Santa Cruz County History - People

The Gold Rush and the Early Years (1850-1865)
by Laurie MacDougall

In order to appreciate the business climate in which this fortune was begun and expanded, it is necessary to understand the economic and demographic impact the Gold Rush had on the development of San Francisco and the whole of central California.

As John S. Hittel wrote in 1882:

"The Pacific side of the North American continent was, in 1845, almost beyond the range of thought and traffic of the refined and wealthy Caucasian communities on the shores of the Atlantic. Difficult of access, obscure in its civilization, poor, sparsely populated as to much of its area, unproductive, without machinery, which is the accompaniment if not the main basis of recent progress, our coast seemed destined to remain without much improvement until some distant time in a vague future. No steamships plowed our harbors; no locomotive rattled through our valleys; no well-graded wagon road crossed our mountains; no telegraph wire was ready to carry hasty messages; and north of Mazatlan there was neither regular postal service nor newspaper." 5

To put it in specific terms, in 1848 the population of San Francisco was estimated to be approximately 15,000. Two years later the population was counted at 93,000. By 1852, the population had exploded to 260,000. 6 As a result of the Gold Rush, San Francisco's population had increased 1700% in four years. 7 But the Gold Rush brought more than just people to the central California coast - it brought trade, too. More people meant that more goods and services, more housing, more of everything was needed; and it was supplied by a new breed of entrepreneurs that braved the arduous journey to California to seek their fortunes.

It was certainly a journey to deter all but the most motivated. "To reach California from the East required a slow, laborious and dangerous journey by stage or wagon across arid plains and daunting mountains, or by ship around the Horn, or by muleback across the malarial Isthmus of Panama." 8

Henry Cowell and his older brother, John, were among those determined adventurers who braved this journey. The Cowell brothers left the family home in Wrentham, Massachusetts, not far from Boston, while in their thirties. Nothing is known of their personal lives prior to their arrival in San Francisco. However, thanks to a private genealogical study, a good deal is known about the Wrentham Cowells. 9

The Cowells were moderately prosperous farmers, who had lived on the same land for well over a hundred years by the time Henry was born. The progenitor of the family, Joseph Cowell (1673-1762), came to Wrentham in 1677. Henry's grandfather, Major Samuel Cowell (1736/7-1824), fought in the French and Indian War with the forces under General Jeffrey Amherst that captured Crowne Point and Fort Ticonderoga. According to the account of his son Benjamin (Henry's uncle), upon hearing of the Battle of Lexington, the Major dropped his oats measure in the field, called out his company, and marched to Roxbury by the next morning. Henry's grandfather fought at Bunker Hill and continued to serve throughout the Revolutionary War, seeing action in the campaigns in Rhode Island.

The Major had eleven children, of whom three were sons. One of these, Samuel Jr. (1774-1861), sired five sons, the youngest of which was Henry (1819-1903). It may be surmised that the family farm offered limited prospects for the youngest member of such a large family, which may have played a role in Henry's decision to undertake the difficult journey to California. Nevertheless, Henry's enduring feeling for the land and for the occupation of his ancestors may be deduced from the fact that, as late as 1875, when he was a very successful manufacturer of lime, he is listed in the records of registered voters of Santa Cruz County as "farmer." 10

The exact date the Cowell brothers arrived in San Francisco is not known. However, the San Francisco Directory unequivocally places them in business in the city by 1850 under a listing for John Cowell, merchant. Henry is not listed by name that year, but changes in the listings in subsequent issues of the Directory offer tantalizing clues about the business relationship between the brothers. John was clearly the dominant partner in 1850, and for several years thereafter. By 1858, however, it is clear from the listing (which reads "Henry Cowell, storage and commission") that Henry is in complete control. 11 The business in which they were engaged appears to have been drayage and storage, and its assets included a warehouse and wharf, built, according to a notation in the Directory, in 1853. 12

The Cowell brothers' business endeavors flourished immediately. This is clearly indicated in a letter written by their cousin, Benjamin Cowell, Jr., to his wife on May 7, 1851 following one of the devastating fires that frequently swept San Francisco during this period:

"...Cousin John Cowell, poor fellow, has lost his all, so he says. He lost his new iron store, which is nearly half a mile distant from ours, and $30,000 worth of goods he had recently landed. He says he must commence over again, he lost everything but what he stood in, he did not save even a shirt to his back...He wanted to know if I had two razors, said he had not saved even a razor...He said when I got burnt out and lost my other razor he would give me this one back again...P.S. I have just come from cousin John Cowells [sic], he is in quite good spirits. I find he has still quite a large property left, in land, and he says he saved $5,000 in specie in his safe and is out of debt, he will do very well." 13

Indeed, the brothers did do very well. During this early period, however, Henry had other things on his mind beside business. He returned east, where he married Harriet Carpenter (1822-1900) of Rehoboth, Massachusetts in 1854. 14 They returned to San Francisco and began raising a family. In the next twelve years of marriage six children were born: Roland (1857-1858); 15 Ernest Victor (1858-1911, referred to herein as Ernest and sometimes known as Ernest V. or E. V.); Isabella Marion (1858-1950); 16 Samuel Henry (1861-1955, generally known as S. H., but also as Harry, particularly when younger); Sarah Elizabeth (1863-1903); Helen Edith (1866-1932).

Meanwhile, two other intrepid young men, Albion P. Jordan and Isaac E. Davis, had made the difficult journey west around the same time as Henry and John, and arrived in San Francisco by 1850. Jordan's father had been a lime manufacturer on the east coast, so he knew the business. He met Davis when both were working for a steamboat that plied the Delta between Sacramento and San Francisco. A biography of Albion Jordan, written in 1911, states that "by accident" the two men came in possession of some limerock from the Mt. Diablo area. Following Jordan's instructions, they burned the limerock in the furnace of the steamboat and discovered it to be of particularly fine quality. Realizing the importance of this discovery, they immediately quit their positions with the steamboat company and within a short time had established a business called Jordan and Davis in Santa Cruz. While Henry and John were building up their drayage business in San Francisco, Jordan and Davis flourished 80 miles to the south, and soon became the largest lime manufacturing company in the state. 18

>>Continue with the next chapter: Lime and the Lime Business

>>Return to: Henry Cowell and His Family (1819--1955): Introduction

Text and photographs are from: Henry Cowell and His Family (1819--1955). published by the S.H. Cowell Foundation, 1989. Used with the permission of the Foundation.

View similarly tagged articles:

Cowell family, Henry Cowell


It is our continuing goal to make available a selection of articles on various subjects and places in Santa Cruz County. Certain topics, however, have yet to be researched. In other cases, we were not granted permission to use articles. The content of the articles is the responsibility of the individual author. It is the Library's intent to provide accurate local history information. However, it is not possible for the Library to completely verify the accuracy of individual articles obtained from a variety of sources. If you believe that factual statements in a local history article are incorrect and can provide documentation, please contact the Webmaster.