This is the first of a three-part story about an early Napa family, the Jordans. This article is based on Rudolph Jordan’s short autobiography in “Autobiographies and Reminiscences of California Pioneers,” p. 46-68, Vol. 6 (1901) published by the Society of California Pioneers and on information provided by his great-grandniece Helene Belz via the District Archives at Mont La Salle, Napa. The main image above or at left is “California Gold Diggers – A Scene From Actual Life At The Mines” (date unknown) from Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion in the Collection of Oakland Museum of California. A typical filed claim was 10 feet by 10 feet.
The adventurous route to the Napa Redwoods
In 1884, Rudolph Jordan was 73 and a well-established businessman in San Francisco when he purchased land on Redwood Creek where Mount La Salle and Hess Collection Winery now sit. But his route to that position was that of an ambitious gold seeker and pioneer.
He was born in 1811 in Haile, Germany. At 27, wanting to visit warmer climates, he took a clerking position in Trinidad, Cuba. After two years, he bought a daguerreotype business with partner George Mollenhauer and moved to Havana. During this time, he mastered the Spanish language and learned to play Spanish guitar, which he later had to give up when he lost the tip of his right index finger from overexposure to the ammonia used in daguerreotype work.
When an article about the discovery of gold in California appeared in the Havana newspaper in July 1848, most business people believed it to be hoax aimed at attracting settlers to the new U.S. territory.
“Nevertheless,” Jordan said, “my partner and I gave credence to that article, and from that very moment laid our plans to proceed to the City of Mexico…and thence as best we could, to Alta California.”
They depart for California
In mid-November, they sailed to Veracruz. Thirteen days later, the ship arrived and the first of what Jordan termed his “many miraculous escapes” occurred.
Jordan and Mollenhauer alone disembarked that night by boat immediately after arrival, while the other passengers waited until the next morning. Later that night, a storm sprang up and the captain attempted to land the other passengers. “In so doing,” said Jordan, “the boat was lashed against the stone dock and all were drowned.”
Jordan and Mollenhauer arrived by horseback in Mexico City on Christmas Eve and to official confirmation of the gold discovery: A copy of the New York Herald had arrived by stage with the news that President James Polk had announced the find to the U.S. Congress. “Furthermore, there were in this city many Americans and foreigners, [like us] all anxious to get to that new Eldorado as quickly and as best they could.”
They left with trusted group of fellow gold seekers for Guadalajara and arrived after 15 days. A second “miraculous escape” occurred west of Guadalajara when Jordan’s party outwitted banditos and a third took place at the coast when Jordan averted a duel with pistols.
A “wonderful incident” scares off trouble
A drunk sea captain had refused for two weeks to sail after taking payment from passengers. Jordan got him arrested and the money returned. The next day the captain’s brother challenged Jordan to a duel with the captain, with Jordan to name the weapon.
“Then happened a wonderful incident,” Jordan said, “…for I answered ‘If the captain really wants to fight, let him come. And to prove that I can shoot straight, look at that cactus leaf way up there.’
“Out came my pistol! Bang! Bang! And two holes showed up against the sky! I don’t know how I did it. An invisible hand guided me I am sure.” The brother took news of this display back to the captain, who did not show for the duel.
Finally, Jordan, Mollenhauer and the others were able to get a ship to California further north at Mazatlan. Before sailing on April 24, they sold their horses. “I was much pleased with the 25 dollars I got for my fine little mare, which had carried me so bravely” across the breadth of Mexico.
A month later on May 24, 1849—just over six months after they had left Havana—the two became official 49ers when the ship entered the Golden Gate. “Here we were at last, at Yerba Buena, with its glorious ‘Bahia de San Francisco.’”
Alcatraz was covered entirely with the pelicans for which it is named. Twenty ships sat in the town’s harbor, abandoned there by their crews who had left for the gold country
A summer in the goldfields
After a few days among the “buildings, shanties and tents” of the town, they booked passage on a sailing ship that took them up the bay and San Joaquin River—past herds of antelope and elk grazing on the shore—to the outpost of Stockton. There they purchased mules and placer mining equipment, and headed into the hills along the Stanislaus River.
“The contrast between the hill district with its running creeks and green trees, and the [San Joaquin] valley covered with sagebrush caused us to press on with good cheer,” Jordan said.
Once in Sonora, they each filed a small claim, but soon moved on with a new burro to Jackass Gulch which lay along the Stanislaus River about ten miles away (the gulch is now under the waters of New Melones Lake). There they got off to a good start simply by going through a pile of discarded tailings and clearing $40. Then they staked their own claim and “worked with success.”
When a rumor of a new gold find arrived from the Mokolumne River, every miner in the gulch, but for Jordan, Mollenhauer and a third miner Peter Masson, “packed with high glee” and decamped for the new find.
“Silence now reigned supreme in the canyon,” said Jordan, “for no new arrivals came for weeks and weeks, and I, for one, immensely enjoyed this peaceful and unrestrained mode of living.”
At night, bobcats, cougars and grizzly bear—“animals we knew nothing about at that time”—came through the camp, foraging for food. Morning coffee was accompanied by the sound of woodpeckers. Biscuits and flapjacks were served for breakfast, and “pork and beans one day and beans and pork the next” for dinner. Often on Sundays, they would take the burro—now named Jack, perhaps after the gulch—and climb out of the canyon to visit Sonora.
“In this way the summer months passed quietly away,” said Jordan. The three miners were satisfied with their gold diggings (Jordan never says how much money he made that summer) and might have done even better if they had been used to the hard physical labor involved.
A final “friendly smile from Dame Fortune” before winter
In the fall the fog arrived and soaked the camp and diggings. Then came drenching rain. They were warned by a passing Mexican miner that the damp and rain would not stop until spring, so they decided to soon call it a season. They had recently been working a “rich stratum of gold” and as a last bit of mining, Jordan shoveled as much of the dirt from it as he could and “spread it out for the rain to do its work during the night.”
The next morning, when he returned, “a bewitching glitter burst upon my eyes, reminding me of the tales of the Arabian Nights.” The rain had washed all the dirt away and “the mass of yellow gold was a sight to behold.
“I summoned my companions and this friendly smile of Dame Fortune, though her last in Jackass Gulch, proved exhilarating to our depressed spirits. We quickly scraped together what we could carry, and with this last golden harvest bade adieu to the famous Jackass Gulch, firm in our resolve to return the next year.”
None of the three men did return to the gulch the next year. After a week drying out in Sonora they left with a pack train to stay the winter in San Jose. Peter Masson moved on, and Mollenhauer “found something suitable in San Jose and a friendly separation followed.”
Jordan starts his career as a California businessman
Jordan himself became co-partner in a mercantile business and began varied career in business and investment (including pearl mining and timber concerns in Cabo San Lucas) that led to his becoming the general agent for James Lick in San Francisco, a position he held for nearly ten years. During most of this time, the family lived in a house on Second Avenue on Rincon Hill.
In 1852, he married Marie Rosaline Drenckhahn, recently arrived from Hamburg, Germany. In 1863, he was 52 years old and had been away from his family in Germany for 25 years when he received news that his mother was dying. Soon after, with his wife, a daughter Anita and six-month-old son Rudolph Jr. (and having lost two daughters to diphtheria), he boarded a ship in San Francisco and returned to Germany.