The discovery of gold in California on January 24, 1848, prompted the influx of thousands of prospectors from around the country. Hoosiers were no exception. The lure of gold was strong enough to convince Ephraim Thompson and several friends from Daviess County to undertake the journey in late 1853. Over the course of Thompson’s letters home, however, the prospector reveals how thoroughly the experience taught him to “stop building Castles in the air.”
Thompson and his companions opted to travel the waterways between Washington, Indiana and San Francisco, as the land route was lengthier. Although the Nicaraguan Steamship Company’s claim to offer the “Shortest, Quickest and Healthiest Route” between New Orleans and California is unimaginable to contemporary readers, it sufficiently impressed Thompson. The farm boy embarked at Evansville for passage down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans, where he traveled by steamer through the Gulf to Nicaragua, traveling over the San Juan River to the Pacific. Twenty-four days after leaving New Orleans, Thompson docked in San Francisco.
Thompson’s letters home reveal that the aspiring miner had clearly left his heart in Indiana. None of the cities on the Mississippi, except perhaps Natchez, impressed him as much as Evansville. San Francisco was “about as large as New Albany, and not very well built up at that,” he wrote. Upon arriving, Thompson headed for the mountains to mine the goldfields around Marysville, California, only to encounter “the hardest work that Mortal man ever done. Farming is fun by the side of it,” he averred.
There is a palpable homesickness in Thompson’s epistles. “dont Send me any blank paper,” Thompson begged his family, “fill up with local news about the corn hay hogs or any thing about the farm and how the young orchard looks and how mutch my pig weighed and all the particilry.”
Concluding quickly that California was no place for him, Thompson was able to earn enough to ship himself back home again in Indiana within a year, where he went into the general merchandise business with his brother. President of the Washington National Bank at the height of his career, Thompson passed away in 1906.
A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History, published by the Indiana University Department of History.
IMH Source Article: “The California Gold Fields in the 1850s: Letters from Ephraim Thomas, Daviess County, Indiana,” vol. 65, September 1969, pp. 157-72