The Letters of Thomas Rylan Darnall
January 1, 1971
Thomas Rylan Darnall was born in Clark County, Kentucky on September 1, 1828. He was the eldest of four sons born to Phoebe and William T. Darnall.1 In the fall of 1853, the Darnall family immigrated to Platte City in western Missouri.2 Thomas, however, did not accompany his family, for in 1850 he heard of the fabulous mineral discoveries in California and set out to seek his fortune in the Golden State.
Upon arriving in California, Darnall settled near Sacramento City, where he alternated between the occupations of farming and placer mining. By 1853, Darnall had relocated himself in San Diego.3 During the next year, he opened a small store and acquired various real properties in the Old Town area.4 That year, he joined Lodge No. 35 of the Free and Accepted Masons.5 Also, in 1854, Darnall became a charter subscriber to the San Diego and Gila Southern Pacific and Atlantic Railroad by purchasing twenty shares of stock in that company.6
In June of 1855, Sheriff M. M. Sexton appointed Darnall to the position of deputy sheriff. The editor of the San Diego Herald commented upon Darnall’s appointment, “From what we know of Mr. Darnall, we are of the opinion that he will be a very efficient officer.”7 Evidently, Darnall also thought himself quite capable, for that next month he announced that he would run for sheriff against his boss.8 At the August 4 County Convention, Darnall received the Democratic nomination for sheriff9 However, in the September 5 election, he finished third in a four man race, receiving only sixty votes.10 This bitter pill was later sweetened when Darnall obtained the position of secretary of his Masonic Lodge.11
The year 1856 did not begin particularly well for Darnall. In early February of that year, an Indian and a Mexican employed by Darnall broke into his store and pilfered several small items. A posse set out after the robbers, but returned a few days later without finding any trace of the thieves or their loot.12
Darnall’s fortunes improved greatly in March when he was elected a City Trustee and County Supervisor.13 That same month, Darnall also assumed the position of Secretary of the Board of Supervisors.14 His political star continued to rise when, in April, the Board of Supervisors appointed him Chairman of the Board.15 Also, that September, Darnall demonstrated his concern for the city’s cultural development by urging formation of the San Diego Lyceum and Debating Club.16
Although his term of office as a Trustee and Supervisor expired in March, 1857, Darnall continued active in civic affairs by serving as foreman of the County Grand Jury.17 That July he announced himself as a candidate for sheriff.18 Once again, though, Darnall’s political aspirations foundered when he lost the August election by sixty-three votes.19
During the summer of 1857, Darnall and Ephraim Morse entered into a copper mining venture in Lower California. Their mine, called the “Jesus Maria,” was located near San Antonio. In a letter to his parents, Darnall reported that he had, “. . . invested every cent I can call my own and a a little more . . .” in the mine.20 At that time the investment seemed sound, for the San Diego Herald stated that the mine “. . . excels in richness the most sanguine hopes of the proprietors.21
Before the mine could reach its full potential, however, difficulties with the Mexican authorities shut down operations. The trouble began on August 20, when miners at the “Jesus Maria” caught a man named Bill Elkins and a Cholo Indian stealing some of the company’s animals. The miners, headed by foreman William Cole, decided to dispose of the thieves in the traditional frontier manner. When informed that he was to be hanged, Elkins crassly remarked that “. . . he had lived long enough in this d—–d miserable world and could not possibly be worse off in another.22 The miners quickly obliged Elkins by “stringing him up” from a nearby tree. Sufficiently impressed by this example of frontier justice, the Cholo led the miners to the stolen animals. Later, however, the unfortunate Indian was shot to death while attempting to escape.
Although these actions put an end to thievery at the mine, the Mexican authorities took a dim view of the unsanctioned hanging. They subsequently arrested the miners and sent them to Santo Tomas for trial.
Upon hearing of his employees’ plight, Darnall journeyed south to secure their release. However, when he arrived in Santo Tomas, he was thrown into the “calabozo,” joining those whom he sought to free. Word of Darnall’s incarceration caused much excitement in San Diego, and an armed relief party was quickly organized. This group may have had more in mind than just liberating their countrymen. The editor of the San Diego Herald hinted at the rescue party’s real ambition when he stated, “If our people ever cross that boundary line, Mexico may as well say farewell to Lower California, for the rich silver and copper mines there are too valuable a prize for the Yankees ever to relinquish their grasp upon.” Although many men favored an immediate invasion of Mexico, cooler heads prevailed, and an express rider was sent south to gather more accurate information. The rider returned with the news that Darnall and the others were safe, but still confined. San Diegans were further relieved when the rider revealed that Governor Castro and thirty armed men were protecting the Americans from any rash acts which might be attempted by a vengeful Mexican populace.
A few days later, San Diegans were greatly surprised when Darnall rode into town. The San Diego Herald described his arrival. “Before he had time to dismount from his animal, the corral of Judge Morse, into which he rode was filled with our citizens, each vieing with each other to embrace one so much respected and whom we had counted as numbered with those whom we should see no more among us.” Darnall then informed the crowd that he had been released on bail for twelve days and that the other prisoners were awaiting transfer to La Paz, Baja California, for trial.
Five days later, Darnall, together with Judge Kurtz, A. B. Smith, and Don Santiago Arguello, left for Santo Tomas to intercede for the captive miners. Their efforts proved successful and, by September 27, the miners were back in San Diego.
With the easing of tensions in Baja California, work at the “Jesus Maria” resumed. At this time, Darnall felt so confident about the mine that he suggested, “If we can get anybody in with us to furnish some capital, and the finance turns out well, we can work seven or eight mines that are all good.”23
The operation of the “Jesus Maria” was fairly simple. The miners took ore from a shaft described as being “. . . between seventy and eighty feet deep . . . and having a vein nine feet wide with good strong sidewalls without any danger of caving in.”24 Next, the ore was washed and transported to a nearby beach. A sailing vessel then took the ore to San Francisco for further processing.25
Initial samplings from the “Jesus Maria” were quite favorable and, by February of 1858, the mine was producing very rich ore.26 During the spring and summer of that year, however, the miners encountered some serious problems. The most pressing difficulty was the inadequacy of the ore washing machine. This troublesome machine caused Darnall so much grief that he was “. . . haunted with the idea of getting on a mule and leaving the country.”27 By July, 1858, conditions at the mine had deteriorated to the point that he urged Morse to “. . . sell out by all means28 Darnall reported that not only was the ore washing machine causing difficulties, but also that the quality of the ore was becoming increasingly poorer.29
In October, 1858, Darnall sold half of his interest in the “Jesus Maria” for $400.00.30 During the next month, conditions at the mine went from bad to worse. In late November, Morse dryly stated, “It seems the mine so far has cost about $150.00 per ton and as we get only $40.00, it is not a very profitable speculation.”31 Darnall also concluded that mining speculation in Baja California was extremely unprofitable, and by 1859 he had left both the mine and San Diego.32
Following his departure from California, Darnall returned to his family’s residence at Platte City, Missouri. There, in July, 1863, he married Jane Hill Miller, the twenty-one year old daughter of a prominent Platte City merchant.33
Soon after the marriage, Darnall and his brother Lee journeyed west. In 1864, they turned up in the booming gold camp of Austin, Nevada.34 In a letter to Ephraim Morse, Darnall reported, “I have not yet found that rich mine but am ‘buscando’ every day.”35 In the same letter he also revealed that although he considered himself to be wealthy, due to inflation in the camp, he could not afford the price of a sack of flour.36 During the remainder of their stay in Nevada, the Darnall brothers owned several mining “ledges” near Austin.37
By the year 1870, Tom Darnall had returned to Platte City.38 In January of that year, Darnall severed his last ties with San Diego by disposing of his stock in the S.D. &G.S.P.&A. R.R.39 Darnall spent the rest of his life in Platte City, where he was employed as Deputy County Collector.40 During this time he continued to be active in the local Masonic Lodge and was described as being “. . . a constant reader, and well informed in Philosophy and science, interesting in conversation and social in his habits.”41 The story is also told that at the 1874 Platte County Fair, Darnall placed a fifty dollar bill atop a smooth pole. He then offered fifty dollars to anyone who, at one dollar a try, could climb the pole. Two boys promptly scaled the pole, and Darnall closed up shop, one hundred dollars poorer.42
The exact date of Darnall’s death remains uncertain. However, the Platte County Cemetery records reveal that he was buried there sometime in 1906.43
*Note: Typed copies of the following letters by T. R. Darnall were obtained through the courtesy of the California Historical Society, San Francisco, California. In presenting these letters, I have not corrected Darnall’s somewhat unorthodox spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.
…. Business is reviving rapidly, the appearance of the cholera put a check on it some time since, but now the cholera has ceased and every thing is lively once more; the weather is very cold and dry at present, the mud freezes every night. Tell Summers the people on K st have commenced planking that street. I went to the city a few days since to purchase some seeds; for onion seed I had to pay sixty four dollars per pound, – turnips – thirty two dollars per pound, and other seeds in proportion, the quantity in market rules the price. . . . Ploughs are selling for, from fifty to one hundred dollars each. Peach stones are worth two and a half dollars per box &c &c … .
. . . The weather is very warm through the day but we have heavy frosts every night. There has been so little rain that the farmers are apprenhensive of a bad season, but we hope for the best. The people here are expecting a large immigration this spring, if it is so God help them, for they will need it here if in any part of the globe. The miners have not been able to make any thing this winter on account of the scarcity of water in the ravines. Gold excitements have nearly ceased of late; if a man can get a few dollars per day he sticks; though there has been some little stir about the Klamath `diggins’; humbug as usual I guess. Provisions are getting cheap now, we can live quite decently for fifty cts per day if we do our own cooking. If Sac’ City lives I expect to stay in California five years yet, at least …. Rylan
. . . . There is a great excitement now among the miners (poor fools) about Goldbluffs at the mouth of the Klamath river; another Gold Lake humbug, I think, Humbugery is the order of the day here, when the immigrants come in green from the states, the people humbug them and make money by it; and they in turn humbug the next green uns, and thus it goes, from one excitement to another.
There has been no rain yet to do any good, if it does not rain more the rivers will be very low this summer and miners will do better than ever. I believe now is the time to come to California if ever. If the rivers are very low I expect to go to the mines again in June, come out and go with me. The value of claims is rising on the Sacramento River, hitherto, the claims have only been taken upon the bank of the river, but now all the plains between the river and the tule is settled. We are going to put in cultivation about thirty five acres, and all the rest on the river we have rented at ten dollars per acre per anum. I have forty acres back towards the tule that I will give to you if you will come out and bring the seed that I wrote to father by Summers, to send. . . in two or three years land will be money here, it is worth forty dollars per acre on the river now, and a great many purchasers . . . .
. I cannot write of the people individually nor collectively more than to say they are a heterogenious combination and amalgamation of all nations and kinds; before the arrival of the americans and not a little time before, there were a few families of Spaniards, and a lot of soldiers, who, by amalgamation with the indians, have prduced the race now denominated “greasers,” they are so near the indian or negro, that “it comes d-d nigh to kill it” I know many american men here, whose wives and children, if traveling through the south would be required to show their passes; yet there are some as fair and rosy cheeks among the native Californians as can be found in any part of the world: “few and far between.” I have not seen a person since 1851 that I knew before that time, of course you cannot expect to hear any thing of your acquaintances. Perhaps a slight description of the Celebrated City of San Diego would interest you; San Diego, (the terminus of the great Pacific Rail Road as is to be) in english, is Saint James, was formerly an old Presidio, established by the government of Mexico for the protection of the Jesuit missionaries and the few inhabitants, who lived here at that time, from the ravages of the hostile Indians, who infested the small settlements on the coast. The city is situated on the bay of San Diego and contains about thirty six square miles within the limits of the corporation. The bay of San Diego is second only to the bay of San Francisco in respect to size, of all the harbors on the coast, but as regards safety San Diego harbor is not excelled by any harbor in the world; it lies in the form of a crescent and is about fifteen miles in length, and from one mile to three miles in width, is completely landlocked, so the largest vessels in the world can lay at anchor in perfect safety during any storm, no matter from what quarter of the globe it may come. Immediately within the mouth of the harbor is the perfect and natural breakwater “Ballast point,” this is a low rocky point extending almost across the mouth of the harbor, but terminating exactly at the spot, at which the best engineer would have cried halt; west of the bay, that is, between the bay and the ocean, rises the promontory “Point Loma,” which is the site of the light house but recently completed, and the great safe guard of our harbor. Point Loma, at the mouth of the bay rises abruptly from the waters edge several hundred feet and extends north and east, in a semicercle, gradually decreasing in abruptness at the water’s edge, until it expands into a plain of more than a mile in width, but, still, retaining its elevation in the back ground, leaving our beautiful city, as it were, in a bowl, with a harbor where hundreds of the largest ships may ride at anchor with perfect safety. The bay abounds in all kinds of fish, even Mackerel are caught here annually in large quantities; and a kind of red fish of which the fishermen catch an immensity, and dry and prepare them for. exportation; there is a kind of shark which infests portions of the bay, the fear of which renders it unpleasant bathing. The City is divided into three parts, 1st La Playa (the beach) is that part of the city nearest the mouth of the harbor, this was formerly the embarcadero of the hides and tallow that were shipped from this port, and is on the part of the bay, now, mostly used as an anchorage, here the mail steamers land their mails and freight; here is situated the Custom house &c &c. 2nd as we travel up the bay, we next arrive at the part called Old Town by the americans and El Presidio by the Californians, this part is San Diego proper, and contains most of the commercial houses of the City, the houses here are generally those that were built by the natives previous to the year 1849, and are composed mostly of adobes, and covered with tiles; they are generally but one story in highth, and the walls frequently as much as five feet in thickness, the better to withstand the frequent visitations of earthquakes; this is the principal depot for produce from the adjacent country, the Rancheros come here to barter their “elfectos” for dry goods and groceries; here is the printing office, Post Office &c &c. 3dly We arrive at the part called New Town which owes its name to the recent survey and plat of the place, it is three miles from Old Town, and has been built since 1849, the inhabitants of this portion of the city are entirely american, it has been a very thriving little place, but at present it is very dull; there the government commissary depot is situated, formerly the supplies, for the army at forts Yuma and Jarupa, were freighted on waggons from this place, but since the opening or commencment of navigation on the Colorado river, the supplies to Yuma are shiped by the way of the gulf of California, consequently the withdrawal of the government teams has injured the business of New Town considerably. In the year 1850 a long and splendid wharf was built here, at an immense cost ($70,000) but from sheer negligence about repairing, it is now almost disused.
San Diego will probably be selected as the terminus of the great Atlantic and Pacific Rail Road, it has all the natural advantages requisite, for the terminus, and in point of practicability it has no equal, although, that prince of topographical engineers, Lieut. Williamson surveyed the route, by passing over it without setting an instrument, and reports it impracticable. Mr. Chas H Poole civil engineer, in the employ of the San Diego And Gila Southern Pacific And Atlantic Rail Road Company, (there is a name for a company) has made a very careful and correct survey of the Route declared by Williamson to be impracticable, and reports to the company the feasibility of the same. I do not remember the exact grade, but I know it is less than the grade of several of the eastern roads. San Pedro, a small roadstead, up the coast from here is making some pretentions to rivallry for the terminus, they have nothing to reccommend the place, but the ease with which their port can be entered, for vessels passing up and down the coast can see San Pedro many miles before they reach it, there is no point Loma to shield it from the view or the winds, no Ballast point to retard the fierce breakers approach; but every part is open and exposed to view and storm. San Francisco is too far away, the engine must stop to blow before she goes such a distance, and when she stops, at the mouth of the Gilo, to blow a little, we will switch her off to San Diego, at least let its pray so. When the Rail Road is completed I intend visiting the eastern states, I would like very much to visit you now but have no money. I own twenty shares in the S.D.&G.S.P.&A.R.R. company, we have a charter from the state of California for the construction of this road, the continuation of the road is from San Diego to the mouth of the Gilo river a distance of two hundred and twenty miles, we contemplate constructing this road so as to meet the great road from the east, at the mouth of the Gilo; besides the twenty share in the Rail Road, I have invested every cent I have made, in city property, so 1 will sink or swim with old S Diego on the issue of the rail road; yet if I can make enough money this winter to come home on I will come. I would like to start about the first of March next, and will if I can raise the wind. I think I have a very good show to realize a few hundred dollars by that time but may slip up on it, so I will not promise All I want is the terminus of the Rail Road to be at San Diego, then I will be with you forever, and have money enough for us all; on the ninth of this month I purchased a lot of land at La Playa containing five acres for the sum of one hundred dollars, which will be worth fifty thousand dollars the day that it is ascertained that San Diego will be the terminus of the road; the lot fronts on the bay, and is the best lot that has been sold for some time in San Diego, most of the valuable lots are in the hands of those who are waiting for the R R; “there is a good time coming
If we only had some of the society here, that we find in the older states, then we would have the greatest country in the whole world, even without the Rail Road. There is but one american girl in the place unmarried who is grown, and she can neither read nor write; scarcely any of the native Californians can read or write. We have the most healthy and salubrious climate in the world; I have been here nearly three years, and have not seen more than six or seven funerals, and most of those deaths were caused by imprudence. We frequently have a baile (ball) to while away the time, the Californian girls are great for dancing; their principal dancing consists in waltz and polkas, in the execution of which they excel any girls I ever saw; they likewise beat all creation in eating, a party of twenty californian girls will eat more than one hundred american girls. As the women excel in dancing so the men excel in horsemanship, they are by far the most superior horsemen I ever saw, even the boys three four and five years of age are expert in the management of the horse. I know a sprightly little fellow eight years old named Francisco Pico, whom I have known to travel frequently the distance of fifty miles on horseback, and alone; even at their bull fights you will see boys in the ring, from eight to twelve years of age; in fact I might with propriety say they are bred on horseback.
I had well nigh forgotten to inform you that I was a candidate for sheriff at the late general election and was defeated by twenty votes
Usually, we have the most mild climate in the world, but for the last few days it has been intensely hot, and to alleviate the sultriness, I go bathing, almost every evening in the ocean, and every Sunday certain for then the girls go along, and Oh! what a luscious time! “we does has”; that is a luxury I never enjoyed in the States. We have the nicest beach in the world for bathing with just sufficient breakers to make it interesting and pleasant. It is very dangerous bathing in the bay on account of a kind of fish called, here, stingaree, which lays flat on the bottom, it takes it name from a sharp bony substance, resembling a needle, appended to its tail; and when tread upon or molested will strike with great force, its stroke is immediately followed by great pain, accompanied with swelling of the wounded part; it has never to my knowledge been found only in smooth-water, so to evade its attacks we go to the breakers outside of the bay. You must not imagine, for men and women to bathe together, that because it is not customary, in your country, the women here are more immoral or indecent than there, such is not the case; custom makes law, and as it is a custom to bathe together here, we can see no impropriety in its indulgence; besides it is becoining fashionable in the eastern cities. I am no nearer, now, apparently, coming home than this time last fall, I have not one dollar more than I had then, but am awful homesick . . . . In all probability there will be a party leave here in Feb’ next, I will endeavor to accompany them, the party will consist of several of my most particular friends, both male and female. I own a quarter section one mile from the court house, which I want to enclose this fall and winter, so that I can rent it out, if I enclose it this fall I will sow the whole of it in wheat and barley; fencing is very costly here, we cannot get any timber that will make rails except pine and that at a distance of fifty or sixty miles, I intend to fence picket fashion timber for which can be obtained within a range of twenty miles.
Sept 1st My birth “Day”
I was out of town, when the mail boat was here, on a little speculation. The spanish population here are all catholics, and they always celebrate the natal days of their patron saints with high mass and feasting. Forty five miles from here is the largest Mission in Calia’ dedicated to “San Luis Rey,” the anniversary of his birth or canonization, I know not which, is the 25th of August. So in anticipation of a great time, I went a week in advance with a load of goods to selland made nothing and was detained until the mail boat had gone.
1. The Darnall, Darnell Family With Allied Families, vol. 1 (Family Genealogy, Privately Published), p. 159.
2. William M. Paxton, Paxton’s Annals of Platte County, (Kansas City: The Hudson Kimberly Company, 1897) pp. 338-339.
3. The San Diego Herald, 11 November, 1853. This issue contained the first indication that Darnall was in San Diego, a notice that he had won a legal judgement against a Mr. Joseph A. Anderson.
4. Several land deeds for Darnall’s Old Town properties are on file in the Serra Museum Library in San Diego.
5. Data obtained from a personal letter from Mr. Leo E. Anderson, past Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Masons of California, 8 December, 1969.
6. Treasurers’ Book of the San Diego and Gila Southern Pacific and Atlantic Rail Road, 1 November, 1854, p. 1, Serra Museum Library. The S.D.&G.S.P.&A.R.R. was organized on November 1, 1854. The company proposed to build a rail line from Old Town to the mouth of the Gila River at Ft. Yuma, where backers hoped it would connect with the southern transcontinental railroad. Sectional difficulties in the East, however, prevented the line from progressing much beyond the planning stage. Plans for the line were revived following the War Between the States, and in 1872, the company’s holdings were incorporated into Col. Tom Scott’s ill fated Texas Pacific Railroad. Lewis Burt Lesley, “San Diego and the Struggle for a Transcontinental Railroad Terminus,” Greater America: Essays in Honor of Herbert Eugene Bolton, (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1954) pp. 502-505.
7. San Diego Herald, 16 June, 1855.
8. Ibid., 28 July 1855.
9. Ibid., 5 August, 1855.
10. Ibid., 15 September, 1855.
11. Darnall held this post in 1856 and 1857. Also, in 1858, he served as Grand Master of the lodge. Personal letter from Leo E. Anderson, 8 December, 1969.
12. San Diego Herald, 9 February, 1856.
13. San Diego Herald, 8 March, 1856.
14. Minutes of the Trustees of the City of San Diego, 3 March, 1856. Serra Museum Library.
15. San Diego Herald, 12 April 1856.
16. Ibid., 20 September, 1856.
17. Ibid., 11 April, 1857.
18. Ibid., 18 July 1857.
19. Ibid., 12 September, 1857.
20. Thomas R. Darnall to William T. Darnall, 13 September, 1857. Darnall File, California State Historical Society Library, San Francisco, California.
21. San Diego Herald, 25 July, 1857.
22. The accounts of this incident and the events which followed are contained in The San Diego Herald of 29 August, 1857, 12 September, 1857, 19 September, 1857, and 3 October, 1857.
23. Thomas R. Darnall to Ephraim W. Morse, 19 November, 1857. Darnall File, Serra Museum Library. The Serra Museum Library contains much business correspondence between Darnall and Morse concerning the operation of the “Jesus Maria” mine.
24. Darnall to Morse, 18 April, 1858. Serra Museum Library.
25. San Diego Herald, 2 January, 1858.
26. Ibid., 23 January, 1858.
27. Darnall to Morse, 16 June, 1858. Serra Museum Library.
28. Darnall to Morse, 4 July, 1858. Serra Museum Library.
30. The deed of transfer for this sale is on file in the Serra Museum Library.
31. Morse to Darnall, 24 November, 1858. Serra Museum Library.
32. Darnall’s name does not appear on the San Diego County tax rolls after the year 1858.
33. This union produced two sons, Morse b. 4/23/1864, and Floy b. 1/16/1867. Paxton, Annals, pp. 338-339.
34. An entertaining history of Austin, Nevada, is to be found in Oscar Lewis’s book, The Town That Died Laughing, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1955).
35. Darnall to Morse, 11 December, 1864. Serra Museum Library.
37. The Lander County Recorder in Austin, Nevada, lists four mining deeds to several ledges in which Thomas Darnall and Lee Darnall appear as either Grantor or Grantee.
38. Paxton, Annals, p. 493.
39. S.D.&G.S.P.&A.R.R. Subscription and Stock Book, p. 7. Serra Museum Library.
40. The 1877 Atlas of Platte County lists Darnall as holding the position of Deputy County Collector.
41. Paxton, Annals, p. 339.
42. Ibid., p. 586.
43. Platte County Cemetery Records, (Riverview, Part Two).
Blaine P. Lamb is a native San Diegan. He is a senior majoring in History at the University of San Diego. He is affiliated with the San Diego Corral of the Westerners and the University’s Chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, National Honorary in History.