Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Gold-Rushing Mellors of Morgan County

“Go west, young man!” Journalist Horace Greeley advised in 1854. Yet thousands of young men had already lived his advice five years earlier, as they hurried west to participate in the infamous California Gold Rush. In the cool, quiet stacks of Marietta College’s Special Collections, the westward journey of two such men, Benjamin Young Mellor and William Vincent Mellor, lives on. During their journey to the West Coast and their gold mining efforts in California, the brothers wrote letters home to their father, Morgan County farmer Samuel Mellor. From mutinies, fraud, and crazy old miners to the daily ups and downs of the mining life, these letters provide modern historians with a vivid, detailed—indeed, invaluable—glimpse into the secret lives of the iconic 49ers.

Aside from nine surviving letters, very little is known about William Vincent and Benjamin Young Mellor. Their grandfather George Mellor, Sr., and father Samuel moved to the United States from Liverpool, England in the early 1802. They first settled in Washington County, Ohio. While Samuel’s profession remains unknown, George worked as a cabinetmaker in England and continued this work in Ohio.The Morgan County Herald reports that “much of the fine cabinet work in the Blennerhasset mansion on the island near Parkersburg [was] the product of [his] handicraft."

Born in Ohio in 1822 and 1824 respectively, Benjamin and William were the youngest in a family of seven. Between their births and their departure for California in January 1849, the brothers’ lives are a mystery. An 1850 US Census places them definitively on the middle fork of the American River, California.
By 1853, they had returned to Ohio. Benjamin married one Jane Massey, but died on 1 October 1854. Three years later, William married his brother’s widow. They had three children. The dearth of information about William and Benjamin specifically makes their letters all the more valuable. These nine letters constitute the only enduring traces—and rich traces at that—of the lives of two men who participated in an exciting and often misunderstood period of American history. In the truest sense of the phrase, William and Benjamin made history, both as individuals and as part of a national experience.

One of the most interesting anecdotes from the Mellor letters is William’s account of a crazy old man who claimed to have stumbled upon the mother-lode of gold deposits. On 20 June 1850, more than a year after the brothers had arrived in California, William wrote to his father saying that a resident of their mining camp, an old man, claimed that “between the head waters of the Yuba river and Heather river,” the surrounding earth yielded unprecedented amounts of gold. Upon hearing this, the men in his camp threatened to kill him unless he took them to this place; they wished to reap the rewards of his discovery. The old man gathered them together and led the way. “But,” William wrote, “they are returning every day and say they cannot find the golden lake the report is that the old man could not find the place.” The other miners then threatened to kill the old man because he had not delivered the “golden lake” as promised. Fortunately for his survival, some of the miners did not believe the old man had deliberately misled them; they argued that he was simply insane. Finally, the group released him.

Interestingly, the story did not end with the old man’s diagnosis of insanity. Regardless of the established insanity of the source, William noted, “the people are not willing to give it up yet they are going every day and there is probably not less than three thousand people there now hunting for the place.”

Hannah Lynn Ratliff
Special Collections Intern, Spring 2014
Class of 2014

Bibliographic Resources

Massey, R.R. Brief Account of Family of Robert and Susan Everett Massey of Gorey, Ireland. N.p., n.d. Digitized by the Internet Archive, 2009. 8-9. 4 February 2014.

Mellor Gold Rush Letters, 1849-1854. Marietta College Special Collections.
#1: “January 18th 1849 [William Mellor to Samuel Mellor]”
#2: “San Francisco July the 25th 1849 [Benjamin Mellor to Samuel Mellor]”
#3: “California September the 20th 1849 [Benjamin Mellor to Samuel Mellor]”
#4: “Sacramento June 20th 1850 [William Mellor to Samuel Mellor]”
#5: “North fork of American Dec 22 (50 [Benjamin Mellor to Samuel Mellor]”
#6: “St Francisco June the 18th 1851 [Benjamin Mellor to Samuel Mellor]”
#7: “Weaver September 7th 1851 [William Mellor to Benjamin Mellor]”
#8: “Weaverville February 15th (52 [William Mellor to Samuel Mellor]”
#9 “Sacrimento March the 20th —52 [Benjamin Mellor to Samuel Mellor]”
“Mellor Family Has Interesting Keepsakes.” Morgan County Herald, n.d.

"United States Census, 1850," index and images, FamilySearch. Benj Y Muller, American River (middle fork), El Dorado, California, United States; citing family 5, NARA microfilm publication M432. 4 Feb. 2014.