The discovery of gold in 1848 by James Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma resulted in an influx of about three hundred thousand eager young men into California seeking their fortune. Most went bust and returned home; a tiny few discovered their fortunes and became rich; and then there were those, like my great, great, great uncle Abner Vanderwalker, who were able to find a way to carve out a satisfactory life for themselves. At least for a while…
THE EARLY YEARS
Abner Keeler Vanderwalker, commonly known as A.K., was born November 30, 1825, in Troy, Albany County, New York to Isaac Vanderwalker and Helen Elizabeth Terhune. He was the seventh of their eleven children; fifth of seven sons. The family was prosperous, if not wealthy. Abner’s father Isaac owned and operated a sawmill in Au Sable Forks, New York, was a Member of the State Assembly in 1832, served as a Clinton County Supervisor from 1832 through 1836, and became the local Postmaster in 1840. In October 1844 when Abner was 18 years old his mother Helen died. His widowed father Isaac married widow Lois Downey 18 months later in April 1846.
On May 14, 1849, 23-year-old Abner, who was then living in Taunton, Massachusetts, heeded the siren call and set sail on the Brig Chatham out of Boston around Cape Horn to San Francisco to seek his fortune in the gold fields of California. The trip would have taken about six months, landing him in California around November 1849. From there he would eventually find his way into the back country of Sierra County.
SIERRA COUNTY, CALIFORNIA
Between 1848 and 1860, more than 16,000 men arrived in Sierra County looking for gold, unceremoniously displacing many of the indigenous people of the Maidu and Washoe tribes who were living there. The rapid population growth also created problems for the newcomers. The slow response time, as well as the lack of courts and other support from the county seat in far-away Marysville often resulted in justice being left up to vigilantes. Consequently, in 1852, Sierra County was broken off from Yuba County and a new county seat established in Downieville. That first year the population consisted of 4,663 men and 96 women, plus 977 “negroes” who were not broken down by gender. The amount of capital employed in placer mining in the county that year was a whopping $134,051, while only a meager $9,109 was employed in quartz mining. Placer mining, where gold was recovered from the ground at or near the surface using hydraulic means, would prevail until the late 1850s. The more capital intense quartz mining, where men or machines dug deep into the Earth to remove larger rocks which were then pulverized and treated chemically to extract the gold, would come to predominate in the 1860s.
Remote Sierra County consists of tall rugged thickly forested mountains. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s there were no roads wide enough to accommodate even a small wagon, so all supplies had to be brought in by pack mule. Beginning in the mid-1850s, Samuel Langton began operating a regular mule express from Downieville to Virginia City and Carson City, Nevada. His twice weekly service was increased to three times a week in 1862. There were a few others who ran less predictable service as well. Efforts to get a wagon road built sputtered throughout the 1850s and 1860s. But political differences and general squabbling prevented completion until the Yuba Gap Road, running from Marysville to Virginia City, was completed in 1870. Predictably, mail service would continue to be sporadic until 1871.
BOOM AND BUST
Eureka City, also referred to as Eureka Diggins, located five miles to the Northwest of Downieville, was a boom-and-bust town as early as 1850 when placer miners were unearthing rich deposits of gold. In its heyday it boasted a school, a post office, and two hotels. However, by 1860 the rich gold veins had been largely played out and most of the miners would have left Eureka, many of them heading for the booming silver mines of the Comstock Lode in Nevada.
In 1856, Abner was living in North Eureka in Sierra County and had joined the Mountain Forest Lodge No. 75 of the Free & Accepted Masons located there. The following year he advanced from Fellow Crafts to Master Mason rank.
On November 10, 1857, A.K. Vanderwalker, along with five other men, purchased a mine consisting of six claims at Monte Cristo in the Eureka region from the Cold Spring Company for $100. The group of men soon formed the Star Point Mining Company. Monte Cristo was among the richest placer mining camps between 1855 and 1860, so presumably the endeavor was a successful one. However, 17 months after the Star Point Mining Company purchased the claims, in April 1859, a terrible land slide occurred nearby killing at least four men. This was followed up five months later, on September 29, 1859, by a major fire that leveled the town of Monte Cristo. Coincidentally, on that same day Abner sold his 1/8 interest in the mining claims at Chappel Hill to the other members of the Star Point Mining Company for $100. By this time, placer mining was beginning to be replaced by quartz mining in much of the area.
LOOKING FOR A PLACE TO BELONG
In 1860, Abner withdrew from the Masonic lodge in North Eureka. In 1862 he joined the Mountain Shade Lodge No. 18 in nearby Downieville, which at that time was the fifth largest city in California after San Francisco, Sacramento, Grass Valley, and Nevada City.
The following year, Abner, along with thirteen other members of the Downieville lodge relocated 13 miles east to Sierra City where on June 3, 1863, they established the new Free & Accepted Masons Harmony Lodge No. 184. They erected the Masonic Hall on the corner of Main and Butte Streets during the first year while Abner was serving as Senior Deacon. He went on to hold the leadership position of Master of the lodge in both 1865 and 1866.
During this time, Sierra City was becoming a well-established town and in 1865 a Post Office and a Wells Fargo Express Office were both opened. Abner remained very active in the Sierra City Lodge, although when he registered to vote in 1866, he listed his residence as Butte City. His occupation was miner.
Meanwhile, back East, Abner’s father and several siblings had relocated from New York to Minnesota where they were establishing themselves in that newly formed State. In an apparent effort to lure Abner away from California, in 1864 his father and stepmother sold him an 80-acre farm in Freeborn County, Minnesota. But their plan would not be immediately successful.
One of the other men who transferred from the Downieville lodge to the Sierra City lodge in 1863 was James English. On July 13, 1867, he sold Abner a half interest in the Chipps Quartz Ledge, Mining Claims, Quartz Mill, and water rights for $2,000. Fellow lodge member, Edward Higgins, represented Mr. English before the notary public who recorded the transaction.
The Chipps Mine located on the One Thousand to One Ridge, two miles east of Sierra City, was a “pocket mine” consisting of small deposits of gold-rich ore sandwiched between barren rock. The stamp mill used to pulverize the ore would have been powered by water, making the water rights a critical component of the operation’s value.
The next year, Chipps Quartz Mining Company contracted with Edwin R. Davis, another establishing member of Harmony Lodge who transferred in from Downieville, to build a second quartz mill. In an effort to raise some funds to pay for this expansion, on May 16, 1868, Abner sold a ¼ interest in the Chipps Quartz Ledge, Mine, and Mill to John Henderson for $750.
END OF THE CALIFORNIA DREAM
Although the Chipps Quartz Mine near Allegany, California reportedly was one of the more successful mining operations, on September 8, 1868, Abner sold his remaining 1/8 interest in the company to partner and lodge brother Edward Higgins for $2,000.
Two years later, in 1870, 45-year-old Abner was living in Minnesota with his 19-year-old wife, Mary Elizabeth Jones and their infant son, William, as well as Mary’s 18-year-old brother Horace Jones. Abner was working as a farmer, presumably on the farm he had purchased from his father in 1864, with $1,500 in real estate and $825 in personal property.
On March 21, 1872, Abner and Mary, acting remotely from Minnesota, sold his remaining asset in Sierra County, the parcel of land in the Village of Sierra City, located on the corner of Main and Butte Streets, to Abner’s former lodge brother Henry Warner, acting as agent for the Harmony Lodge No. 164 for $135. This was the lot that held the Harmony Lodge Masonic Hall which Abner and his lodge brothers had built nine years earlier.
Abner lived the rest of his life in Minnesota where he continued to be active in various fraternal organizations. He was a member of the local Free and Accepted Masons Lodge, eventually taking 32 degrees in that order. In 1873, along with others, he established and was head of the first Grange, Patrons of Husbandry in Freeborn County, Minnesota also serving as county deputy for that organization. In 1881 he was a charter member of the St. Bernard Commandery No. 13 Knights Templar in Austin, Minnesota when that lodge was established. In 1890, he joined the newly formed Unity Chapter, No. 28 of the Eastern Star, serving as Sentinel. At the time of his death on November 26, 1897, at 71 years of age, he was an active member of the Austin Commandery of Knights Templar.
Mower County Transcript: 22 May 1873, 20 July 1881, 12 April 1882, 28 May 1890, 1 December 1897 editions
Freeborn County Standard: 29 May 1873, 19 June 1873, 10 July 1873, 22 Jan 1874 editions
Argonauts of California, 1890
Free and Accepted Mason Records of the State of California
Fifty Years of Masonry in California
Sierra County, California Deeds
History of Sierra City, by James J. Sinnott
Sierra County Gold, the online guide to Sierra County
Great Register of Sierra County, California
Reports of California State Mineralogist, 1893
Sacramento Daily Union: 22 April 1859
Sierra Democrat: September 1859
Freeborn County, Minnesota Deeds
Eureka, NV Museum
1870 US Census