On February 1, 1849, the Plymouth Rock printed a letter from native son James H. Gleason, who wrote from far-off Monterey, California. "A very rich gold mine has lately been discovered about 250 miles north of this place, and everybody in the country is rapidly hastening towards it. About $1,000,000 [about $24,000,000 in 2005 dollars] has already been extracted from the mine. Persons of my acquaintance who could only show $100 two months since, can now count their ten or fifteen thousands," Gleason wrote.
A New Generation
The next week, the Rock listed nineteen-year-old Alfred Doten among those to sail for California on the bark Yeoman. The pious son of a hard-working sea captain and a direct descendent of Pilgrims, Doten and some other local men had formed the Pilgrim Mining Company upon hearing the news of gold. Under the company's charter, the members got free passage to California in exchange for returning two-thirds of the gold they found to the company's investors. Alfred Doten's father, Samuel, was one of the investors.
After finishing school, Alfred Doten worked as a carpenter and fished for cod off the Grand Banks. He didn't attend college, but was well-read, wrote clear prose, and played the fiddle. Samuel Doten could not have realized that in California his son would undergo a remarkable transformation. Far from home, Alfred Doten would discover a lifestyle that included fighting, whiskey and women. The upright young man would metamorphose into a destitute drinker always fixated on the next strike.
The Journey and the Journal
On March 18, 1849, as bells rang for church, the Yeoman departed Plymouth. Townsfolk gathered atop the burying hill to see the boat off, Doten noted in his journal. Many 49ers kept a journal, often to record their adventures for family back home, but Doten's was unusual because he seemed unconcerned about who might read it. Over the next half century, he would scrawl thousands of pages that documented his every unsavory experience.
Lost His Father's Money
Doten's sea journey around Cape Horn took seven months. Upon arrival in San Francisco, he wrote a wide-eyed letter to his father, describing the free flowing liquor, the gambling and the prevalence of "the dust." Doten was eager to find his own gold. By November, the Pilgrim Mining Company was mining near the town of Sonora, but without great success. Doten tried to keep the company together, but the members voted to disband. In a matter of months, Doten had lost his father's investment and was on his own in California.
Doten fell in with a crowd of rough miners. In the Calaveras diggings, they worked hard by day, washing hundred of buckets of pay dirt to sift out the flecks of gold. By night, they drank. In his diary, Doten recorded his binges, noting he had a "spree," or "bender," or that he got "infernally drunk" with the other men.
Black Eyes, Broken Noses
Doten opened a small store that also served as a local watering hole. "All day the store was full of drunken Chilenos, French, etc., and the day passed off finely with plenty of jabbering and quarreling and several fights in which some eyes were blackened and noses bled -- but no one was hurt very bad," he wrote on June 13, 1852, a Sunday. Violence, sometimes in extreme forms, became a staple of Doten's life. After some Mexicans shot an American in a bar fight, Doten helped round up the Mexicans and hang them from a tree.
Luring Women into His Tent
Back in Plymouth, Doten had a sweetheart, but in California he pursued sexual relationships, primarily with women of color. One day, Doten lured a young Native American woman into his tent. He was about to "lay her altogether," he wrote in his diary, when a "damned old bitch of a squaw came in as mad as a hatter. ... I told her she might go to the devil for her pains and spent some few minutes cussing her in good round English."
Dreaming of Home
In his journal, Doten described the "bunch in his throat" when he thought of Plymouth. But the longer he stayed in California without striking it rich, the harder it seemed to go back. Doten followed the gold rush to Nevada and invested in various mining schemes, but never struck the big one. Instead, his writing sustained him. To the Plymouth Rock, he sent detailed (and sanitized) articles about life in California. In Nevada, he became a well-known newspaperman and owned the Gold Hill Daily News for a few years, until he ran into financial difficulty.
In the long run, drinking took over Doten's life. In Carson City, while reporting on the Nevada legislature for the San Francisco Chronicle, he occasionally borrowed small sums from certain senators to buy whiskey. His wife, who lived in Reno, sent him money, but asked him not to come home again. Doten spent his last years on a barstool telling stories of the early days of the Gold Rush.
Alone in a Boarding House
On October 2, 1900, Doten noted in his journal, "My '49 arrival in California anniversary ... 51 years ... Poorer than when I arrived, but richer in Humanity and appreciativeness between man and man than ever -- Expended about a dollar celebrating the event with other old '49ers." Three years later, Alfred Doten died alone in a boarding house in Carson City.
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