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Tuolumne County









            Joseph Benjamin Pownall is numbered among California’s native sons and is now filling the important position of secretary and superintendent of the Tuolumne County Water Company, of which he is one of the heaviest stockholders.  Through the years of his manhood, as well as through the period of his youth, he has always resided in Columbia; therefore, his history is familiar to its citizens.  His large circle of friends is an indication that his has been an upright and honorable career, and his prominence in business circles is widely recognized by all who know him.  He was born on the 5th of January, 1858, and is of English descent, although four generations of the family have been born in the United States.

            His father, Dr. Joseph Pownall, was a native of Hackettstown, New Jersey, born on the 8th of August, 1818, where he received his primary education.  He was one of the California “Argonauts,” joining a party which started out in search of the “golden fleece” on the 28th of March, 1849, for the tales of the wonderful discovered on the Pacific Coast led many men to believe that they might rapidly acquire a fortune in the far west.  He crossed the plains on the southern route, making the journey from Texas with a party that traveled under the command of Captain J. H. Duval.  There were between one hundred and twenty and one hundred and thirty in the company and I. G. Messec, who now resides in Gilroy, California, was their lieutenant.  They secured their outfit at El Paso, Texas, and started on the long journey across the alkali plains of the south and over the mountains that had hardly been trodden before by white men.  They met a number of hostile Indians, but succeeded in purchasing their good will by gifts of food and tobacco, the latter being in great demand by the red men.  They swam the Colorado River near the present site of Fort Yuma, where they arrived safely about the 20th of July, 1849.  They then proceeded on their way to Los Angeles, and thence to San Francisco.

            At the age of nineteen Dr. Pownall commenced the study of medicine under Dr. William Rea, and in the spring of 1841 attended a course of lectures at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at New York City, followed by another course during the summer and fall at Pittsfield, Massachusetts; then returned and entered the medical department of the University of the City of New York, at its first session in the fall and winter of 1841-2, at which he was graduated on the 9th of March, 1842.  After graduation he went south to practice his profession, locating first at Savannah, Georgia.  Then he went to Laurens County, Georgia, where he remained for six months.  He then went to Micanopy, Alachua County, Florida, remaining there until about July 1, 1846, when he went to New Orleans.  He then went with the American army to Matamoras and Monterey, Mexico, intending to join the staff of surgeons connected with the army.  Not liking this kind of practice, he returned to New Orleans January 1, 1847, where he remained until September, 1848, when he moved to Keachie, De Soto Parish, Louisiana, where he practiced until his departure for California.

            Notwithstanding the fact that Dr. Pownall was a practicing physician, he engaged in mining at Goodyear’s Bar, near Marysville, where he took out about fifteen hundred dollars.  He also mined on Mariposa Creek, with good success, and the same fall followed the business of “packing” provisions to the mines from Stockton, after which he returned to Mariposa and again engaged in mining, securing about sixteen hundred dollars.  Later he followed mining at Red Mountain Bar on the Tuolumne River and also mined at Big Oak Flat, where he arrived March 18, 1850.  He was there at the time of the Indian uprising, when several white men were killed.  In 1852 he became interested in an enterprise for procuring water for the miners and became one of the organizers and incorporators of the Tuolumne County Water Company.  One of the greatest difficulties connected with the development of the rich mineral resources of California was to secure water sufficient to wash the gold.  In the mountains and hills were never failing springs, and this ditch company was formed for the purpose of bringing the water from the mountains to the mines.  From the inception of the plan he was the secretary of the company, and was also secretary and superintendent at the time of his death, which occurred on the 30th of November, 1890, at the age of seventy-two years.  He was likewise the owner of valuable mining interests, and his well directed labors brought to him good success.

            In his political views he was a Democrat, but he declined office, not wishing to have political duties interfere with his business affairs.  He was an honored member of the Society of California Pioneers, being one of the earliest members, and also belonged to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which he joined soon after his arrival in California, becoming a member of Sacramento Lodge, No. 2.  He was a man of superior intelligence, of high integrity of character, and during his long residence in Columbia he was identified with every enterprise that had for its object the promotion of the welfare and progress of the town.  He enjoyed the respect and confidence of his fellow men in an unusual degree and he left the impress of his individuality upon public progress so that his name should be inscribed high upon the roll of the honored pioneers of the Golden state.

            He was married after his arrival in California, the wedding ceremony being performed in Columbia which united his destiny with that of Mrs. Mary C. Newell, a daughter of Benjamin Harrison.  Their union was blessed with one son and one daughter, the latter now being Mrs. Lucy A. H. Senger, living at Berkeley, California.  Mr. Senger is an assistant professor of the German language in the University of California.  Mrs. Pownall is still living, in the seventy-second year of her age, and has a pleasant home in Columbia, where she is most highly esteemed by reason of her many excellencies of character and her long identification with the interests of the town.

            The son, Joseph Benjamin Pownall, acquired his education in the schools of his native town, in the schools of Sonora, in the San Francisco Boys’ High School, in which he was graduated with the class of 1879, and in the University of California.  Of the last institution he is a graduate with the class of 1883.  He had taken an extra course in chemistry, intending to pursue a course in medicine, but on account of his father’s failing health he was obliged to return home and take his father’s place in the office.  He has since been a stockholder and the superintendent of the Tuolumne County Water Company and is also a member of the board of directors.  He is prominently interested in the mining industries of Tuolumne County.  In the management of the water company he has displayed splendid business and executive ability, showing that he is well qualified for the important duties which devolve upon him.

            On January 1, 1896, Mr. Pownall was united in marriage to Miss Sadie Arnold, a native daughter of Sonora, and they have three beautiful and interesting little children, viz.:  Elaine, Josephine and Ruth.  They have a charming home in Columbia and their circle of friends is limited only by the circle of their acquaintance.  An air of culture and refinement pervades the place and its hospitality is proverbial.  In his fraternal relations Mr. Pownall is an Odd Fellow, belonging to both the subordinate lodge and encampment, and is a past noble grand of the former.  He is also an interested member of the Native Sons of the Golden West.

            In politics he is an independent.  In business he is following closely in his father’s footsteps, fully sustaining the untarnished family reputation for integrity and business honor.  He deserves mention among the most prominent of the citizens of Tuolumne County and should find a place in the history of the men of business and enterprise in the great west whose force of character, sterling probity and marked success in conducting important industries have contributed in such an eminent degree to the solidity and progress of this entire section of the country.



Transcribed by Gerald Iaquinta.

Source: “A Volume of Memoirs and Genealogy of Representative Citizens of Northern California”, Pages 226-228. Chicago Standard Genealogical  Publishing Co. 1901.

© 2010  Gerald Iaquinta.




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