The Starvation Winter of 1852-53
Gloomy Prospects in the Southern Mines.By advices received from Jacksonville, dated Jan. 2nd, 1853, we gather the following news:
We have unhappy news from the mountain regions, each fresh arrival from the mines giving a still more gloomy aspect to the dreadful reality. Gold there is in abundance, but people cannot live on gold alone--they are starving for the want of the necessaries of life. In vain do our merchants forward flour, pork and beans; their wagons become embedded in the earth, their mules stall or die from exhaustion--and the invaluable food is left to perish. Every road hence to the mountains is in the same condition, and the traveler at every mile meets with stalled teams, broken-down pack trains, and almost broken-spirited teamsters. Our friend Jesse Brush, who arrived on Saturday, gave a frightful description of the state of society in the neighborhood of Jacksonville. All the flour had been exhausted, and there was but a small stock of beans, etc. The miners had begun to talk of descending by the thousand to Stockton and San Francisco. Mr. Tolman, an indefatigable trader, left this city yesterday with a train of 25 mules, packed entirely with flour, but did not hope to reach his destination for some time to come. . . .
Daily Alta California, San Francisco, December 31, 1852, page 1 The writer is almost certainly referring to Jacksonville, Amador County, California
From Yreka-Great Suffering and Destitution.
From L. Swan, who arrived in Sacramento from Shasta on Wednesday morning, furnishes the Union with the following particulars:
He left Shasta four days ago. Eighty men arrived there on the 8th inst., from Yreka, and report that there had been no flour at that place for forty days previous. No more than 200 men remained in the town, some having gone to Oregon, and others scattered in different directions. Out of the eighty men arrived at Shasta, 27 of them were more or less frozen--two of them so badly as not to be expected to survive. The snow was from four to five feet deep at the Trinity, two feet deep at Shasta, and twenty on the Scott mountain.
These men were thirty-six hours in accomplishing a journey of sixteen miles, from Martin's to Very's ranch, and subsisted in the meantime on parched barley alone.
In that whole region of country the suffering and destitution was extreme, and the roads from snow and mud in many places entirely impassable.
Sacramento Daily Union, January 13, 1853, page 2
I have but little of importance to write you, except the distress of the land. The number of overland emigrants who came to Oregon last season are put down in round numbers at 10,000, which I think nearly correct, for an account was kept of all who came down the river in boats, and of those who came over the mountains. Among this number were a great many families, who now cannot get their living except by actual begging. Sir, you have not the most distant idea of the suffering among immigrants. You never saw a single instance in the old North State to compare with it, nor do I suppose you ever saw worse in the northern cities. The beggars here are those who left good homes in the western States [i.e., the Midwest] less than a year ago, where they never knew what it was to want. And those who came out here were not the poorest people of the western States, because it requires an amount of money to get an outfit, which all cannot command. . . .
Many came in [by] the Southern Route into Rogue River Valley about the mining region; here they were compelled to live upon meat alone. Flour has been as high as one dollar and twenty-five cents per pound here, and hardly to be bought at that. Flour at the mills in Oregon for fifty dollars per barrel, wheat six dollars per bushel.
"Letter from Oregon," dated January 22, 1853, Greensborough Patriot, Greensboro, North Carolina, March 19, 1853, page 2
On or about the 15th of November last the heavy fall of rains commenced here. They were cold and chilly, and mostly from the north and northeast. A large amount of stock was left at the Dalles and on Umatilla River to winter. An immense emigration arrived in the Willamette Valley, broken down and disheartened. In consequence of the rather low price of provisions here in 1851, small crops were poorly put in and poorly attended. At harvest the wheat was plenty, however, at $1.75 per bushel and potatoes at $1. So great were the rains that all outdoor work was suspended, prices of provisions went up rapidly, and on the 12th of December snow commenced falling, the weather became very cold, at least cold for Oregon, and snow fell every day for 17 days, till it lay from 18 to 60 inches deep, according to the altitude of the country. In some parts there was plenty of browse, and the stock worried through. In other parts they all perished. There were immense losses of stock at the Dalles, and on the Umpqua and Rogue rivers. Not more than the 20th part of the stock died in the Willamette Valley. I lost none. About the 28th of December the wind veered to the south and a general thaw and heavy rains from the south set in which brought down torrents of water, and raised the streams higher than they have been for 48 years past, or since Lewis & Clark left here. Much of Oregon City was destroyed or badly injured.
Upwards of 1200 pack animals on their way to and from the mines died of starvation. The miners and settlers on Umpqua and Rogue rivers were reduced to extreme want, eating poor cattle, and no bread, salt or coffee since the 1st December last. Supplies cannot yet reach them, owing to the vast amount of fallen timber on the mountains and the loss of bridges and boats on the road. The last flour used at the mines sold at $1.50 per lb. More than 1,000 miners left for Oregon, and, subsisting on animals and begging, starving and swimming, they arrived last week in our valley, nearly naked and starved, to swell the numbers here, already too large, for subsistence and employment in our valley.
There are but few fat cattle now in Oregon and little pork. Flour sells at 18 cts. per lb., wheat $5 per bushel, beef 15 to 20¢ per lb., pork 25 to 30¢, shorts 8¢, rice 33¢, coffee 42¢, sugar 10 to 25¢, oats $3 per bushel, cabbages 30¢ each, fruit 25¢ per lb., molasses 25 cents per gallon.
Labor is down here to nothing. Not one half of the emigration obtain their board for their work. Money is in abundance, but yet I fear there are not supplies for the people three months in Oregon. We hope for arrivals here shortly from the States of flour, coffee, pork, rice &c. Those articles have reached California in abundance within a few weeks past.
Thus I have given a small sketch of the dark side of the picture. Is there no crusade for Oregon? Thousands of letters have been sent from here to the States, lately, carrying up more bad news than is true. Hundreds of used-up gold hunters are preparing to leave for the States. We can spare them. There is too much chaff here. Next fall an abundance will be everywhere, and happiness and plenty will crown the people here. Because we had a cold snap of seventeen days, shall Oregon be put down? I thank God that I am here. All Germany Prairie would not tempt me to leave, No, give me the evergreen valleys, the enchanting prairies, the pure and limpid streams, the tall mountains and trees, the good health and mild climate, the fine fish and fowls, and the fertile lands of Oregon, and "my wife, children and friends," and I am content.
D.N. [probably David Newsom], "From Oregon," letter of January 26, 1853 from Salem, Illinois Daily Journal, March 26, 1853, page 2
At the Jacksonville mines, the times were very hard. They have had severe weather for the past month, and snow in the valley at one time was three feet deep, but since [then] the weather has been more pleasant. The snow went off with rain, which caused heavy floods in the rivers. There were no provisions of any kind in the market, with the exception of a few potatoes, and a great many are subsisting on beef alone, of which there was an ample supply. There are several thousand pounds of flour within forty miles of Jacksonville, but [it] cannot be carried in on account of high water. A great many immigrant cattle died during the snow storm. The miners who have claims are not discouraged, as they are doing well.
"Affairs in Oregon," Daily Alta California, San Francisco, February 7, 1853, page 2
A correspondent of the Oregon Times, writing from Jacksonville, a mining town, under date of Dec. 30th, says: "A mail is expected to run soon to Canyonville. An express runs between Jacksonville and Yreka, California. The rain had been constant, and the inhabitants leaving. 'Yreka," says the writer, 'take our flour away as fast as the price becomes as low as fifty cents per pound. The population of the town is about 1000.'"
The weather at the Dalles at last accounts was excessively cold. It commenced snowing on the 8th December, and continued 22 days and nights.
Sacramento Daily Union, February 9, 1853, page 2
From the Mines.
Times are getting very hard there. They have had severe weather for the past month, and snow in the valley at one time was three feet deep, but the above dates, the weather was more pleasant. The snow went off with rain, which caused heavy floods in the rivers. There were no provisions of any kind in the market, with the exception of a few potatoes, and a great many are subsisting on beef alone, of which there was an ample supply. There are several thousand pounds of flour within forty miles of Jacksonville, but cannot be carried in on account of high water. A great many immigrant cattle died during the snow storm. The miners who have claims are not discouraged, as they are doing well.
Oregon Weekly Times, Portland, January 22, 1853, page 1
Hard Times in Oregon.
There are a good many settlers in Oregon from the vicinity of Springfield, Illinois, and one of them writes from Salem, Oregon, Jan. 26th 1853, as follows:
"I have refrained from writing to you, and to my acquaintances in Illinois, until the dark cloud which hung over Oregon should break or clear away. All countries are subject to backsets and drawbacks. So with Oregon.
"On or about the 15th of November last the heavy falls of rain commenced here. They were cold, chilly and mostly from the north and northeast. A large amount of stock was left at the Dalles and on Umatilla River to winter. An immense emigration arrived in the Willamette Valley broken down and disheartened. In consequence of the rather low price of provisions here in 1851, small crops were poorly put in and poorly attended. At harvest the wheat was plenty, however, at $1.75 per bushel, and potatoes at $1. So great were the rains that all outdoor work was suspended, prices of provisions went up rapidly, and on the 12th of December snow commenced falling, the weather became very cold, at least cold for Oregon, and snow fell every day for 17 days, till it lay from 18 to 60 inches deep, according to the altitude of the country. In some parts there was plenty of browse, and the stock worried through. In other parts they all perished. There were immense losses of stock at the Dalles, and on the Umpqua and Rogue rivers. Not more than the 20th part of the stock died in the Willamette Valley. I lost none. About the 28th of December the wind veered to the south and a general thaw and heavy rains from the south set in which brought down torrents of water and raised the streams higher than they have been for 48 years past, or since Lewis and Clark left here. Much of Oregon City was destroyed or badly injured.
"Upwards of 1,200 pack animals on their way to and from the mines died of starvation. The miners and settlers on Umpqua and Rogue rivers were reduced to extreme want, eating poor cattle, and no bread, salt or coffee since the 1st of December last. Supplies cannot yet reach them, owing to the vast amount of fallen timber on the mountains and the loss of bridges and boats on the road. The last flour used at the mines sold at $1.50 per lb. More than 1,000 miners left for Oregon, and, subsisting on animals and begging, starving and swimming, they arrived last week in our valley, nearly naked and starved, to swell the numbers here, already too large, for subsistence and employment in our valley.
There are but few fat cattle now in Oregon and little pork. Flour sells at 18¢ per lb., wheat $5 per bushel, beef 15 to 20¢ per lb., pork 25 to 30¢, shorts 8¢, rice 33¢, coffee 42¢, sugar 10 to 25¢, oats $3 per bushel, cabbages 30¢, fruit 25¢ per lb.
Labor is down here to nothing. Not one half of the emigration obtain their board for their work. Money is in abundance, but yet I fear there are not supplies for the people three months in Oregon. We hope for arrivals here shortly from the States of flour, coffee, pork, rice &c. Those articles have reached California in abundance within a few weeks past.
Thus I have given a small sketch of the dark side of the picture. Is there no Cr. side [sic] for Oregon? Thousands of letters have been sent from here to the States lately, carrying up more bad news than is true. Hundreds of used-up gold hunters are preparing to leave for the States. We can spare them. There is too much chaff here.
The winter has broke, and we have the most delightful weather I ever saw for the season. The most extensive preparations are making for farming and building in Oregon this year. Health is good. All are able to work. All will find employment. The wheat looks well, and very much is sowed.
Huron Reflector, Norwalk, Ohio, April 19, 1853, page 1
Messrs. Horsley & Bristow, messengers for Cram, Rogers & Co.'s Express, arrived in Shasta from Yreka Feb. 3rd, traveling on foot through the deep snow of the valleys and over the mountains.
They report a very severe winter at Yreka. Provisions are still scarce, though a supply had been received from Oregon. When they left, flour was selling at thirty-five cents per pound. Several teams are now on the way by the Sacramento route, the same which Col. Freaner took for this place when he was killed by the Pit River Indians.
The mining intelligence, so far as reported, is favorable. Three men took out $6,000 in one week near Yreka, from dirt they had thrown up during the dry season.
At Jacksonville and on Rogue River the miners were doing well. Provisions at those places were more plenty than at Yreka, supplies being received from Oregon.
"Later from Shasta and Yreka," Sacramento Daily Union, February 12, 1853, page 2
Yreka, March 22, 1853. . . . I have arrived in this "glorious country" just at the termination, I hope, of what is called starving time. For two months the inhabitants of this valley had to live upon what they termed beef straight--that is, beef alone, without salt or pepper; bread, butter, sugar, tea or coffee, for six weeks. There was not a pound of flour to be had for love or money. The first that came in sold for $1.25 per lb., nominally, but in reality about two dollars, for there was a good share of the flour sticking to the sack, caused by being wet during transportation. Salt has been sold for $4 per oz. The first coffee and sugar for $2 per lb. A merchant from this place went to meet a train for the purpose of making purchases before its arrival, and fell in with it on the top of Siskiyou Mountain, a distance of thirty-five miles from this place, and bought two hundred pounds of tobacco, for which he paid $1,000 cash. It retailed for ten dollars per pound. You may judge how miners have fared, many of them emigrants who came in with their families last fall. It was a long-faced community during the time the snow was on the ground, which fell two and a half feet deep. It was almost impossible to get out of the valley. . . . we have had no bread today, but not quite as bad as in the winter; there is coffee, sugar, &c. A Spanish train came in this evening loaded with flour, so the prospect is fair for tomorrow; it sells, however, at $1 per pound.
Oregon Statesman, Oregon City, April 23, 1853, page 2
It is well known that during the severe winter of 1852 when in this part of the country there was no food, many of those who were mining left their claims and went to the Indians for meat. They gave them of what they had. The white men on Klamath River did this. Some of the miners lived with the Indians during the entire winter and always had a share when they had meat. Probably, some will think the Indians were afraid and therefore gave them part of their meat. But I assure you it was pure charity, for the white men were starving. Perhaps you do not know that during the winter of '52 there was so much suffering in the upper part of California. It was partly owing to there being but little flour in the country. The chief cause here was the severity of the winter.
The only trail to the lower country is over very high mountains, Trinity, on which the snow lay upwards of 20 feet deep and for weeks the mountain was veiled in clouds so dense that it was impossible for a man to pass over it. The road to Oregon, being still further north, was also impassable. Here in the valley stood Yreka, apparently doomed to starvation. It was during the month of November '52 that there was a heavy fall of snow which continued for some days. A few days afterward a pack train coming from Shasta City attempted to cross the Trinity Mountain, when there came on another heavy storm and the snow fell so fast that it was with great difficulty that the packers could retrace their steps after getting about one third of the way up on the other side. They got back to a house at the foot of the mountain and were obliged to unpack there, and turned their mules out. After that time, no train passed over the mountain until March.
Snow continued to fall until it was 30 feet deep in the mountains; thus you see the people were completely "shut in" here. There was but a small stock of provisions on hand, especially flour, of which there was but little in the country. The people soon became aware of the situation. The nonarrival of the trains which had been long due, the severity of the weather, all told the fearful truth: they were "cut off" from the rest of the world.
I have often heard of love, how it would "scale walls" and encounter the most eminent dangers, etc., but I tell you it is nothing compared with hunger. Hunger makes a man not only daring and bold but savage and desperate. So it was with the people here when the last pound of flour had been consumed and they had but a few potatoes and beans. Flour sold at $2 per pound, quick, until there was none left.
One man had a few hundred pounds of potatoes which he sold at 25¢ a pound. A man came from Humbug Creek and offered 30¢ a pound and took the lot. Humbug is about 8 miles off. The people could not see what provisions were carried off so they came together a few of them and quietly looked to see if said man would take the 5¢ advanced price. He was wise enough to refuse it, knowing that he had sold them; the crowd looking on would have taken them away from both of them. He kept them and retailed them at 25¢ per pound. There were many that could get nothing to eat but beef. All kinds of groceries had gone off at $2 and $3 per pound until beef was their "staff of life." Then there was no salt. Every old keg, box, or anything that had salt in it, or salt meat or fish, was completely overhauled and the salt saved. Those that had any to dispose of sold it at $16 per pound and ofttimes it would have readily commanded double that price. There was a pretty good supply of beef. It sold for 30¢-35¢ per pound. At the meat eating houses, $2 per meal, "boiled beef," 21 times a week. There were but one or two eating houses open. All the others had starved out. One of the Pauline's boys, during the time there, with no flour, heard that he could get a sack of 100 pounds at Scott's Valley, 25 miles distant. He went on a mule and got the flour, for which he paid $200. That flour was made into pies and sold at $2 each. I have been told that it would take 8 of them to weigh a pound and yet the house was full of people every evening playing cards for pies. Four men sat down and played for 12 pies. They were brought to the table and they got up as hungry as they sat down, not feeling as if they had eaten anything. You must naturally suppose that the crust was thin and the quantity of boiled beef, without pepper, salt or anything else, was small.
During this time there were parties out hunting, and others were making desperate efforts to cut a passage through the snow over the mountain. It was impossible. The distance was so great and the snow so deep that they made but little progress, and then when they turned back, there had been so much fallen that they could hardly return the way they came.
The hunters were often not successful. The deer had gotten into the thickets and it was difficult to find them. When they were found there was no trouble about killing a whole herd for the snow was so deep they could hardly keep out of the man's way. Deer could get nothing to eat but twigs from off the bushes and they too suffered. Thousands of quail, grouse and other birds that depend much on the ground for their food died.
Several parties started for Oregon. One got through and stayed there. There was no getting back. The Siskiyou Mountain was covered with snow as deep as the Trinity was, and for months there was no passing over it. Several times desperate efforts were made to cross the Trinity and sometime in March a passage was effected.
The gamblers that had been shut up here all winter on such fare were the first to leave when there was no doubt that they could get below. The snow fell damp and it became impossible to get over the mountain. Then trains started from below with provisions and vats [sic] loaded, succeeded in getting to Yreka. With utmost excitement people went out many miles to meet them. Can you imagine their joy when they came in sight and assisted them. It was a day of rejoicing when the first train arrived. Every kind of provision sold at $1.25 per pound and was sold as fast as it could be unpacked. Throughout California during the winter flour had been high and the quantity very limited but in March when it sold for $1.25 a pound here, it could be bought in San Francisco for $1 per 100 pounds. It was some weeks before it fell in price.
There was much suffering throughout all over the mining district, and as I before stated, many that lived in the vicinity of the Indians went to them and got food. Some stayed and hunted with them. Their rifles brought down the game, then the Indians with his snowshoes would pack it into camp. When people talk of exterminating them, they should think of these things.
Stephen Palmer Blake, writing December 10, 1853, in Elizabeth Hurst Ellwood, The Life of Captain Stephen Palmer Blake from his Journals, Genealogy Publishing Service 1995, pages 195-197
When located in the Rogue River Valley there came a starving time when provisions were very low and our folks lived for six weeks on beef without salt. The cattle were in fine pasture. Buck was the fattest of them, so he was slaughtered for beef, and Mother said he had saved her life twice. Incidentally, the first salt they were able to procure was $1 an ounce. At one time Father paid $7 for a squash.
Walter Scott Gore, born 1852.
February 23, 1855
Fine--but hazy--clouds low.
About two or three weeks before Christmas in the winter of 1852, generally known as the starvation winter, the stock of provisions was very small--as more of the inhabitants had not contemplated having any harder winter then than any other time--but two weeks before Christmas snow began to fall--but "everybody thought it would soon leave off"--but still it snowed until snow was four feet deep on the level of the valley and street of Yreka.
One week before Christmas provisions began to grow scarce as a train that was expected had been caught in the snow and on Christmas Day there was not a pound of flour in town to be found, although $5 per lb. was offered for it to make a pudding with--but none could be purchased. Articles rose in price, those only of the following articles could be had at any price--beef--which from every particle of feed being covered up by snow, except a few green bushes, the tops of which could be eaten by them--was very poor and very tough and was generally called sheet-iron beef--60 cts. per lb.
Salt (only 1½ lb. in town) $16 per lb.--as long as flour lasted it was sold from $1 to $1.50 per lb.--potatoes had been grown near and the fortunate grower made his fortune out of them that winter, although he sold them at the same price as before the snow--were sold at 30 cts. per lb.
None could go out--none come in--soon a famine was approaching. They could stand it no longer. Some started and did not return--this encouraged others to start--about a week after Christmas Mr. Van Choate and several others started and crossed over to the head of Scott Valley. Several having been thus far, there was a trail partially broken, and when this latter party reached "Very's ranch" they were surprised when on opening the door they found all those men who had started previously. When Van C____ entered he exclaimed, "Is there any bread here?" "No," was the answer in a surly tone. Men were strewn upon the floor, some asleep--for it was night--some could not find room to lie down and were sitting up to wait for their turn to lie down.
One day more was borne with--provisions were getting short here and rather expensive, $3 per meal--early on the following morning 23 men started towards Shasta--they had first to cross the Scott Mountain--"Who knew the way?" Now snow was from 4 to 9 feet deep. One knew it--the other knew it--so, armed with a couple of axes and their blankets off they start.
The party start--no trail--snow everywhere--one leads the van--snow comes up to his middle every step--other follow in his footsteps--in one hundred feet he is tired out--steps out of the track, another takes the lead--he soon "gives out" and thus the whole party try it--give out--and fall back--soon the first leader's turn comes round again--thus it goes the round. By noon they make 3 miles--by night they make five miles from starting. "Where is the road?" inquires one--it clouds up--nobody knows exactly which way the road does go--they stop to consult--an old packer thinks he can find it. Now it begins to snow again--they go this way--now down--now up a little--this can't be the trail--they are too low down the mountain--too much to the right--too much to the left--they are traveling all night--morning comes--now they certainly can find the way--they traveled all day--just as the sun was setting they had the sight of Mount Shasta for a few moments--they are several miles out of their course--now they know it--take it--reach a stream about noon after traveling all night--fall a tree and cross it--one being numbed falls off--is taken down the stream 100 yds., another does the same--they both get out--none wait to see if they can get out--push on hungry--weary, some frozen--night comes on, no house yet--but joy, joy, they have reached the trail--old mule dung is seen near a small stream--now they shall soon be there--on, on they go--snow still deep as ever. "Let's camp," cries one, and another, "Oh, no," cries another, "I shall freeze to death before you can make a fire." Now night overtakes them, but one is confident that the house is just round that point but midnight comes--no house yet--this is the third day out and the third night without anything to eat, without any sleep. "Let us camp," is the general cry, only a few oppose it--on they go a short distance--a shout loud and long of joy and exultation those about to camp hear it--they all get up, follow on to know the cause--sparks are seen coming out of some snow--the house is covered up--but there is a fire-on, on they go--they reach the spot--but alas! alas! it is only an old tree on fire smoldering and burning beneath the snow--an object is seen--it is the house not 3 hundred yards--off they go--but how disappointed--it is the house--but the roof has fallen in from the weight of snow--and is deserted--the lower end of the rafters (or foot) were still upon the sides of cabin and formed a hollow--there was a fireplace--good, good, how acceptable--a fire please!!! good, good, cries all!
A fire was kindled--one came in, another came in--two men were missing--after being warmed a little a party start after them, find them nearly frozen to death--bring them on--meanwhile while one was looking round they found a few pounds of barley, the only eatable thing they had seen for 3 days--they divide it and some eat it raw--some parch it in an old frying pan one man had found--now they were comfortable. They slept a little--but now they were on the right way, knew exactly where they were--there was another house 10 miles below--while they had strength they had better go than stay there to starve. Those that are able start--by this time others had come on from Yreka numbering about 70 persons in all. They start (after one day's rest). This is the 4th day without any food except the barley--about 9 o'clock p.m. of the fifth day Van Choate was ahead--they reached "Very's ranch"--oh, what joy--to see the house, and a light in it--men were sitting round a huge fire, others lying on the floor, didn't move for the newcomers--"Have you any bread?" inquired Van. "No," was the answer--"we have venison." "I want supper for 70 men." "Supper for 70 men!" inquired the landlord. "Yes, supper for seventy men--seventy men who have had nothing to each for five days." Gammon looked the landlord--he's crazy--by and bye in comes one, now another, now 3 & 4 more--all inquired eagerly "Anything to eat here?" "Yes!" cries Van, "I've ordered supper for 70--for all hands." But no supper seemed to be cooking. About 40 had reached the house, and voices were heard outside--so then the landlord concluded that he was not mad--supper was got of "sheet iron beef" and venison--and potatoes and pickled beets--how good were these to hungry men--even though there was no bread--how hard all looked--all out--some were sick. But where were the men who were found frostbitten? They were left in the house by a good fire--two men volunteered to stay there and take care of them. Men were sent back to them with food; 1 ounce per day was to be the wages. They started, found the men nearly dead--toes had fallen off--the heels of one had dropped off--at length by warm brandy gruel they were sufficiently recovered to sit up a little while more was administered to them in small doses at intervals--the men recovered, all but their feet--eventually after crossing more snow to Stewart's on Trinity River in about 9 days they reached a place of safety--and bread.
Journal of James Mason Hutchings, 1855, Library of Congress MMC-1892.
In the last Oregonian I notice a letter from B. F. Dowell, commonly known in the southern country as "collar-mouthed Dowell" (horse collar) or the "man with the cracked voice." It is said that Dowell ruined his voice in the winter of 1852-53 while he was crying, four for sale at a dollar and a quarter per lb. During those memorable starvation times, Dowell arrived in Jacksonville with a load of flour, and commenced to sell it out at fifty cts. per lb., but soon increased his extortionate demands until he raised it up as high as a dollar and [a] quarter, when he broke down; his voice failed him, and he has not recovered it to this day.William J. Martin, "The 'Expedition to Fight the Emigrants,'"Umpqua Gazette, Scottsburg, August 9, 1855, page 2
It will be remembered that all emigration and supplies from Northern to Southern Oregon, 1852, had to pass through the celebrated Canyon, that in the month of December of that year the snow fell to a depth of from three to five feet--cutting off all travel for several weeks. Supplies being already scarce in Southern Oregon, this caused enormous prices--such as $1.25 per pound for flour; 40 and 50 cts. for beef; salt, $8 per pound; tobacco (almost indispensable to miners) from $4 to $8 per pound, and all other articles in proportion. Those who had commenced their settlements in '51 had only been able to produce a very limited quantity of supplies; in fact, in the spring of 1853, wheat, oats and potatoes could not be obtained for planting purposes for less than 40 cts. per pound; therefore, the price of labor, as well as all other things necessary for the farmer to produce. Supplies were so very high that only a limited quantity was produced--not enough to supply the wants of the country; for be it remembered, all that portion of Oregon, from the Umpqua south to Shasta County, was then a mining region, being worked and traversed by thousands of miners, depending entirely on the importation of supplies.
"Southern Oregon," Oregon Sentinel, Jacksonville, June 1, 1867, page 2
The great floods of the winter of 1852-53 had a disastrous effect upon Yreka. The roads were so impassable on account of mud and water, and the mountain trails so blockaded with snow, that pack trains were unable to get in with supplies. Provisions became exhausted. Salt, flour, bacon,beans, rice, and nearly everything of that nature were eaten up, and a new supply could not be obtained. Flour sacks were scraped and soaked to remove from them every vestige of their contents. There was plenty of fresh meat, cattle in abundance, game in profusion, and as a last resort horses and mules, so there was no danger of actual starvation, though many who could not afford to pay the exorbitant prices charged for everything, fared far from sumptuously. Salt was the dearest and most necessary article, for a diet of fresh meat without any seasoning became nauseous. A small sack of that article was brought in from Oregon and sold rapidly in small lots at one dollar per ounce.
Henry Laurenz Wells, History of Siskiyou County, 1881, page 199
James Clugage, now dead, who formerly lived in Marysville, [Ohio,] discovered the mines in Southern Oregon, in Rogue River Valley, in the summer of 1850 [sic]. At that time Southern Oregon was an almost unknown region; only an Indian trail led into and out of Rogue River Valley and no wagon had ever crossed the Siskiyou Mountain on the south or the Calapooias on the north. The only way to get provisions into Rogue River Valley was by pack animals, and even by that plan it was sometimes uncertain. The fame of these gold discoveries by Mr. Clugage soon spread south to California and further north into Oregon and by fall there was a flood of people in the valley, either digging for gold or locating and opening up farms. A great many cattle were driven into the valley during the fall of the year, and a considerable supply of groceries packed in by mule trains. By the middle of November the mountains were covered so deep with snow that the pack trails were obliterated and impassable, so that no more provisions could be gotten into the valley until spring. Long before the trails were opened up, provisions of almost all kinds (except beef) were consumed, and the merchants asked fabulous prices for what was left. Flour was $50 per sack of 50 pounds, bacon $2 per pound, sugar $2 per pound, coffee and tea any price asked. I saw salt sell for $16 per pound--$1 per ounce--and eggs $12 per dozen. You could at the same time get all the beef you wanted for 6 and 7 cents per pound, but you had to eat it without salt. Some of the miners sifted fine wood ashes over their meat as a substitute for salt. Of course such prices were caused by a shortage at that place, but for some years the people of California and Oregon were compelled to pay what we would now think ruinous prices for almost everything . . . in the spring of 1851 [sic] a packer came to Jacksonville in Rogue River Valley with two mules loaded with cats, and that he sold all he had as fast as he could hand them out for an ounce of gold dust each ($16.50). The miners wanted the cats to eat--the mice which infested their cabins and destroyed their provisions, clothing &c.
F. B. Sprague, "Away Back in '50," Union County Journal, Marysville, Ohio, October 18, 1888, page 7
Then and Now.
A winter like the present will naturally awaken reminiscences of the time of trial and privation which the pioneers experienced in the famous snow blockade of 1852. Writing to a newly married friend in this place, Mrs. Anna Dean of Willow Springs, whose marriage with the late Mr. Dean was one of the first weddings celebrated in this valley, thus refers to her own experience during the snowy period: "But my dear E----, I will recount a little of my experience the first winter after my own marriage. I was married Nov. 15, 1852, in this place. In December it commenced snowing and snowed more or less every day and night for six weeks. Provisions were all packed on mules from Scottsburg or Portland at that time, and we were soon blockaded by snow. We at first had plenty, but Mr. Dean kept a trading post and sold everything at the old prices, thinking the blockade would not continue long, and in consequence we soon had to buy supplies at the following prices: Coffee, sugar, saleratus and candles, $1 per pound; flour not to be had at any price. We paid thirty dollars per bushel for wheat, and ground it in the coffee mill for bread. This, for a family of seven, required considerable grinding, and we kept the coffee mill in operation most of the time, and had many a hearty laugh over 'going to mill.' There was a butcher who had his shop here, and we paid him 70 cents per pound for beef and $5 per pound for salt. Of course there were many who had no means to buy at such prices. One day there were 10 men who came and begged the butcher to let them have beef, but as they had no money to pay for it, he refused to do so. Mr. Dean told him to let them have the beef, and he would be responsible for it. We gave the men the store-room--it had a big fireplace--and loaned them frying pans, and they lived there for several weeks on fried beef alone without salt. Their beef bill was $200, which Mr. Dean paid, and for which, needless to say, he never received a cent. Another man, a preacher, was stopping in a little shanty near, and would come and pick up the beef heads thrown away. As soon as the butcher discovered this he charged him 25 cents each for them. Mr. Dean told him to stop that '2-bit business' or leave the place, for he would not tolerate it. I fear I tire you with this subject, but Oh! E----, those were delicious pancakes." Such was pioneer hospitality and privations. The "halcyon days" were not exactly the most comfortable times to live in.
Democratic Times, Jacksonville, February 6, 1890, page 3
The Indians, after the hard winter of 1852, were reduced to a condition of absolute starvation, and many of them must have perished had not Mr. Constant placed his store of potatoes at their disposal. They never forgot his humanity, and when the Indian war of 1855-6 was raging, he and his family alone, of all the inhabitants of the valley, were allowed to remain unmolested on their ranch, secure from harm because of an act of kindness.
"Died," obituary of Isaac Constant, Democratic Times, Jacksonville, February 6, 1890, page 3
During the winter of 1852-53 there was the deepest snow I ever saw. It started early in the winter with a three days' rain and then turned to snow. It snowed after that almost steadily for sixty-seven days and starved us out. All our provisions had to come from Oregon City [or] on the head of the Sacramento 300 miles away, and the snow was higher than a man's head. In some places it was drifted up into great mountains. We couldn't see one hut from another. I had plenty of money, had gold in every pocket, but couldn't find anything to eat. Finally I went down to a ranch owned by a man named Miller. He didn't have much provisions, so I went out among the Indians and they kept me for the winter. Miller went with me part of the way, and when we got a few miles from his hut we came across a canvas tent half buried in the snow. Inside we found four little children, the eldest just about large enough to take care of the others. They were half starved and almost frozen to death. Miller knew their father and mother, both of whom had died of cholera and left those little ones destitute and alone. Miller went on a little farther with me and was then going back to save those little ones and take them to his ranch. On the way we met a fellow leading a horse with a big pack of provisions strapped over its back. He wanted to get out of the country, he said, and offered to sell his horse and everything on him for $150. Miller didn't have any money with him, but I counted out the coin and he started back with the horse. The next spring I went back to Miller's ranch and found those children all safe and well, and Miller weighed me out $150 in gold.
Interview with James Goudy, in "Grew with the West," Chicago Herald, October 19, 1890, page 30
I left my horse at Corvallis and took the steamer for Oregon City. There I made my first purchase, some 4000 lbs. of flour, of Dr. McLoughlin at 16¢ per lb. Then on down to Portland and made the balance of my purchase in sugar, coffee, salt, tobacco and some boots. The weather at this time was getting quite cold. I finally got all my goods on the little iron steamer Bell, commanded by Wells, and Capt. Dick Williams, engineer and fireman. We had to break the ice some distance out from the wharf boat before we could get a good start. It was of a Sat. morning when we left Portland. When we got to Oregon City the horse teams would not haul goods to Canemah, the ice in the mud holes not strong enough to bear up the horses, and the ice cut their legs. The steamer at Canemah was to leave for Corvallis Sunday at 10 a.m. (they only made one trip a week then). I was very anxious to get my freight up there. I was lucky enough to find an ox team in town with a load of wood. Said he would take them up for 50¢ 100 lbs. and have them there before dark; I said go ahead. He had 3 yoke of oxen to his wood wagon. He got them all up in three loads. The boat was then full and still there were lots of goods in the warehouse. I told the Captain my situation and that the packer would be awaiting me at Corvallis, so he consented to take my freight. We left Canemah about noon on Sunday; that night and Monday and for several days it never ceased snowing. It blockaded all the travel out south and I had to lay at Corvallis 16 days before my train got in, but it was the first in of any. Some packers lost many mules; one lost 29 out of 30 head. My packer only lost one. The steamer that brought up my freight went back to Canemah and did not make another trip while I was in Corvallis. I got my goods all safely into Mr. Avery's storehouse. Mr. Barnardo's brother was clerking for Mr. Avery then. For several days before I left Corvallis I had to supply two hotels with flour.
We loaded up and started the train in three days after it got in. We got through to Jacksonville all right and were the first train in from Corvallis, and glad were the citizens to see us, as many of the families and miners were entirely out of flour and had been for some weeks. Mr. Birdseye said there were a few sacks hidden away. He had one sack hidden. We soon sold all we had for 60¢ per lb., leaving us a profit of about 12¢ per lb. Tobacco sold for $5 per lb., table salt in 5-lb. boxes sold for $2.50 per box and everything else in proportion as the town was drained of everything, so we made a very good thing out of the trip. Had I not pushed through to Portland and got my goods to Corvallis when I did it would have made a vast difference in profits. Soon other trains began to come in and prices went down. There had come into Jacksonville in the fall several families by the way of California. Other than these, it was only a mining camp, a good place to make money, but I felt I had not ought to be away from my family, so far away, any longer and Jacksonville at that time was no place to bring children to. I hated to leave, had made many good acquaintances. So I decided to sell out, and did so, to Mr. Birdseye and the Jew. I put William on a 160-acre claim I had taken for debt. It joined one owned by Mr. Birdseye, on which was Bob Mulligan (you may remember him when we were on the farm) and about 10 miles north of Jacksonville on the main traveled road. Wm. promised to keep charge of it until something could be realized from it. It was a very nice place, some grazing land and a very nice lot of fine timber, but a few months after I left he got into trouble by helping some fellow get away from the sheriff and had to leave for the Willamette Valley, abandoning the claim. He never paid me all for the mining claim in Jacksonville, so I was out on his account some $200. I had sold everything but the old mule; he I concluded to ride down to Portland on. Birdseye wanted Billy so much I let him have him, but on the road I traded the mule off for a horse, which I rode into Portland and there disposed of him.
Thomas Frazer, Family History, Oregon Historical Society Research Library Mss. 2667, pages 42-44
It is related that the winter of 1852 was the most severe one that Southern Oregon had ever experienced since the white men settled there. The mountains of California were blockaded with snow so as to prevent travel between Oregon and the mines of California. The people of Jacksonville were wholly dependent upon the supplies brought from the Willamette or Scottsburg. An unexpected storm having arisen, and there being no means to afford them relief, their provisions were entirely inadequate for their support. Snow fell at Jacksonville to the depth of three feet and lay upon the ground for more than four weeks. After the snow disappeared, high water proved an obstacle to travel. During this time the citizens and miners suffered severely. The supply of flour was exhausted, and most of the population were compelled to live on "beans straight" for a long period of time. The old settlers will remember that the first relief was furnished by B. F. Dowell, who brought to Jacksonville a pack train loaded with flour and other provisions and who, by his indomitable courage and perseverance, surmounted obstacles that few would have had the hardihood and courage to undertake. In the vicinity of Jacksonville this storm was much more severe than in the other surrounding sections of Southern Oregon. It is well remembered, even to this day, by those early settlers who were living in this section of the state at that time."
E. P. D'Arcy, "He Talked to Pioneers," Oregon Statesman, Salem, September 9, 1900, page 5
Soon after the adjournment of the Legislature, I went out to Jackson County and was told many hard-times tales of the hard winter now happily over. Provisions of all kinds had been scarce. To obtain flour was out of the question. Snow covered the ground everywhere. Salt and salt meats there was none. "Venison straight," as they termed it, only was plentiful. The crust on the snow would bear up a man, but the sharp feet of the deer would cut through it, impeding their progress to such an extent that they could not escape their pursuers, and were overtaken and killed by footmen with axes. This condition was fortunate for the miners, as they had no ammunition with which to shoot them, and no venison without salt or bread or bacon or beans was in most instances their only food for several weeks. Just as I arrived at Jacksonville one mule load of salt arrived. It came from Scottsburg, most of the way through snow, a path being broken by the owner, Dr. Fisk, the mule following behind. Before reaching town Dan Kinney, partner of the Jacksonville house of Kinney & Appler, rode out of town and bought the load, at $8 per pound. There being 250 pounds of it, the packer was well paid for his hard trip of 150 or more miles. Hearing of this, the miners and citizens of Jacksonville held a meeting and passed a resolution, in other words a law, "regulating" the price of salt. It was decided that the merchant should be requested to sell this salt, in quantities of not more than one pound to each person, and at a price not exceeding one ounce of gold ($16) per pound. It is needless to say that no appeal from this action was taken. The men stood in line as at a post office, and handed their dust to one of the partners to be weighed, and the other partner weighed out the salt and handed it to the purchaser. In many instances three or four persons would club together, and as soon as the salt was obtained, they would reach out their hands for a portion of it, and eat it as a child would sugar. Persons who have never tried a diet without salt, and not having any kind of food containing it, could hardly realize the situation of these people. Tobacco was very scarce for a time, yet the price of it was only $14 per pound.
George E. Cole, "A Pioneer's Recollections," Oregonian, Portland, February 3, 1901, page 23 This account was reprinted in Cole's 1905 book Early Oregon.
In the Rogue River Valley the few settlers lived on meat alone for some six weeks. Game, however, was plentiful, and Mr. [William] Hamilton and a neighbor kept the carcasses of from 20 to 25 deer hanging in front of their cabins all the time, and all were allowed to help themselves. Flour sold at $1.50 per pound, and salt at $15 per pound.
"Winter of '52-'53," Medford Enquirer, January 24, 1903, page 2
"Well do we all remember the winter of 1852 in Jacksonville, known to the pioneer as the winter of hardships, privations and starvation. Mrs. Peninger, then a young woman in the prime of life, cheerfully took hold without a murmur, creating comfort with her cheering presence, and alleviating pain by her tender touch. When flour sold for $1 per pound, salt for $16 per pound, and not to be had at that price only a pinch at a time for the sick (and they were many) Mrs. Peninger and others soaked the flour sacks to make gruel for the sick and destitute. All the flour and groceries used that winter were packed on backs of mules from Salem, Ore., through rains and floods, through cañon and over mountains. The empty flour sacks were of much value for the caked flour in the rich corners to soak for gruel. Adversity in pioneer days brought out all the ingenuity in their makeup. Many a big cup of this gruel did Mrs. Peninger carry to the sick in their miserable huts and tents, and felt happy if she could obtain a pinch of salt to season this delicious beverage; with a few dried herbs she brought across the plains in case of emergency, cheerfully divided around to make tea for the sick in the fever-stricken camps. The poor homeless boys would return thanks with many a prayerful blessing for their 'ministering angel,' as they called her."
Memorial to Mary Smith Peninger Fisher, quoted in "William H. Peninger," Portrait and Biographical Record of Western Oregon, Chapman Publishing Co., Chicago, 1904, pages 572-573
The winter of 1852 was an exceptionally hard one. Snow fell until all trails were completely blocked. Flour rose to one dollar a pound, and salt was priceless. Some adventurous men went to California on snowshoes to buy salt. Provisions gave out, and towards spring the people had to live on wild game, meat cooked without salt.
Alice Applegate Sargent, "A Sketch of the Rogue River Valley and Southern Oregon History," Oregon Historical Quarterly, March 1921, page 4. Read before the Greater Medford Club in the spring of 1915.
"The winter of 1852 was a severe one. Several thousand people had rushed to the new camp of Jacksonville, and very little supplies had been hauled in. Flour was $50 a sack, tobacco $16 a pound and salt was exchanged weight for weight for gold dust. There was no salt in the camp and the miners on the nearby creeks who had small amounts could hardly be induced to sell any. Neighbors would share their small supply, and a pinch of salt was the most acceptable present you could give. Father had to have salt to put in his sausages, and he bought it by paying an ounce of gold dust for an ounce of salt."
Mrs. Evan Reames, "The Oregon Country in Early Days," Oregon Daily Journal, Portland, August 12, 1915, page 6
The winter of 1852-3 was a very severe one for Oregon. The snow was two feet deep in the [Umpqua] valley and remained for a month or more. Pack trains were held up and miners and settlers in Jackson County were soon without supplies, especially breadstuff. Beef, without salt, was the principal food--salt was said to have been exchanged for its weight in gold dust, while flour was any price that might be demanded. I remember that "Mike" Hanley (father of "Bill" Hanley the Harney County cattle king) came to our house soon after the snow blockade was over, saying he had lived on poor beef without salt so long that he could not look a cow in the face.
George W. Riddle, History of Early Days in Oregon, Riddle Enterprise, 1920, page 41
In  it was that we had an exceptionally hard winter, and provisions became very scarce. Thousands of horses, mules and cattle starved to death. We were caught in a place called Vannoy's ferry, some miles from Portland. Flour was selling at $1 a pound, musty bacon 75 cents, etc. Tobacco was an article very much in demand. A man could chew his tobacco for awhile and then lay it aside, much as a child will do with his gum. He would then smoke it after it was dry. Plug tobacco was the kind most in demand. One would take a dollar and hand it to the dealer, who would place it on a plug and cut out a piece the exact size of the money, both thinking that a good bargain had been made.
J. W. Hillman, quoted by Bentley B. Mackay, "When White Men First Beheld the 'Sea of Silence,'" Oregonian, Portland, June 11, 1922, page G1
It is impossible to estimate the number of people living in Jacksonville and engaged in mining in the vicinity in the summer of 1852. Estimates vary from 3000 to 10,000 souls.
Suffice to say when winter came there were far too many. The winter of 1852-53 was one of the severest recorded in the history of southern Oregon. Snow began falling in November, and by December every means of ingress into the crowded mining camp was effectively blocked. It was not long until it became startlingly apparent to the snowbound citizenry that the demand for foodstuffs far exceeded the supply--nor were there airplanes in those days to swoop down and drop the life-giving necessities from the sky.
By the middle of December only a very limited amount of flour, some dried fruit, cheese and a quantity of "poor" beef remained in camp. The Table Rock Billiard Saloon and Bakery, one of the first business houses to open its doors in Jacksonville [most accounts record its opening in 1856], was daily besieged by throngs eager to buy--not drinks, but bread, the price of which had risen to 50 cents a loaf.
A story is told which well illustrates the stringency of the situation, and the temper of the times. It seems Peter Britt, the first man to bring a camera into Oregon, and the first to photograph Crater Lake of national park fame, possessed a 50-pound sack of flour which he was carefully hoarding for his own use throughout the coming months. News of this cache was bruited about until it came to the ears of "Pie John" Wintjen and H. Helm, proprietors of the Table Rock Billiard Saloon and Bakery. [Hermann V. Helm arrived in the U.S. in 1853.] They were desperately in need of the raw materials, without which the name "bakery" applied to their establishment speedily would become a tantalizing reminiscent fiction. They approached Britt, offering to buy his flour. He refused to sell.
It was not long until public opinion was aroused and Britt stood before his fellow townspeople in a very unfavorable light. Upon the advice of friends solicitous for his welfare, he finally agreed to part with the flour for $50. Messrs. Wintjen and Helm paid with alacrity and seized upon the prize, which they converted into dried-apple pies that were sold to the Christmas trade for $1 apiece, the speculators realizing a nice return on their investment.
Dear as was flour, salt was infinitely more precious. Near Ashland, a distance of 18 miles from Jacksonville, there are lithia springs, known in the old days as the "Salt Springs." Under the pressure of necessity men from Jacksonville visited these springs and boiled down an enormous quantity of water in order to obtain the precious salt-containing residue. If salt was sold it was weighed on a regular gold balance, the exchange being made on the basis of an equal weight of salt for gold.
John Rolfe Burroughs, "Oregon's First Gold Camp," Oregonian, Portland, December 7, 1930, page 58
The winter of 1852 was an exceptionally hard one. Snow fell until all trails were completely blocked; flour rose to one dollar a pound, and salt was priceless. Some adventurous men went to California on snowshoes to buy salt. Provisions gave out and towards spring the people had to live on wild game, meat cooked without salt.
"Battle of Table Rock Told by Mrs. Sargent," Medford Mail Tribune, January 3, 1932, page 3
During that first winter Robert [Cameron] went to the Willamette Valley for flour, but the heavy snows detained him and his brother spent the winter alone on the Applegate, with nothing to eat but dried apples and meat cooked without salt. Salt was very scarce in those early days and sold for $16 per ounce.
"Pioneer Tells of First Drive to Jacksonville," Medford Mail Tribune, February 7, 1932, page 4
Last revised February 18, 2018