The pioneers of 1852 who are still living in California are not numerous, and there is not one of them who is better known and more highly regarded by his fellow citizens than John Steel, of San Andreas, Calaveras County, who is also one of the many good citizens whom Germany has furnished to the United States. Mr. Steel comes of old “fatherland” families and was born at Merzhausen, Germany, April 5, 1825, a son of Justus and Mary (Waterman) Steel. His father, who was a forest overseer, was a worthy citizen and a most devoted member of the Dutch Reformed Church, and John Steel, of San Andreas, and one of his sisters are the only ones of his eight children who survive. The daughter is Mrs. Anna Wagner, a widow, and lives at Stockton. When Mr. Steel was three years old his good father died, but his mother, who was most devoted to her children, lived to be eighty years old.
John, who was the seventh in order of birth, received a good education and learned the shoemaker’s trade. As was the custom with mechanics in Germany, he soon set out on his travels as a joiner and in 1848 “brought up” at New Orleans, Louisiana. From New Orleans he went to St. Louis, where he was paid twelve dollars a week, which was then ten dollars and fifty cents a week than he would have been paid for the same work in Germany. In the spring of 1852 he and five other young men bought a wagon and shipped it to Independence, Missouri, and followed it to that point and went out in the country and bought four yoke of oxen, which were to draw the wagon and their belongings to California. Not one of the five had had any experience with oxen, and at first they had considerable difficulty in yoking, handling and driving their eight-ox team, but the wagon rolled out of Independence on its long western journey on the 8th of May. That year (1852) is memorable in history for its epidemic of cholera, and the fatalities among California emigrants were numerous and alarming. The young men met many people who had abandoned the journey and were coming back to their old homes, utterly heart-sick, and they saw many shallow graves by the wayside in which emigrants, men, women and children, had been buried only to be dug up by the wolves! Indians were numerous, but made them no trouble. Immense herds of buffalo were encountered from time to time. From the Sink of the Humboldt westward Mr. Steel and some companions made the journey on foot and arrived at “Hangtown” November 15, 1852, two weeks before their team got there.
There was no water with which to mine, and he could not work at his trade until the wagon came with his shoemaker’s tools; but he went to chopping word for a brickyard and earned fair wages until his tools arrived, when he opened a shop at “Hangtown.” He got ten dollars a pair for coarse boots, two dollars and fifty cents for putting on half soles and fifty cents for each patch; but as a sack of flour cost forty-nine dollars and other necessaries were proportionally high it will be seen that it cost him a great deal to live. Still, with characteristic German thrift, he saved some money and became the owner of a mine on North Beaver Creek, which yielded him eleven dollars a day for three years. Then in 1855 he came to Calaveras County and bought a mine at Lattimer’s Gulch, which he worked at a loss, two years and then abandoned. Next he bought a hydraulic mine, had difficulty with the owners of the water, and in 1861 sold it and came to San Andreas, where he again turned his attention to shoemaking and to the management of a ranch six miles south of the town, which he had taken up before it had been surveyed. He now owns two thousand acres and has raised cattle and sheep extensively, but he has made and mended shoes during all of the thirty-nine years of his residence there, doing good and honest work and is still working for customers who came to him more than three decades ago and has no idea of retiring from his bench.
In 1852 Mr. Steel was married at “Hangtown” to Miss Josephine Hodecker, whom he had known in St. Louis and who was the daughter of the late Philip Hodecker, and they have had four children: Mary, the eldest daughter, is the wife of John C. Early of San Andreas. George Edward is married and is connected with his father in his ranch enterprise. William Walter has become prominent in connection with mining interests. Andrew Lincoln, the youngest, was born November 8, 1864, the day on which Mr. Lincoln was elected he second time the President of the United States; for Mr. Steel is a Republican, staunch and enthusiastic. He has been an Odd Fellow for fifty years, and is not only one of the oldest but also one of the most honored members of the order in the state. He has been the treasurer of his lodge so long that he cannot remember when he was first elected to the office.
Transcribed by Gerald Iaquinta.
© 2010 Gerald Iaquinta.