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.
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.
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.