To California and Back
Today’s find comes from that notebook of Briles items given to me by cousin Mildred Barby. This document is a typed version of an article, Saga of John Briles, that was published in The Randolph Tribune of Asheboro, Nort Carolina.
The story is about John Briles and his wife Annis Briles. John and Annis were both grandchildren of John Briles and his wife Nancy Ann Beckerdite, making them first cousins. Most of the article is a ‘trail diary’ as it recounts John’s trek to California for gold and his return trip to North Carolina.
The following article appeared in the Sunday, January 21, 1940, Edition of
The Randolph Tribune
Asheboro, North Carolina
Saga of John Briles
By: R. C. Welborn
Around 1800 most of the land on Little Caraway – up stream from Shepherd Mountain — was owned by the Broyless (now Briles). They were a sturdy stock of German origin, law abiding, honest, whose word was as good as their bond. It was said that a Briles would take the rope before he would tell, or swear to, a lie.
The old generation lived and died by this law. One of the younger generation jokingly remarked a few years ago that to his knowledge the younger set had departed from this old time tradition. Be that as it may, that remark does not in any way lower my estimation of the Briles family for truth and honesty.
But as in most families some members were outstanding. The one whom I wish to mention here was one of twenty or more John Brileses. John was a favorite name among them. There were almost always two Johns in every family. If the father’s name was John, there was sure to be a John, Jr.
The one least known in Randolph, yet one of the finest men Randolph ever produced, in my estimation, was just plain John Briles, born on the banks of Little Caraway about 1830. He was the son of Solomon and Charity Briles. (The mother, a sister of Solomon Burns, whose house on North Fayetteville Street, Asheboro, is now occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Charles VonCannon.)
John’s father died while John was yet a child. He grew up amidst hardships on a poor farm. His mother, a princess, ruled gently and lovingly her son who was growing into a strong, intellectual man in spite of the handicaps so common in that day.
In 1848 the gold fever broke out in California. John became restless and began pluming his wings for a flight into the then little known land of the setting sun. Lovingly he pleaded with his mother for days to give him his favorite horse, one he had trained under saddle and plow gear many a day. (He would have acquired this horse by heritage in three more short years, long years to him.)
His mother, like all good mothers, could not consent to letting her fine grown up son start on such a hazardous trip. He reasoned thus: “Mother, I must go. You can’t always feed and shelter me. you have others who will care for you,” meaning of course his brothers and sisters. (That was before WPA and relief programs.)
So he packed his saddle bags, bags of clothing and blankets, and all the good things that a thoughtful mother (God bless her memory and all the generations that were to follow her. Don’t I remember her when I was a child and the ginger cakes she gave to us children! This heritage was too great to live in silence.) could pack into a kit. And these were especially good when the mother and sisters were the finest cooks in all the world.
After a sad and glad farewell and a blessing from his mother — such as Jacob of old received from his mother when he went forth into a far country to dwell with strangers in a strange land — he set forth.
As he related this story to me 35 years ago tears came in his eyes, but he said it was a proud day when he mounted that sleek sorrel horse and rode out through the lane. “Of course I underestimated the dangers of such a hazardous trip and thought nothing could separate me and my horse” he said.
If you think this his last and hardest farewell before getting out of Randolph you are wring. Four miles west. on the other side of the Uwharrie river, there lived another Briles, Noah Briles. Some akin but what did that matter. Noah Briles had a daughter, pretty, attractive, blue eyes, light hair, physically and mentally suited to our hero, John Briles.
Here and now they laid their future plans, each pledging to wait until he had made his fortune and returned. A vow taken by a Briles would never be broken. This one taken by two Briles was as safe as a Yale lock.
After this second and harder farewell he rode out by Thomasville. This was as far west as he had ever been. The world looked big to him but he was a man now with the blessing of his mother and sweetheart and nothing could turn him back. Along the trail he camped by the roadside on his blankets with his saddle for a pillow when he was not fortunate enough to find lodging in some house or cabin.
Sometimes, owing to swollen streams with bridges and ferries scarce, he made slow progress. After 40 days he took up camp on the edge of a beautiful prairie under majestic trees, oak, hickory and others so much like the forests where he was raised. It was on a Saturday, just as the sun was sinking down at the other end of endless plain.
After staking his horse and having a bite himself, he spread down his blankets, pillowed his head on his saddle, not as did Jacob of old on a stone, said a simple prayer which his mother had taught him, committed himself into the care and keeping of Jehova who watched over the shepherds of Judea, feeling safe and sure that God would never leave nor forsake one who so fully trusted in Him. Hew slept and dreamed, not of a ladder, but of a sweet girl with light hair whom he would meet again some day when all his dreams came true. Not even the screaming of coyotes could keep him from sleeping that night.
The next day was Sunday if he had not lost his Blum’s almanac. He rested and indulged in day dreams, in this the most beautiful place he had never seen. He wrote his cousin a long letter, telling her that he had located their future home, just in the woods at the edge of the prairie. A small stream ran close by. “When we are ready to build and settle down we shall always be happy.”
Monday morning he was loath to leave this beautiful location, and said that if his cousin had been with him he might have located there then instead of going on. Bu he would need money. This he was confident he would get when he reached California.
He journeyed on the trail becoming more difficult from day to day, mountains, Indians, hostile Indians. He could no longer travel alone. He fell in with others in wagons, on horseback, afoot. All trying to get to the end of the rainbow trail to dig and wash gold. Sickness and poverty a plenty beset them. Alas, too many had not counted the cost! A horse would starve and die. A cow, the only source of living for some sick and half starved baby, would fall behind the wagon to which she was tied. When she could not get up she was butchered, her bones boiled and what meat there was on them eaten by these people who in many instances were out of meal or flour.
But they were game. And they divided to the last handful. The last 400 miles were that many miles of tragedy. New holes were dug almost every day now — not graves, jsut holes, on the desert, or by a tree where there was timber. No casket, not even a box, just something they could hardly spare to wrap about the lifeless form. A little ceremony, a few tears,, no flowers. Not even a board to mark their last resting place. Those remaining took up the march and trekked on, on toward the setting sun.
John Briles, the stalwart, manly man, divided his now scant supply to the last biscuit. His fine saddle horse was reduced to a skeleton. He even divided his bread with his horse. Finally when the horse could no longer carry him John Briles led him, led him for four days. Then “Old Faithful” lay down and could not get up again and his master put him to death as humanely as possible. After wrapping his head in one of his two remaining blankets, placing the head on the saddle, the head turned toward the setting sun, he spent some time in meditation: “More than two thousand miles from home Billy, my horse dead, my inheritance gone. I had promised Billy back in Missouri where I had picked out a dwelling place for Annis and me, just as I would talk to a brother, that when he carried me to the gold fields and back this far on our homeward journey he would rest again, drink at a spring by the little stream, that he might graze for hours on the prairie grass — then two feet high, so luscious when green, and so satisfying when turned into hay by the frost and cold weather without being harvested.
“Then Billy, when Annis and I are married we will bring you back again to this beautiful land where you shall live out your days as free as the wind that waves this grass, never to be turned out to starve when your faithful service to man is at an end.
“But now, Billy, you are gone. You have been faithful. You never failed me but I have failed you. I brought you here where there is no feed. For days you carried me when your shoes were gone and your feet sore — no food, no water. I favored you all I could by walking so as to make your burden lighter but I failed to get food and water and now it is too late.”
With this sad farewell he left Billy by the roadside, realizing that the promises made to his faithful horse could never come true. He shed scalding tears as he shouldered the few remaining things with which he had started. He, too, was feeling the effect of hunger for he was reduced almost to a skeleton, but he did not regret sharing with the poor, sick and emaciated women and children in the caravan. All had failed to correctly count the cost of such a venture. He traveled for four days without food sufficient for one square meal. Then he walked into camp a the end of the trail, just four months from the time he left Randolph county, with a 50-cent piece and a spoonful of coffee as his only worldly possession.
He immediately found a man cooking big brown molasses cakes. He had to wait his turn. When it came he gave the man his last 50 cents for the cakes, picked up an old tin can, filled it with water, heated it over a fire near by, put his last spoonful of coffee packed so long ago by his mother back in North Carolina, sat down, offered a prayer of thanksgiving, and ate what he declared was the greatest feast he ever sat down to in all his long life of 80 years.
He stretched his weary body upon the ground and slept in peace. He had reached his star of hope, California, where many people found gold enough in a few days time to guarantee for them a life of ease.
He hired himself at once to a man who gave him four dollars to dig and wash gold, no time limit specified. He soon found that he was making for his employer form five to fifteen dollars a day. As soon as he was able to buy and to construct some cheap equipment he went to work for himself. Some days he made as high as twenty dollars, some days less, but at the end of four years he had accumulated $21,000. That for him was enough. It was almost unheard of amount in his former years back home.
He began to make plans now to return to his old home by Shepherd’s mountain in Randolph county. But how? Billy was dead. It would be unsafe to try to make the trip over land with that much money anyway. He changed it to government checks and took a steamer from San Francisco to the Isthmus of Panama where he took his first train ride crossing the Isthmus. Then a boat to New Orleans. From there he traveled by rail to Atlanta, and on to Thomasville, North Carolina, over the Southern.
He lost no time in making his way from Thomasville down to the home of Noah Briles where Annis was waiting for him. I am not undertaking to tell of the happiness that was theirs after four years’ separation. Then it was home again for John Briles, four and a half years older, wiser, richer in money and experience. It was heaven on earth to be home again, with Annis, his mother and all the folks. The prodigal had returned but not in poverty and rags, and not in disgrace.
After some weeks there was a marriage ceremony, then a busy time getting ready for the return trip, buying a George E. Nisson wagon, manufactured at Waightown and considered the best made then, and all the things necessary for traveling and camping. Two good horses and a set of double harness were also purchased. Added to these were all the things which Annis had been preparing for housekeeping while he was digging gold — quilts, linen, pillows, feather mattresses, and many other things that only a woman can think of Besides these there were three of those finely woven coverlets or bed spreads — work which no artist has ever been able to excel. Not one woman in a thousand could master the art, but Annis, now Mrs. Briles, was an expert at this artistic weaving. These were the things which they took to their new home in the west — not a home then, just a pretty spot at the edge of eh woods by the prairie with a spring and a brook near by. n speaking of it fifty years later Annis said: “I loved it before I ever saw it because I loved John and John loved it.” At that time she still had those spreads. (Perhaps there are only a few left not. I think Mrs. J. T. Coggins at High Point has one.)
Farewells all said, Frances took her place beside her man — to her the greatest among men — on a box in front of the wagon, her feet on the double trees, and drove away to establish a home in the west, a home for herself and John, and, by good fortune, for a family of seven children who came along one at a time during the next fifteen years.
The going was fine except for a few minor mishaps, just the two. They needed not other company. They camped out at night, John taking care of the houses and building the fires while Annis prepared the meals. Every day new scenery, always something interesting, the mountains, valleys, streams and finally at Memphis the big Mississippi. From there through the swamps covered with the beautiful and valuable cypress trees, by Mammoth Springs near the Missouri line, through Springfield — each day bringing them nearer to their destination until again on a Saturday, just as the last rays of a beautiful sunset spread over the prairie, lingering on the tree tops, they stopped the horses on the very spot where John had spent that Sabbath now five years ago. They rested on the next day and sent up a prayer of thanksgiving and praise in unison for their safe journey to this goodly land.
They went to Harrisonville a few miles away, then a village of a few dwellings and a courthouse, now a nice little city, to make arrangements for buying the land or taking up the claim. Here they bought lumber, nails and food supplies, and in a very few days they were safely housed in a new building ten by twelve feet. This was room plenty for them and their furniture. There was no chimney or stove but they could cook at a campfire out of doors.
They were soon ready for farming and cattle raising for this was to be his life’s work. Annis worked right along with her husband. There was fencing to do but only the land he cultivated. Corn and wheat grew luxuriantly. In a few years he was able to raise from ten to twenty thousand bushels of wheat and thousands of bushels of corn each year. Great straw stacks dotted his fields. He put up in ricks hundreds of tons of prairie hay at no expense except harvesting. He raised hundreds of cattle on the range, and bought other hundreds and fed and sheltered them around the straw and hay ricks during the winter months, supplementing this feed with corn in the shock. Soon he was selling droves of cattle to the St. Louis and Chicago markets. Sometimes he made only three or four dollars profit a head, sometimes he made as high as fifteen dollars per head. Sometimes he cleared form ten to fifteen thousand dollars on cattle in one year.
They put their fast accumulations into more land and soon they were owning thousands of good acres in Cass county and adjoining counties, gave to each of their children big farms and rented out others. They never knew their worth in dollars nor their wealth as good citizens, but I am persuaded that when the books are opened the records will show a substantial balance in favor of John and Annis Briles.
I visited them 35 years ago. They were old, yet young. Their hospitality had no bounds. They lived in a plain substantial house, had good farm buildings, everything to give comfort. To me it seemed that the greatest thing was the still young, yet old lovers.