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Transcript of Journals of a Pioneer Argonaut, Daniel Jenks

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Transcript of a video presentation by Sara Duke

In 1859, nearly a decade after the California Gold Rush, gold was discovered at Pike's Peak in what is now Colorado. Argonauts, or gold miners, were willing to head almost anywhere for precious metals. Since Pike's Peak was fairly accessible and railroads were available to hasten the journey west, a great variety of people, including men and women, were attracted to it. Daniel Jenks was one of them. "Who is Daniel Jenks?," you might ask yourself, thinking you have forgotten an important name in American history.

Daniel Jenks never made it into your history books. He was one of thousands of educated, literate, middle-class men who migrated west during the gold rush. He was raised in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, by a grocer who served as a deacon in the Baptist Church. Like many young men brought up as evangelical Christians, Jenks maintained a written account of his life. During his journey west, Daniel Jenks used his eyes and ears to record frontier life in the pages of his diaries for the amusement and information of his sisters and parents back in Pawtucket. These diaries are now in the Elizabeth J. Johnson Pawtucket History Research Center in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Jenks illustrated his text with drawings, both within his diaries and on separate sheets. The Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress has twenty of these graphite and ink drawings, some of which are enhanced with crayon and watercolor.  Let us use these fascinating resources to share in some of Daniel Jenks's experiences as he journeyed westward.

On February 28, 1859, Jenks set out by train for Chicago, and continued south to St. Louis. From there, he traveled up the Missouri River on a steamer. On March 10th, he arrived in Kansas City, where he waited for his friend Loren to arrive. By March 24th, Jenks received word that Loren was encamped along the Santa Fe Road with his 18-year-old wife, Lissy, and other traveling companions. Jenks joined them there, and on March 27th they headed for the Arkansas River route to the Rockies.

Jenks and several of the men walked each day, others drove the teams, and Lissy rode in the wagon. As they traveled along the Santa Fe Road across Kansas Territory, it was apparent that winter had not yet lost its icy grip. On April 13th, in the middle of the territory, a snowstorm overtook them along Chavis Creek. Jenks wrote in his diary: "Had not gotten far before it started snowing and blowing. Three of us left the teams; and went on ahead. We were hailed by a stranger who had left his teams to go off the road to hunt. He had killed a buffalo and wanted us to haul it into camp for him."

Jenks's party found a suitable campsite, except it lacked water. Jenks wrote in his diary:

But stop we must, for Lissy says "Oh dear I know I'm freezing," and the balance of us felt it if we said nothing. About a mile below the road in the heavy timber we found a rude log cabin built by the US Mail Company as a station house for their men in case of such a storm as this. Sixteen of us slept in this hut this night; and we thanked fortune for favouring us so much.

You good people at home, who live a civilized life and have homes to go to when it storms, who probably never in your life knew what it was to have old mother earth of a bed and the heavens for a covering, can form no idea how pleasant it seemed when we first struck a fire in this rude hut; but it would have astonished you to have seen our crowd pitch into the buffalo steak that the stranger brought in. We had it in all shapes, fried, boiled and backed and for once we got a belly full. Such a time as we did have, sixteen men and one live woman, young and pretty at that, all hived up in a hut 10 feet square.

Jenks and his party continued to head west along the Arkansas River. Within a few days, they met a group coming from Bent's Fort who warned them of Indian raids on the parties heading west. Tensions were high as tens of thousands of migrants put pressure on the limited resources of the Great Plains. Jenks and the other men in his party took turns keeping watch at night and chose to elude Indian attackers by breaking camp under cover of darkness.

On the plains between the Arkansas and the Pawnee Fork, Jenks noted, "Last night after dark we could hear a grand pow wow, amongst the Indians away off down the creek. They were singing and dancing, beating on their stretched antelope skin drums, haloring and yelling and in fact making a 'devil of a din.' As soon as Jud heard it he says boys get the cattle and be quick about it if you don't want to have a fight; for as sure as you are born, we must fight or run for it now. Those red devils are preparing for a fight sure.  So we got up the cattle and started as silently as possible out onto the road again. Travelled all night and all the day till night before we stopped. Tonight we are camped on a dry gulch, waiting for the moon to rise to start again."

As they neared Pueblo, in what is now Colorado, Jenks and his party met increasing numbers of men disappointed at the lack of gold at Pike's Peak. Several newspapers and travelers commented on the exodus of the argonauts for the States in April and May, before the 1859 mining season began. Many of the men were impoverished from a long winter without income and starving from a lack of provisions. Disillusioned, Jenks decided to forgo Pike's Peak and push forward to California.

On Tuesday, May 10th, he and his party arrived in Pueblo, where Lissy and Loren rented a cabin.  Jenks wrote, "About dark she gave birth to a boy, and there was a grand drunk came off in honour of the event. This is the first native born white child in the Pikes Peak County and its name is Dan Jenks. What an awfull honour to be sure." The next day he notes, somberly, "My namesake, owing to its not being able to bear up under its great weight of responsibility in assuming the name, I suppose, quietly slipt its hold upon this world and returned to Heaven."

Loren and Lissy decided to stay in Pueblo to farm. Jenks purchased their wagon and divided the provisions so he could move forward with the remaining members of the party. Jenks went north to Denver where he and his group took on other passengers traveling west on the California trail. One night, the Englishman in the party confronted Jenks on the size of America. "My John Bull wants to know if I had any idea before what a devil of a big country this U.S. was. Why, says he, there is room enough here for the world to settle."

As Jenks moved through what is now Nevada, he encountered a group from Iowa and Kansas headed toward Oregon. It included antislavery men who had fought with John Brown in Kansas in 1856. He found the women as rough and fearless as the men. Jenks agreed to travel with them as far as the road through Shasta Valley, near Yreka, California, where he intended to settle.

As the party traveled along the Humboldt River in what is now Nevada, Jenks related in his diary: 

Tonight we are encamped at the foot of a mountain we will have to cross to avoid a bend of the river. Women are scolding, young ones squalling, girls are singing and some of the men are cursing, around the camp tonight. It looks like a little town to look down from the mountains where I write this into our camp.

Susannah where the devil did you put my pipe, bawls old Nelse King. None of yer business, look for it yerself, don't you suppose I have enough to do, without keeping the run of your traps is the mild reply of sweet Susannah . . . Solomon Wade, do you come right here and help me cook this "tiger" if yer want yer supper tonight, and don't be foolin away yer time, loafing round where yer haint wanted, bawls out the lovely Mrs. Wade . . . and look off yonder, at the other end of the camp, out in the tall grass, see how fondly our six-foot lover Abe Jobe, assists Miss Rachel, to milk the cows.

As a bachelor, Jenks himself was courted by several eligible young women.

One night, Jenks and the leader of the Oregon-bound party, Howard Paris, rode ahead of the teams to select a suitable campsite further along the Humboldt River. As they watched the arrival of the teams, Jenks conveyed in his diary an image of agreeable camp life:

After awhile they begin to file in and drawing the wagons up in a line on the banks of the river, the cattle are unyoked as soon as possible and turned loose to pick their daily allowance of feed. Whilst a part of each company are thus occupied, the rest are busy collecting wood for the different fires at the end of each wagon.

Soon our fifteen fires are lighted all in a row, and the cooks are busy preparing our suppers.  Those who have women along are well suppered with cooks, but as for us poor California bound batches, we have to do our own cooking, although we occasionally get a helping hand from one or other of the girls. Supper cooked and stowed away, the night guard are called, they start out collect the cattle and horses up, drive them up to camp, where they generally lay down around our wagons until daybreak, when the guard turn them out again to graze.

After the guard are sent out, we gather around our fires in groups, and chat with the girls till bed time, listen to storys of the great Kansas War, or perhaps, some other train having camped near us for the night, we get up a dance by the light of the moon. Anyway such a camp as ours, presents a lively, romantic picture at night.

The row of bright fires, the white wagon tops glistening in the background, the large herd of cattle and horses in the foreground, and the groups of men, women and children gathered around the different fires or scattered around camp, the singing, laughing and gay talking of the men and girls, interrupted occasionally by the squalling of some of the numerous tribe of young ones, take it all in all has to be seen and heard, to be appreciated.

I must confess there is a romance, a wildness about it that amply repays me for the many hardships and trials one endures on such a trip. In one word, I like it. At an early hour, the fires are put out and men, women and children seek their pile of blankets, spread upon the ground in around and under the wagons, where we sleep as sound, and awake in the morning as refreshed, as though we had a bed of feathers, to lie in and a roof to cover us. I have never enjoyed as good health before.

A few days later, Jenks parted company with the Oregon-bound party and headed toward Yreka, California, declining the offer of farming life and presumably a young bride. He arrived in Yreka on August 25, 1859, where he sold his stock and began working as a clerk in a grocery store. He soon purchased a claim on Long Gulch outside of Yreka and began prospecting for gold. Jenks used his free time to transcribe his diaries and draw pictures of what he had seen en route. He sent them home to his sister Maria for safekeeping. A few months later, Jenks sold his claim on Long Gulch at a loss. He then worked for several years as a clerk for a grain merchant.

Daniel Jenks never found riches from gold, but worked hard as a laborer in California, Oregon, and Idaho before returning to Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He died in 1869, at the young age of 41, still a bachelor. We invite you to explore the drawings of Daniel Jenks in the Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. They offer a unique perspective on the challenges, hardships, and pleasures of frontier life and provide us with the opportunity to experience what life may have been like for thousands of "argonauts" journeying west in search of their fortunes.

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  July 20, 2010
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