Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Augustus F. Unger Papers, 1849-1851

Finding aid created by
Rob S. Cox, July 1994

Summary Information
Title: Augustus F. Unger papers
Creator: Unger, Augustus F.
Inclusive dates: 1849-1851
Extent: 10 items
Abstract:
The papers of Augustus F. Unger record the experiences of a failed forty-niner, who left a New England home to search for gold in California and returned broke.

Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site: www.clements.umich.edu


Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1994. M-3040.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.

Copyright:

Copyright status is unknown.

Preferred Citation:

Augustus F. Unger papers, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


Biography

In March, 1849, Augustus F. Unger of Buffalo, N.Y., caught the California fever. Joining one of the early companies to leave for the gold fields, Unger appointed Harmanus H. Bridges to tend to his affairs and to his wife, Sylvia, in his absence and boarded a steamer for Texas. After a passage of 22 sea-tossed days and a brief stay in Galveston, Unger and his associates, mostly New Englanders, struck out overland across the harsh deserts of northern New Mexico and Arizona for the tiny Pueblo de Los Angeles. Nothing, it seems, ever went smoothly for Unger. During the desert crossing he narrowly avoided being bitten by a rattlesnake and managed to shoot himself painfully in the side with his own rifle. Still, he considered himself luckier than many, judging by the bleached bones of mules and men that littered the route.

Unger arrived in San Francisco ragged and broke, but nevertheless cooing that he felt "gloriously independent." His mood rose further when he ran into old friends who offered to pay his passage to the mines near Stockton in exchange for services, and the new partners worked with modest success until the onset of the rainy season early in December made mining unprofitable. Returning to San Francisco, Unger survived the winter by working at a variety of odd jobs, mostly manual labor, and sharing a tiny shack with six men stacked in a series of bunks built like those found in a ships' steerage.

In February, 1850, his enthusiasm yet undampened, Unger and a friend left the city for the reputedly lucrative mines along the banks of the American River high in the Sierras. After an arduous trek through snow and despite having to pack in all of their provisions, Unger found even the remotest areas already staked with claims, and while the bars and banks of the rivers had been said to be very productive, most miners he encountered fell well short of expectations, many not even recovering expenses. Unger settled on working a claim with several other men near Rector's Bar on the north fork of the middle fork of the American River, yet again, he was to be disappointed. After laboriously fashioning a canvas and wooden raceway to divert to river and allow working the bed, the miners found they could extract only a dollar a day in average times. "When or after I wrote to you last," he wrote to his wife, "I had as good a Prospect of macking a little Fortune as most any Miner on this or any other River; and now half of it is absolutely a failure and the other half at best but uncertain" (1850 August 26). The uncertainty turned into disappointment and failure. Late in the summer of 1850, Unger decided that he had had enough and began the long, slow journey home, selling off his claims at a loss and working at manual labor to earn the passage. Disappointed, but surely the wiser, he said, he left California in June, 1851.


Collection Scope and Content Note

While clearly not the complete correspondence of Augustus F. Unger during his California sojourn, this collection of nine letters and one document provides a vivid portrait of the experiences of a typical failed forty-niner. The letters span the entire period of time from his departure from home to his return; all were addressed to his wife, Sylvia, with four also being addressed to his "brother" (probably either a brother-in-law or "brother" Odd Fellow) Harmanus H. Bridges.

Unger was an excellent, enthusiastic writer and his letters are filled with the sorts of details that evoke a sense of the hardships and bad luck that he faced. During his first year in the west, almost regardless of the difficulties encountered, his letter remained unfailingly optimistic, yet his repeated failures at mining eventually did take their toll, and his last letters are marked by an abject dejection and the hope that somehow he might be able to learn from his experiences. The descriptions of prospecting, building a raceway, and mining have just enough gritty detail and the descriptions of his living quarters, of the camps, and of the journeys overland and to the mines are of particular interest.

Subject Terms

    Subjects:
    • California--Description and travel.
    • Gold mines and mining--California.
    • Overland journeys to the Pacific.
    • San Francisco (Calif.)--Description and travel.
    Contents List
       Container / Location    Title
    Box   1 Western America  
    Augustus F. Unger papers,  1849 March 03-1851 May 30 [series]:
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Partial Subject Index
    Brigands and robbers--California
    • 1850 August 26
    California--Gold discoveries
    • Passim
    Cholera
    • 1849 April 1
    Deserts
    • 1849 April 1
    • 1849 October 8
    Dwellings--California
    • 1850 November 20
    Firearms--Accidents
    • 1849 October 8
    Fires--California--San Francisco--Illustrations
    • 1851 May 30
    Galveston (Tex.)--Description
    • 1849 April 1
    Gambling--California
    • 1849 October 8
    Gold mines and mining--California
    • 1849 November 30
    • 1850 February 24
    • 1850 April 15
    • 1850 June 9
    • 1850 August 26
    • 1850 November 20
    Hawkins Bar (Calif.)
    • 1849 November 30
    Horses
    • 1849 October 8
    Illustrated letterheads
    • 1851 May 30
    Los Angeles (Calif.)--Description
    • 1849 October 8
    Mules
    • 1849 April 1
    • 1849 October 8
    New Mexico--Description and travel
    • 1849 October 8
    Overland journeys to the Pacific
    • 1849 April 1
    • 1849 October 8
    • 1850 February 24
    Postal service--California
    • 1850 June 9
    Postmarks--California--San Francisco
    • 1849 October 8
    Power of attorney
    • 1849 March 3
    Prices--California
    • 1849 November 30
    • 1850 April 15
    Prices--California--San Francisco
    • 1849 October 8
    Raceways
    • 1850 June 9
    • 1850 August 26
    Rattlesnakes
    • 1849 October 8
    Rectors Bar (Calif.)--Description and travel
    • 1850 April 15
    • 1850 June 9
    • 1850 August 26
    • 1850 November 20
    San Francisco (Calif.)-- Description and travel
    • 1849 October 8
    • 1850 February 24
    San Francisco (Calif.)--Illustrations
    • 1851 May 30
    Texas--Description and travel
    • 1849 April 1