Philip French and the Gold Fever

William F. Hanna

Beginning in January 1848, when gold was discovered in California’s Sacramento Valley, hundreds of thousands of farmers, merchants, laborers, sailors and rogues decided to become treasure-seekers. The effects were dramatic. In 1847, for example, the non-native population of California had numbered under 1,000, but in less than two years it increased to more than 100 times that figure. The Gold Rush drew people — mostly men, known as ‘49ers — not only from the eastern United States, but also from Central and South America, Europe, the Hawaiian Islands and China. Statehood was granted in September 1850, the gold-hunting peaked in 1852, and by the time the frenzy abated more than $2 billion worth of gold had been taken from California’s soil and streams. With its population vastly expanded, the state was, and still is, one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation.

While plenty of research has been conducted on those who found new lives thanks to the Gold Rush, much less scholarship has been devoted to the thousands more whose dreams were crushed in California. Many of those had departed their communities to the sound of cheers and brass bands because they embodied the hopes and expectations of family and friends who stayed behind. In the end, however, men who had risked their lives and meager savings just in reaching the goldfields, returned home months or years later carrying nothing but disappointment and a lifetime of stories. We’ll see that Philip French was one of these.

Born in Berkley, Massachusetts in the last year of the eighteenth century, French was a middle-aged farmer when the gold fever called him to California. Fifty-years old in 1849, he and his wife Jerusha had been married for twenty-five years and had two grown children. Daughter Sarah, 23-years old, and her brother George, age 20, were both living on the farm with their parents when Philip left home.

Although it seems likely that his ship departed for California sometime during the third week of August 1849, we don’t know the vessel’s name or from where it sailed. We do know that it had plenty of company on the high seas. In March 1849, for example, as Philip prepared for his own departure, the Bristol County Democrat copied a New York Herald report stating that as of that time 270 vessels had cleared U.S. ports on their way to California. These ships carried more than 17,000 emigrants and crew. Thousands more would follow.

Philip’s journey of more than 13,000 miles would have taken him first in a southerly direction along the Atlantic coasts of North and South America, then westward through the Drake Passage and around Cape Horn, at the tip of South America, and finally north again as far as San Francisco. The extreme volatility of the weather near Cape Horn, in the so-called Southern Sea, scarcely 600 miles from the coast of Antarctica, has for centuries made the area a notorious graveyard for ships and men. The fact that the Panama Canal was still six decades in the future was of little use to sailors of the mid-19th century.

San Francisco harbor, ca. 1850–1851

All that Philip French has left us about his California experiment comes from a single letter written to his wife after his arrival in San Francisco in April 1850. Besides noting that he had sent an earlier message from Valparaiso, Chile, he reported that although the trip had lasted slightly more than seven months, the weather had been generally favorable throughout. He also mentioned that while in Valparaiso death had claimed one of his shipmates, “Lathrop Hyde of Conn.” He was referring to Joshua Lathrop Hyde, 44-years old, of Groton, who in the months before departure had lost his wife and only child. Like many other ‘49ers, perhaps Hyde felt that he had nothing left to lose.

In his letter, Philip told his wife that during the long voyage he sometimes passed the time by reading. “I have been in sort of a torpid state,” he wrote, “some times would read and at other times be in my Berth. I read the Bibble through in less than four weeks, and other Books in proportion, some weeks had not mutch taste for reading.”

His first few days in San Francisco were a revelation for the Berkley farmer. He made plans to sell space in his tent to four other New England men, probably shipmates who had made the long trip with him. He also told Jerusha about his first trip ashore. “I cannot describe this place to you,” he wrote. “You have heard the truth about it, there seems to be a rush of People of every tongue and language and none cares for my Soul. They say there is in all places one thousand sail of Vessels, here is one of the best harbors in the world.”

While the folks back East were reading and hearing about the great sums of gold ready to be taken in California, Philip had already met a few real-life gold miners, and the reviews were mixed. “The news remains the same up at the mines,” he told Jerusha. “Some has lately been told to have dug thirty pounds [of gold] in Three days . . . One man told me he dug three pounds [of gold] in one day and at another time one pound and [a] half”. Nevertheless, he wrote, “Three quarters [of the miners] would not dig in four months enough to pay their passage back, they all say it is hard work to get it and many get scared out of it and go back.”

Philip thanked Jerusha for her efforts in making the cotton shirts that had come with him on the voyage, but then apologized because he had been told that cotton clothing wasn’t suitable for the rough work in the mines. So now, he said, despite all her labor, “they are not worth anything to me. All I can carry up with me is two or three flannel shirts and shovel and pick and a few things which I can carry up in a bag. Cotton cloathes are not worn up to the mines. I had as good through [threw] my others overboard as they will not sell for anything.”

In addition to back-breaking work, Philip faced another problem as he prepared to hunt his fortune. “They say that folks that are past middle age cannot worke in the mines,” he told his wife, and he reported that sickness and disease had cost many miners their lives during the past season. “But I must go and see the Elephant,” he wrote, using a popular nineteenth century expression for facing a dangerous but exciting challenge. A deeply religious man, he placed his faith in God to see him through.

If dreams of gold pulled Philip French across thousands of miles of dangerous ocean to California, his letter also gives an idea of the discontent that pushed him to make such a drastic move. “I cannot close without writing you something about Berkley and the Estern States,” he wrote. “I find by seeing other places and what others have told me that we have lived in the hard part of America for a person to make a living. Sudden changes of weather carries off a great part of our inhabitents and the People work themselves almost to death to get a scanty living.” “I do not wish to say anything about my own place,” he wrote, “but there is no prospect of Berkley being anny better . . . I write this because I am afraid my Children will settle down in Berkley and it seems to me like perfect slavery.”

At the time he wrote these lines, Philip was about to leave for the goldfields. He promised Jerusha that he would write again as soon as he could, and then he signed off. What he found up there, what “seeing the Elephant” did to his dreams, and why he decided to come back East we may never know, but he was home in Berkley in time to be counted in the 1855 state census. It’s unlikely that he returned soon enough to see his son George marry Sarah Porter, a local girl, in November 1850, but maybe he was home in time to see Sarah wed William H.C. Crane, a Berkley farmer and blacksmith, in July 1851.

Perhaps his return to the farm, the marriages of his children and the coming of his grandchildren, mellowed Philip enough to let him see his life in Berkley in a better light. He was nearly 69-years old when died in April 1868, almost eighteen years to the day after writing Jerusha from California. She followed him in death by less than a year, and both are buried, with their stories, in the Berkley Common Cemetery.

Philip French’s gravesite, Berkley Commons

Philip’s fear that his children might stay in Berkley was indeed realized, though there is no evidence that his family shared his pessimistic view of the town. Young George died there in 1860, at 31, leaving his wife, small children and both parents to mourn him. He rests in a grave just a few feet away from his mother and father. Sarah outlived her brother by forty-six years and became one of the Berkley’s most beloved citizens. She died at age 80 in 1906, and is buried with her husband in the Fox Cemetery.

What Jerusha and Philip’s children thought of his odyssey we’ll never know, and maybe his safe return after two voyages around the Horn was all they prayed for. Yet they, like thousands of other ‘49er families, could be forgiven for wondering how life might have been different had the goldfields been more generous to dreamers.

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