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The Quest for Gold
Jersey County Company of Emigrants to California
by Carolyn Houghton Chapman
John Arnspiger, his son, Andrew, and his son-in-law, Abraham Houser III, were among those who joined the Gold Rush of 1849. Family records indicate that they both died in California that fall. Information about the gold rush journey of John Arnspiger and Abe Houser comes from newspapers, journals, and letters.
Beginning with the dates of their deaths in family histories, and knowing that they lived in Jersey County, Illinois, we have discovered the name of the group with which they traveled west. Arnspiger wagons were mentioned by name in several journals kept by different members of the Jersey County Company. This group was earlier known as the Green and Jersey County Company. Hence, we know that they were part of this company of emigrants to California which originated in Illinois, just north of St. Louis, assembled in St. Joseph, Missouri, and departed on May 1, 1849.
The St. Joseph Gazette of May 4, 1849 published the Constitution and By-Laws of the Greenand Jersey County Company. The regulations are demanding, but they indicate that the organizers knew of the problems encountered by the Donner Party and appear to be designed to avoid similar difficulties. (The Donners started out from Springfield, Illinois, in 1846.) The Constitution and By-Laws of the Green and Jersey County Company.
One of the members of the Green and Jersey County Company was Henry Page. His greatniece, Elizabeth Page, wrote a book about his pioneer adventures, based on information from his journal and from letters to and from his wife, Mary (Wagons West, New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1930). Page also included entries from a journal kept by Joseph Hackney, a member of the company.
In addition to the Page and Hackney records of the gold seekers from Jerseyville, Illinois, another member of the company, Henry Tappan, kept a diary. It was edited by Everett Walters and George B. Strother and published as The Gold Rush Diary of Henry Tappan in the Annals of Wyoming. Walters and Strouther (1953) assert that the Jerseyville company is “one of the best documented in the annals of the 49ers” (p. 115). Included in “The Gold Rush Diary of Henry Tappan” is the following:
Thursday, July 26th Made 18 miles up the river. At noon met Mr. Arnspringer with whom we had separated at Green River. At night encamped in good grass. (Walters & Strother, 1953, p. 132.)
The following entry from Hackney’s journal also showed the Arnspiger presence:
June 13 went 4 miles to larime river we had to raise our wagon beds up and put blocks under them to rais them up above the water the river run very swift and made difficult crossing crabb and arnspekers [emphasis added] teams got into deep water and wet all of their load fort larime is one mile from the river it is built after the fashion of the mixicans ranch thiere is no troops hear yet but they expect them in a few days crabb stoped here to unload and dry his provision we went on three miles and camp had a long crooked hill to decend their had been several wagons upset coming down we all came down safe. (Page, 1930, pp. 143-144)
Another journalist in the Jersey County Company was T. J. Van Dorn. His journal is rich indetails not included by Hackney or Tappan. His record refers several times to “Arnspiker” and also provides the information that there were two Arnspiker wagons. The Arnspiker son referred to in the July 9 entry may have been Andrew. However, John Arnspiger had two other sons who might well have accompanied their father: Henry, age 21, and Simon, age 25. Knowing that Abraham Houser III was with his father-in-law, there may have been enough men in the Arnspiger party to need two wagons. The original of Van Dorn’s journal is at the Beinecke Rare Book Library on the Yale University campus.
Visualizing how the families of Abe Houser III and John Arnspiger and families of others planning to join the Gold Rush must have worked to prepare for the husbands to join the Gold Rush is possible, based on Page’s descriptions of activities of Henry Page’s wife, Mary, and herfamily. Her account takes up early in 1849:
Three months went quickly in the bustle of preparation. . . . Cornelia and Henrietta camefrequently to the farm to sew and knit with Mary, and in the closet on the third floor there were growing piles of coarse shirts such as miners would need, and reserve socks for men without womenfolk to darn for them.
When they were not sewing they gathered in the kitchen to pare and cut the apples whichmust be dried for use on the long journey, and they made lists of the preserves that each could spare from their winter’s supply to add a delicacy to the heavy meals of hungry men. William had killed a steer and some pigs, and beef was drying, pork was in pickle, and the smoke housewas working out of season to prepare the needed hams. Corinth, famed as a maker of delicious butter, was filling a crock for them, and Elizabeth took the scraps that any of them would give her to help swell her contribution of soap. Flour, cornmeal, crackers, and beans were bought inSt. Louis with the joint funds of the three “Californians,” and one of the Rider wagons returning from a trip to town with cheese, brought back the load which was stored in the barn. (Page, pp. 80-81)
A perspective on the departure from home of the 49ers has been provided by the diary of T.J. Van Dorn (Beinecke Rare Book Library, Yale University). Van Dorn was another member of the Jersey Co. Company, who, like Henry Page, came from Woodburn, Macoupin Co., Illinois, just east of Jersey and Greene Counties.
April 10, 1849 My fellow companions H. W. Burton, Henry Page and self, having made all due preparation, took leave of friends about town and set out with our Land vehicle provided with three yoke cattle and one years subsistence. The day being too far advanced to make far on our journey, we were kindly invited by Mr. W. H. Rider to drive to his house and stop the night with him in company with our fair Ladies, which we cordially accepted.
April 11. Morning came with sad reflections and still sadder the hearts of those we leave dear behind. All in readiness for starting. We took leave of friends and family and at 10 o’clock were on our way, “fullest eyes and slow to speak” therefore little was said for some miles. At about 1 we brot up at Wood River to rest our cattle and partook of collation provided us by friends at Mr. Riders, this our first in camp. Today we were all afforded an opportunity of initiating ourselves in the art of ox driving which we, and especially Burton and myself, found no easy task. Arrived in Alton late in the evening and after due care to our team, took lodgings in our waggon camp which we found “par excellence”.
Their Route to the Gold Fields of California
Everett Walters and Geroge B. Strouthers, the editors of “The Gold Rush Diary of Henry Tappan” (Annals of Wyoming, July, 1953) provided a succinct outline of the Jersey Co. Company’s route:
The Jerseyville company followed one of the well-established trails to California. From St. Joseph they traveled due west for almost 100 miles to the Big Blue River and a few miles farther to the Little Blue River. After going north up the Little Blue for about 60 miles, they crossed aseries of hills to the Platte River. Here they turned westward following the Platte to the fork and continued along the South Fork to the lower California crossing. After fording the River the emigrants cut overland through Ash Hollow to the south bank of the North Platte. This latter River laid their course for the next long stretch deep into present Wyoming, past Fort Laramie and on for another 100 miles. At the great bend of the River they veered southward to the Sweetwater and followed the waters of that river to South Pass. The famous Pass led them over the continental divide. Several days after this passage the Illinois company took the waterless Sublette’s Cutoff by which they avoided the long dip southward to Fort Bridger. Beyond the Cutoff they came to Green River whose swift waters presented one of thc trip’s greatest hazards. The trail then took them to Bear River Valley and then up that Valley to Fort Hall. From this famous stopping place Tappan’s train journeyed up the Snake River to Raft River, a tributary, and moved southward up the Raft. From the headwaters of Cache Creek, a branch of the Raft, they struck across country to Goose Creek and then through a mountain pass into the Valley of a Thousand Springs. Here they followed tributaries of the Humboldt River and then that River itself. Along the Humboldt they made their way to the terrifying Humboldt Sink, the greatest trial of all. After a grueling race with thirst they reached the Truckee River which they followed into the Sierra Nevada mountains. As they crossed the Donner Pass, the last great barrier between them and the gold fields, many in that train must have recalled the fate of their former Illinois neighbors, the Donners, whose camp site could still be discerned. Stories of their ill- fated expedition were well known in Illinois. The Jerseyville company cleared the pass with considerable difficulty and reached the Yuba River. They followed the Yuba to Bear River and here saw their first view of the gold fields.(Walters and Strother, 1953, pp.115-116)
How the 49’ers Traveled
In the spring of 1849, attracted by stories of gold in California, Abe Houser III and his father-in-law, John Arnspiger, joined the Jersey County Company and went to California in covered wagons drawn by ox teams. Journals and letters of others who were in the Jersey County Company provide details of their arduous trek West.
Given the significance of the Gold Rush in American history, the details of the journey have a place in this family history. Although Elizabeth Page described a Conestoga wagon in Wagons West, and movies have often shown pioneers going West in large, heavy Conestoga-type wagons, historians report that nearly all of those who went to California or Oregon used much smaller, lighter emigrant-farm wagons instead. Even guidebooks available in 1849 recommended light, but sturdy farm-type wagons. The covered length at the top was 12-13 feet long, while the typical Conestoga- type wagon was more than twice as long.
“Wagons were constructed in three major parts so they could easily be dismantled when necessary. First, there was the undercarriage and running gear. The front wheels were usually smaller than the rear wheels. This made it easier for the wagons to make turns. The early wagons did not have brakes. Second, there was the wagon box itself. This was the unit that held the emigrants belongings. Third, there was the top or cover and the wagon bows which supported it. Different kinds of wood were used for the different parts of the wagon.
“The emigrant or farm wagon box usually had a flat bed with straight sides and ends. Some, like the one shown in the diagram, had a slight flare or rake to them. The box or bed was usually eight to ten feet long. It was about forty-two inches wide and the sides were about two feet tall. There were usually five or six bows covered with canvas of muslin, sailcloth, oilcloth, or some other rain- proof material.”
“The emigrants could choose from three types of draft animals: horses, mules, or oxen. Each had their distinct advantages and disadvantages. Horses could be faster, but they were usually less powerful. Their feed requirements were greater, and they were also more likely to be stolen by Indians. Mules were not as fast, but their feed requirements were not as special, and they were less likely to be stolen. Oxen were slower, but their feed requirements were the easiest to fulfill. They could pull heavy loads, were cheaper than both mules and horses and were the least likely to be stolen. While all were used, oxen were the first choice.
“Most wagons were pulled by pairs of animals. . . . A wagon team was typically comprised of two to four pairs of animals, and guidebooks recommended that extras be driven along.
“Because wagons had a large turning radius and fully loaded wagons were very heavy, emigrants tried to use the higher level ground and avoid going up or down hill whenever possible. Also, most of the time the emigrants did not ride in the wagon, but walked. Their belongings left little room for riders. There were no seats in the early wagons.” W. E. Hill. Reading, Writing and Riding Along the Oregon-California Trails. Independence, MO: Oregon-California Trails Association, 1993, page 11.