Thousands of men descended upon the Lower Mines of the South Fork of the American River in 1849 to mine for gold. Many men formed loose partnerships to work together in the digging into the river searching for gold using rockers and quicksilver. Some of these men were swindled of their money and labor at Mormon Island by men they thought were honorable.
1850 Letter Outlines Mormon Island Gold Swindle
Amos Catlin, a young attorney from New York who had arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1849, was one of the men swindled. Two versions of the events, and perspectives, are presented in letters between Amos Catlin and Sebastian Visher* in 1850. Regardless, Catlin learns an early lesson in the mutable nature of men.
In 1849, three men, Catlin, Visher, and Bushing, agreed to work together to sift gold dust from the river bed. The exact location of the mining operation is unknown, but it was along either the North Fork or the South Fork of the American. After weeks of hard work and binding the gold dust to quicksilver, Visher traveled to Sacramento with the gold amalgam to secure food and supplies to continue mining. Visher never returned to the mining camp.
Sebastian Visher’s Excuse For Walking Away With The Gold
Visher writes to Catlin from San Francisco in response to Catlin’s demand or order to return his portion of money Visher left with. Visher’s letter is less than an apology and more of an excuse for not returning. To show his honorable intentions, Visher writes that he is willing to return to the mining operation later in the year and requests Catlin write him with an account of the amount due.
San Francisco, Jan 2 – 1850
Mr. A.P. Catlin, Dear Sir, your order was presented to me. I am not able to accommodate you with the money as I have expended a large amount of money since. I have been in San Francisco. I am engaged in a hospital and doing very well.
I expect you and Mr. Bushing think I have left you altogether, but owing to the large amount of rain after I left you and the highness of provisions, I did not [think] it safe to buy and come to Mormon Island during the rainy season. I have written to you before but as I have not received a letter from you, I expect you have not received them.
If you and Mr. Bushing think it would be a good operation to carry on the mining business as we talked of at Mormon Island or vicinity by writing the particulars to me I think will be able to make all necessary arrangements for carrying on the business. If I am not able to be there, I have as good man that I will send in my place.
Yours [indecipherable] S. Visher.
Please put up the written hand bill.
Amos Catlin’s Letter Charging Visher Of Swindling Him Out Of Gold
Catlin was not having any of Visher’s weak excuses for not returning to the mining camp. Catlin drafted a reply to Visher and outlines the sequence of events and the unethical behavior of Bushing subsequent to Visher’s departure.
Mormon Island, February 15th, 1850
Sebastian Fisher Esq.
Dear Sir: I received you letter by Mr. Van Dosen and am much disappointed in you not answering my order. I cannot suppose that you refused that amount because it was inconvenient for you to spare it. You left this place with the proceeds of two weeks work out of my machine and my quicksilver the loss of which was 10 lbs.
I waited for your return with provisions etc., until being satisfied that you intended to swindle me, and then provisions and all the outstanding expenses were 200 percent higher in price than when you left. I have no doubt but if you knew the loss which your conduct has occasioned me you would not hesitate to pay ten times that sum.
After becoming satisfied that you would not return I moved to Mormon Island where Bushing and I made one machine out of the lumber got of Payne, and set it at work in a rich hole near the Island for which I paid $117. The machine was a total failure. I succeeded in washing away in three and on half days work about 1000 bushels of dirt which had in at least $800, and getting out $27.40 amalgam.
I bore the expense while Bushing never advanced a cent but he afterwards succeeded in selling the machine for $170 and would not pay me anything nor indeed pay me for other matters for which he owed me. As you told me that you paid Payne for the old machine, I claimed that he should allow me for the lumber and I give you credit for it as you were not in any way indebted to him, but he declined that he had paid for it with his own money and produced a receipt from Payne.
Whether genuine or not I do not know. I was compelled to prosecute him before the Alcalde and recovered $124.00…
Page 2: …damages and $96.00 costs of [sint.] I could not recover anything for the lumber in consequence of his possession of Payne’s receipt. My principal object at the present time in writing is to put you on your guard against Bushing, whom you may expect to see at San Francisco about the last of this month.
He is to go home by the 1st of March steamer and is to leave here on the 21st instant. As I am confident that he has lied to me in regard to who paid Payne for the rocker, he will probably make some false claim against you founded upon his own story in respect to what I recovered of him. The amount which I recovered of him was for my work on the machine and his share of expenses which I paid for him and me.
I did not recover for lumber used in making the machine for the reason above stated. It seems that he cannot deal honestly. He sued Dr. Nelson and tried to recover $16 per day for his work in building the hospital when he had agreed to do it for $12, but failed. He agreed to make 27 rockers for Poole at $10 each. After making them he demanded $16 each, which was refused and he intended to sue for it but was scared from it by his ill success with the Doct. and me.
In regard to our matters, I have this to say that I am determined to have my rights of you, and would prefer to get them by settlement, but cannot now afford to spend time in coming to San. F. for that purpose. I shall send another order on you for $150. Which, if it is dishonored, I shall send a Sheriff after you. If you honor the order, I will in the course of the season call on you at S.F. and settle amicably.
If the $150 is more than you owe me, I will refund the balance. If there is still more due me you will of course pay it. What few things I could find of yours I have kept and given you credit for. Churchill is here and says you owe him. Mitchell and Kruitesche both…
Page 3: …claim that you owe them. Bushing has been a gainer by my losses in consequence of your not returning.
You left Payne’s receipt with him which enabled him to claim the stuff and machine for which he rec’d $170. Any carpenter here would make just such a machine (materials being found) for $40. What work he did on the machine was done mostly between times while he was at work for Dr. Nelson. But I do not ask you to make good all the losses which I sustained directly in consequence of your not returning according to your agreement.
Why did you not, when you concluded not to return, send me my share of the two cakes of gold together with a reasonable compensation for the use of my machine and fixtures and the quicksilver used up, which as I before stated amounted to 10 lbs?
If you think you can escape from my hands after such dealings, you are mistaken. For by the God who made me, I will have satisfaction, which if it does not shake your pocket will shake your damn cowardly nerves.
The administration of Justice is performed in this.
Amos Catlin did not sign the letter indicating that it was most likely a draft. He would oftentimes draft a letter, edit it, then write out the final version to be sent. There is no record, as yet found, that Catlin ever received his satisfaction from Visher. Catlin remained at Mormon Island and established the Natoma Mining Company. He also worked as an attorney at the Island and in Sacramento. In 1851, Catlin formed the Natoma Water Company to construct a dam and water on the South Fork of the American River to deliver water to the miners.
*The letters are from the Huntington Library, Catlin Addenda Box 1. The Huntington lists the last name of Sebastian as Fisher. Catlin addresses his letter to Sebastian Fisher. However, the signature of the January 2, 1850, letter appears closer to Visher. An obituary for a Sebastian Visher, November 15, 1898, The Evening Mail, Stockton, California, notes that Visher came to California in 1849, mined around the Auburn area on the Sacramento river, and ultimately settled in San Joaquin County.