THE GOLD RUSH ERA
WELLS FARGO'S PIONEER MESSENGER
Pilsbury "Chips" Hodgkins
One spring evening in 1851, twenty-six-year-old "Chips" Hodgkins spurred his mule into the California gold-mining camp of Jacksonville. His appearance was much like that of any forty-niner: his dark, wavy hair set off by a full beard and covered by a slouch felt hat, finished off with a red miner's overshirt, canvas trousers, and knee-high boots. And his personality matched that of any other gold seeker: loud, funny, flamboyant, ever ready for a new adventure, but simultaneously kind and gentle. Like most men in the Mother Lode, he had not struck it rich. He gave up his miner's pick and gold pan to become an express rider, one of the first in the far west.
Jacksonville was like many towns in the Gold Rush: at least 98 percent male. Its 250 inhabitants lived in canvas tents and log cabins clustered in a deep canyon along the Tuolumne River. They were unwashed, were heavily whiskered, and longed for female company. Men would gather by the dozens, hats doffed in admiration and respect, just to catch sight of a woman. They would pay exorbitant prices to eat a meal prepared by anyone of the opposite sex. The miners spent their days in backbreaking work, digging along the river and shoveling sand and gravel into long wood sluice boxes in an effort to separate the tiny flakes of gold. Companies of miners exhausted themselves erecting dams and canals in efforts to change the Tuolumne River's course so that they could mine the dry streambed, but winter floods would inevitably wash away their labors. Far from their homes on the East Coast or in Europe, Australia, and South America, and starved for newspapers and letters from loved ones, they looked forward to the arrival of any mounted express messenger.
Chips's distinctive white mule, Polly, pulled up almost by habit at the town's sole restaurant. A small throng gathered as he hitched her to the front porch. His saddlebags held a fortune: two thousand troy ounces of gold nuggets, weighing about 137 pounds, plus something just as valuable: the latest newspapers from the East Coast. Dust-covered and exhausted after his long ride, Chips stepped inside for a hot meal. There he was the center of attention, for he was their link to the outside world. As was customary for an express rider, he had the camp's stagecoach hostler guard his horse and treasure. When he finished eating supper, he stepped outside and checked on his mount and his saddlebags. Two men—he later called them "notorious ruffians"—approached, and one said, "Hello, Chips. Where are you heading tonight?"
Hodgkins was too smart and too suspicious to fall for a ruse like that, so he replied, "Big Oak Flat." That was a remote mining camp atop nearby Priest Grade, which was, and still is, a steep, winding journey into the Sierra Nevada.
One of the outlaws remarked, "You have a big hill to climb."
"I guess I could do it," responded Chips. Then he mounted his horse and started on the trail that led to a ferry across the Tuolumne River to Priest Grade. As soon as he rounded the first bend, he spurred his animal up a side ravine and hid in the brush. A few minutes later, he heard the approaching clatter of horses' hooves, then the voices of the two men. One said, "Hurry on or we won't catch him before he crosses the river."
The second rider responded with an oath: "The odds are we'll catch him going up the hill."
The desperadoes rode on. Then Hodgkins mounted his horse and galloped to his actual destination, Sonora. An important mining center, the town got its name from the first Mexican gold hunters to settle there, and was widely known as the Queen of the Southern Mines. Chips later learned that the two highwaymen had ridden fifteen miles to Big Oak Flat, only to learn he was not there. Several days later, Chips ran into the pair in Sonora. They were with a group of men discussing business, mining, and travel. Hodgkins joined the discussion and at one point commented, "When I have any work to do I always start in and do the best I can."
At that, one of the would-be robbers grinned widely and said, "Yes, and you know your business too."