A Dangerous Occupation

In 1850 California, rumors of new gold finds and “easy pickins” were rampant and rarely had any truth to them.  On the rare occasion a rumor was legitimate, big companies or large groups of like-minded men quickly moved in buying claims for very little (or just running off whomever was there) and were not shy about using deadly force to keep other prospectors far away.  Claim jumping or just outright stealing a miner’s gold dust was not unusual – even if it meant ending his life.  As there was no law within a hundred miles, the one with the most men, guns and knives usually won.  So, in addition to all the inherent dangers and uncertainties facing a single prospector and his mule, finding gold was only the beginning of his worries.

Undaunted by these facts, Muriel’s great grandfather, Samuel Penfield Taylor, used his grub stake to buy mining tools and walked some 150 miles east of San Francisco, into the remote hills surrounding the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. At some point during his trek, Samuel panned for gold around streams at Hawkins Bar, near Tuolumne, California. What he found there were several rival ethnic groups and companies literally at war.

The Spanish American war had just ended. Although California wouldn’t officially become a territory of the United States until late 1850, this bad blood was carried up the mountain as newly arrived American miners forced the native Mexican miners at gunpoint out of their camps and even hung a few to make their point.  The “Sonoranians,” as the Mexican miners were called, relocated at the other end of town not far away and tensions continued with frequent gunfights.

Even among the same ethnic groups there were clashes.  Two Chinese companies, the Tuolumne County Sam Yap Company and the Calaveras County Yan Wo Company, were both claiming the same mining areas and the resulting was violence frequent and deadly. This escalated into the Tong War of 1856 when over 2,500 Chinese men took to the streets.  The Sam Yap clan brought long pikes, butcher’s knives and tridents to the fight.  Yan Wo had purchased 150 muskets with bayonets in San Francisco, so the battle didn’t last long.

We can only assume that Samuel Taylor stayed clear of all of this and went about his business panning for gold.  When he returned to San Francisco in 1851, Samuel exchanged his 6,173 pennyweight of gold nuggets and dust and received $5,691.99 – not the fortune he was hoping for, but a handsome sum in those days.

Having had enough of gold prospecting, Samuel saw the city’s rapid growth and, with some partners, built a sawmill and opened a lumberyard on the corner of Drumm and California Streets in San Francisco.  It was so successful, he had a hard time keeping up with the demand.  In order to find a sustainable source of trees to mill, he hopped on his horse one day and rode north.  It wasn’t long before he found a vast, virgin forest of the tallest and widest trees he had ever seen. What intrigued him even more was the large creek that flowed through the forest. Seeing such a great source of power surrounded by a seemingly unlimited supply of wood made Samuel rethink his plans for the trees.

To make his vision come true, he needed additional capital and equipment not available in the west. There was also something else in the east that still piqued his interest of a more personal nature. Returning to San Francisco, Samuel booked passage on the next ship headed for New York.