BENSON STORY OF TRIP TO CALIFORNIA IN 1849
(no date given)
COOK STORIES 9
To my brother and me, Sunday evening was the high point of every week of our childhood. Our helpers on the farm–two or three men, one young woman, and a young lady cousin–went away every Sunday after supper. Then, and then only, could we have our parents to ourselves. Usually, we demanded repetition of stories we enjoyed. My father was usually the storyteller. Mother reserved her talents for work sessions. One of the stories we enjoyed most and requested often was the “Mule Story.”
“When I was living in York State, ” Father invariably began “I often listened to my Grandfather William Benson tell about his trip to California in the Gold Rush of 1849. I often asked him questions about it. Some he answered, and others he did not seem to hear. I used to wonder why until I was older, and my own father filled in the gaps.
“My grandfather Benson came from a sea-faring family. They did not seem to care to farm. One line of the family built ships, and the other sailed them. They visited many foreign ports and brought home silks and fans to the women they left behind. Grandpa Benson had been a sailor when he met Susan Randall, my grandmother. Grandma’s mother was a Perry–one of her cousins was the Perry who opened the ports of Japan, another was the Perry who was helpful in the war of 1812–she wanted no sailor husband. She wanted one who would stay at home, help her raise the family, and set a good Christian example. Then, too, Grandma was a very religious woman, and she doubted if sailors had what she called “staying power.
When a Benson wanted something, he was determined to have it, so William started out to win Susan. It took a while, but finally, she said, “Yes.” What William failed to take into account was the promises he had made along the way. First, he had sworn never to go to sea again unless it was absolutely necessary. Second, he promised to have a permanent occupation before he married and third, he vowed to attend the Methodist church regularly, if possible.
Grandpa had made an exception to two of the promises and might have crawled out of them except for the second one. Susan saw to it that he took his available money and invested it in timberland and a sawmill before she married him.
Of course, he could not go to sea without money to invest unless he went as a common seaman and to a man who had been first mate this was unthinkable. Before he had a young family to support, and he had to run the logging business to its limit. He even acquired a large farm and hired a man to run it. Naturally, he attended church, and the fine home he built for Grandma became the stopping place for every visiting Methodist missionary and circuit rider.
Of all the people in the neighborhood, Grandpa and Grandma liked the Garrisons. Mrs. Garrison, like Grandma, was an herb woman, and Mr. Garrison was a farmer and a lay preacher in the Methodist church.
As the years passed, two of William’s older daughters married, and he began to feel bored with his life. When he became hard to live with, Susan welcomed his plans to visit his brother John, who operated a silk mill in New Jersey.
William came back from one of those trips, filled with enthusiasm for a plan which he and John had made to go to California where gold had been discovered. A ship just in had brought news, and it had spread to Newark.
Grandpa hired a man to operate the lumber mill. He hired a man to oversee the farm. He bought a fine saddle horse and a pack mule for himself. He also chose a similar outfit for John, who would soon be there to make the final choice. Grandma was very unhappy. She felt Grandpa was trying to leave her. She dreaded having to struggle with her ‘teenage sons Randall, 15 and John, 14 who wanted their father to let them run things while he was gone. They had begged him to take them, but he refused. When the Garrisons called one day, Grandma told them her fears. Mr. Garrison told her that he had come to ask Grandpa if he could go with him and his brother. When the request was made, Grandpa was glad to say “Yes.” “Why don’t you take the boys?” Mr. Garrison suggested. “They might make it hard for your new overseer and your wife if they stayed at home.”
Grandpa thought it over. He knew that they would head for Independence, Missouri and would join a wagon train there. Their plan was to travel light and carry their equipment on pack mules. He finally told both boys that if they would be satisfied with mules to ride, he would take them. The boys were very happy. Their father suggested they buy new saddles with money they had earned, but they decided to use two old saddles and blankets which they already had.
At this point, my father (Edward Cook) usually stopped to laugh before he resumed his tale. “As I heard it from my father, Emory Cook. Later on, I think Grandpa could probably foresee what would happen to the wild dreams of Randall and John.”
Equipment was packed; everything was ready. Grandpa bade his family “Goodbye” early one morning. To liven up things, William promised his daughters Mary Jane and Angeline aged 16 and 17 that he would bring them each a $20 gold piece to buy material for wedding dresses.
“I do not know the route they took. Probably they went by boat down the Ohio River, but they did as much of the trip on horseback as they could for Grandpa wanted to try out the horses to see if they had the ‘stamina’ it took for the long plain’s trip. The boys, riding the mules, soon wished that they had bought new saddles. Saddle girths broke, saddle blankets, ragged when they started, came apart. There was no place to buy new ones. The mules developed saddle sores. Every day, Randall and John found those old saddles more and more uncomfortable. Despite the protection of their sturdy cloth pants, their inside thighs were chafing and raw. Their rears were sore and grew worse every day. By the time they reached Independence, MO. both boys had learned some words that even their father did not know–all relating to mules as saddle horses. The boys had had enough. They asked Grandpa to go back home. Other men who had come from their county felt the same way. Grandpa told Randall and John they might return with those neighbors if they wished. The neighbors were traveling by wagon, so the boys could take turns driving and rest from mule riding.
Grandpa never said much of his trip across the plains. Evidently, he didn’t enjoy it, but it was a way to get what he wanted, so he did it.
When Grandpa, John Benson, and Mr. Garrison landed in California, they staked out a claim and were moderately successful. Evidently, it was not any fun, but they did not expect it to be.
It was early 1850 that they decided to make a trip to San Francisco for supplies. They left their gold dust at the mint and went out to the harbor to see what could be bought. Prices were very high, and Grandpa tried to bargain. A fight started. Grandpa was separated from Mr. Garrison and John. John jumped on some boxes in time to see a man with a knife attack, Grandpa. John struggled to reach his brother. Mr. Garrison tried to reach him from the other direction. Grandpa fell down in the mud. Some of the crowd appeared to walk on him.
Several men were killed in the fight. When John and Mr. Garrison reached the spot where they had seen Grandpa fall, his body was gone. A man they knew stood nearby. He said that the bodies which had not been claimed had been thrown in the bay.
John and Mr. Garrison searched for three days for news of Grandpa. It appeared that he had died of a knife wound and his body had been dumped. There seemed no doubt of his death. Saddened, they decided they had had enough, and so they joined forces with a wagon train returning East.
When they reached home, they had to tell Grandma the sad news. She was very sad and very disturbed. Randall and John had reached home safely bringing their mules along. At first, they were telling everyone about their experiences. When people laughed at them, they talked in a way Grandma had never heard. They began to tell her how to run the farm and the mill, and the overseer was about ready to leave.
It was early 1851 when John Benson and Mr. Garrison came home. John went back to Newark and then returned to Parish to help Grandma straighten up the business. Grandpa had left the final say for everything to Grandma, but with her family cares and two unruly sons, she was very depressed. After two or three months, when Grandpa had been dead a year by all reports, the overseer, with John’s approval asked Grandma to marry him. She went to see her friends, the Garrisons. Mr. Garrison told her there was no doubt of Grandpa’s death and that he thought it would be wise for her to remarry for she had younger children who would need the income from the farm and the mill. The marriage would give the overseer the right to act for Grandma, and her sons would have to accept his decisions.
So Grandma agreed and was quietly married.
Meanwhile, Grandpa though still living when John and Mr. Garrison left California had no idea of where he was or why he was there. He remembered falling after the knife thrust in his chest. He fell between two casks which lay on their sides in the mud. He sank into the mud far enough, so the barrels came together, protecting his body from the crowd. Later, when the bodies were being thrown into the bay, someone decided he was alive, tossed him out of the way and left him.
He never knew how long he lay there, but thieves stole every bit of money from his muddied clothes. The only thing they left was a receipt from the mint where Grandpa had left his gold dust.
He must have had a fever for when he regained his senses, and he was very weak. Finally, he was found by a scavenger who wanted his boots. Grandpa found that this man had been a sailor on a ship then anchored in the harbor. All the crew had jumped ship to go to the goldfields. When Grandpa told the man he had been a sailor too, he agreed to help Grandpa to his shanty made of old packing cases and dirty canvas. There Grandpa lay ill for some time, alone most of the time. The sailor did bring him food when he could steal or beg any himself. All this time, Grandpa was sure he had no money. Muddy and ill he finally ventured out of the shanty. The sunshine made him feel better, so he sat outside each day with his back propped up against the shanty. One day he happened to thrust his hand into his pants pocket and found a dirty paper. He opened it and found the receipt from the mint.
It was weeks since he had left his deposit and wondered if they still had a record or would acknowledge his. As soon as he was able, with his heavy beard and muddied clothes disguising him, he made his way to the mint with his receipt with no way of establishing his identity. He recognized the clerk who came forward to examine the receipt. The man looked at the name on the receipt and then said hesitantly “Do you recall any special directions you gave me?”
Grandpa stood and thought, ” Do you mean about the two twenty-dollar gold pieces I wanted to take home to my two daughters Angeline and Mary Jane to buy their wedding dresses?”
“That’s it,” the clerk said. “I remember it because it made me decide to send one to my daughter Mary too,” said the clerk.
Grandpa now had money enough to have his clothes washed and to buy a new shirt. But everything cost a lot. How could he get home–no horse–and he was bound not to spend any more money than he could help until he had paid the sailor who had helped him.
A few days later the sailor said he was leaving on a boat around South America back to the United
States. Grandpa wondered if he could work his way home. Sailors were not plentiful for the return trip journeys. He went to see the captain, told of the ships on which he had sailed and was signed on for the return trip. He never told us what his job was.
The trip home was a stormy one. The winds failed to blow in the direction needed, and the ship was off course. The trip took all of six months. Grandpa had to work hard, but he felt better every day. The ship docked in New York. It was now 1852. By stage, Grandpa made his way to his hometown.
Without warning, he walked into his home one evening, whiskers and all. When he started to hug Grandma, she fainted. A man Grandpa recognized as his overseer came out of the bedroom and asked grandpa what he was trying to do with his wife.
“Your wife,” exclaimed Grandpa “She’s my wife!” Then Grandpa saw the cradle with a new baby in it. “Susan, how could you?” he asked. Susan fainted. The arrival of Angeline and Mary Jane and their glad cries of welcome made him happy.
After Grandma Susan regained consciousness, explanations were in order. Then the Garrisons happened in to visit. When they heard Grandpa’s story, Mr. Garrison asked him to come outside. The overseer came too. Mr. Garrison told Grandpa why they had advised Grandma to remarry, and Grandpa understood. Everything could be taken care of easily for Grandma had had a double proof of her husband’s death, so no discredit attached to her or the overseer. Mr. Garrison said he and Grandpa’s lawyer would take care of the legal problems, but the only problem was the new baby.
Grandpa thought it over. “Could I adopt her?” he asked the child’s father. So, it was agreed the overseer received his wages and a cash settlement and the baby became Mercy Benson.
Meanwhile, Grandpa went to see brother John and took with him the two $20 gold pieces Angeline and Mary Jane had received from him with directions to purchase silk to make into wedding dresses to be worn when in 1853 Mary Jane would marry Emory Cook, and Angeline, Jason Kenyon. When Grandpa came home, everything had been settled, and he was Susan’s husband, who was still bound by his solemn promise to go to church every Sunday. From then on, Grandpa was more interested in telling his grandchildren tales of his old experiences rather than having new ones. The mules were sold, but the stories of Randall and John became a family joke never to be forgotten.
Written by Luella Ellis Cook
Transcribed by Eric L. Cook