Goodells & the Gold Rush
The Special Collections room at the Jones Library in Amherst, Mass., contains a fascinating window into the experiences of two brothers who journeyed to California in Gold Rush of 1849. Nathaniel “Dudley” Goodell formed a company of twelve local men to dig for gold in California in 1849, while his brother Noble Thomas Goodell went west in 1852, bringing with him Dudley’s wife and children. Both men recorded their experiences in letters home which have been preserved at the library. Fifteen of Nathaniel Dudley Goodell’s California-related letters, written between 1849 and 1854, are to be found among this collection of family papers.
Nathaniel Dudley Goodell was born in Belchertown in 1814, but went to Amherst as a young apprentice to an important builder and architect, Warran Howland. He moved to Ware about 1838 and, under contract to the Otis Manufacturing Co., built three large factories and several hundred factory houses.
In 1849, at the age of 35, he decided to try his fortunes in California, leaving behind his wife and children. The company he formed chose a route that would take them across the Isthmus of Panama. They sailed out of New York on March 26th aboard the Leveret, reaching Chagres, on the Gulf coast, in an amazing 17 days!
“Right glad we were when we arrived at Chagres. This place has been most awfully belied. I never was so happily disappointed in my life. It is a village of some 200 huts and about 800 inhabitants, all dress clean & neat except some of the children,” Dudley wrote to his brother Ira on April 21, 1849.
Later in the letter, he told of the trip up the Chagres River. “54 of our passengers that came in the brig Leveret hire our passage to gather up as far as Gorgona. $7.17 each person. It took us about 2½ days to go from Chagres to Gorgona. We were out three nights of which I slept in the boat on the soft side of a board, covered myself with a blanket, head and all, slept very well. The first 1½ day we had trouble with the natives that rowed us up the river…We got about half way to Gorgona, our boatman said he would not go any farther without more pay. While we were on the bank of the river eating diner [sic], we see our money chest going off onto another boat. We went down with our pistols in hand and ordered it brought back, which was done very quick.”
From Gorgona, they traveled 26 miles by foot to Panama, now called Panama City, where they were stranded with thousands of other American gold-seekers waiting for passage up the Pacific coast to San Francisco. It was during this wait that several of his company turned back for home. Dudley Goodell pressed on, finding passage on a schooner, the Copiapo. It would take him more than three months to sail from Panama to San Francisco, at last arriving in San Francisco on August 14.
Years later, at a family reunion in Amherst, he spoke of that time: “At Sacramento, one hundred miles up the river, we found about five thousand men living in tents. I saw but one woman in the whole town at that time, and only one framed building. Everything seemed to be in perfect confusion. Goods of every description were scattered about up and down the river banks, tobacco, nails and trunks of clothes, were left as of no account, while the boys had gone to the mines…”
When Dudley Goodell’s brother, Noble Goodell, journeyed to California in 1852, he brought with him Dudley’s wife and children. His wife was the former Sarah Pease of Granby. His children were Martha Elizabeth and Julia Anne Goodell. They went by way of Nicaragua, where the travelers encountered some of the same adventures – river travel to Lake Nicaragua, overland by animal to the Pacific coast, and then finding passage to San Francisco. Noble Goodell eventually returned to Amherst, where he is buried in the town’s West Cemetery. Three of Noble’s letters concerning his travels to California have been preserved in the Jones Library archives.
Nathaniel Dudley Goodell, after being re-united with his family, lived for forty-five years in Sacramento. He paid respect to his adopted city, at the family reunion when he said, “I went up to the mines where I remained for six months meeting with indifferent success. I then came back to Sacramento, where I have ever since lived. A city that has been flooded twice, and most of it burnt up, twice. Purified by fire and water. I love her for she has done well by me, and I feel proud of Sacramento, in another way. She is the Capital of the State, and contains one of the finest State Houses in the Union, and some of the finest dwellings in the country, also. It was there that Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins, Crocker and Miller reside, who were the originators of the Central Pacific Railroad, which is one of the most magnificent and successful enterprises of the age.”
In his modesty, Goodell failed to mention that he is considered to be the man most responsible for the “look” of Sacramento. Having met with “indifferent success” in the gold fields, he thrived in Sacramento by plying his former trade, first as builder and then as architect, designing some of the city’s most elegant buildings, including the renowned Gallatin House, which later became the Governor’s Mansion. This elegant mansion is three stories high with a mansard roof (characteristic of Goodell’s designs) and an observation tower, giving magnificent views of the Coast range and the Sierra Nevada. It is now an historic site, open to the public.
Among his other buildings were Pioneer Hall, several schools, the Free Library, Wachhorst’s Jewelry store, several banks, the Masonic Hall, and many elegant residences in and around Sacramento. In all, it is said that he designed and/or constructed several hundred buildings, including downtown business blocks. He died in 1895 in his Sacramento residence which he designed and built on O Street, between Ninth and Tenth.
“Belchertown: Death of N. D. Goodell,” Springfield Republican, 10 December 1895.
“Belchertown Man Built It,” Belchertown Sentinel, 27 October 1961.
Belchertown Sentinel, 21 September 1928; 3 March 1950.
“Built Many Houses: Death of Nathaniel D. Goodell,” Sacramento Bee, 30 November 1895.
“Burial of Pioneer N. D. Goodell,” Sacramento Daily Record, 2 December 1895.
California Architect & Building News, July 1884.
Daily Hampshire Gazette, 12 December 1895.
Davis, Winfield J., An Illustrated History of Sacramento County, California, Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1890.
“Death of N. D. Goodell: A Son of Belchertown and His Career on the Pacific Slope,” newspaper and date unknown, 1895, copy in biographical files of the Stone House Museum, Belchertown, MA.
“Goodell Family Gathering,” Hampshire Gazette and Northampton Courier, 30 September 1873.
Williams, George E., Genealogy of the Descendants of Robert Goodale/Goodell of Salem, Mass., West Hartford, CT, 1984.
“Goodell, Nathaniel Dudley,” Biographical Information File, California History Section, California State Library, Sacramento, CA.
“Goodell/Goodale Family Papers, c1750-1905,” Special Collections, Jones Library, Amherst, MA.
Historical and Descriptive Review of the Industries of Sacramento, 1886, Sacramento, CA, 1886.
Lombardo, Daniel, “A Look Back,” Amherst Bulletin, 28 August 1985.
Lombardo, Daniel, “Firsthand Look at Panama, 1849,” Amherst Bulletin, 10 January 1990.
Micheli, Lawrence, “Nathaniel Goodell: Early Sacramento Architect,” manuscript, University of California, Davis, CA, 1974.
New York Herald, 28 March 1849.
Pattengill, Keith P., “Sacramento and the Gold Rush: Based on the Goodell Letters in the Jones Library,” manuscript, Special Collections, Jones Library, Amherst, MA.