A Photographic Mystery

Week 52: #52 Ancestors – Resolution

By Eilene Lyon

I suspect this is a problem with no resolution to be found. But I decided to pitch it on the blog in hopes that someone, somewhere, has the key.

Ten men left Trenton, Indiana, on March 10, 1851 to seek their fortunes in California. Only nine survived the trip west. Personality clashes split them from one large company into smaller groups. However, they did keep in touch and sometimes lived and worked side-by-side the rest of the year.

They got together regularly to share any news from home. Unfortunately, it took seven months from the time they left Indiana until they received any letters from family. It was torture.

The nine men roamed around Calaveras County looking for gold, along with several thousand others. That included many Hispanics, Native Americans, Europeans, African-Americans, Hawaiian Islanders, Russians, and Chinese.

One promise the men from Trenton made was that they would all gather in Stockton on New Year’s Day 1852. No record exists as to whether the meeting took place, but most likely it did.

Around late April, Henry Z. Jenkins’s family received a miniature that he’d had done of himself, probably in Stockton. (Many daguerreotype artists also did miniature portraits.) If that image still exists, I’ve yet to find it. If Henry went to a daguerreotype studio in early 1852, it seems probable the other men did, too.

When I was beginning my gold rush research, I read a book by Liza Ketchum that had a lot of photographs from the California gold rush. I turned the page and saw this full-plate daguerreotype of nine miners and my heart skipped a beat. Could it be my guys??!! A company of nine was unusual.

CHS Gold Rush Miners

My interpretation of the men in this daguerreotype (age in January 1852):

Back row L-R: John C. Teach (49), Jacob Liestenfeltz (27), John K. Anderson (30), Dennis Lowry (30). (Anderson and Lowry were very close friends.)

Front row L-R: Preston Gibson (25), Peter N. Liestenfeltz (19), Henry Z. Jenkins (50), Samuel Jones (27), Harvey Hunt (34). Note that Jacob is Peter’s older brother (standing directly behind him). One other clue is the white object in Henry’s hand. He bragged about his bread-making skills to his family – could that be a loaf?

Martha Kennedy, in an article in California History magazine, wrote about this rare photograph: “Tarnished and stained, the image is exceptional, nevertheless, for the overall impression suggested by the group is one of camaraderie, rather than the formal effect typically produced by a portrait daguerreotype. Seated or standing closely together, some rest their hands on one another’s shoulders.”

The Trenton men were connected by marriage or long-term friendships. Though they’d had their disagreements, they were undoubtedly still entangled by those relationships. The intimacy suggested by the photograph would be fitting, especially if the intent was to show their families in Indiana that they were all doing well.

My inquiry to the California Historical Society, which holds this photo in their collection, revealed that they know nothing about it. Not when or where it was taken, nor how, when, or from whom they acquired it. Their best guess is it was taken about 1850.

One of the men from the company, Sam Jones, spent his later years in California. He was the president of the company and I suspect he may have been the one to donate the daguerreotype. He was also the most financially successful of the group, the most likely able to afford such a large portrait.

In my efforts to substantiate my claim that these are the Indiana men I’m writing about, I have contacted many descendants. So far, I’ve turned up only two photographs that are 100% positively two of the men, but they were probably taken 50 years after their time in California.

I have one other photograph that I’m at least 95% certain about, taken in the early 1860s. And in April 2019, I obtained a photograph that is almost certainly Samuel Jones in the mid 1850s. Aside from that, I only have photographs of people related to the men, not the men themselves. What do you think?

In the following comparisons, I’ve reversed the clipped images, because daguerreotypes are mirrored, not true reproductions.


In the left photo, the young miner has a cigar in the corner of his mouth. On the right is a known photograph of Peter N. Liestenfeltz, about age 70. (Courtesy of T. Waters)
Photo on right is Jacob Liestenfeltz as an older man. (Courtesy of J. Dunica)
Photo on right is a daguerreotype of Samuel Jones, circa 1856. (Courtesy of J. W. Beck)
The photo on the right is almost certainly Dennis Lowry, taken in the early 1860s. (Courtesy of J. Baker)
The photo on the right is believed to be someone in the Teach family, perhaps a brother of John C. Teach, possibly John himself. (Courtesy of M. Sparks)
Photo on the right is Joseph W. Gibson, Preston Gibson’s oldest child. (Courtesy of R. Gibson)
Photo on right is believed to be Ann W. Zane Jenkins, Henry Jenkins’s mother, probably taken around the same time period. (Collection of the author)
Harvey Hunt on left and a later image of his older sister, Anna Hunt Thompson.
Photo on right is Elizabeth Anderson Ransom, John K. Anderson’s older sister, circa early 1860s. (Courtesy of B. Wickward)

These last two I am least certain about. I may have mixed up Hunt and Anderson. The women in the photos are so much older than the men in the daguerreotype, they aren’t very good for comparison.

Feature image: California miners daguerreotype c. 1850 (California Historical Society CHS2010.238)

Updated: January 26, 2021


Kennedy, Martha. “The California Historical Society’s Collection of Daguerreotypes.” California History 60:4 pp. 370 – 375.

Ketchum, Liza. 1996. The Gold Rush. Little, Brown & Co. Boston, MA.

28 thoughts on “A Photographic Mystery

Add yours

  1. It seems quite likely that the photo would be of the men. How many groups of 9 men would be having their photo taken during those times?? It is possible to see similarities in the comparison photos, but is that just wishful thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You are on to something I think! I see a definite resemblance between the first older woman and the man in the group photo. Especially the eyes and brow ridge! Fascinating stuff, Eilene!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Eilene,

    This is fascinating research. As for the resemblances, I am not certain as to whether I am actually seeing them or I want to. But the nine men in that photograph seems to be a solidly educated guess on your part that it could in fact be them.


    Liked by 1 person

  4. I live on the Delta, Stockton is 30 miles east of me, it is also a Delta community. We have a Facebook page “Bethel Island”. There are a number of people here that have spent their entire lives in this area, one may know something about this. It is a historic area, we live on the rivers the miners took to the Goldfields. This Island was reclaimed after the Railroads were completed around 1880, some of those towns still exist as well. There are several old structures here as well, my neighbor has a fish shack that was built around 1900. I was stopped by a man that knew the history of it, there is a lot of knowledge about the era you are asking about. I’m going to repost this on my page and find out if I can post it on the towns as well. They normally don’t let blogs post unless they are pertinent to another post, but this will interest a number of people here. I am originally from Minnesota, so my historical knowledge is only via reading.

    Interesting post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your response. All but one of these men returned to Indiana in 1852 – 1854. The one who didn’t leave lived in the Cave City area until he died in 1860. I would be surprised if anyone related to them still lived in the Stockton area.


  5. Great post (as usual). I have a few of those mysteries myself and I return to them regularly to try again to “crack the nut.” I solved one by looking at a small, locally produced book in Cloz, Italy. You never know!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I heard that on Family Search they have a photo recognition software and you can put in a known photo and an unknown photo and it will judge it as a 25% match or 90% match, etc. based on some algorithms it uses. I really need to go there and give it a try with some of my family mystery photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Very nice! Oddly, a while back (couple of years maybe?), without knowing of this website and blog, I also independently contacted the CA Historical Society to inquire about this, and only this very same image!

    It just appeared so amazing, and so seemingly out of place when I came across it on a Facebook page for the Old West. At first I thought maybe it was one of those modern “old time” set-ups, but now I have come to realize it is truly the real deal. (Well, 99% convinced.)

    I mean, I was previously fooled by an ‘old West’ photo that was a set-up by professional actors. I figured the photo was just too good, and it was. We got a laugh out of it.
    Seeing this Daguerreotype of the nine prospectors just seemed to be too good also. The faces seemed so modern, just like friends back in the college days.

    But then again, we are all genetic descendents of those folks, so obviously they also had our facial features, The attire is perfect for the time. I saw the pistol in the pants or belt, and thought “Ah Hah” a giveaway, since modern old time photo galleries do exactly that with guns. But then again, why wouldn’t folks from way back then, even 1850, not want to show off that pistol? And only one weapon, and not up front for the camera.

    The papers I see it are mining claims. I have an old one from California also, from my grandfather’s collection, albeit 1940;s. I am thinking those guys made a gold claim and are showing off the papers. I can imagine all being young and adventurous, they are happy to fulfill a goal of heading out West and striking gold. Just like a lot of twenty something year olds, they probably wrote home, proud of their success, happy to make their parents proud, happy to find wealth and success.

    I bet they all had extra Daguerreotypes for themselves, likely to send back home. Likely all but one disappeared thru time and neglect. Maybe a copy or two are in somebody’s collection, but not likely.

    Just to think the Civil War was just a decade later. And all the disruption from the new life they found. They had no idea. And for them, many if not all going off to war, who knows what transpired, what was their fate. Kind of sad to think about,

    I recall back in my college days, in a hurry walking thru the neighborhoods to get to a 9am class on time, there was a landlord at some corner storage lockers who was liquidating all the contents dirt cheap since the renter took off and abandoned everything. A lot of our amazing legacy simply gets thrown away.

    Among the many items, was box chock full of old 19th Century photos- all for a quarter! Unfortunately I had zero time, so I passed on all the goodies that could have been saved. Surely that whole box of pictures went to the landfill.

    Who knows what we’ve lost historically, but I know it’s staggering. So when a wonderful, vintage photo such as this comes along, it is a genuine treasure! Thanks for all that research, I hope you are right.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Such a shame about the box of old photos!

      Even in the gold rush days, photographers kept a stock of costumes, much like with today’s “old time” photo studios. Even people who weren’t gold miners like to dress up as one. The photographers also had props like picks, shovels and pans.

      I’m not sure what you think are mining claim papers. The white object in “Henry’s” hand? In the early days, claims weren’t registered, except with the secretary of the mining district. Paper was a pricey commodity and it’s unlikely they had any sort of ownership documents. Usually they just posted a notice on their claim stakes. They had to work the claims to keep them, so they usually weren’t too long absent.

      I do hope that this photograph is of the group I have identified. Maybe someday the clincher evidence will appear, perhaps after my book is published next year. I am certain the men I’ve written about sent daguerreotypes home to their loved ones. Do any still exist? If so, they may reside in some antique store, unlabeled. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that one turns up – with identification!


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