Felix Grundy Coats Memoirs

In February 1915 Felix dictated his memories of his trip to California and his early days there. This document can be found in the collection of the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley. It has also been in the hands of family members probably from it inception.

Hearing so many tales of the rich gold mines in California, which caused such wild excitement over the whole country, my father and I, having caught the "Gold Fever", were anxious to try our luck. So after due preparation, we bade farewell to my mother, brothers and sister in Henry County, Missouri, near Clinton in May 1st, 1849. I was then twenty years old.

There, in Independence Missouri, we were to meet my two cousins as they too had the "Gold Fever", and decide to join us. We traveled about fifteen miles the first night of our adventurous journey and camped in a little creek bed. During the night we encountered a wild thunder storm and it rained torrents; not gold as yet however. The creek rose until the water was waist deep and I had to get out and hitch up the oxen and pull the wagon on to high ground.

Nothing of consequence occurred the second day out. It took us about three days to reach Independence and my cousins met us there. Here we completed out outfits and started out again, having three yoke of oxen and one wagon. We left Independence May 4th and as we continued on our journey we saw many people going in the same direction.

The road led through that part of Indian Territory now known as Kansas and after a few days we came to the Kaw, or Kansas River where there was a ferry to take the wagons across. The oxen had to swim over. The stream was at its highest and it was running so swiftly that we had trouble getting the oxen across. I had a thrilling ride on one of the swimming mules and was fairly chilled to the bone in the icy waters by the time we reached the opposite backs and the comfortable blaze I succeeded in kindling was, believe me, duly appreciated.

About this time we fell in with a party consisting of ten people and two wagons. Our new acquaintances were the Tysons and Armstrongs and they traveled the rest of the way with us.

Next, we sighted Chimney Rock, which was about eighty feet high and so named for its likeness to a chimney. It seemed only a distance of eight miles from us, but it took us two weeks to reach it. All this time we were traveling, we did not see a solitary house. We saw only a great many Sioux Indians, but they were all very peaceful and we had no trouble whatever with them.

Heard of buffalo roamed over these plains and we succeeded in killing one fine fellow, the meat of which was extremely tempting. Antelope as well as buffalo abounded and when herds of both these animals would run it seemed as though they would shake the earth.

On arriving at the South Platte, we found that the river was two feet deep, two miles wide and very sandy. In fact, so sandy that we had to keep the oxen moving to prevent our wagons from sinking. We camped on the bank of this river which served as a camping-ground for five hundred Indian Warriors(Sioux) and ourselves. They were not hostile however. The Chief put out a guard that night so that the Indians would no bother us. A great many of them traveled the same road we did. Of course the Bucks rode on horses while the squaws walked. The latter did all the work too; put up the tents and took them down while the Bucks were men of leisure. The squaws had a pole strapped to each side of their ponies extending to and dragging on the ground upon which were tied hides to carry their immense tents made of buffalo robes. In like manner, the dogs carried the papooses.

On frosty morning we arrived at the Laramie River in the southeastern part of Wyoming. It was a very swift stream and we had to raise our wagon beds about a foot to keep the water from running into them and we had to wade the river to keep the oxen from swimming down the stream. We then went on the Fort Laramie and it was here that we saw the first houses after leaving Missouri.

As we passed through the Black Hills, there was a great deal of gravel, which was extremely hard on the oxen’s feet. At this place, everyone lightened their loads. Provisions were thrown away such as beans, flour, bacon and almost all eatables, except sugar and all heavy things, which were not absolutely necessary such as cooking utensils and wagons. Sometimes a piece was cut off a wagon bed to lighten the load.

Upon arriving at the North Platte River, we found that the river was high and it was necessary to construct a raft by tying logs together with ropes to take our wagons across. It took some time as the wagons had to be taken apart in order to get them on the raft. The oxen had to swim the stream. Several men of another party were drowned here. Then we proceeded up the Sweetwater and came to Independence Rock, so called because the first emigrants who passed through arrived there on July Fourth. We were now on our way almost two months.

On July 4th we arrived at the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains, but we lacked fireworks to celebrate the occasion. We found a flat near South Pass where we dug underneath the turf about a foot and found ice which was clear as crystal. Next we went on to Salt Lake. On the road to Fort Hall, a man by the name of Kincaid was taken ill and I drove his team for him until he was well and then he went on to Oregon. This was the latter part of July.

We now came to a desert, which was forty miles across, and although there was no water on it, it did not work any hardship on us. We now came to the Green River, a rapid stream where we took our wagons across on a ferry boat. While traveling the Bear River, the most crooked river I have ever seen, we passed Soda Springs and Steamboat Springs which boiled up like geysers.

At Bear River, a train head by Captain Hedgepeth was going to make a short cut through a narrow pass and, on inquiring of an Indian if he thought they could get through, received this reply, "I think the Gee Haws, meaning the oxen, can make it but do not think the God-Damm-Yous, meaning the wagons, can."

A few days after this, my cousins became dissatisfied so we decided to separate. They went on to Oregon and we joined forces with the Armstrongs by doubling up our oxen with theirs and leaving our wagon behind.

On reaching Fort Hall, we traveled down the Snake River and passed Salmon Falls. Just before reaching Raft River, one hot night the mosquitoes made it very uncomfortable for us. We built a fire and tried to smoke them out, but our effort proved of no avail. Traveling down Goose Creek and finally turning south to the Thousand Springs Valley, we arrived at the Humboldt River and followed this river to its sink; a distance of three hundred miles. This as an alkali country and very severs on us; causing our faces and hands to crack open. There being no grass, we cut down willows for the oxen to eat. Proceeding westward forty miles across the Nevada desert, after two days traveling both day and night we arrived at Truckee, August 20th. There was no water on the desert except a hot spring that would boil a ham in half an hour. It was impregnated with some kind of a mineral which made it unfit to drink. It boiled up every few minutes like a geyser and flowed away in a big stream. One of our men went on ahead to dam the water from this spring so it would cool for the oxen to drink, but another party arrived just ahead of ours and let their oxen drink most of the water. Several of our yoke gave out on the desert , but after they were rested they followed us into Truckee.

The snow on the beautiful Sierras was a welcome sight to us after traveling over the hot and sandy desert. One of the first objects that attracted our attention on approaching the Truckee River was a large shade tree. The water from a pure cold mountain stream made a delicious drink. On all this long journey from Missouri to California, there were but two ferries on which we were able to cross.

We traveled up the Truckee River, crossing it twenty-seven times in thirty miles, having great difficulty on account of the swift current and huge boulders and we finally came to Donner Lake where the Donner Party perished three years before. We saw stumps of trees that had been cut off twenty-five feet above the ground, showing the depth of the snow and no one can imagine the great privations which they had gone through.

The grade going down the other side was so steep that some dragged limbs of trees behind their wagons to act as a brake, but we chained all of the oxen except one yoke to the rear of the wagon, with a man to each yoke, with club in hand who would go down shooting "whoa" from top to bottom.

Our first sight of a gold mine was at Steep Hollow. Also the first saloon of California was located at this place. Whiskey sold at fifty cents a drink. About September fifth, we went to Grass Valley, where the grass was waist high, from which it derives its name. This is now one of the largest mining districts in California. At that time we never thought of finding gold there, thus we overlooked a great opportunity.

I was without funds and anxious to get work so I went five or six miles to a mining camp at Bear River, where I worked a week for which I received five dollars a day. When I came back to where our party camped, they were gone. Then I went from there to Hangtown, now Placerville, which was a typical mining camp. Almost every tent was a gambling place at that time. There were very few women in this section of the country. In those days, it cost forty cents to send a letter to the East.

The Tysons had preceded me to Hangtown and as I was not feeling well, I stopped with them a couple of weeks until I was better. There was a big tent close by where the men used to gamble. One night, Mrs. Tyson made pies, which I sold to them for a dollar apiece. My next occupation was driving a team for a man by the name of Ware and it took five days to go forty-five miles to Sacramento. I made several trips with it between Sacramento and Coloma to haul goods.

In February 1850, two young fellows and myself went to Sacramento and bought ten mules and started a pack train. We packed provisions a long way into the mountains to Stoney Bar and made a good many trips. We discontinued the pack train in April because the young fellow we left to sell our good gambled away all of our money. So we sold our mules and went mining but made no big strikes.

In January 1851, my father went back east and my brother Bill, who had crossed the plains with another party by the southern route, and I mined upon the North Fork of the American River. During the fall of 1851, we went to Diamond Springs, three miles from Placerville, and spent the winter. My father returned, bringing the rest of the family with him from Missouri and we all went to Santa Clara, but only stayed a couple of weeks because it was covered with Spanish land grants and we could not get any land.

After leaving Santa Clara Valley, we journeyed to Contra Costa and camped near where Danville is now located. We helped a rancher by the name of Kelly thresh his grain. He was located on what is now known as the Cook Ranch. We moved to Tassajara in the fall of 1852 and took up a homestead of 160 acres and bought the rest of the land gradually. There were no houses between our place and Livermore and but one at Livermore. There were no roads and no bridges and we had to ford all the creeks. The nearest Post Office was at Alamo, ten miles distant.

I found mining very interesting, so I returned to the mines in 1852 and stayed until the spring of 1853, returning again to Tassajara in April of that year in time to help father harvest his crop which we cut with a scythe and cradle and threshed it with a two horse power machine owned by Bill and Gillett. I drove a yoke of oxen to Martinez to get the scythe and cradle and, as they did not have any, I had to cross over to Benicia. The first house we built was made of split lumber, there being no sawed lumber it except the floor. We went down to Moraga Valley and got the redwoods and split the lumber ourselves. The house which my father built in 1856 still stands. [it burned in 1917]

I was married to Leona Doggett in 1860 at Tassajara. She came down from Oregon with her people in 1859 and lived about a mile from us. My wife crossed the plains to Oregon in 1852 at the age of eleven and rode horseback most of the way.