Thomas and Rebecca Hellyer
Thomas E. and Rebecca Hellyer were pioneer settlers in the Greenville neighborhood southeast of Russell, but moved into town and retired during 1906, leaving their farm in the care of a son. As Thomas neared the end of his life during the summer of 1910, he sat down to write an account of the four years he spent as a young man chasing gold in California.
Born during 1828 in Ohio, Thomas had moved west with his family to Schuyler County, Illinois, about 1839 and was living there when he and others joined an expedition headed west again, this time across the prairies of Iowa and beyond to "El Dorado."
Sixty years later, Thomas turned his manuscript over to Henry Gittinger, then editor of The Chariton Leader, and Henry published it in his edition of Aug. 4, 1910. Thomas had been a friend in the Greenville neighborhood of Henry's father, Peter Gittinger.
The narrative is extraordinarily well written and filled with detail --- so we can be grateful to both Mr. Hellyer and to Henry for preserving it. Here it is:
I am now 82 years of age, being born in 1828. Wife and I celebrated our golden wedding anniversary a few weeks since, most of our family being present. My son George was here from Ault, Colorado, and my brother, George, from Illinois. While I was never very rugged I am less so this summer than ever. I have been down to the farm but once this season and seldom get out of the yard. Yes, I often think of the early days in Lucas county --- and of the old neighbors --- almost all of them gone. It is pleasant to reflect on these times and live one's life over, although there is sadness in the thought that these associations exist only in memory.
Your father (Henry Gittinger's father, Peter) was a few years older than me. He was a man of much experience and never settled down until after middle life. We often talked of things common to us both. He went to California in 1848, he being in the regular army at that time and was serving under Fremont. I did not reach the golden Eldorado until two years later. I was then a young man of 22.
A party of us, attracted by the stories of great wealth, started overland for California from our home in Illinois in March, 1850, traveling by ox team, reaching Reno City in September of that year. It was slow traveling but most enjoyable never-the-less. We crossed the great river, traversed the broad prairies of Iowa, thence across the Missouri into the then unknown country with the American desert in advance. As we journeyed others added to our train until we presented a formidable appearance, rendering attacks from hostile Indians less probable. Sometimes these trains would have misunderstandings, and break into fragments and then it was pathetic to see them illy equipped with provisions launch out to brave the dangers alone. But ours proved to be harmonious all the way through and as luck would have it we never lost an oxen or met with any serious mishaps. Our cattle grazed on the herbage as we journeyed westward, and frequently we would make extra camps in order to conserve their strength. One day we were overtaken by a train of mule teams traveling much faster than we possibly could and they hailed us with:
"If you have any friends in California we will carry word to them and tell them that we saw you."
But in after days we returned the compliment, as they so often had to turn out of the trail to pass the trains and travel over rough prairie that their mules became exhausted, while our oxen, in their slow, plodding way, were almost as good as at starting.
We were fortunate in having a man as captain of our train who had previously crossed the plains and knew the routes for the best water courses, grass and wood for camping purposes, so we experienced but little trouble from these sources. We traveled slowly, hurrying only across the dry and barren stretches, making the best provisions possible before the venture.
Finally we reached the desert beginning at the Humboldt Sink. here the water pours out onto the sands of the desert and for sixty miles beyond it is, or was, a barren waste which me must cross. Fed by the waters which spread out over quite an area, there was formed an oasis on which there was a luxuriant growth of vegetation. Here we rested for a time, mowed and loaded a couple of wagons with grass, filled what vessels we had with water, then launched forth for the navigation of the desert with our fleet of prairie schooners. It was hard, slow traveling, the wheels sinking into the sand and the heat was intense. Of course our provender lasted only a fraction of the distance and was dealt out sparingly but without that provision we never could have made it. Finally the mountain stream was reached, bordering the desert, which we had to ford, and as our teams were so thirsty there was danger of them drinking themselves to death, so as many men as possible waded in by their sides and goaded them along. Soon we reached the opposite shore, which proved to be a land no less promising than that sought by the ancient children of Israel, and by degrees the oxen were permitted to enjoy the refreshing waters and the nutritious herbage.
Here we rested and recruited stock for some time before we passed into the mountain trails.
Gold seeking has its allurements, usually only one in perhaps fifty meet that success we read about. Little is said of the man who fails. This will apply to all our undertakings.
After reaching the Eldorado, we sometimes worked for wages, receiving six, seven and eight dollars per day, moving from place to place as fortune seemed best. I remember on one occasion several of us concluded to try sluice mining, so we gave a negro who had "pay land" skirting a stream $100 apiece for a mining right and then invested a thousand dollars in lumber with which to build sluices. The lumber was miles away and we would have it hauled to the top of the mountain and carry it, or drag, to the place, both exciting and perilous undertakings Some times would have a streak of good luck and the sluice boxes would be rich in gold dust, then of a sudden play out. At one of our works we were making $35 or $40 a day apiece and we dreamed of millions. Suddenly the wealth played out and we moved on. At times we would grow weary of the uncertainty of hunting for the golden treasure and return to wage earning, which usually proved the more profitable. I remember on one occasion I worked steady for six weeks at $8 per day before gold fever struck in again.
I was in the "diggins" four years, finally returning home, perhaps having no more money than I would have had had I cultivated an Illinois farm during that time. We did not return home as we went, but took passage down the coast, crossed the Isthmus of Panama at Aspinwall, thence to New York. We would have returned by way of New Orleans, but we heard that the cholera was raging there so took the longer route. From New York we came by way of Buffalo, Detroit and Chicago.
These are incidents of sixty years ago, but I am growing reminiscent. I have resided in Washington township over fifty years, removing to Iowa from Illinois.
Thomas came to Lucas County during 1856, a single man age 28. He married Rebecca Caster, 15 years his junior, during 1860 --- when she was 17. Together, they produced 10 children.
Thomas died three months after his memoir was published, on Nov. 22, 1910, at the age of 82. Rebecca continued to live in Russell for the next 21 years, passing herself on March 25, 1931, at the age of 88. They are buried in the Russell Cemetery.