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John William Harrison (1833 - 1890)

Iredell Co. NC ; Union Co., GA; Whiskeytown, CA


Repository ID #10638 - extensive ancestry available in our online database.

John William Harrison :
Gold Fever and the California Pioneer

by Gerard F. Harrison


This is a story that starts with a boy born in North Carolina, who followed the trail through the Georgia mountains to California in 1850 in search of the gold in the Sierras. This is the story of my great-grandfather.

John William Harrison was born in North Carolina in 1833. John was the youngest of Bentley and Elizabeth Harrison’s three sons. Bentley was a farmer and grape-grower in North Carolina, making an existence working the soil. The entire Harrison clan was spread throughout Wilkes and the neighboring western Carolina counties, they had lived there for generations before the American Revolution.

What is of interest is that the first major gold strikes in America were in this area of Carolina. One of the richest deposits of gold was found in Cabarrus County. The first documented gold find in the young nation occurred in 1799. A man named Johannes Reith, a Hessian Solider during the Revolution left the British Army at the end of the War of Independence and moved to the Piedmont area of North Carolina to join a community of Germans living there. He changed his name to John Reed and became a corn and wheat farmer.

The Carolina gold rush began when Reed’s son Conrad found a yellow rock in the creek that ran through Reed’s property. The curious looking rock was estimated to weigh 17 pounds and was said to be used as a doorstop at the farm. In 1802 the rock was determined to be gold and was sold to the Fayetteville jeweler who made that determination for a mere $3.50. Reed quickly formed a partnership with three other men and the mining of his property began in earnest the following year. The mining was done between planting, growing, and harvesting of crops. The farmer-miners used pans and rockers to sift the precious metal from the rivers, creeks and washes.

As word of easy gold spread, many farmers began prospecting their properties in the area with success. By 1825, it was discovered that the gold existed in quantity in veins of quartz at the Reed farm and underground mining began in full force in 1831. John Reed died in 1845 a very wealthy man.

We mention this to illustrate that this was the world that John William Harrison was born into, the one in which John spent his formative years. We do not know when the gold-bug bit John William Harrison but we do know his childhood view of life was a combination of hard chores and backbreaking labor on his father Bentley’s farm. No doubt the stories of easy wealth and instant riches found in streams and washes of the countryside must have caught the young boy’s imagination as he went about his chores on the farm.

We don’t know if John’s father Bentley had him help in panning when he was too young to help with heavy chores or during off-seasons. Perhaps as a lad exploring his world he may have come across his first find in a streambed or river wash and been convinced of his quest in life.



Bentley Harrison moved his family to the Coosa District of Union County in northeast Georgia in the 1840s. Union County was one of the areas to where Reed’s original Piedmont gold strike in North Carolina was traced. Bentley Harrison, his wife, daughter and John William appeared in the 1850 Census. We believe his other two sons stayed behind in Carolina to continue working crops on family land and that they followed down at a later date, for they appeared in the second census taken in 1850 though John William did not.

John had already left for California by the end of 1850.

Prospecting pioneers followed the gold veins into what was then Cherokee Indian Territory. The Georgia gold boom began to pick up momentum in 1830 when the news spread that major finds were located on Cherokee lands in the mountains of North Georgia.

The pressure put upon the Cherokee Tribe was already enormous. The rapid expansion of European settlers in the area was creating a situation of wholesale encroachment on tribal lands when the news of gold was spread. The result was the passage by Congress of the 1830 Indian Removal Act signed into law by Andrew Jackson. In less than a decade, the Trail of Tears, the forced removal and march of the Cherokee Nation to the barrens of Oklahoma, was underway. This was one of the more shameful chapters in the nation’s history.

In 1837 the U.S. Government established the gold coin mint at Dahlonega, Georgia not far from the mining operations in the mountains north of Atlanta. Gold flowed from the hills down to the mint. Gold assayed from Union County was clean , bright and contained in crystals. Ore was said to have contained an average of 4.47 ounces of pure gold per ton.

Bentley Harrison acquired over 360 acres of gold zone property in the Coosa Militia District outside of Blairsville in Union County Georgia. Census and voter records list Bentley as a farmer, it is likely that he sought to augment his farming income with off-season prospecting. No doubt Bentley’s son John William continued to see and hear about the gold strikes and the life of instant riches for those fortunate enough to uncover a rich vein.

News of the gold found at Sutter’s Mill reached this remote corner of the state via a woman cook on Sutter’s work crew. The woman came from Georgia, and following the discovery in 1848, she traveled back home with the news. The news of California gold had become so widespread that one Saturday in 1849 when a crowd gathered at the Lumpkin County Courthouse, the Chief Assayer of the Dahlonega mint, Matthew F. Stephenson pleaded with the miners to stay and continue to work the Georgia gold veins and lodes. Stephenson’s pleas fell upon deaf ears, the miners left in droves for California.

It was Stephenson who pointed north to the Georgia mountains and exclaimed "There’s gold in them there hills." Unfortunately the miners chose to go after the gold in the hills of the High Sierras of California.

Another North Georgia resident, William Greenberry Russell led an expedition to California. Prior to that his family had mined gold all the way down the Appalachian Mountains from Pennsylvania, over the course of a generation. They had settled in North Georgia Gold Country but also headed gold expeditions out to what is now Denver Colorado. Russell is credited with the establishment of the settlement that became Denver. North Georgia gold miners also established Helena, Montana as a result of the gold found there.



John William Harrison left for California some time after September of 1850, we know this because the Georgia census that listed him was taken in September-November of 1850 and John also appeared in the Whiskeytown 1850 voter census. We are not certain of how he traveled west. There were three methods of getting to San Francisco in those days. The first method was overland at great peril due to the hostile Plains Indians:

the second method was to ship out down to Panama and make a land trek across the isthmus through tropical swamp and mosquito infested jungle risking malaria: the third choice was to sail around the Horn, the tip of South America and all the way up the west coast of the continent. This option was also fraught with danger due to the volatile storms, winds and currents at the bottom tip of the continent.

Family legend has it that John William elected to "Round the Horn" to get to California. However he did manage to get there, John had arrived in Whiskeytown, California in time for their 1850 Voter Census. John William Harrison listed himself as a Mining Engineer from North Carolina. Barely 18 years old, young John faced incredible risk and hardship to follow his dream of finding the "gold falling out of the ground."

Whiskeytown in the 1850’s was a place untamed. It was like any mining camp wild with dark passions. John William managed to survive and prosper through the most dangerous period of the Gold Rush in a town not known for human longevity. It was said by my grandfather, that the town was so tough they finally had to drown it in the 1960s under the lake bearing its name. Even yet, to this day its post office still stands nearby as a reminder of a town that in its heyday offered incredible riches to all, but more often delivered ruined dreams.

We can only imagine this 18 year old country boy’s thrill of excitement when he took to the slopes. Throughout his childhood, John’s dream of gold had to be subordinated to the primary demands of a farmer’s existence. How he must have cursed his chores as a lad, hating the work that kept him away from his only wish; to harvest gold from the ground rather than crops of grapes and produce. At last he had arrived in a foreign place where there was no farming, there were no chores other than those that would make a smart, industrious and lucky man rich beyond his dreams. John William Harrison was not afraid, he had arrived at his promised land, had finally arrived home to the place where he had always lived in his heart.

The drinking and gambling, the looting and the killing were all a part of the world he chose to live in. He understood that the gold attracted all kinds of folks including many of the worst, but these people had to be regarded as the neighbors that came with his dream. John William did not fear them because they were merely visitors, neighbors and passers-through in the home of his heart and soul, his beloved gold fields. John no doubt had spent years watching and studying the use of the pan, the flume and the rocker back east, long before he got to California. In those early years of his life he came to know the ways of the miner and knew the signs in the soil that beckoned them all onward to the promise that lay within.

There isn’t much information about John William Harrison in the period from 1850 to 1860. We know he mined with reasonable success in the area, otherwise he would have moved on. It is only when we get into the 1860’s that a better picture emerges of John William Harrison. In the 1860 Whiskeytown census John is listed as male miner from North Carolina, 27 years of age and probably several lifetimes older than the last census when he first came to town.

In January of 1862 John William Harrison and a group of men met to incorporate themselves to build a Turnpike Road from Grizzly Gulch to the Tower House in Shasta County. They proposed a meeting at the hotel in Grizzly Gulch to formally organize the enterprise under the laws of California. The men involved in the effort were J.W. Harrison, Jasper Smith, Kean Mahoney, Philip Baker, S.W. Durant, R.B. Emery, David Maxim and William Walton.

John William Harrison had good reason to be involved in this road building concern since he had active claims in Grizzly Gulch and he also resided in Tower House as late as 1866. Certainly it would make good sense to improve the thoroughfares between his home and his place of business. There were several productive mining operations in Grizzly Gulch and no doubt the other gentlemen involved in the road building effort would also stand to benefit.

We do know that during the years of the War Between the States, Bentley Harrison had little contact with his son John William Harrison. He wrote a sad letter to his niece Martha Harrison VanDyke about his shattered and lost family on July 27, 1863.

The letter stated as follows: " My son Franklin was killed in the war June 28, 1862 and my son Alfred was killed April 17, 1863 and son John went to California during the Gold Rush and said he had found gold and was coming home, but never returned."

Bentley lost his two older sons who stayed behind on the farm in Union County; Franklin, to Typhoid Fever in Virginia, and Alfred to wounds sustained in battle at Greenville.

We hope that Bentley eventually came to know his Gold Rush son had survived and had children that carry the family name to this day.

In March of 1867 the Shasta Courier wrote an article that acknowledged a general cry that placer mining was expended as a means of making a living. The Courier went on to cite John William Harrison’s "Brown & Harrison Mine" in Grizzly Gulch as one that continued to have a high yield to the extent that it paid the men "$6,000.00 over the past year. Later in that month the paper also made mention of the highly successful Mad Ox mine and the Mad Mule, both were as good as when first discovered..

In 1869 there was another article in the Courier citing high yields, again up in the mines of Grizzly Gulch above Whiskeytown. It is mentioned that the mine of Harrison, Smith & Co. was doing well with long lines of creek flumes. The Mad Ox again was mentioned for its continued wealth. One gets the sense that at this late date 21 years after Sutter’s crew made the initial find that changed the course of history, the strike was considered over even by those determined that it continue. It is said that the Gold Rush itself was over by 1852 or by the time California became a state of the Union. Most of the 49-ers were already headed to Australia, Colorado and points north in America.

It would seem that the Courier voiced the citizens’ hope that the prosperity and growth the area would not evaporate with the falling off of gold yields that they would not be the inhabitants of ghost towns. Not unlike the Assayer of the Dahlonega mint, Matthew Stephenson, pleading with miners not to abandon the hills of north Georgia for California in 1849, the Courier also was finding that miners are true to but one thing, the ready gold.

John William most certainly was one of those that would not quit the land of his dreams. He continued to work the gold from the hills and gulches and he also branched out into other enterprises. By the 1870’s census and voter registrations had John listed as a hotel keeper. Evidently John had made enough to purchase the Madam Brown House up in Grizzly Gulch. The fact that he changed his listed occupation from "mining engineer" to "hotel keep" surely indicates that he too found it necessary to recast his role in the Sierras. Perhaps by the 1870’s the once proud title of Mining Engineer had become a euphemism for a "hard luck" person or one that was not gainfully employed. We do not know the social nuance of the era well enough to do more than speculate. What we do know is that John William fell back upon his experiences when growing up back east, that one needed multiple enterprises when one resource alone could not carry his life in comfort.

In July of 1875 John finally took a bride. At the age of 42 John married a young lady named Mary Elizabeth Joseph. Marybeth was less than half John’s age but his relative state of success insured a woman a good existence and in that era would have made him a prize catch of sorts. Sadly this marriage did not last long.

In January of 1878 John’s young bride and his newborn daughter both had contracted Scarlet Fever and died within weeks of each other. First Marybeth aged 18 years 2 months, passed on and then his daughter aged 1 year 1 month soon after. We cannot fathom the pain John must have felt watching first his young wife and then his only child, an infant, fade away and die from this dreadful disease. Mother and daughter were both buried at Portuguese Flat Cemetery (Bakers). While California Burial Records do not record their interment we hope the records some day are updated to reflect this final resting spot for John William’s dreams of a family.

A Courier article in June of 1886 regarding (once again) the Mad Ox mine, and its history, mentions a wagon road that was completed in 1878 between the mine and Harrison’s vineyard. Apparently John William had an enterprise in growing grapes up in Grizzly Gulch for the creation of drink for the thirsty.

By April of 1879 John William resurfaced in the Courier when they did a small mention of heavy rains leaving a large deposit of sand and gravel near his place in Grizzly Gulch.

John was cited as "Not caring a cuss whether or not the sand is moved, as there was no danger of its’ "sudden disappearance". It seems that John William had maintained some measure of humor on the heels of his losses in the prior year, and saw little exposure to theft of the wash left at his doorstep.

The Shasta Courier went on to report the gold yields in the area, the Mad Ox mine continued to be a success story. The paper mentioned philosophically that a miner would come to town with his earnings, go on a spree, play Monte and go home broke with little more to show for his efforts than a black eye. This observation was made in a small article in 1884. The habits and ways of the miner himself, had changed little in the days that followed the Rush of 1849. The paper also noted in March of 1884 that John William had come to town down from Grizzly Gulch.

The Shasta Courier reported a reversal of fortunes for John William on July 21, 1888. The report is as follows: " The old Madam Brown place at Grizzly Gulch, above Whiskeytown owned by John Harrison, was destroyed by fire last week. In former times it was a great place of Sunday resort for miners, and a stopping and resting place for wayfarers. Twenty percent of the gold dust changed there, and money spent, would make anyone a millionaire." John William’s tenure as a "hotel keep" was over. We tend to believe this reversal of fortune did not get John William down as he had just recently found a new bride by the name of Carolista Davis.

Carolista was the daughter of an Ohio printer, Jos. P. Davis. Davis was a man who came overland to Whiskeytown in the 1860’s seeking his fortune or perhaps escape from the prospect of conscription into the Union Army during the Civil War. Carolista was born and raised in the mining town. Her father J.P. was said to have carried a bullet in his skull throughout his life as a result of a "misunderstanding" during a card game. Carolista was said to be of great beauty with flaming red hair coupled with a wild and fearless nature suitable for life in Whiskeytown. Carolista had married a young miner named Charles P. Somers in June of 1881. Records show that she and Somers had 3 children in short order.

We don’t know what went wrong with Carolista’s marriage to Somers, perhaps his luck as a miner was poor and the hardships were unbearable, perhaps he was a man whose temperament was ill suited to married life. Nevertheless Carolista had taken her children and left Somers by 1886. Whiskeytown Marriage Records record Carolista’s marriage to John William in June of 1886. John was now in his 50’s. He had led a long life by Gold Rush standards and at this late date took one last chance at building a family and settling into his twilight years with a good woman.

While we don’t know the circumstances of the fire at John’s hotel, we know that it occurred around the time that Carolista’s relationship with John William had born children. Perhaps Mr. Somers had a hand in trying to reverse John William’s fortunes in the hopes his wife of short tenure would return. Perhaps news of the birth of children sealed it for Mr. Somers and he had to accept that his bride was never to return. By 1890 John William and Carolista had two children by their marriage together. The first was a daughter Mary Elizabeth Harrison. It is telling that they named their daughter after John William’s first bride and daughter lost to Scarlet Fever so many years before. It speaks highly of Carolista that she would have allowed John to remember and honor his first attempt at a family in this way. It also speaks highly of John William himself that he had a depth of emotion and feeling that compelled him to pay this respect to his lost loved ones. It is quite possible that Carolista and John’s deceased wife Marybeth were friends back in the 1870’s as they were close in age to each other, and the naming of their first daughter this way may have been a decision of equal relevance to both. John William’s second child with Carolista was a son. This child was born in 1889 and was given the name of John Bentley Harrison. Obviously given the name John for the sake of his father, and Bentley for John William’s father back in Georgia. These acts in naming his offspring are the only tangible glimpses we have into the softer side of John William. Obviously he thought of his loved ones when he named his children and his recollections of his families were strong with love.

In August of 1888 the Courier makes mention of the gathering of the Harrison and Morton Club, holding its’ second regular meeting. Evidently this club was an association of Republicans who were part of the effort to get Grover Cleveland’s name on the ballot. It would almost seem odd that John William would have been a Republican given the fact that it was the party of Lincoln and in prior years this Son of the South lost two brothers in the war for the Confederate States of America and no doubt had gotten word from back east about the horrors of reconstruction. The mountains of North Georgia were in near anarchy after the Civil War. The mountain folk were never big supporters of slavery and loyalties were always divided in the north counties. While most soldiers of the CSA were listed as volunteers, historical truth has shown that many were press-ganged into service under hard threat of bodily injury or death for refusing.

The next piece of information we have regarding John William comes from an article in May of 1889, in which it is noted that John Harrison of Grizzly Gulch was in town for the first time in a coon’s age. We must recall that John was very likely occupied with his new bride Carolista, as well as with his newborn children. Perhaps he had also been busy building a new house for his family after the fire destroyed the old Madam Brown house. We have no information regarding how he fared that reversal of fortune or how he managed to provide shelter for his family. One would assume that he lived at the Hotel with his family however that may not have been the case and possibly he had a homestead established elsewhere that accommodated his new family. Time and research may shed more light on those circumstances in the future.

We come now to the untimely close of John William Harrison’s lifetime. At a point when all was well with him, his enterprises all running well, his family strong and healthy, his children and Somer’s children growing together as a family, John William had a wonderful life to look forward to. As he settled into his old age he would have a young wife to keep his spirits youthful, children to help with the chores and work his commercial operations. Surely John William had come through many trials and hardships to at last enjoy a life completed with a family and a son who would carry on the family name and spirit.

Sadly this was not to be the case, the lifetime allotment of luck and good fortune allocated to John William ran short at this late date in his life. The Shasta Courier reported John William’s demise in a rather matter-of-fact manner, dryly reporting on April 26, 1890;" John Harrison, of Grizzly Gulch and Chas. P. Somers of this place got into an altercation at Woodward’s hotel, Whiskeytown, Thursday, which culminated in Harrison’s striking Somers several times with a grubbing hoe, when the latter retaliated by shooting his assailant with a pistol, producing wounds which soon afterwards proved fatal. Somers came down to Shasta, on his way to Redding to surrender himself to the authorities, and was met here by J.E. Reynolds, whom he kindly escorted to the county jail." On May 10, 1890 the Courier reported that " The preliminary examination of Charles P. Somers for shooting John W. Harrison at Whiskeytown, closed before Justice Knox last Saturday evening, resulting in holding Somers to appear before the Superior Court to answer the charge of murder."

This is the last we have in the way of information regarding the life of John William Harrison. Again, time and effort may uncover more details of John William’s life and the final disposition of the charges lodged against Mr. Somers, at the time of this paper these items are not available. We do not know where John William was buried or for that matter what became of Carolista after the 1900 census.

We, of John William’s family, were given to understand that John William was shot in the back in a cowardly fashion. We never had the complete details or circumstances of the altercation, whether there were witnesses to the killing or if it may have been staged by a rage and jealousy driven Chas. P. Somers. If in fact John William did have at Mr. Somers we suspect that there was good reason, we hope his injuries were severe, but somehow we doubt that the reported circumstances of the shooting were consistent with reality.

John William was at least 57 years old at the time and if he in fact was throttling a much younger Mr. Somers with a pick-axe type of weapon, the man must have launched a powerful provocation at John William. We don’t know why John was at Woodward’s hotel that day, if he came down seeking Somers or if it was just mischance that may have taken wing on a gust of whiskey fueled words. However it happened Carolista was left a widow with 5 children to raise.

Perhaps the final testament to John William Harrison comes to us in the form of the last known census record of Carolista. In 1900 she was listed as Carolista Cummings, Single Parent-Head of Household. Carolista’s two subsequent marriages had failed. Her 3 children by Chas P. Somers now bore the name of Cummings. Carolista would not give her Somers children their true father’s name, for it was the name of the man who murdered her beloved John Harrison. The census also recorded her two children by John William. The records showed John Bentley Harrison son, and Mary Elizabeth Harrison daughter. The Harrison name remained for John William’s children, Carolista would not change their names. John William Harrison’s great-grandchildren carry the name proudly to this day.

Original article by Gerard F. Harrison, great grandson of John William Harrison, printed here with permission from the author.
Submitted by Gerard F. Harrison.

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Last Updated: 7 September 2001
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