So many books, so little time… (Part 6)

Gold Rush: The Journals, Drawings, & Other Papers of  J. Goldsborough Bruff  (April 2, 1849 – July 20, 1851)

“The human animal can bear more hardships and sufferings than can be described, if the mind be kept above water.” –JG Bruff

I first saw Gold Rush mentioned in Theodora Kroeber’s ISHI in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America. It sounded interesting so I looked for a copy online. There are only two editions, both long out-of-print. The 1st edition (1944) consists of two hardcover volumes in a slipcase. It runs to 1,400 pages and costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $250. I’m not a rare book collector. I just want to read books. I eventually found a copy of the 2nd edition (1949) for $70. (That’s $65 more than I usually pay for a secondhand book.) It’s an abridged version of the 1st edition, but it still runs to 800 pages.

Bruff was a draftsman for the U.S. Navy and a cartographer for the U.S. Army. When news of the discovery of gold in California reached the East Coast he formed the Washington City and California Mining Association. In the spring of 1849 he started west with 66 other men who elected him to the thankless position of “Captain” of the expedition.

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Self-portrait of JG Bruff

They headed west by horse and wagon. Bruff, however, walked most of the 5 month journey as his horse chafed him badly. In his daily journal entries he describes the many trials of the trail: capsized wagons, stampeding animals, an overcharged gun exploding in a man’s face, cholera, rattlesnakes, a man being unhorsed and badly injured during a buffalo hunt, scurvy, dead and dying horses and mules attracting wolves and bears into camp every evening, dysentery, troublesome Mormons, undisciplined men…

On a particularly windy night a tree came down and landed on a tent containing four sleeping men. Two died instantly, the other two hung on in excruciating pain for nearly a week before they, too, gave up the ghost. Not surprising, considering the medicine the company had with them. Bruff’s cure for most maladies (including diarrhea, which he refers to as “violent dyspepsical paroxysms”) was laudanum and/or rhubarb.

Bruff recorded the inscriptions on the countless graves he passed on the trail. One from July 2, 1949 reads:

“Jno Hoover, died, June 18. 49

Aged 12 yrs. Rest in peace,

sweet boy, for thy travels are over.”

Some graves were actually caches of goods marked as graves to keep thieves away. This tactic didn’t always work. The company passed several graves that had been dug up by bandits looking for valuables. One dug-up cache was full of medicine a doctor had buried for safekeeping. A traveler in need had taken $200 worth and left a note, an IOU of sorts. Other times thieves dug down far enough to uncover a corpse which was then left exposed for wild animals to finish off.

Food was always a concern on the trail. Every day members of the expedition had to go hunting and/or fishing to supplement the flour, coffee and bacon they bought or bartered for along the way. And when times were tough, no living thing was safe, as Bruff’s entry from August 8, 1849 bears witness:

“Innumerable large black mice here, living in holes in the bank of the stream, generally under bushes: they are fat and very soft & silky: not at all shy, probably unacquainted yet with man’s destructive propensity, of which I, however, convinced one by knocking it over, roasting & eating it.”

One day his stomach got a pleasant surprise:

“…in a narrow swampy passage, with streams, springs, and willows, saw… on the ground, a small piece of apple-pie… I ate the piece of pie, and found it good.”


Bruff’s sketch of Native American pictographs at Names Hill

Bruff also had a sense of humor. He referred to his tent as his “cotton castle”. At the beginning of the journey some supplies were late reaching them. He writes: “In consequence of rain and non-arrival of the tents, the boys were very much discon-tent-ed – poor fellows!” Bruff was indeed a father, and that’s what a dad joke from 1849 looks like.

One amusing incident concerns a night when the horses were on edge. The men on guard duty stayed extra alert. Come morning, all the horses were accounted for. As soon as a fire was prepared to cook breakfast, two naked indians boldly strolled out of the nearby bushes and sat down to warm themselves. The men gave them something to eat and, when their bellies were full and they had sufficiently warmed themselves, they disappeared back into the bushes. They hadn’t managed to steal any horses, but they got a free breakfast!

There are so many curious moments in this book that made me smile: a telegraph found on the trail (quite a novelty in 1849); a whisky barrel in the middle of nowhere, painted red, with the words “POST OFFICE” written on it; Bruff’s men sharing a campground with a company of Cherokees on their way to CA in search of gold; a visit from infamous mountain man/horse thief Pegleg Smith who sawed off his own leg when infection set in; a Frenchman falling off his horse and injuring himself because he was travelling with a brick in his hat!

When the company reached the Sierra Nevada, Bruff, who was nearly crippled with rheumatism, and a few others, stayed behind to watch over some of the company’s valuable possessions. Some of the men were to return a few days later with a good horse and provisions to help Bruff continue on to Peter Lassen’s ranch, 32 miles away. Nobody ever came back for Bruff, and his companions soon abandoned him. From October 1849 to April 1850, he lived at was is today known as “Bruff’s Camp”.

He sat alongside the trail as streams of emigrants passed through. Some of them provided him with a little tobacco, rice and tea. Others left their broken down wagons and their sick and dying animals with him. One repulsive man, Lambkin, abandoned his 4 year old son at the camp. Bruff took care of the boy, attempting to feed him throughout the harsh winter. At times, the only food was soup made with moldy flour and boiled bones scavenged from the carcasses of dead horses and mules. The boy eventually died.

Bruff nearly starved during the winter as the heavy snows put a stop to the flow of travellers going west. Someone had left a puppy in his care and he just barely managed to resist the urge to eat it. For a while Bruff did have one loyal companion, Clough, who managed to keep the two of them alive by occasionally getting lucky while out hunting. Then one day he shouldered his rifle and trudged out into the deep snow in search of deer. He was never seen or heard from again. 


Drawing from Bruff’s journals

“A little after midnight a grizzler visited my establishment, and I had to muzzle the pup, with a handkerchief, to prevent her irritating the huge beast, and causing our destruction. I was sick and weak, hardly able to rise, but got up, and sat on a block of wood, in front of my tent, and threw pine-bark on the fire. The morose-looking old fellow came up, within 10 feet, snorted, eyed me about 3 minutes, and then slowly left. It is likely my fire saved me this time. Several large wolves soon after passed, casting a look at me, as they went by.”

When spring arrived Bruff gathered up his journals and drawings and decided to try his luck at reaching Lassen’s ranch. He was still starving and nearly crippled. Miraculously, he made the 5 day journey. On the way he crossed paths with a native. He wrote later in his journal that, if he had had the strength, he would’ve chased him down and eaten him. The brutality of the trail had completely dehumanized him.

After recuperating at the ranch he went on an excursion in search of the nonexistent “Gold Lake” with Peter Lassen, and took a steamer north along the coast to Trinidad, to visit the Gold Bluffs. He made many sketches of the mining camps and the geographic landmarks.

In San Francisco he witnessed the hanging of a convict named Jenkins, and, as if that wasn’t enough excitement, a massive fire broke out. This was the sixth and worst fire to rage through the city in less than 2 years. Bruff narrowly escaped his lodgings with his journals and drawings intact.

In June 1851 Bruff started for home, sailing from San Diego to Panama City. Since work on the Panama Canal wasn’t to begin for another 30 years, Bruff crossed Panama by mule where he boarded another ship in Chagres. He arrived in New York one month after leaving California. And, as if he hadn’t had enough hardship already, some of his belongings were stolen at the dock in New York harbor. Fortunately, the thieves didn’t make off with his journals or any of the 600 drawings he made during his gold rush adventure. If you can get your hands on an affordable copy of Gold Rush, it’s well worth a look.

“A very rocky dusty place; I took a hearty draught of cold mountain water, eat a handful of crackers, smoked my pipe, and made a fire. At the foot of an immense fur tree, where the rocks in the road were so irregular that I might lay in dust in a hollow, with some ease, in shape of letter S, and there spread my blanket & placed my saddle-pillow; some fragments of a wagon – and a wheel, – hub on flame, soon afforded me warmth and light, by which I wrote up my brief notes, buttond up my over coat, and quickly slept sound. Report of rifles, in the adjacent hills, answered by people here, – hunters lost.”  -Joseph Goldsborough Bruff


Bruff’s camp, Sierra Nevada mountains


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