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Ephraim Thompson: A Young Man's Misadventures in the California Gold Rush

After gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California, more than 300,000 people migrated west during the “California Gold Rush” from 1848 to 1855. One who made that journey was 19-year-old Ephraim Wheeler Thompson (1834-1906), the son of John Thompson and Elizabeth (Wheeler) Thompson, from Washington, Indiana.

While in California from 1853 to 1854, Thompson wrote regularly to his family back home. A century later Edward Wheeler Wilson, the great grandson of Ephraim, showed Thompson’s letters to his son-in-law, Philip L. Cantelon, a history professor. Cantelon recognized their importance and wrote The California Gold Fields in the 1850s: Letters from Ephraim Thompson, Daviess County, Indiana that was published in the Indiana Magazine of History (1969).

In Thompson’s December 4, 1853 letter, he described his month-long trek to California. He traveled by boat from Evansville down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. A steamship transported him to Nicaragua and up the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua. He disembarked, hiked 17 miles to the Pacific coast, and boarded another steamship to California. Twenty-four days after leaving New Orleans, Thompson landed in San Francisco and headed to the goldfields.

Thompson learned that prospecting involved much more than just picking gold nuggets off the ground. It entailed spending hours panning for a few gold specks from “diggins” washed down a hillside in a sluice. He wrote his father on February 1, 1854 that mining was “the hardest work that Mortal man ever done.” He said in comparison farming was “fun.” In a July 10, 1854 letter to his brother, Thompson was blunt: “If you ever had any notion of coming out to this country I would advise you to give it up . . . It seems like a golden dream . . . a feller don’t wake up until he finds himself out of money and digging in mud and water to make [just] enough to buy Grub.”

After a few months, Thompson gave up on striking it rich. He found a job in a general store and started saving money for his passage home. He returned to Washington, entered the general merchandise trade, and became a prominent businessman. After Washington National Bank was established in 1872, Thompson served on the Board of Directors from 1880 to 1897. He was bank president from 1885 to 1897.

Ephraim Wheeler Thompson (1834-1906)

Thompson married Eliza Bruner. She died October 3, 1858 giving birth to their only child, Martha “Mattie” Thompson (1858-1948). Thompson did not remarry. He passed away August 24, 1906 and is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Washington.

This article was compiled by Bruce Smith, a volunteer at the Daviess County Museum and a member of the Daviess County Historian Team

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