On March 22, 1849, John B. Clarke and 40 other men from Manchester, New Hampshire, arrived on the Pacific shore of the Isthmus of Panama after an overland trip from the Atlantic port of Chagres.
The group, which included 41 eager "gold rushers," was bound for California where gold had been discovered the previous year. Each man dreamed of easily discovering a fortune in gold nuggets! But first, the men, who were stranded in the crowded and expensive city of Panama, had to find passage on a northbound ship. There were simply too few ships to accommodate the hundreds of eager "Forty-Niners."
As the days passed the Manchester men began to feel a tinge of desperation. However, John Clarke was not one to be weighed down by a challenge. He explained his state of mind to his mother in a letter, "Daring all these discouragements and general complaint, I have not had a sad moment or anything but my natural sanguine expectations."
A natural entrepreneur, John found a way out of the sticky situation by joining forces with Mr. Chenery of Maine, who was traveling with 20 men. Together, John and Chenery raised enough money from fellow travelers to buy a ship, the brig Copiapo. The sale was completed on April 16, and the agreement presumably included the use of the crew. John was named the "supercargo," which meant that he was in charge of the freight.
We learn details of the voyage from a journal kept by one of John Clarke's companions, Deacon Daniel Haines of the First Freewill Baptist Church in Manchester. An interesting fact regarding Deacon Haine's journal is that he spelled "Panama" as "Panamar," no doubt reflecting how a native New Hampshire person of the era would have pronounced a word ending in "a!"
Deacon Haines reported that the Copiapo left Panama on May 6, 1849, and sailed for San Francisco on May 10. On June 15 it landed at Acapulco, Mexico, to pick up water, wood and other supplies. The ship left Acapulco on June 21, and crossed the Gulf of California on June 30 and July 1. Deacon Haines reported the conditions of the crossing, "Brisk winds with frequent squalls but a very agreeable run."
On July 11 he noted, "Near Cape (Cabo) St. Lucas (at the tip of the Baja California peninsula) we saw an abundance of black fish, whales, sharks."
One of the passengers on the Copiapo was William Penn Abrams, who was originally from Sanbornton, New Hampshire. William left the state bound for adventure when he was 19 years old along with his cousin, Cyrus Colby. Their travels led them to Chicago and New Orleans. Williams eventually settled into a position operating a lumber mill in Gainesville, Alabama. He was bitten by the gold bug, so in early 1849 he traveled to Chagres on the Isthmus of Panama, then to Panama (City). He was lucky to get a ticket on the Copiapo. Here he made himself useful by making a list of the 137 passengers. These included men from 16 states. Among them were 11 clerks, 16 merchants, 26 farmers and 7 doctors. William Abrams later became one of the first people to provide a written account of a seeing the Yosemite Valley in California. He arrived in the Valley on October 18, 1849, while looking for a suitable site for a saw mill, and wrote a vivid description of the landscape in his diary.
Another notable person on the Copiapo was Thomas Tennent, a Quaker from Philadelphia. He was an inventor and maker of mathematical instruments and became an early photographer of the west. He established a business in San Francisco, and made some of the first scientific weather observations in the city. Starting in 1856 Thomas began publishing Tennent's Nautical Almanac which recorded weather and other data along the Pacific coast. Thomas was named the official timekeeper of San Francisco in 1865.
On the cold and cloudy day of August 8, 1849, the Copiapo stopped at Monterey, California, to pick up additional water and food. Three days later the ship continued on its way. Finally, on Tuesday, August 14, 1849, the Copiapo arrived in San Francisco harbor.
Next Week: A Valley Cemetery Story — John Clarke finds a surprising answer to his search for fortune.
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her email@example.com