ROBERT C. DOWNS
The middle portion of the nineteenth century might properly be termed the age of utility, especially on the Pacific slope. The vast region lying west of the Rockies was but then opened up to civilization, and the honored pioneers who founded homes in this rich but undeveloped region were men who had to contend with the trials and difficulties of the pioneer life. Theirs were lives of toil. They were endeavoring to make homes, to cultivate farms, to establish business enterprises, and above all to develop the rich mineral resources of this part of the country; and often from youth to old age their lot was one of labor; but their importance to the community cannot be over-estimated, and the comforts and luxuries which the later generations enjoy are due to the brave band of pioneer men and women who came to California during its primitive condition. It is also encouraging and interesting to note that many who came here empty-handed worked their way upward from a humble position in life to one of affluence; that as the years passed and the country improved prosperity attended their efforts and wealth rewarded their earnest labors.
To this class of honored men belongs Robert Carleton Downs, who has gained a handsome competence and who has been permitted to witness the wonderful development of the state whose foundation he aided to lay. For many years he has been identified with the development of the rich mining interests of the state and now makes his home at Sutter Creek in Amador County.
He was born in Bristol, Connecticut, on the 19th of April, 1828. His ancestry were early settlers in New England and in Virginia, and through several generations representatives of the name were prominent in connection with the public affairs of Connecticut. They also aided in the struggle for independence, David Downs, the grandfather of our subject, having been one of the heroes of the Revolution who fought throughout the great struggle that gave birth to the nation. He died at Waterbury, Connecticut, December 17, 1838, at the age of seventy-eight years, and his wife, whose maiden name was Mary Baldwin, died in the sixty-ninth year of her age. Ephraim Downs, the father of our subject, was born in Massachusetts and married Miss Chloe Painter, a native of Connecticut. They were devoted members of the Episcopal Church and had eight children, of whom two are living.
Robert C. Downs, of this review, their fourth child and third son, acquired his early education in his native town and also pursued his studies in the schools of Litchfield and Waterbury, Connecticut. His father was a farmer and manufacturer of wooden clocks, and his early experiences were those of the farm. After laying aside his textbooks he accepted a clerkship in a dry goods store in New York, where he remained for nearly three years in the employ of Hosea F. Clark, at No. 169 Greenwich Street. He there acquired a good knowledge of the business and of methods followed in commercial circles, but the news of the discovery of gold in California attracted him to the west.
The announcement of no event has ever caused such a wide-spread interest in business circles as the finding of the precious metal near the waters of the Pacific. Mr. Downs, with two partners, Edward Hawley and A. J. Tryon, took passage on the sailing vessel Tahmaroo, Captain Richardson, master, on the 25th of January, 1849, and reached San Francisco on the 1st of July, following. The voyage was made around Cape Horn and there were one hundred and fifty passengers on board. During the trip they were caught in a hurricane off Cape Horn and much of the rigging was carried off and the greater part of the bulwarks were stove in. The journey was continued the next day and afterward without further trouble, until they arrived near San Francisco, when about dark, the lookout shouted “Breakers ahead!” Fortunately they were able to make their way out to sea again; but it was a very narrow escape, for had they drifted further on the rocks nothing could have saved them. Fifty years have passed since that time, but Mr. Downs cannot refer to events of the trip without deep emotion. His partner, Mr. Hawley, died during the voyage and was buried at sea.
Immediately after arrival at San Francisco Mr. Downs took passage up the river to Sacramento and from there to the north fork of the American River, where he engaged in placer mining with fair success. In a few months he returned to Sacramento and San Francisco, meeting Levi Hanford, with whom he soon engaged in mining and merchandising in Amador County. In March, 1850, they established stores on Amador and Rancheria creeks. Large profits were made in those days and they sold extensively to the Indians, conducting their enterprise until the spring of 1851, when they established stores at Sutter Creek and Volcano, under the firm name of Hanford & Downs, familiar in early California days. They also carried on quartz mining until 1859, when Mr. Downs retired from the firm to devote his entire attention to developing the rich mineral resources of the state. He has since followed the business, with gratifying success, and is still a large stockholder in various mining enterprises.
He is a man of strong common sense, of excellent judgment and of the highest probity of character, and therefore merits the degree of prosperity which crowned his efforts during the pioneer epoch and has attended his business career in late years. His labors have not been confined to one line of effort, but have reached out and encompassed many industries which have contributed to the growth and upbuilding of the community as well as to his individual prosperity.
Mr. Downs enjoys the pleasure and distinction of being a life member of the Society of California Pioneers and has always been a staunch Republican. He represented his district in the state assembly in 1879 and 1880.
Since his arrival in California he has made six trips to his old home in the east, going and returning by most of the different routes across the continent. Travel is the source of much true wisdom, and in this way and through the various experiences of active life Mr. Downs has become a well informed man whose many excellencies of character have gained to him the esteem of young and old, rich and poor.
Transcribed by Gerald Iaquinta.
© 2010 Gerald Iaquinta.