Monday, April 27, 2015

Thomas Goodwin Wells - Prosperous? - 52 Ancestors #17

For this week's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks writing challenge from blogger Amy Crow Johnson of No Story Too Small, the theme is Prosper. The ancestor I selected was prosperous, yet suffered a terrible tragedy before he turned 50.

My 3rd great-grandfather, Thomas Goodwin Wells, was born on November 23, 1804, in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, to Thomas G. Wells and Lucinda (Lyman) Wells.

A couple of years ago, I learned that he was married before he married my 3rd great-grandmother, Elizabeth and this first wife died young. See Who Was Mary Eliza Wells? for the details. In 1838, he married Elizabeth Sewall Willis. He had five children with her.

In the 1850 U.S. Census, he is enumerated in Walpole, New Hampshire, as a farmer. His household includes his wife, Elizabeth; his three oldest children: Eliza, Henry, and Louisa; his father-in-law, Benjamin Willis; and two servants.

1850 U.S. Census, Walpole, Cheshire County, New Hampshire, record for Thomas G. Wells

However, someone recently found my FindAGrave memorial for Thomas Wells and contacted me to share information he found about fellow travelers of his second great grandfather. It turns out that Thomas was NOT in New Hampshire in 1850, but in California!

Thomas Goodwin Wells was one of 210 passengers and crew members who boarded the sailing ship "Sweden" in Boston Harbor, on March 1, 1849. Their destination was San Francisco, via Cape Horn, South America. The ship arrived August 3rd. This link shows "T. G. Wells," a 44 year old "exchange broker," from Walpole, Massachusetts [sic: should read New Hampshire], listed in a logbook kept by fellow passenger Benjamin Bailey. A photo of each page of the entire logbook can be read by entering page number "1" in the box, once at the above link.

A transcription of the same logbook (which can be easier to read than the handwritten pages) can be read page by page here.

Another account of the "Sweden" trip, by passenger George K. Goodwin, including a passenger list (with many spelling errors, especially I instead of J for initials) is at HathiTrust. Besides the above two accounts of the 1849 "Sweden" voyage, there are more accounts by four different passengers that are not online, but are at libraries.

A February 10, 1849, article in the American Traveller (Boston) lists probably a dozen ships that have already sailed for California or are about to leave, including the "Sweden." Included in that article is the following paragraph:

Feb 10, 1849, American Traveller (Boston),
Of the "California Exodus" the New York Evening Post says: - "It is idle to attempt any longer to give any complete record of the emigration to this new Canaan on the Pacific. There is scarcely a city, town or village in the Union but will have its representatives in California within a half year, and we might easier attempt to keep a record of all the expeditions set on foot to visit our metropolis for purposes of business or amusement, than to chronicle the enlistments in that unhallowed crusade for gold. There is no class of people so exalted as to be beyond its allurements-none too obscure or too poor to share in its promises."
In the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, NH), of March 1, is a list of New Hampshire residents who are California-bound:

March 1, New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, NH),
The following is a list of the gentlemen composing the Cheshire Company, who sail from Boston in the fine ship, SWEDEN, for the gold regions. They have engaged exclusively the deck cabin of the ship. Good luck to them:
Thomas G. Wells, Walpole [the first name listed]

More about Thomas Goodwin Wells can be read at Google Books in an article in Volume XXII, No. 1 (January 1905) of Out West: A Magazine of the Old Pacific and the New, Volume 22, starting at page 48-54, entitled Letters of An Argonaut, from August, 1849 to October, 1851. The letter excerpts continue on pp. 136-142 and pp. 221-227. (As I looked at this, I realized that I own a copy! This 23-page booklet was edited by his son, Benjamin W. Wells and published in 1905 as Letters of an Argonaut: Extracts from the Correspondence of the Pioneer Banker, Thomas Goodwin Wells.) These pages contain extracts from letters that Thomas sent home, to his wife or his brother, Edwin, and they are fascinating reading.

Thomas Goodwin Wells
[Argonaut, a term referencing Greek mythology as one who sailed with Jason on the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece, also refers to a person who took part in the Californian gold rush of 1849.]

Thomas Goodwin Wells arrived in San Francisco on August 3, 1849, and spent almost two years in San Francisco, establishing a well-respected bank, even writing home in April 1851 suggesting that his wife and family join him.

On May 4, 1851, there was a terrible fire in San Francisco, and Thomas Wells was severely injured. It's amazing to realize in today's world where we in the U.S. find out about a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal within minutes, that it took weeks for residents of the east coast of the U.S. to learn about this devastating San Francisco fire.

I found an article in the Daily Illinois State Journal of July 15, 1851, crediting an article from the Boston Courier, which was an on-the-ground description of the fire. The (unnamed) author was in Wells & Co's bank building, which was believed to be fire-proof. He describes the fire, the realization that they would be roasted if they remained in the building, and their dramatic escape. I include just a small excerpt from the article here:

July 15, 1851, Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, IL),

This paragraph notes that "Wells is frightfully burned."  Also "this banking-house was erected by Wells & Co., ... and was owned, two-third by Willis & Co., of Boston, ... and one-third by Wells & Co."  Willis & Co. was likely an investment company of his wife's father, Benjamin Willis.

Another article notes: "Apart from the loss pf property, the fire was distinguished from all previous conflagrations by the loss of life and by bodily injuries sustained by individuals ... The partial sufferers may be known by their bandaged faces and hands. Among the most unfortunate of the latter class is Mr. Thomas G. Wells, of the house of Wells & Co, so favorably known as one of the oldest and most substantial bankers in this city.  This gentleman is still confined to his room, and the business of his house is necessarily suspended until he can take its supervision and control." [Daily Atlas (Boston, MA) July 24, 1851]

After several months of recovery, he decided that it would be best if he returned home to his family.

He went on to father two more children: Benjamin and Ruth. In the 1860 U.S. Census, he is living in Brookline, Massachusetts, with his wife, four children, his father-in-law, and four servants. I shared this census record at Wells and Willis Family in Brookline in 1860. After reading about his experience in San Francisco, I now understand why there is no occupation listed for him in this census.

Near the end of Letters of an Argonaut, his son writes: "He lived on for nearly twenty-two years, suffering often acutely, and never recovering health either of mind or body. No one in his home ever mentioned California." He died on August 26, 1873, in Boston, Massachusetts, and is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery.

See Surname Saturday ~ Wells of New Hampshire for more about my Wells line.


  1. What a story! How great to have so much documentation.

    1. First it was someone who found his memorial on FindAGrave who sent me some information, but it really was all the great stuff I found in online newspapers that helped me write this post.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Elizabeth, what an interesting story - as usual. I have always said that the Internet is the best thing that ever happened for researchers - especially those researching genealogy. Life is so much more than "John Smith 1810-1870."

  3. Jim, yes, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I was able to find online.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!