By Mark Bushnell
To historians, shifting through books at a library can be a bit like panning for gold. They can only hope to hit paydirt like Lynn Bonfield did. One day in 1972, Bonfield, then manuscripts curator for the California Historical Society, bumped into a leather-bound volume that reshaped her life.
The book, a journal measuring 8 ½ by 14 inches and containing 327 pages of entries, was written in tandem by a Vermont couple, Alfred and Chastina (Walbridge) Rix, between the years 1849 and 1854. The Rixes had started the journal in Peacham and completed it after their move to California.
Bonfield took the opposite course, traveling to Peacham, where she scoured local records and interviewed historically minded residents to piece together Alfred and Chastina’s story. Over the years, the effort resulted in a series of books and articles that center on the Rix and Walbridge families and others from Peacham’s history. The town’s past, and its present, evidently cast a spell over Bonfield, who began dividing her time between two homes, one in San Francisco, the other in Peacham.
From their journal, it is clear that Alfred and Chastina Rix found Peacham less appealing. Though they were important members of the community, they soon saw its limitations and began to see greater opportunity elsewhere. They decided to move to California in hopes of cashing in on the Gold Rush. The journal captures these exciting and tumultuous times in the young couple’s life together.
A jointly written journal is a historical rarity. So far this is the only one known to document a couple joining the Gold Rush.
Bonfield edited the journal, which the University of Oklahoma Press recently published as “New England to Gold Rush California: The Journal of Alfred and Chastina W. Rix, 1849-1854.”
Bonfield’s work is invaluable in understanding the journal. She broke the journal into chapters based on events in the Rixes’ lives and introduced each section with an overview of the events that lie ahead. Without these introductions, the reader would be forced to dig through the debris of daily life to unearth the valuable nuggets the journal contains. Bonfield also provides useful background information, such as footnotes explaining who people are when they are first mentioned in journal entries.
Alfred and Chastina start their journal on an auspicious day. “We, that is to say, Alfred Rix & Chastina Walbridge, are married,” Alfred begins. “…We mean to be pretty faithful Biographers.” They are good to their word. From then on, they take turns recording their daily lives and inner thoughts. Despite the personal details the correspondents provide–from their frank opinions about people in town, to Chastina’s physical troubles around her menstruation, to hints about Alfred’s enthusiasm for their sex life–reading the journal never seems voyeuristic. From their entries, the Rixes make it clear they expect the journal to be read by others at some point.
Alfred provides a brief biography of Chastina. She was born in 1824 in Wolcott, the daughter of a struggling farmer. His death, while she was still young, only made life harder. “The course of our heroine’s life till she reached her thirteenth year was the same as that of most girls in the country—the daughters of farmers—That is, labor six days in the week—attend church on Sundays—at home, mostly, summer and at school—the district school—winters.”
After her mother remarries, the family’s prospects improve. Chastina was 17 and a student at the Peacham Academy when she met Alfred, who was preparing for college. Alfred, who had been born in Stanstead, Canada, was two years her senior. They quickly took a liking to each other, but it would be eight years before they married.
Alfred studied at the University of Vermont in Burlington, then returned to Peacham in 1848 to become principal of the academy. After their marriage, Chastina taught geography and arithmetic at the school. She was fortunate to live in Vermont. Some other states forbade married women from teaching.
Though only in their mid-20s, the couple occupied a prominent position in Peacham society. But Alfred grew frustrated by the town’s entrenched ways. He ran afoul of local merchants when he joined the New England Protective Union, which opened a store in town that allowed members to buy goods directly from manufacturers at prices lower than at country stores.
He also questioned the way insular way local political candidates were chosen.
Alfred eventually resigned as principal to focus on studying to become a lawyer, but continued to teach some courses.
During this period, the Rixes, like all Americans, heard reports of the fortunes some Gold Rush miners were discovering. Most convincing, perhaps, was the return of John Way, Chastina’s brother in law, from California “with his pocket full of Rocks.” Way had found enough gold to purchase a farm. From this moment on, Chastina noted, Alfred was “troubled with the California fever.”
Chastina was also troubled by Alfred’s dreams of riches. She was now pregnant with the couple’s first child and didn’t want to be left behind. But Alfred wouldn’t be dissuaded. He left for California in October 1851, when his son, Julian, was 10-months old. Alfred was hardly alone in this thirst for wealth. More than 200 Peacham men headed west during the Gold Rush.
And like most of those before and after him, Alfred failed to find his fortune in the gold fields. Instead he became a lawyer, and years later a judge. Alfred begged Chastina to travel west with Julian. Finally, he managed to persuade her to make the arduous trek. She and Julian would travel by steamer to Panama, across the isthmus by rail and pack mule, and by another steamer to San Francisco. Chastina had to limit her baggage, so she shipped the journal on the cheaper voyage around the tip of South America. She would be too busy dealing with trials of the trip—which included a deadly yellow fever outbreak onboard—to bother writing anything anyway.
After the family was reunited in San Francisco, Alfred and Chastina fell into new roles. He spent all day at his law office. She stayed home, caring for Julian and taking in laundry and sewing, as well as boarders.
“In all this week I have ironed sixty shirts. 35 starched one[s] & 25 plain besides hosts of other clothes & I have made twelve dollars by my labor…” Chastina wrote. “Hard work this—but in this ‘land of gold’ you must work or starve.”
The family was making a new home. Chastina gave birth to a second son. And Edward, and Alfred and Chastina found opportunities they wouldn’t have had in Vermont—they attended balls and the occasional opera and made friends with Spanish-speaking neighbors. And they watched the birth of San Francisco, which grew from a population of 100 when gold was discovered nearby in January 1848 to more than 34,000 two years later.
Chastina’s last entry in the journal was on April 23, 1854. Describing a ride she had taken, she wrote “The country is fine[,] lovely you may say…”
The next handwriting is Alfred’s, dated three years later: “Since the last page was written in this Journal great changes have taken place. She who wrote the last words is now dead…” Chastina, he wrote, after suffering intermittent poor health, had fallen ill suddenly and died.
Bonfield fills in the details of Alfred’s later life and the lives of their sons, one of whom Julian, became a prominent landscape painter.
Alfred kept the diary and bequeathed it to his son Edward. Family tradition has it that Edward saved the journal from the fires that engulfed San Francisco following the earthquake of 1906. Edward supposedly dug a hole in his front garden, line it with a rug and stowed the journal and other heirlooms there before fleeing. He and his family returned to the spot three months later—the house having evidently survived—to unearth the treasures. Upon Edward’s death in 1930, the journal passed to his daughter, Genevieve, who donated it to the California Historical Society, where it sat on the shelves for more than two decades until Bonfield recognized it as the precious object that it is.