CSUS professor unearths a Gold Rush-era scandal

SWS Report | August, 2016 | Features, History


Chemistry Professor Tom Savage has documented and published a true story that involves gold, love, marriage and betrayal. And it all happened during the Gold Rush years not far from Sacramento State. Photo by Jessica Vernone, CSUS.

Chemistry Professor Tom Savage has documented and published a true story that involves gold, love, marriage and betrayal. And it all happened during the Gold Rush years not far from Sacramento State. Photo by Jessica Vernone, CSUS.

Thousands of gold-seekers came to California during the 1849 Gold Rush and in the months that followed. They made their way from ships moored along Sacramento City’s embarcadero to the Coloma gold fields on a rutted road that briefly hugged the American River near present-day California State University, Sacramento.

A mile upriver from today’s campus stood Six Mile House, a popular roadhouse owned by a Mormon couple.

Tom Savage, a Sacramento State professor of chemistry with a keen interest in local history, was researching the old Brighton community on the lower American River when he stumbled upon a marital scandal — and discovered a bigger story about the Mormon faithful and their often-difficult westward migration.

The Mormon faith was founded as a sectarian movement in 1830 by Joseph Smith. His followers were forced to move from town to town during the 1830s and ’40s, often escaping violent persecution. Jeremiah Root and his wife, Emeline, were early converts, but defied church leaders by leaving the group and heading to California in 1849.

In November 1850, Jeremiah placed a notice in the Sacramento Transcript offering a $2,000 reward for the arrest of his wife, who had run off with a younger man and took with her the Roots’ two-yearold daughter and $12,000 in gold dust. Emeline left behind her husband and five sons.

In her absence, Jeremiah married another Mormon woman to care for the boys.

Three months after leaving her family, Emeline was found aboard a ship in San Francisco Bay, just as it was about to set sail for Panama. The Roots made up, Jeremiah dropped the charges, and the couple and their children eventually made their way back to Emeline’s extended family in Iowa.

“The (newspaper) article reporting the reconciliation titillated the Transcript’s readership, describing how Mrs. Root had ‘eloped’ with Henry Fairbanks, and how the pair had been ‘cast on the banks of sinful passion,’ ” Savage wrote in the essay Emeline and Jeremiah: Strains on a Mormon Forty-Niner Family, published in the Summer 2016 issue of California History, a quarterly journal of the University of California Press.

“The Transcript article was low-end journalism designed to sell newspapers,” Savage says as he walks along the river to the likely site of Six Mile House, a half-mile east of the Howe Avenue Bridge.

“I started getting interested in this couple and looked through some genealogy sites — and all of a sudden, the story unfolded. They had quite an adventure getting out here. They went through a lot, and it didn’t seem as simple as a guy’s wife doing him wrong by running away with another man and stealing his money. There was much more to the story.

“And it was a story I had to tell,” he says.

A couple caught up in history
The Roots, who married in Ohio in 1830, were early converts to the Mormon faith, which later would bless polygamy, or plural marriage. The couple and their children survived a difficult 12-year journey to California that began when they and other Mormons were expelled first from Kirtland, Ohio, and then from Nauvoo, Ill., after the murder of church leader Smith.

“When you look at the history of the Mormon Church, the Roots were at most of the major events,” Savage says. “They weren’t major players but were following along. It must have been tough to make the spiritual decision about what to do when they were kicked out of various places.”

The Roots broke away from the Mormon migration and arrived in Sacramento City, as Sacramento was called then, in 1849. They operated Six Mile House in an adobe that previously housed workers hired by entrepreneur John Sutter to build a gristmill. The mill never was finished. Workers abandoned the site after learning that gold had been discovered near Sutter’s Coloma sawmill in January 1848.

There is no record of the Roots’ success as innkeepers, other than their large stash of gold dust, but Emeline’s baking skills were lauded in a May 1850 Placer Times story about a party celebrating the founding of Brighton. “The excellent domestic bread and cake of Mrs. R was done justice to, while the milk disappeared by the pitcherful,” the Times reported.

Six months later, Emeline disappeared with Fairbanks, along with Ann, her youngest child, and 45 pounds of gold dust (worth approximately $363,636 today). Savage can only speculate as to why Emeline left her husband and sons.

“If I were to guess what was really going on, I think it was because for much of the trip across the West, she was with her parents and her extended family, but when (she and Jeremiah) left Iowa, they were not. I think she was terribly homesick and wanted to be back with her family.

“Maybe she and Jeremiah were arguing over whether or not to leave and then, all of a sudden, there was a terrible cholera outbreak. I’m guessing that she panicked. But, on the other hand, the fact that Henry Fairbanks –— the guy she ran away with — ended up following them back to Iowa after she and Jeremiah reconciled suggests that maybe there was something going on. It’s hard to say.”

Professor’s far-flung interests
Savage is a plant biochemist whose research focuses on trying to understand how a diatom makes the naturally occurring neurotoxin called domoic acid. One of the harmful algal blooms that occur off California’s coast is the diatom Pseudo-nitzschia, which produces domoic acid that poisons ocean mammals.

As an academic, Savage often publishes in scientific journals. The 11,000-word Emeline and Jeremiah is his first historical essay. His research took him to the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley and the California Historical Society in San Francisco.

He also runs 40 miles a week, often on the American River Bike Trail near campus. He has completed nine marathons and one 50-kilometer race.

“When you’re out jogging, you have to think about something, and I like to think about the history of the landscape I run on,” Savage says. “Everybody knows the story of Sutter’s sawmill in Coloma, where gold was discovered, but he also was building a gristmill along the river here somewhere. And so on my jogs, I envisioned the gristmill in different places.

“Sutter said in an interview that it was near Brighton. I was looking at old maps and newspaper archives, and that’s when I came across Jeremiah’s notice that his wife had robbed him of $12,000 and run away. It’s a story I couldn’t have made up.”

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