WHEELBARROW EMIGRANT OF 1850
by Morris W. Werner
In the Spring of 1850 an Ulster Scot from Warren County, Pennsylvania, named James Gordon Brookmire, became infected with the "yellow fever" which was sweeping the country, and set out for the California gold diggings. He was one of perhaps 44,000 individuals including a few women and children who were on their way to California during this second year of the gold rush.1 The previous year young, single men were in the majority, but in 1850 many family men joined the migration. They were also more likely to be accompanied by wives and children planning to make a permanent home in the West.
Brookmire was forty years of age with a wife and six children ranging in age from one to fifteen years, but he left them behind, hoping to make a quick stake and return home. According to the St. Joseph, Missouri Gazette of March 24, 1852, Brookmire left his family in "very indigent circumstances" in Warren County, but perhaps this is overstating the facts. He owned a 280 acre farm at Sugar Grove in Warren County near the Pennsylvania-New York state line, and sold 50 acres to finance his trip.2 His sons, John and James, fifteen and thirteen years of age, respectively, were able to assume much of the responsibility for household chores in his absence. Ezekiel Brookmire, a relative, also lived close by with his family in Freehold Township. 3
Brookmire signed his name "James G. Brookmire" to all deeds and legal papers, but his family called him Gordon, which apparently was his middle name. He was born June 2, 1810, in County Antrim near Belfast, the fourth child in a family of nine. His father was a textile worker and his ancestors were Protestant inhabitants of Ulster who had been encouraged by the British Government to participate in the Ulster Plantation after "war and massacre had nearly depopulated that part of the country." 4
When Gordon was fourteen he was apprenticed to the textile industry for seven years. At the expiration of his period of servitude he emigrated to the United States, landing in Philadelphia on July 4, 1831. Here he worked at his trade for two years and nine months, and then returned to Ireland to marry Margaret Neill (b. Dec. 1811), daughter of John and Margaret "Jenny" (Henny) Neill of County Antrim.
Margaret Neill was seventh in a family of eight children. Two older sisters also married and lived in the United States, including Lilly who married William Rainey, and Jane, the wife of Andrew Dryburgh of Philadelphia. Her younger brother, James Orr Neill, was a successful business man in Belfast, and maintained an extensive estate at Ballyrobin, about twelve miles from the city. He made at least one extended visit to the United States before his marriage and had investments in the meat packing industry in Chicago and Cincinnati.
The country was in a depression in 1834 due to the recent destruction of the United States Bank. After three difficult years and the birth of two sons, the Brookmires made the long trek to Western Pennsylvania, settling on nearly 300 acres of virgin forest land about three miles from the village of Sugar Grove, Warren County. Their farm was in Freehold Township, and they lived closer to Jamestown, New York, than to Warren, Pennsylvania, their county seat. Warren was a textile manufacturing center, but there is no indication that Gordon pursued his trade in his new home.
Brookmire is reported to have traveled by public conveyance to Kansas, Missouri.5 The village of Kansas was founded in 1850 at the site of future Kansas City. "Public conveyance" probably meant river boat in 1850. There were water connections from Western Pennsylvania via the Allegheny, Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers to Kansas.
At Westport, Brookmire "bought in" with a company of Kentuckians and made a belated start across the plains on June 27, 1850. Somewhere on the trail he had a falling out with his companions, and they parted company at Ft. Kearny. With unusual fairness, all of Brookmire's money was refunded, and he was also allowed to keep a well-trained and faithful dog which he had befriended on the trail.
At this point Brookmire became one of the first handcart emigrants of record. Whether this was an example of the canny Scot in action, or because he lacked funds for a wagon and draft animals, Brookmire steps into the pages of history as the first handcart emigrant to be identified by name. At least three other unnamed gold seekers using wheelbarrows were mentioned by travelers on the trail in 1850. One of these started from St. Joseph and was reported at Ft. Laramie twenty-five days later, a record matched by few, if any, horse or mule powered companies.6
A lone traveler on the Plains faced many dangers from Indians, disease, accident or starvation. Brookmire faced all these hazards successfully. Cholera was prevalent in 1850, and he witnessed the mass burial of victims in shallow trenches, some of which were ravaged by wolves. He also encountered Indians and "was well treated by his savage hosts in consideration of his giving them a portion of his ammunition." He followed the trail across South Pass to Ft. Bridger and through the Wasatch Mountains, but here his luck ran out. He lost his wheelbarrow and equipment in a ferry boat accident on the Weber River near Salt Lake City. He also very nearly drowned.
Somehow he managed to re-equip himself among the Mormons and went on, minus his wheelbarrow. Among the Rocky Mountains he was stunned by a lightning bolt which tore up the ground at his feet, but again he managed to escape death. His date of arrival at the mines is unknown, but it must have been late in the season. In contrast to many others, he seems to have found immediate success in the gold fields. Within eighteen months he managed to wash out and save $15,000 worth of gold dust, and at this time learned that his wife had inherited $10,000 from her family in Scotland, which "forced him rather reluctantly to return home."7 Perhaps Margaret Brookmire's legacy was from her father's estate, who would have been seventy-eight years of age in 1852. Brookmire returned by way of Nicaragua to New York, and was once more united with his family in the Spring of 1852.
Twenty-five thousand dollars was a sizable fortune in the mid-nineteenth century, and one may be certain that the Brookmires invested it wisely. In 1878 they continued to own their original homestead in Freehold Township, and had added an additional 191 acres.8 According to the United States Census, Gordon and Margaret Brookmire were living with their son, John, and his family in Jamestown in 1880. The Brookmire children received good educations in the Jamestown schools. Emma, next to the youngest, graduated from the Jamestown Union School and Collegiate Institute and was principal at one of Jamestown's public schools in 1870 before her marriage to Dexter D. Dorn, a Jamestown attorney. 9
Margaret (Neill) Brookmire died June 16, 1887, and her husband lived until April 11, 1900, age 90 years. Both are buried in Cherry Hill Cemetery, which is located on a steep hill overlooking the village of Sugar Grove. Their son, James, and his wife, Mary Jane (Gregg) Brookmire are also buried in this cemetery.
1 John D. Unruh, Jr., The Plains Across, 1979, Univ. of
Illinois Press, Urbana, Chicago & London; p. 120, Table 2.