repaired the building and put in some modern machinery, spending about $15,000 in doing so, but in spite of my best efforts to build up the business, it only resulted in failure. The reasons were several – distance from the railroad, lack of water power, making it necessary to substitute steam, andold, out of date and worthless machinery. The result was a business so unprofitable that I determined to close it out, and this I did by trading for undeveloped oil lands. This enterprise resulted in a loss to e of fully fifteen thousand dollars.
In the summer of 1870 I married Cora Pierce, who was then teaching in the Union School, and bought a home on North Portage Street, where my three sons, Paul, Ralph, and Pier were born. From that time until 1878 I spent my time attending to the paper milland looking after western lands and some oil business in Pennsylvania. In 1878 , having sold the mill and the house in town, I moved to my farm a mile east of the village and prepared to build anew home.
In the winter of 1883, I sold most of my Michigan and Wisconsin lands, and in looking for more pinelands, bought up in Louisiana,where in company with B. D. and Henry Hamlin, I bought a large track of longleaf pine, my interest being 12,000 acres which I still hold.
With some few exceptions, my business ventures have proved successful, and on this pleasant summer morning of June 1894, sitting in the cool breeze of my west veranda, just recovering from a long and tedious illness,I close this record of a somewhat varied and eventful experience, at peace with the world and all mankind.
REUBEN G. WRIGHT
The illness of which he speaks was a very severe attack of the Grippe, and although he made, apparently, a complete recovery, he seemed to have lost much of his vigor, and twelve years later, January 12, 1906, he died of arterio sclerosis, at the age of 82. He is buried at Westfield in the cemetery in which is also buried his father,mother, grandfather, and grandmother.