John E. Gale's California Gold


Al McClure, Bill Johnson, John E. Gale In 1857.jpg

Albert McClure, Bill Johnson, John E. Gale

Daguerreotype By Caleb Lysander Howe 1857


Guilford Boys Armed For Adventurous Trip In 1857


Early in October, 1857, three Guilford lads resolved to seek the golden mountains and valleys of California, in search of wealth, adventure, and such incidental excitement and experiences as the great western El Dorado afforded. They were Bill Johnson, about 22, son of Hiram; John E. Gale, Sr., 21, son of Ephraim; and Albert McClure, 16, son of Daniel.


They provided themselves with such equipment as they considered necessary, and, being altogether uncertain as to whether any of them might return to their native homes, went to the studio of C. L. Howe in Brattleboro and had a group picture taken. The artist, "Lysand" Howe, as he was familiarly called, was afflicted with a sly sense of humor, and arranged the group in a pose well calculated to impress the comrades who were to be left behind.


Each wore a new suit of the style then in vogue, including a wide rimmed black felt hat, Bill's being almost tall enough to be classed as a "stove pipe." Bill also wore a standing collar. Each had a wicked looking knife of huge dimensions, and a large revolver of the latest kind, having long cylinders which were loaded with black powder and round bullets, being exploded by a cap and hammer, like a shotgun.


In the picture Bill has the central position. Al is at the left and John at the right as one faces the group.


They left Brattleboro by rail, going to New York, where they took the steamer Star of the West for Panama. From there three routes led to California, each a little more dangerous than the other.


On the overland trail were many bloodthirsty Indians, continually on the watch for scalps and plunder. It was a 1,500 mile trip across dry plains, rivers, high mountains, all equally difficult of passage, and many hundreds perished in the attempt to conquer these obstacles.


The second route was by sea, around Cape Horn, where many good ships went down with their passengers and crews in the relentless frozen sea.


The only other practical way was by sea to Aspinwall, then across the isthmus by the newly built railway to Panama, then again by sea to San Francisco. This route was not so bad, except for the danger of yellow fever, which was a deadly peril, but was the quickest way and not much, if any, more dangerous, so the boys decided upon that course.


Leaving New York on Oct. 7, 1857, they sailed for New Orleans, where they landed, and put up at the Howard hotel. Then they left with an unseaworthy steamer, limited to 700 passengers, but overloaded with about 1,100 passengers and crew. The Star of the West put out for Aspinwall, but acted so badly that the course was changed and the steamer put in at Havana harbor for temporary repairs. Again under way they reached the isthmus in safety after 2,200 miles at sea.


The railway across to Panama was 47 miles in length. Leaving Panama on Oct. 19 by the steamer John G. Stephens, they found a much better ship than their former craft. Four passengers died of yellow fever and were buried at sea on the trip up the coast. Stopping at a Mexican port, the ship took in $200,000 of silver, being 150 mule loads, brought 300 miles from the mines back in the mountains. Schools of whales and porpoises often were seen.


They reached San Francisco Nov. 2, and after a stay of three days went by steamer 300 miles further to Crescent City. All stayed through the winter, going through northern California into Oregon.


Al McClure remained a few years, first riding pony express with mail from San Francisco into Oregon, and later driving four-horse mail stage in California, after which he returned to Guilford. He said he neither gambled nor drank, because he saw so many wrecks and suicides among the miners who wasted and threw away their gold. He worked as foreman in Tyler Johnson's Guilford slate quarry and was afterward employed as a tuner at the Estey Organ factory in Brattleboro, and as salesman at their Boston branch. He died April 15, 1927.


Bill Johnson came back east, and soon married Miss Martha Tyler of Bernardston, Mass. He removed to Fairbury, Ill., where he was extensively engaged in farming and stock raising for many years. About 1890 he removed to Santa Anna, Cal., where he engaged in fruit growing on a large scale. He died there about 1895.


John Gale returned to Guilford in the spring of 1858. A journal kept upon his return trip states that he embarked at San Francisco on April 20, 1858, on board the Golden Age, with a rough sea. There was plenty of live stock on board,---cattle, sheep, hogs, chickens, pigeons, turtly, etc.


. . .The average daily run was about 250 miles. . .On April 24, five whales were seen at one time. One passenger lost his pocket book, containing $60. Divine service was held on deck both morning and afternoon on Sunday. Passengers beguiled the time watching flying sish at play. At Acapulco, Mexico, a cannon was fired in salute as the steamer came to anchor. More live stock was taken on, the cattle being taken on board by means of a rope fastened around their horns and the animals lifted on board by a windlass.


Arriving off Panama, the tugboats took the passengers to the city and railway station, and they soon found themselves at Aspinwall, where the Star of the West was again awaiting them, and they were soon out of sight of land and homeward bound.


The writer of the journal states, "A smooth sea and very pleasant. Slept on deck and had my coat stole from under my head." Off Cape Hatteras a fierce storm was encountered, and the writer states, "Storm commenced at 9 o'clock last night, wind and rain, blows a perfect hurricane, and seems as if the ship would go to pieces every minute; passengers are pretty sober, and don't talk much; 11 o'clock, are in the midst of an awful storm, waves are breaking over the ship every ten minutes; are in hopes to get through safe, but it looks rather dubious; 8 o'clock, wind went down with the sun, but there is still a trmendous heavy sea."


He arrived at New York two days later and after resting over night took the train for Brattleboro, where he arrived May 14, 1858, being 24 days from San Francisco.


He brought home with him sundry souvenirs, still in possession of the Gale family, including several gold two-bit pieces (25 cents), a seal ring made from a nugget of pure gold, a nugget scarf pin, large gold buckle for lady's belt, set of gold and jet ear jewels and breast pin, buckskin money belt, gold dust bags, the hunting knife and leather sheath which he took out with him, a small mule bell and two bottles of bear's oil from Oregon, sealed and never opened.


Upon his return he remained upon the ancestral farm with his father, who died in 1862. John soon afterward bought the East Guilford mill site and built the first grist mill on the site of the present Brasor & Barber mill, but soon sold the property, and the mill burned nearly 50 years ago. He died in 1869, at the age of 33, on the farm where he and his father were born.


Vermont Phoenix, February 10, 1933.


Hayes Bigelow photographed the daguerreotype.


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