Louise Diver, a family genealogist, has agreed to share an article she wrote about her quest to discover more information about one of her Lawrence County ancestor’s.
We had looked forward to this meeting, Wendi (Lawless) and I. She dispatched her husband and two children and we got right down to business, the genealogical charts spread on the kitchen table. Dinner would come later if we remembered to eat. She had prepared one of my favorite meals, Navy beans and cornbread.
I could not see that Wendy looked like any of the Sumner family; I think she would’ve liked my saying that she did. We were very distant cousins and she was a generation younger than I. Her great, great grandfather, Sandy Sumner, was the brother of my great grandfather Starkey Sumner. Both were sons of Benjamin Sumner. Unlike her distant cousin, me, Wendi was a careful researcher and neat recorder. Her charts, with names of long ago people and places told a story typical of the rush to California to seek gold.
Sandy Sumner was born to Benjamin and Catherine (?) (or Elizabeth?) Sumner in 1820 (November 28) in Christy Township in what was then Edwards County, now Lawrence County, Illinois. Illinois had been a state only two years. Sandy married Nancy Perrigen in 1847 (March 22) in Lawrence County. They had daughter Elizabeth in 1848 (June 4); William 1849 (April 9), who died in infancy; and Benjamin Franklin in 1850(February 26).
The year their first child was born, a man named James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill, California. The stories about gold in the Territory of California spread quickly to the Midwest, including Sumner, Illinois. California statehood followed and in that year, 1850, Sandy and Simeon Sumner, a half-brother eight years younger, were among the 80,000 “49ers,” who began the long trail to the Union’s westernmost, 31st state. Their father Benjamin, for whom Sumner was named, made a $150 loan to Sandy.
We can imagine that these farm men from the prairies and lush forest of southern Illinois had no idea what they would encounter enroute. A British historian, Frank McLynn, quotes one of them who said they knew “California lay west and that was the extent of our knowledge.” McLynn writes: “Forsaking their farms, these first settlers headed into the unknown. They feared wandering lost in the mountains, drowning in mighty rivers or dying of thirst in the desert. Above all, they quaked at the prospect of whooping savages descending on the wagon train to kill and torture.”
McLlynn seems to think that reality was not so dangerous. Who can believe that? Emigrants slogged along at two miles per hour alongside their oxen for some 2,000 miles, with infections and diseases, without water or with putrid water and few campsites along the way. And, every day and night fearing the whooping savages.
They were already in Placerville, California on November 7, 1850 when the younger Sumner, Simeon died; he was 22.
Placerville, in El Dorado County, sits in the western shadows of the Sierras and was known originally as “Old Dry Diggin’s.” When the town prospered and consequently populated too quickly, lawlessness followed. Lawbreakers were hanged first one by one and then in pairs so that the settlement acquired another descriptive name, “Hang town.”
We know that Sandy returned to Sumner sometime in 1852. While there, he purchased a wagon and horses from his father. His Dad allowed a credit in their settlement, some money toward the expenses that Sandy had incurred during the last sickness and burial of Simeon. Father and son swap some land leaving Sandy’s real estate in Benjamin’s name so that selling the property could be done without legal problems. Clearly, Sandy was severing ties with the Midwest and his and Nancy’s families. His transactions finished, Sandy and family returned to California.