top of page

Chapter 2 - California or Bust


Who knows what got into William Kirkman’s blood in the year of 1854?  There was this event called the California Gold Rush so maybe he caught gold fever like many others on the east coast and from around the world.  He already made one giant step in life by coming to America.  What would stop him from making another adventure?  He was young and curious and it would not be a lie if one would say that he saw dollar signs flashing before his eyes.  He came to this country to make something for himself and he was determined to be successful no matter where it took him.

In the Kirkman family records it was noted that William Kirkman made it to California by way of ship.  There is no record on which route he took, but we know he was in San Francisco by October 15, 1854.  It was evident that he liked this country a great deal and did not regret that he came here from England.  Kirkman noted, “I like California first rate and think it will be some time before I leave it.”  There were many people who wanted to leave from this region, but Kirkman was satisfied with what he had found. (Editors note: it is now believed he took a ship to Panama and crossed it by foot and then took another ship from there to San Francisco.)

Kirkman needed to raise some money to venture off to the mines so he invested in a small business in the San Francisco area. He was about to have his first experience of bad luck out west.  He and another man bought a businessman’s butchery machine for one hundred dollars.  They were to make a kind of  “pudins” and sausage pork.  Every time the two new entrepreneurs manufactured their produce, it was sold as fast as they could make it.  They sold almost seven hundred pounds per week.  They were making a decent income, but the man who kept their boarding house failed to keep it open.  Kirkman decided to sell his share of the business and he would lose thirty dollars from the whole business partnership. 

Kirkman believed that in some respect it would have been better if he had stayed in the “Eastern States of America”.  He wanted his family to come to this grand country and experience some of what he had enjoyed thus far.  A sympathetic Kirkman wrote, “If you think of coming to America it would be a very great and serious undertaking.  Though I am confident, as I am of my own existence that you could better your self.  There would be nothing in it but that you all would have to content your selves or it would be no good.”

Kirkman was definitely a family man at heart and wanted what was best for them.  He cared deeply for their well being and he especially wanted his younger siblings to share his experiences.  He wanted his brother Joseph to come to the New England States and he would start saving money for the ship passage.  Kirkman most likely was thinking of a family for his own sake because he wrote to his family saying, “California is the hardest place to get a wife in of any place in the world.” How true since there were so many miners in California and most of the women were already married or prostitutes. 

These were the times after the big gold rushes of 1849 and most of the areas had been prospected.  There were new strikes everyday all over California and the west.  Stories were spread all over the newspapers and by word of mouth.  Some miners were just overwhelmed by their findings and they needed to tell the world about their new- found fortunes.  Other miners kept their discoveries to themselves because they did not want others stealing the gold.  William Kirkman was ready to endure all of the ups and downs of a California gold miner.  He was going to the mines for the winter.

Kirkman left for the gold fields of the Tuolumne River valley in the first weeks of November 1854.  He dwelled near the town of Columbia which is almost one hundred miles south east of Sacramento and sixty miles west of the present day Yosemite National Park.  He arrived to this beautiful land and admired the pleasantness of the country.  He described to his family, “Here all winter we have had the finest days I ever saw.  On a Sunday we take and put (on) our flannel shirts, pants, boots, and belts and we are not troubled with coats and vests.  I never put a coat on at all except at night.”

Kirkman arrived in the rainy season.  Sometime he and his friend Haslam were confined to their cabin for three or four days at a time.  Another misery to Kirkman was again the shortage of women.  A disgusted Kirkman insisted, “All that is wanted is more women to make California like home and we keep getting more men.” When it rains, it pours.

By March of 1855, Kirkman had prospected until he got tired.  He and a partner, Mr. Cook searched for gold for six weeks, but found nothing.  Mr. Cook bought a claim of land for four hundred and fifty dollars to try their luck elsewhere.  Kirkman had to borrow two hundred dollars to help pay for the claim and now he was three hundred dollars in debt.  After some luck with the claim he paid over a hundred dollars back and if the claim would hold strong, he could pay the rest of the debt off in a short time. Kirkman decided that he was going to “pack” off in six weeks and by that time the claim would be worth more than the initial sum he gave to Mr. Cook in the beginning.

Kirkman’s friends believed he had made a first rate bargain, but he knew that he needed to keep a level head on his shoulders. A wise Kirkman noted, “I can sell it for $250 now and I took over a hundred out, but it will not do for us Californians to be too confident as man is poor today and rich tomorrow and sometime it is worse.  For instance, a man the other week offered 5000 dollars for a claim and could not get it.  I can buy the same now for 100 dollars.” 

Kirkman at the age of twenty-four was very clearheaded and insightful among many of the renegades and vandals within the mining camps.  He knew how to conduct himself in a sensible manner and he was feeling at home in California.  In the previous statement, Kirkman told his parents in the letter that “us” Californians could not be too confident.  Kirkman at this time considered himself an American.

Kirkman lived in a cabin and his claim was within a “few rods” of it.  All he wanted was his claim to pay good wages.  He was living comfortably and it is evident because he sent home gold dust on a frequent basis to help his family in England.  “I have inclosed in this (letter) 20 dollars worth of dust.  It should be worth 11 shilling at home.  I will send 5 dollars worth in my next if I can spare it, but I want to pay what I owe first then if it continues to pay, I will send you all a little,” Kirkman stated.

Kirkman had saved up four to five months of provisions in his cabin and he kept fifty hens for laying eggs.  In February of 1855 he had not worked for over two months.  He was in excellent health and still living the contented life.  It was an extremely wet winter and many days in a row it would rain in torrents.  Kirkman was ready to get back to work soon.  He asserted, “I will soon make the old Earth give up her treasure.” During his inactivity he was struggling to shake a heavy debt with a high interest.  By the end of the winter he had just paid for his claim and was about to start saving money.  He expected to do really well from the present claim and possibly help his family financially.

One of Kirkman’s primary concerns was helping his younger brother James and the other siblings to complete their schooling in England.  Kirkman insisted, “I will make arrangements by the next letter to pay schooling and books for the children.” He knew that he was living a decent life, but he wanted much more for his family back home.  His brother James was a major worry to him.  A sympathetic Kirkman pleaded,

“It is not my wish that he should go to school just for the name of going, if he goes I want that. He should go to study and study hard.  And I suggest for your consideration that he go to Bury or some place out of Ramsbottom.  Not that I think there are not men smart enough to teach him at home, but I have a peculiar idea that boys learn better from homes.  It is a common practice in the states and I can say from experience, I believe it acts well.  It fits a young man for the task He is likely to be called upon to perform.”

Kirkman was adamant for James to attend school and get an education rather than work at a young age.  He was informing his parents that experience in the world is the best teacher and that sending James away from home for an education would enable him to become a greater man.  He was speaking from his heart, because this is exactly what he did in his life.  He came to America and experienced something he would never had the opportunity to in his small hometown in England.  He probably believed that his parents were keeping the siblings near them and for them not to take chances. 

Some of his family doubted him when he came to America, but he did what he had to do.  Kirkman sincerely wrote, “I know you will reason that he is young and inexperienced, but I had time and space.  I could overturn all your objections for I tell you experience is the best teacher and if you want experience you must go out into the world.  If you desire your son James to excel, send him from home.” Kirkman went to common schools in Lancashire and he didn’t want James to have a similar education. He wanted James to have the best that there was to offer.

Kirkman mined for treasure for a couple of years in the Tuolumne River Valley and traveled again west to San Francisco.  In this transitional period, he changed occupations for the meantime to experience more aspects of different businesses.  When he returned from mining, he sold his diggings for sixteen hundred dollars and went to the town of Springfield to buy a grocery business.  He was quite anxious to see how his investment would “pan” out.  Kirkman had an inner suspicion that bad luck was around the corner. 


He was skeptical of his business partner’s personal finances.  Kirkman pondered, “For no sooner had I entered co-partnership that I began to suspect my partner of being guilty of that awful crime (mainly of being without money).  For it is almost a crime these days to be without money-this is in the eye of the world.”

As days would pass, Kirkman noticed that the man was in desperate need of money.  He was afraid definitely afraid that he was not going to get half of the money back that he put in to purchase the business.  After a few weeks, Kirkman had lost two hundred dollars.  If he had had a reliable partner, the business may have been a success.  The average sales for the grocery shop were six hundred dollars per week. 

His friends thought he was foolish to stay in business with the inferior partner, but Kirkman stayed strong and was determined to finish the job that he had started. “I am or not I am satisfied if I have lost a couple of hundred (dollars) for I know I have stayed.  I should not have had a dollar in six months and I know if I had had a good partner, I could have made two thousand dollars per year.  But it is all over and talking and writing is of no use,” Kirkman insisted.

The young traveler was ready to make another adventure and see what another part of the world was like.  Kirkman booked passage on the clipper ship, Fair Wind, en route to Melbourne, Australia in the first week of October 1857.  The passage costs one hundred and fifty dollars for a first class cabin assignment and he departed in the next few days.  He was confident that Australia would be like his home country of England, but he was reluctant to leave America.  He declared, “I believe though I shall stop when I get in a mossy place if I can do it peaceably.  I have nothing to complain of in this country only that I am not so much at home as I think I shall be in Australia.  This is the best country I have seen.  I don’t expect to see a better, if I find one as good, I will not leave it I assure you.” He was in for quite an awakening.

Chapter 1

Chapter 3

bottom of page