Monday, November 8, 2010


I am informed that it is difficult travelling down the Sacramento Valley, on account of the moisture; and that there is no river conveyance and the stream is very rapid, and obstructed with bars and snags. And that the mines are exceedingly unhealthy.

J. Goldsborough Bruff:
October 21, 1849 in
Gold Rush

ON THE ROAD, in the saddle, riding through hills and forests and glens and weather, it is easy to romanticize those who have gone before. Those whose evidence of passing is a mere place name and, perhaps a foundation overgrown with vines or a rock chimney devoid of house. We travel in and out of these remote places dreaming daybreaks of melted mist and days ends of fiery sunsets, which give way to carpets of stars across a milky way. In between these dawns and dusks: placer mining rich with gold scooped from the stream bed, or boundless pastures upon which cattle graze, or clear pines felled for posts and rails or cabin walls. A Maureen O’Hara-type has a hot meal waiting and a few terse words that enhance the sexual tension. Pretty soon the credits roll: Republic Films.

A fellow named J. Goldsborough Bruff suggests things probably weren’t quite that way.

Poyle spent another weary day, chasing deer in vain. Only observed a few, at a distance. Baked a cake with some mildewed pinola…
November 18, 1849

ALONG THE PONDEROSA WAY somewhere between the old Campbellville Lookout and Payne’s Creek, where the Lassen cut-off – having traced the narrow divide between Deer Creek and Mill Creek – intersects it, there’s a Forest Service sign marking Bruff’s Camp. I don’t have a picture-taken-personally because it’s been forty years since I went that way. A revisit is on my short list of trips yet to take on the BMW.

BRUFF HAD POSITIONED HIMSELF as president of the Washington (DC) City and California Gold Mining Association. This assembly of 65 incorporated to journey west in late 1848. Many historians consider Bruff’s writings to be some of the best sources of information on the Gold Rush. Most compelling are the months he spent in the foothills of the Sierra / Cascade. Perhaps 30 miles from early settlements in the Sacramento Valley, yet with supplies and wagons deteriorating, he sent his party forward while remaining behind to care for the group’s sundries. His encampment along the Lassen Trail proved to be a highway for many emigrant parties and, as he waited his own rescue, he assisted others with their passage west. Assistance meant providing game; constructing shelter out of wagon remains; ensuring the fire was always burning; ministering to the ill and burying the dead. Deep in the evening of October 31, an aged oak collapsed…

A large limb, capable of making a couple of cords of fuel, had to be cut off, and then the long heavy trunk pryed with levers and rolled off… …and there lay a shocking sight – An aged, grey headed man and his grown son, with their hips buried in the ground, their ghastly eyes turned up in death!
November 1, 1849

THE PARTY THAT WAS TO RETURN for Mr. Bruff, did, indeed – however they came only for the provisions they’d left in his care. They did not return with the horse he had loaned. He did not leave camp with them owing to the fact that he carried “journals, drawings and mineral specimens” he chose not to leave behind. His former colleagues refused him further assistance. So Bruff dug in. He weathered drenching rains and low snow. He loaned goods to passers-through, chronicling meetings with good people (a Mrs. O’Brian and “two curly-headed girls”) and selfish…

A couple of men ask’d me for the loan of a camp-kettle and axe as they were about to cook a meal close by. I readily loaned them the articles & they made fire against a tree trunk. I had worn a gum poncho & tarpaulin hat, but the rain held up for a while, and I took them off and threw them into my tent, while I went to a camp near by; on returning, the strangers were gone, with the loaned articles, my poncho and hat. I hope their gratitude will meet its reward.
November 6, 1849

FOR SEVERAL WINTER-SEASON MONTHS, Joseph Goldsborough Bruff lived in the foothill hinterlands just east of the Northern Sacramento Valley until he and two others were rendered so weakened and ill that they had to abandon camp and follow Lassen's cut-off into the lowlands.  He ended up at Lassen's Rancho near the confluence of Deer Creek and the Sacramento River where he was called upon to make good on the debts of others in the company who preceded him to the outpost.  Behind him, he left the bones of covered wagons, the bodies of those who could march no further and the scattered skeletons of promised riches - riches that seemed so real to the legions who ventured into the western wilderness back in '49, '50 and beyond.

I THINK ABOUT BRUFF as I explore the gold country canyons of the American, the Yuba, the Feather and of Butte and Chico Creeks and those lesser streams that flow west from the Sierra into the valley. I think of him when I see a place name or an overgrown foundation or a naked rock chimney. I think of Bruff and am reminded that the settlement of the west was perhaps ten percent romance and ninety percent hard luck.


NOTE:  Like Simpson Camp on the Mendocino National Forest in the Coast Range, I can no longer locate Bruff’s camp on any of the following: The US Department of Agriculture’s Lassen National Forest Map, the US Department of the Interior Geological Survey Quadrangles, or DeLorme’s California Atlas and Gazetteer. But I’ve been to Bruff’s Camp and I’m going back some day.


Bruff, Joseph Goldsborough, Gold Rush; the Journals, Drawing, and other Papers of J. Goldsborough Bruff, Captain, Washington City and California Mining Association, April 2, 1849-July 20, 1851. Ed. by Georgia Willis Read and Ruth Gaines. With a foreword by F. W. Hodge. California Centennial ed. New York: Columbia University Press. 1949

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. CB: I think I was wondering about your list, because you said "crossing another one off the list." :)

  2. I probably DO have a list, but it keeps changing. Anytime I race by a road that I don't know where it goes, I add it to the mental list. Then I promptly forget about it.

  3. Readers who can hunt down a copy of the referenced text at a reputable used book outlet will be rewarded with a captivating (though edited) play-by-play of the migration westward in search of gold.

    The Church of the Open Road cannot recommend highly enough the value of having first-person references when studying the historical events that have shaped our state. And the great thing about his volume is that it is so very readable!

    Check on line - or at your local used book reseller now.

  4. I'm a little concerned that when a place name is removed from a map, the history of some individual is lost to the proverbial dust bin and the exceptional lessons of their perhaps-judged unexceptional lives will be forgotten.

    Bruff is a case in point. Without the map listing, would anyone look through the annals of local history to find that he shepherded hundreds of gold-seeking immigrants to safety.

    And how would what he did challenge us to help others in our time, if the place name is removed?

  5. PA: "I am thankful for people who make sure history is not forgotten (regardless of maps.) I had never heard of Joseph Bruff before.