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There’s gold in them thar journals!

Duane Iles

By A Contributor

“Bruff’s Wake” is the story of the great adventure of crossing the vast American West to the gold fields of California in the 1840’s It is one of the stories detailing the largest volunteer mass migration in the world’s history.

J.J. Goldsborough Bruff was a true adventurer. The son of a prominent Washington family, he studied at West Point for two years, then spent several years at sea and served as a merchant seaman, in the Venezuelan nav, and later in the U.S. Navy. Displaying a skill for drawing and sketching, he went to work in his brothers’ print shop until he became employed by the government as a draftsman. His next career move was to the Corps of Engineers Topographic Dept that had just been organized. Here his talents flourished.

Over the years he developed friendships with the leading figures of the time in Washington;  including Fremont, Henry Clay, Thomas Hart Benton, Zachary Taylor and Andrew Jackson.

When gold was discovered in California, the wanderlust returned and Bruff joined the trek west.

The spirit of adventure and prospect of riches were not alone in motivating him. With his knack for drawing, he saw an opportunity for profit,  if the gold fields did not pan out. He planned to keep an accurate journal of the routes, richly supplied with his drawings.

As a member of the Washington City and California Mining Association, Bruff headed west on April 2, 1849. On June 4, they crossed the Missouri River and began the great journey across the plains. On Oct. 21, 1849, Bruff’s party reached California. The men and their animals, suffering from exhaustion and frustration, the group broke up and went their separate ways. Bruff spent the next six months north of the Sacramento Valley camped in the wilderness. Finally on April 9, 1850, after having spent the winter practically alone Bruff arrived at his destination in the Sacramento Valley.

Bruff spent most of the next year traveling among the gold camps and settlements of the western coast. Finally, his thoughts turned to home and he departed California on June 14, 1851. This time he traveled south by sea to the Isthmus of Panama, which he crossed by mule and railroad. He finally arrived in New York on July 17, 1851.

Bruff worked his journals and drawings into book form, but was unable to get them published. In 1889 he died and his journals became separated and languished in various collections.

Finally, in 1944 Bruff’s work was published and has become an extremely rare collection. His writings and drawings have become among the most descriptive sources of that period in our history. While it was not great artwork, his drawings depict the landmarks of the trail west and life in the gold camps.

The original publications can only be found in exclusive research libraries. This latest rendering of Bruff’s journals and drawings was done by H.L. James, a native of New Mexico.

Mr. James grew up on a cattle ranch and later became a geologist for the state of New Mexico, where his interest in the trails was rekindled. The large number of trail journals available today, stimulated his interest in the California Trail. While visiting a friend in Coloma, Calif. happened upon a copy of Bruff’s journal. That find has lead to Mr. James producing this most recent version of Bruff’s story and drawings. Mr. James is a member of the Oregon-California Trails Association, which is responsible for the publishing of this book.

  James will be doing a signing of the book at the Manhattan Public Library on Saturday form 2-4:30 p.m. Copies of the book will sell for $30 at the event.


Duane Iles is the president of the Oregon-California Trails Association.

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