The Sad Story of James D. Turner and the California Gold Rush

As I watched the recent episode of the NBC series, “Who Do You Think You Are?,” that featured actress Helen Hunt, I thought about a collection of letters I processed when I was Special Collections Librarian at The Walter Havighurst Special Collections, Miami University Libraries.

Helen Hunt’s great-great-grandfather, William Scholle, emigrated from Germany to the United States in 1845. Lured by the promise of gold, William came to San Francisco with his brother in the early 1850s. To take advantage of the opportunities that the Gold Rush presented, William opened a shop to provide clothes and supplies to the miners who were flocking to the city. By 1874, William had become a very rich man.

William’s success was a stark contrast to the fate of James D. Turner, who left his wife, Lucy, and their daughter, Mary, behind in Felicity, Ohio and prospected for gold in California. Correspondence pertaining to the Turners and their family and friends provides sobering accounts of the time from James’s departure in March 1850 until his death in Nevada City, California on August 7, 1851. The letters are now part of the Miscellanea Collection, housed in The Walter Havighurst Special Collections, on the third floor of King Library, one of the landmarks of Miami’s main campus in Oxford, Ohio. 

Census records reveal that James was born in 1801, in Maryland, and Lucy was born in 1819. The couple married in Clermont County, Ohio on April 25, 1843. Their daughter, Mary, was born in 1848.

In July 1850, James arrived in Sacramento, just days after a great fire consumed about a third of San Francisco. After traveling 250 miles over mountains on foot in the hot sun, James began his hunt for gold in Nevada City. But prospecting in the northern river profited nothing.

“I am doing nothing and have done nothing in getting gold and have endured more hardships than in all my life before,” he wrote Lucy on September 8, 1850. “The prospects in California are very gloomy and the country is full to overflowing with men, three-fourths of which are destitute. It is impossible to think of coming home this winter as my situation is such that it would cause me to lose all that I started with, but I think I shall come home in the spring if my life is spared.”

In his October 13, 1850 letter to Lucy, James revealed that he had decided to go into the mercantile trade because he found he could not stand the fatigue and the unprofitable business of mining, especially in the winter. Since he had come such a distance and spent a considerable amount of money to do so, he could not think of returning worse off than he was when he left Ohio. He enclosed some specimens of California gold from the Yuba goldfields, Mad Rock Canyon and the Kiota diggings in his letter so Lucy could not only show them to their friends, but also keep them in remembrance of him if he did not return home.

By the time James wrote Lucy on December 10, 1850, he was selling provisions and clothing, he had plenty to eat and blankets to keep him warm. Appreciating what a good wife and home he had, James said that times were hard in Nevada City, with more destitution there than in Ireland, plenty of begging, and all kinds of vice, including murders and robberies. He also noted that cholera was very bad in San Francisco.

In a February 20, 1851 letter to her brother, L.W. Carver, who accompanied James on the expedition, Lucy wrote that she hoped he could only “get away from that awful place, that lair of demons and death, that horrible pit, uncorrupted by the tainted atmosphere.” The next day, she wrote her husband that leaving the comforts of home and the company of his best friend seemed a very high price to pay for gold.

James’s unhappy Gold Rush experiences became even more tragic when his store caught fire on March 11, 1851. He lost everything, including his clothes, except the money he had on hand. Almost seven thousand dollars in debt, he resolved to quit being in business, try his luck at mining again, and come home to Ohio as soon as he could make that amount of money.

Lucy bravely stood her husband’s misfortune. She tried to cheer him and encourage him to endure his hardships by writing about their daughter.

On July 9, 1851, James wrote Lucy that some of the men in his party were starting to become sick and even die from typhoid fever. While he was still in good health, he had lost weight. He also reported that he was unable to make any money from mining for gold and couldn’t stand the work any longer. Although he was still several thousand dollars in debt, he confided to Lucy that he was determined to preserve his health, whether he made money or not.

E.F.W. Ellis, another member of James’s party, wrote Lucy on August 11, 1851 that James had died of typhoid pneumonia four days before. Ellis said that the last letters that James had received from Lucy made him realize that he was wrong to stay away from home, and he was convinced he would never recover from his four-day illness. He was buried in a graveyard near the Methodist church on a hill overlooking Nevada City.

In July 1854, Lucy’s cousin, Mary Eulalie Shannon, wrote her that she was planning to do some traveling in connection with her plans to write on a book on California. During her journey, she would try to find the place where James was buried.

Eulalie was regarded as California’s first published woman poet. Born in Kentucky in 1824, she was orphaned and later lived in Cincinnati and New Richmond, Ohio, then married and moved to California. Her book, Buds, Blossoms, and Leaves, was published in 1854; she died during childbirth later that year.

Eulalie also wrote “Lines, Suggested by the Death of Mr. James D. Turner,” a poem about James and Lucy that can also be found in the Miscellanea Collection (Filing Cabinet 2, Drawer 2, Folder 303).

Lucy’s niece, Annie Turner Wittinmyer, also tried to find James’s grave. After traveling 66 miles from Sacramento to Nevada City on June 26, 1873, Annie wrote her aunt the next day to share details about her visit. She described the cemetery as a beautiful one, enclosed with a white fence and filled with trees and shrubs. She sent Lucy a sprig of a vine and some leaves from a bush that were growing on a grave next that she thought might have been James’s. She also explained that there were few graves there when he was buried, and nearly all of them were marked. Since there were only four unknown graves there, she knew it was one of those four. She went on to say that she had arranged to have a stonecutter in Sacramento to create a marble slate for the grave if she could identify it.

“I stood on the quiet spot that overlooked a city of busy people on one side, and gold diggings and quartz mills on the other,” she wrote. “The distant sound of rocks being ground to powder came to us like the sound of a distant waterfall. I assure you it is a beautiful quiet spot. I am glad I came.”

Lucy died in 1900; Mary passed away in 1912.

The letters of James and Lucy Turner are from the Walter Havighurst Special Collections, Miami University Libraries, Oxford, Ohio. Cited, paraphrased and quoted from with permission of Miami University Libraries, with thanks to Judith Sessions, Dean, University Libraries, and Elizabeth Brice, Assistant Dean for Digital/Technical Services.

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