From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 36, No. 4, July 2000
By John Chauncey Mason. Transcribed by his granddaughter, Eva Mason Knowlton
Before he settled in Mansfield Four Corners where he ran the sawmill, John C. Mason was a “49er”. He joined the thousands who traveled to California in search of gold. The first installment of this article chronicles his journey from Hartford to California aboard the ship Henry Lee. This will be followed in September by the tale of his adventures in California.
I read in the Hartford Times a short time ago that Mr. Wilcox thinks he is the last and only one of the Henry Lee boys living. In that he is mistaken. I happen to be one of those boys that went on the Henry Lee, and I am not quite dead yet although I have passed my ninety second birthday.
My father, Peter Mason, a descendant of Captain John Mason (the seventh generation), lived in New Hartford with his family. On November 8, 1820, his wife, a descendant of Deacon Amasa Case, gave birth to a boy to whom was given the name of John Chauncey Mason. That boy is now writing this and living in the town of Mansfield where he has been for years.
I saw all that transpired on that vessel on its journey from New York until the time that it anchored where the Sacramento River empties its waters into San Francisco Bay. I saw how nice the Henry Lee passed through the waters to the song:
Oh, Henry Lee, you are the ship for me; In storm or lull the bravest hull That ever sailed the sea.
You may, perhaps, wish to know what induced me to go to California. I had been at work with another man building a saw mill, when one of my shoulders got a little injured so that it troubled me to work on heavy work. I thought it would be a good time for my shoulder to get well and solid again. I don’t mean to say that getting some of the gold was not part of the inducement.
In 1848, the California rush began and a company was formed in Hartford, the members of which each put in three hundred dollars, and Percher was commissioned to look for a suitable ship. He was shown the Henry Lee and taken down to the bottom of the ship where holes were bored into some of the logs to show how sound the timbers were. Ships were in great demand at this time, so he bought the ship, of course, and paid ten thousand dollars for it – that is, the Henry Lee boys did. They all desired to be in San Francisco according to the song:
“Soon I shall be in San Francisco, And when I look around, And when I see the lumps of gold, I’ll pick them off the ground.”
The man who started the company didn’t go, neither did the Captain we expected to get. The Captain who sailed with us, however, was a fine man, the best man on the ship. All things thought to be necessary for more than two years were bought and stowed away in the hold.
I had a wife and three children in 1849, I left them money and other things but I wanted my life insured for their benefit. So before I went aboard the ship I went to several insurance offices and most of them asked a higher per cent that I was willing to pay. I was told that they did not want to give insurance in an old, wornout snackling boat that was going around Cape Horn. Finally I found an office where he put the price about half as much as the others and, after examination, he told me that on any ship I was willing to risk myself, he was willing to risk me. Of him I got the insurance.
On the 17th day of February, 1849, I went on board the Henry Lee. As she was being taken by a tug from the harbor, the new rope snapped on account of a kink but the old one was put in its place and soon the tug left her in the open sea in fair sailing. The tug had hardly got out of sight when many of the boys who were not used to the rolling sea would make haste to the side of the ship and throw their dinner overboard (for fish bait, of course). That caused a laughing shout from the lookers on. But the fun of the thing was that those who made the most shout were the ones who soon hastened to the side to “see what they could see.”
Some few days after this, we all began enjoying ourselves having become accustomed to the rocking of the vessel. But we did not enjoy the dogs and neither did the sailors. Many of the boys had brought their dogs and allowed them to run loose, and they became a great nuisance. One dark night when the wind was blowing violent, all at once a heavy crash was heard on deck and the Captain’s voice to the sailors in the forecastle was heard, “All hands on deck.” The Captain knew what he was about; he did not allow others to be there in the way, but when he had got things regulated he permitted others to come on deck. Whether the wind, the dogs, or the sailors caused the tumult no one on board could say, but nothing was seen of the dogs afterward. No one was hurt and the next morning the Captain said that another foretopmast should be placed where the one had broken in the storm of the night before. Then we knew what the stick of timber lying on the deck that we had been wondering about was for. Under the Captain’s direction the workmen soon had the new foretopmast in place, and we went on our journey.
I admired Captain Valle. I thought then and think now that a better captain never handled ship. He told me his plan to get by the point of South America was to cross the Atlantic and take advantage of trade winds which blow from that quarter. One day, after taking his observations, he said to me, “Mason, we are further east now than the west point of Africa. We will now take the trade winds and get to Rio Janeiro sooner than we could have got there any other way.”
When we came to the bay outside the mouth of the harbor, it was just the time the east wind stopped blowing and the sea winds began to blow. The Captain said if the east winds had blown twenty minutes longer we should have been inside the bay. There were a number of vessels in the same condition that we were. The winds kept blowing harder and harder and night came on. Such lightning and thunder as there was I never heard before and don’t want to again. The vessels kept lights fore and aft so that they would not run into one another. There were five vessels in the vicinity, and the Captain said there were so many on board he should not risk staying there but thought it his duty to take his vessel out into the ocean. It was four days before we got into the harbor of Rio Janeiro, the storm took us out so far.
If I remember correctly, there were thirteen ships in the harbor, all going to California; we had to wait about ten days before our turn came to have our water casks filled and get such other things as we wanted.
There was no wharf, so ships had to anchor some half mile from the shore. We anchored out and went to the shore in small boats – that is, we came within about twenty feet of shore where we would have to wade the rest of the way or have someone carry us. Our little boats were going back and forth about all of the time and of course it was the same with the other ships in the harbor.
We rambled about the city wherever we cared to go. Our company laid in fruit, oranges, etc. and quite a number of other things to dip into after we got on board the ship, for the rest of the journey around the cape…
When we had got our wants supplied, we set sail. The sea was pleasant and everything went well until we got down to La Platte River. There we encountered the worst storm we had anywhere on our way to California. The hurricane came with such fury that we had to close reef all the sails except a small one just enough so we could keep the vessel pointed head to the wind. Such waves as we had. It seemed as if the wave was going to roll over us, but our vessel seemed to rise as each wave came on and we went over it as good as it is possible. The hurricane lasted over a week. This is the only time I remember of having the stairway closed up. When the hurricane had subsided, several vessels that had passed by us before came along and went by again.
At one place on the western coast of South America where we stopped, some of the sailors got to feeling a little too good and were thrown into the caboose. When the ship was ready to sail, the Captain demanded the sailors but the authorities would not give them up. Whereupon the Captain appealed to a Man-of-War in the harbor who demanded that the sailors be delivered within one hour or he would knock the cupola off from their courthouse. The sailors were delivered.
When we came to crossing the equator, there were a few days we made no advance as there was no wind. The drinking water had so bad a smell that when compelled to drink to quench our thirst we would hold our breath. After a few days enough wind came to fill the sails and the bad smell of the water soon passed away…
The Henry Lee arrived at San Francisco September 13 1849, and was left at the end of the river which passes from Sacramento down to the bay. We were to consider the ship our temporary home and go to it for supplies as it was understood that the money we invested would supply us for more that two years. I had in my chest an abundant supply of garments, new woven blankets, tools, etc., worth probably more that two hundred dollars; enough to last me three years if I cared to stay that long. I did not go by once to the ship after I first left it and never took from there anything but my chest and a few things for immediate use. As far as the living supply was concerned, I could buy within a short distance of where I was at work plenty of food for less than it would cost me to take a trip to the ship. Beef was cheaper than it is here now.
When I first began digging in the crevices of the rocks and the ravines, it didn’t seem a very promising business, but I stuck to it. I didn’t go to the Yuba River, take up a claim, and do nothing but wait for the water to go down so to work in the river bed. Not I. With my pick and pan, I went alone every day to hunt for gold in the rivulets and crevices of the rocks, and I soon learned where the nuggets of gold were to be found. The little or much I gathered I did not tell the rest about but minded my own business. Once I was at work at the seams of the rocks when I heard two men who were cradling a few rods away say “That man must be a fool to be picking there.” I was very careful not to let them see what I was getting in my pan.
I went to the Sierra Nevada and found the gold more plenty, and worked thereabouts most of the time I stayed in California. While I was there in the mountains at work, I felt fine and would weigh the most I ever weighed. But sleeping out of doors on the ground is not the most pleasant thing. So the second winter another fellow and I built us a cabin where I made it my home until I started to come home to Connecticut. I never saw the day that I could not go out and find gold enough to pay me for my labor, but the great secret of it was to keep continually at it, mind my business, and not be always searching for something better. The most I ever gathered in one day would bring me a little over two hundred dollars.
As I said, I never went to the ship but once, and that was the day before the big storm. I had come down from the mountains to get supplied for another spell in the mines, and run across half a dozen the fellows similarly minded. We bought a boat on Sacramento and went down the river. We had got our supplies and got about half of the way to Sacramento when we ran against a snag which punched a hole through the bottom of the boat. We backed off and I put my foot over the hole. Said I, “Boys, we are in a bad fix now; we must go ashore and get our things out on to the bank.” We did so. “Now we must stop that hole. Have any of you any tin?” One man did have a piece, another had some shoe nails, and I stopped the hole.
By that time it had got to be about dark and we all concluded to stay there for the night. We found a smooth place, spread our blankets and lay down for the night; one man had a rubber blanket which we spread over us, and all went to sleep. In the night, for some reason, I wanted to roll over. “Boys”, I said, “we have got to get out of this. My hand struck water. The brook is rising upon us.”
It was not long before we had our blankets and the contents of our boat brought further up on the bank and the boat, too. We thought it best to have a fire. Notwithstanding everything was wet, we managed to find dead limbs and with our knives we made kindlings, and soon had a good fire. We tried to dry our blankets, but heavy blankets do not dry so easy. We managed to go up to Sacramento with the old boat. But the wet blanket, exposure, or something, brought on a cold and I came the nearest to kicking the bucket that I ever did in my life. While I was there, a man picked up my umbrella and started to go off with it, but the man that owned the tent said, “You mustn’t take that. It is Mason’s.” The stranger said, “I don’t care for that—he won’t live long and I may as well have it as anyone.”
There was no use of my going up to the mines then. After a few days, a ship came there and cast anchor in the river and I hired a berth on board of that vessel during my sickness. I had money enough to pay my bills and finally went back to the mines. But where my chest went to I never heard.
When I came down from the mountains to go home, I inquired where the Henry Lee was. I found what was left of her in the part of the bay where they were filling up to make it a part of the city. There wasn’t much left of the ship. I heard that it had been partly filled with hay by some of the disappointed Lee boys who had no success in picking up the lumps of gold; and then brought from its place of landing to its place of rest. If she had been half as large, she would have been worth a pile of money to go up and down the river and out in the bay, but the size of her made her good for nothing there.
In a little book, “Young’s Night Thoughts”, which I had by me all of the time, I find scribbled on the fly leaves the following places, which are a few of those I saw: New Hartford, Hartford, New York, a glimpse of the Azores, Rio Janeiro, Lat. 60 South of Cape Horn, Chatham, (one of the Galapagos Islands), San Francisco, Sacramento, Weber Creek, Hangtown, Gold River, Nevada City, Jefferson, South and Middle Yuba River, American River, Bear River, Auburn, Illinois Town, Sutter’s Fort, Sutter’s Villa, New York of the Pacific, Benicio, The Golden Gate, Acapulco, San Juan del Sur, Virgin Bay, Lake Nicaragua, San Juan del Norte, Greytown, New York, New Hartford.
From San Francisco, I took a steamer to Central America, went by boat up to Lake Nicaragua and across it, and then went over the mountains by carriers, (natives with chairs on their backs) to Greytown where I took a Commodore Vanderbilt steamer home. On this steamer the fare was the worst I had seen. If one couldn’t pay extra for better things the wormy Indian meal pudding was not attractive, to say the least.
I brought home with me very few things on account of sickness and losing my chest. A cone from one of the big trees of California, a little case of vegetable ivory in the form of an acorn and cup, in which the acorn unscrewed and disclosed a vegetable ivory thimble; some thorns about four inches long and nearly as wide at one end, my balances for weighing gold, a pepper box revolver, my money belt, my buckskin gold bag which was about a foot long and three inches in diameter; and my memories.