Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Fortunes are for the Few. Letters of a Forty-Niner. By Charles William Churchill.
Edited by Duane A. Smith and David J. Weber. San Diego: San Diego Historical Society, 1977. Notes. Illustrations. Appendices. 136 pages. $12.50.
Reviewed by Thomas D. Clark, emeritus professor of American History at Indiana University and editor of Cold Rush Diary, The Journal of Elisha Douglass Perkins, and author of Frontier America: The Story of the Westward Movement.
The basic story of Charles William Churchill’s trek to the California goldfields in 1849-1850 is that of hundreds of others who sought fortunes and met with disappointments. The author of these published letters was a native of Ohio who wrote occasionally to members of his family, and they in turn wrote him, though there were difficulties in maintaining communication. Fortunately Charles’ brother, Mendal Churchill, preserved these letters, and in 1972 they found their way to the San Diego History Center’s collection. General Mendal Churchill was never able to go to California as he planned; instead he went into the iron business along the Ohio River. In the Civil War he enlisted in the Union Army as a private and was given the rank of brevet brigadier general as a reward for meritorious service. In 1892 he moved to San Diego taking with him Charles Churchill’s letters. These were given to the Historical Society by a granddaughter, Virginia McKenzie Smith.
Churchill journeyed to the gold fields by way of the Isthmus of Panama and Chagres, and up the coast to San Francisco. His descriptions of the ship passage and conditions in Chagres are brief but revealing. His voyage to California was a remarkably short one when compared with the time required to make the overland journey. He sailed from New York on June 30, 1849, and arrived in San Francisco on August 18th. His one brief letter describing life in San Francisco is vivid, but like most gold rush descriptions of that writhing port leaves much to be desired. The focus was outward to the gold fields beyond Sacramento, and how to get there.
The heart of this slender volume is the account of the author’s wanderings from one gold mining bar to another. First and last he prospected along the American, Feather, and Yuba rivers. In 1851 he went south to Sonora in Mexico, and then back to Mariposa in California the next year. For Churchill and thousands of others, gold mining was hard work, fraught with eternal frustrations and disappointments, and stingy with rewards.
In Mariposa Churchill gave up gold mining and became a storekeeper in the employ of D. Turner and Company, operators of a frontier system of chain stores. He repeated almost by rote the story of the majority of gold rushers. Prices were insufferably high, gold was elusive, water was either too plentiful or too scarce, and winters and constant exposure and diseases took heavy tolls of human life.
Churchill died July 13, 1855, believing that some day when he had saved enough money to spare him embarrassment back home he would return to Ohio. His friend and executor, William Laughlin, wrote Mendal Churchill that his brother had become addicted to drink. He left a pitifully small estate of less than $500. Correspondence between General Churchill and Laughlin is interesting within itself.
The co-editors, Duane A. Smith and David J. Weber, have written illuminating introductions to the six sections. There are adequate footnotes and a brief suggestive bibliography for further reading about the Gold Rush. Churchill’s letters have a confirmatory rather than an original contributory value. The Gold Rush of 1849 produced almost as many letters, journals, diaries, and news stories as did the subsequent Civil War. This handsomely produced and adequately edited book adds another valid title to the eternally growing list of Gold Rush literature.