We’ve all heard about Robert Andrew Ferguson’s exploits as a cowboy. He helped tame the wild West, had more horses under brand than any man in the world, and was one of the wealthiest men in Hill County. Before all of that, he was a young man in Gaston County, North Carolina when opportunity in the way of a gold rush in California came knocking. Gold was discovered on January 24, 1848 at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California.
The news of the discovery of gold was first announced in San Francisco by a newspaper publisher in March of 1848. Evidently, he walked through the streets with a vial of gold shouting the news. The first published announcements on the East coast didn’t appear until August 19, 1848 when the New York Herald reported it. I don’t know when the news reached North Carolina, but family eyewitness accounts say that our four Fergusons left on February 19, 1849.
They left for Yorkville, SC that morning in February. Once in Yorkville, they took a ship to New York City. Published in the New York Herald, New York City, New York on March 13, 1849 was a list of ships and passengers entitled “Movement to California from” and then the lists categorized by states. Under the heading of South Carolina is the following information:
The brig Henrico, Captain Paine, cleared on Saturday, the 3d instant, at Charleston, and will leave, as soon as wind permits, for Chagres. The following is a list of the passengers, most of whom are associated together as the Palmetto Mining Company:–
All four of our Ferguson men are listed on the manifest which you can read by clicking here.
The Journey to Chagres, Panama
In the ship’s manifest mentioned above, the Fergusons were headed to Chagres. Where on earth is that? Chagres, today, is the name of a river. I wonder if it was also the name of a port in 1849? At any rate, the Chagres River empties into two oceans. Before the Panama Canal was built you could enter the Chagres in Colon (Atlantic Ocean) and travel to Lake Gatun and then on to Panama City (Pacific Ocean). It is unclear how much of their journey through Panama was on land and how much was by water.
If you are interested in what a trip to the Chagres River might have been like for our Ferguson Four, I found a couple of Internet sites that were interesting to me on the subject. The Hacking Family is sailing their little hearts out and made a stop on the Chagres River. They have great photos and maps of the area. Their write ups about being on the river or in the jungle made me reflect on what our four Fergusons would have thought about it.
For the more adventurous among us, here is the Trip Advisor page for the Chagres National Park there!
The following were published in the Lincoln Courier in Lincolnton, North Carolina. The first is a death notice for James “Squire Jim” Ferguson. I do not know who submitted this for publication, but when James “Squire Jim” arrived in California and received mail containing this newspaper article, he had a few choice words to say about it. It appears that he didn’t know who would have published such an outright lie either.
The Erroneous Death Notice
From the Lincoln Courier (Lincolnton, NC)
Saturday, May 12, 1849
We learn with regret that Squire James Ferguson, who left Gaston county some months since, for California, died at Chagres, of cholera. Mr. Ferguson was an amiable gentleman, and will be regretted by many friends, who endeavored to dissuade him from this unfortunate trip. Of the remainder of the company, we hear nothing.
This next article was published in the same newspaper. James “Squire Jim” Ferguson wrote a letter to James Quinn and it was published first in the Gaston Gazette and then the Lincoln Courier. This letter tells of their journey and of conditions in California. I included the travel information above about Panama to help with clarity. I think most readers are fairly familiar with Mexico geography and I haven’t included that information.
From the Lincoln Courier (Lincolnton, NC)
Saturday, October 27th, 1849
James “Squire Jim” Ferguson’s letter to James Quinn
Published in the Gaston Gazette
Note: The top of the newspaper clipping is missing and so there are parts that will have blanks in the text below.
James Quinn, Esq. ——–
Dear Sir: Through ——– Him that rules the armies ———-and the inhabitants of earth and ——-we have been once more permitted to reach the shores of the United States territory in safety, and in the enjoyment of good health, hoping through the mercies of God that these lines may find you enjoying the same. We have had a long and tedious passage from Panama here; we sailed from that port on the 28th of April, and on the 3rd of August, about midnight, we entered into the bay of San Francisco, with a full moon directly overhead, when every hear was leaping with joy. We saw near 200 vessels lying at anchor in front of the town. The vessel that we came in was a frail old Mexican built brig, 27 years old; it was about a ninety-ton vessel and there were ninety-seven persons on board, which made us very much crowded, and according to law they are only allowed to carry two passengers for every five tons; the reason that the owners of vessels at Panama become so able to practice frauds on the community is on account of the extreme anxiety of the emigrants to leave that hot, sickly climate; the same day that the tickets were sold for our vessel, there was another vessel filled, and the money paid in two hours, amounting to about $38,000.
We had to put into three ports to recruit with water and provisions; we stayed at Acapulco, in Mexico, five days at cape St. Lucas, lower California, Mexico, three days; at San Barbary, upper California, now our own territory, four days. We stayed in those towns all the time that we were in the ports, feasting, gazing, and learning to talk with the Mexicans and Spaniards, we had learned some of the Spanish language while we were at Panama. The Mexican cities are wonderful for rambling; the Mexicans are a long ways the best horsemen that I ever saw; we are told that they commence at childhood to throw a lasso, it is acted by throwing a rope in a dull at a distance around a cat, dog or calf’s head; the men practice running horses at full speed, and throwing the rope in a dull around the neck of wild cattle. This is a splendid country; many of the large farms are said to have 15,000 head.
This city is a great gate, door of highway of nations, that is constantly flocking here to the gold regions. The rapid improvements making in the city is amazing; the crowds rushing in from almost every nation under the sun, with emigrants, houses, and merchandize are truly astonishing; they are shipping houses here all ready framed; they raise, cover, weatherboard and paint in eight or ten days after they are landed on shore. Rent is very high – a common store room is from $200 to $400 per month. The merchandize, in large abundance, is stacked on the beach, in the back yards, and in streets beyond all imagination. Many of the houses are set up with a few small, light scantling and weather boarded and covered with cloth. One the beach at the south end of the town, between the bay and the hill, there is a piece of flat land about one-fourth of a mile long, and about 100 yards wide, it is covered with tents as thick as they can well stand, a place where the emigrants land to take a rest before they go up the rivers to the mines. In consequence of sickness up at the mines, we have remained here; I am getting ten dollars a day for working at the carpenter trade; some get twelve; common labor, such as digging, wheeling, driving carts, unloading boats &c., is from five to eight dollars. Some portions of the merchandize is above three prices to what it is in the States; when you go to buy if you complain they will tell you that they have to pay high rents and it is nothing but California prices. A good horse, or good mule, sells for $200, a cart for $100, wheel barrows $30; a plank, inch thick, $330 per 1000 feet. On the Atlantic sailors commonly get from $10 to $12 per month; here the price is quite uniform at $159 per month.
——-opportunity of——with many persons —–mines; they vary —–opinions and descriptions —–as the coloring is on —–, while some have spent —–in favorable success, and —-return to the mines again, —it is all humbug, and intend returning to the States forthwith. I have taken a sufficient number of lessons on gold mining in former days, to enable me, after receiving so many statements, to form a tolerable correct idea of their value, and after giving all due allowances I am disposed to think them to be full as good as I had expected to find them when I left the States. A rule that I found to come out in most cases to be nearly right, was to throw off one half for exaggeration and then one half of the remainder for actual mistake, for want of experience, which would leave only the one-fourth of the amount stated. I think from the reports I have received and the gold that I have saw, that the mines are fully that good; when I experiment in them myself I will write to you again more fully on the subject.
When we arrived here, the post office afforded no news, for none of us, which produced a considerable shock on us all; we almost arrived at the conclusion that as we had strayed off to this distant region on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, on the western boundary of North America, that our friends had probably forgotten us, but when the last Steamer arrived, on the 18th of this month, we received several letters which revived our feelings very much. Human nature will have its way and its weaknesses; when we were reading and reading them over and over again and found all to be well, we had reason to be satisfied and to be thankful, yet our hearts would fill and beat as if they would burst.
The publication in the Lincoln Courier that my family enclosed in their letter to me, is of such a nature that I do not feel at liberty to say much on the subject; but there is one thing certain, that no Christian in our land can carry the heart to fabricate any such a report to mar the feelings of desolate children and kindred; it must be the product of some low-minded, never enough to be despised peace breaker, that may meet punishment in a way and at a time when they but little expect it, for I think that there is but few living but has a conscience that can be touched.
We received the news of the death of our worthy neighbor, Mr. John Antony. While his kindred and neighbors will mourn their loss, yet they have received many testimonies to encourage their hopes that while his body is at rest in the grave, that his immortal spirit has winged its way to the peaceful mansions of eternal glory.
I add not but remain