Daniel W. Nason's manuscript memoir about the years he spent as a gold seeker includes a poem he titled, "Thanksgiving in California at the Cabin, 1849." The verses describe an improbable event, the celebration of Thanksgiving during the Gold Rush:
Three hardy sons from New England's shore,
With bronzed face and scarred hands,
Sat down to talk old matters o'er,
And feast on smoking chowdered clams.
Nason's memoir covers his experiences in 1849-1851, and the placement of the poem within the volume makes it clear that that his feast on "bivalves from the Merrimac" took place in November 1850, a year after the date in the handwritten title.
In 1848, news of the discovery of gold in the Sacramento River of California, territory that became part of the United States in the treaty that ended the Mexican War, galvanized the nation and the world. "Argonauts"—adventurous gold seekers—traveled from South America, Europe, and Asia to San Francisco on their way to the gold-bearing rivers and mountains of the interior of California. Americans made the long trek overland or traveled by sea, either from eastern ports around Cape Horn and directly to California, or to Panama and across the narrow isthmus on horseback and by boat, and then by another sea voyage to San Francisco. More than 100,000 prospectors, including thousands of citizens of the "Old Bay State" (Massachusetts), arrived by the end of 1849 and have been known ever since as "Forty-Niners."
For the arduous journey, men—and the great majority of gold seekers were men—often formed "companies"—mutual aid organizations who shared the dangers of travel and, in some instances, lived and worked together in California. Some companies had formal names: "The Boston and California Joint Stock Mining and Trading Company" for example. Members adopted bylaws and voted on whether they would travel on the Sabbath or allow drinking during the journey. Many Forty-Niners including Daniel Nason (often spelled "Nayson") tried their luck and returned home relatively quickly, carrying with them stories (in this case a poem) describing their great adventure. By the time that Nason returned to New England in 1851, California had become the 31st state.
Daniel W. Nason was born in 1820. In his memoir he describes a life that revolved around shoemaking and church in Amesbury, Massachusetts, when, early in 1849, he "caught the California gold fever." He travelled to California by way of New York where he shipped aboard the Crescent City, a steamer bound for the Isthmus of Panama, with a small group of hardy New Englanders, including his brother George, a physician, and other companions from Amesbury.
Nason made drawings of his company's journey to California, first in Panama, then during the voyage to San Francisco aboard the whale ship Niantic, and finally in California.
The journey to California took so long that Nason's little company had limited time for prospecting before they wintered over near the ranch of Charles Brown, "Mountain Home," in present-day San Mateo County, south of San Francisco. There, to replenish their funds, Nason and his friends cut redwood logs into boards for the burgeoning construction business in San Francisco. In the spring of 1850, the remaining members of the "company" moved on to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada where panning for gold had given way to primitive mining:
Our Company now disbanded for other localities. Brown, Reed, and myself migrated to Georgetown, on the ridge, or divide between the South and Middle Forks. Here we prospected and located, in a deserted cabin, and our claim, in Illinois Canyon. Here we had for neighbors, many from Newburyport and Amesbury. The gold obtained here was coarse, large and small nuggets, and the work was better, and more novel than the rivers.
It was in the fall of 1850, in the refurbished cabin on Mameluke Hill near Georgetown, that Daniel Nason and his hardy companions enjoyed their Thanksgiving chowder fest.
The poem and narrative were written long after the events described in them ("we must look backward two score years"), but there is near-contemporary evidence to support the accuracy of his account. Nason sent and/or carried home his drawings, some of which were published in the Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion. Founded in Boston in 1851, Gleason's Pictorial often contained illustrations of local interest or by local artists. These included a view of the Thanksgiving repast described in Nason's poem, published as "Miners Cabin" in the August 30, 1851 issue of Gleason's with the explanatory text:
The sketch here given represents the interior of a California cabin, on the occasion of the occupants enjoying a genuine clam chowder, and the copy of the scene as it occurred last Thanksgiving day in a cabin, the actors in the scene being three young men from the old Bay State. The encampment was on Oregon Canon [Canyon], near Georgetown, and the artist, Mr. D. W. Nayson [Nason], to whom we are indebted for the sketch, was one of the party.
Some details of the poem and newspaper account remain a mystery: how did the bivalves from the Merrimac get to California? Were they canned clams that had been sent from home?
While Daniel Nason was enthralled by the beauty of the gold country, his party never managed to mine enough gold to do much more than meet their expenses, and after further adventures, the following year he and some of his companions returned home. Like many other "Forty-Niners," he had remained in California for a short period, but he looked back on his experiences there for the rest of his life. He was an officer and historian of the New England Association of California Pioneers and lived in Epping, New Hampshire at the time of his death in 1895.
Daniel Nason's narrative of his adventures as an Argonuat is currently on display at the Massachusetts Historical Society as part of the Society's new exhibition, Yankees in the West. Through letters, diaries, artifacts, photographs, and drawings, the exhibition documents the experience of New Englanders in the West from the end of the 18th to the early 20th century. Yankees in the West continues until 22 April 2017, and is open to the public without charge, Monday through Saturday, 10 AM to 4 PM.
Daniel Nason's drawing of Thanksgiving, Miners Cabin, is in the August 30, 1851 issue (Vol. 1, No. 9), p. 133. His drawing of A Winter Encampment of Gold Diggers, between Oregon and Illinois Canons, California is reproduced as an engraving in the July 26, 1851 issue (Vol. 1, No. 4), p. 92. Nason added a drawing of the same view to his manuscript narrative; (see below; within the manuscript the image appears opposite p. 60).
Howe, Octavius Thorndike. Argonauts of '49: History and Adventures of the Emigrant Companies from Massachusetts 1849-1850. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1923.
Marschner, Janice. California 1850: A Snapshot in Time. Sacramento: Coleman Ranch Press, 2000.
Nason, Daniel W. Manuscript narrative of his trip to California in 1849, gold mining and other activities there, and his return to New England in 1851. Cataloged as the Daniel W. Nason journal, 1849-1851, in the Caleb H. Snow papers, 1775-1945, Massachusetts Historical Society.
Nason dedicated his 72-page narrative to Samuel Snow of Cambridge, Massachusetts, a "friend and fellow voyager" whose letters home from Panama and California also are located in the Caleb H. Snow papers.
Richards, Leonard L. The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Afred A. Knopf, 2007.
Van Nostrand, Jeanne and Edith M. Coulter. California Pictorial: a History in Contemporary Pictures, 1786 to 1859; with Descriptive Notes on Pictures and Artists. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1948.