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Wild Women of the West: Era Gertrude Chinn

The discovery of gold in California in 1849, sparked a raging fever in thousands of Argonauts hoping to strike it rich.

September 03, 2019

The discovery of gold in California in 1849, sparked a raging fever in thousands of Argonauts hoping to strike it rich. Among the flood of fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands that ventured west were mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives. Although they were few in number, women shoveled and picked through tons of gravel working shoulder to shoulder with men searching for glittery nuggets. The find of a few ounces further fueled their desire to locate the source of it all, the elusive “mother lode” as it was called.

Pioneer women fought their way into the male-dominated field of prospecting, exposing themselves to inclement weather, rugged terrain, hostile natives, renegades, and thieves. After the influx of adventurers and rugged characters from far and near, the occurrence of crimes was inevitable, and lady miners were as susceptible to illegal activities as everyone else.

Many prospectors were victims of raids on their camps, theft of their provisions, and claim jumping. Due to the lack of law enforcement in isolated mining towns, camp founders devised a set of protective rules to help establish some order. The “code of conduct” drafted by miners in Gold Hill, Nevada in 1854, was direct and straight to the point:

Section 1: Any person who shall willfully and with malice aforethought take the life of any person shall upon being duly convicted thereof suffer the penalty of death by hanging.

“Section 2: Any person who shall willfully wound another shall, upon conviction thereof, suffer such penalty as the jury many designate.

“Section 3: Any person found guilty of robbery or theft shall, upon conviction thereof, be punished with stripes or banishment as the jury may determine.

“Section 4: Any person found guilty of assault and battery, or exhibiting deadly weapons, shall upon conviction, be fined or banished as the jury may determine.

“Section 5: No banking game under any consideration shall be allowed in this district, under the penalty of final banishment from the district.”

Many inhabitants in and around the mining towns followed a similar set of decrees, but a contingency of bandits and bad guys thumbed their noses at the mere idea of regulating their behavior.  Mrs. Julia Davis of Downieville, California, was fully aware of the criminal element that surrounded prosperous mines like the one she owned. It was their presence that prompted her to carry a pistol at all times. “No one is going to take what I worked hard to get,” she told the Sierra Citizen newspaper in June 1911. “Anyone comes near my claim hoping this woman is going to be an easy mark, or be scared off her property, is in for a surprise.”

Camps in the vicinity of Mrs. Davis were repeatedly stolen from or vandalized. Her claim, however, was left unscathed. On February 10, 1912, after more than three years of protecting her mine from swindlers and crooks, she finally struck it big. According to the Downieville Democrat, her property contained “some of the largest chunks of gold in the area – Mrs. Davis found a piece of gold in her diggings in what is known as the Warden Ravine, about 4 four miles above Downieville on the North Fork, Saturday morning.

The specimen was solid gold, four inches long, two inches wide and nearly one inch thick. When put on the scales at John Costa Company’s store, it weighed seven pounds.”

Miners invaded the yellow-oak studded foothills around Downieville in 1848. The richest diggings were found near the sand bars along the Yuba River. During its heyday, from 1848 to 1902, prospectors pulled more than a billion dollars’ worth of gold out of the mountains and streams. By the early 1900s, the gold had played out and Downieville’s population dwindled from five thousand to just below twenty-two hundred people. Mining continued to be a popular career in the town, and prospectors who owned wealthy claims continued to be preyed upon by greedy malcontents.

Mine owner Gertrude Peckwith and her husband, Tony, worked their profitable Downieville find for years, always safeguarding that their claim was secure. In 1958, a series of unfortunate events led to Gertrude losing her tie to the mine – events that law enforcement officials and local newspaper reporters insisted were suspicious and premeditated by someone who desperately wanted the Peckwith riches.

Era Gertrude Chinn was born on June 20, 1876 in Beaver Dam, Kentucky and came to California in 1906. She was the owner and operator of a successful beauty shop in San Francisco. She met Tony Peckwith when he made a trip to the bayside city to purchase mining equipment. The two were married in 1923 and resided in Downieville for more than thirty-five years.

Tony was an accomplished miner and a partner in a lucrative mining venture. His natural ability to locate gold made him a valuable asset to the West Point Mining Company. The rocks he discovered on the site made the local newspapers seventeen years before he and Gertrude were wed. According to the August 11, 1906 edition of the Mountain Messenger, “Tony Peckwith, one of the boys of the West Point Mine at Monte Cristo, exhibited some fine nuggets last Sunday, recently taken out of the above named mine. There were three of them valued at about $90 each and one nugget was about $500.”

Tony invested his share of the profits made from the West Point Mine to purchase the Golden Empire Mine. He and Gertrude were the sole, stockholders in the expedition; both shared the duties of digging and panning the rocks and streams in the area, and Gertrude maintained the books for the business. The couple had no children and were devoted to one another and their work. The property proved to be a worthy investment, yielding more than a quarter of a million after only a year in operation.

In 1937, Tony was killed in a mining accident at the West Point Mine. The following year Gertrude married Tony’s brother, William. William also worked at the mine and in 1941, he too died in a similar accident. The widow Peckwith was left to operate the Golden Empire Mine on her own. Rumors abound that the deaths of both her husbands were planned “accidents.” Unknown persons, hoping to acquire Gertrude and Tony’s claim, were reported to have been behind the passing of the Peckwith brothers. Gertrude dismissed the idea outright and despite of the warnings from well-meaning friends and neighbors, she refused to take precautions with her own life.

In addition to prospecting, for many years Gertrude operated a water service company. The service assisted mine owners in the area with pumping water out of their diggings. While manning the office on a warm day in the summer of 1956, she met a fifty-eight-year-old miner by the name of August Pelletier who was working his way across the Sierra Mountain Range searching for gold. He believed the hills around Downieville contained a major gold vein that had not yet been tapped. His enthusiasm and excitement for the fortune was infectious and Gertrude invited him to search for the treasure in her mine.

Old timers living in town had shared information with the charming August about which mines had made money and Gertrude’s Gold Eagle was one of them. Without hesitation, August quickly accepted the lady miner’s offer. In a very short time, the two became good friends. It is not clear if Gertrude developed romantic feelings for August, but she did care and trust him enough to give him power of attorney over her business dealings.

Downieville residents were suspicious of August’s relationship with the eighty-one-year-old woman. With nothing more to go on than a gut instinct or mutual distrust of the ambitious miner, some people approached Gertrude with their feelings. She did not share their concerns and avoided anyone who made disparaging remarks about August.

On August 28, 1958, news that Mrs. Peckwith had died filtered through the area, and many townspeople believed foul play might have been involved. The Sierra County Newspaper carried her obituary, explaining that her passing was a result of a serious fall. “Mrs. Era Gertrude Peckwith died about 5 o’clock this afternoon at her home. According to reports, she was traveling past the Bank Mine, on Downie River, above the Hansen bridge, formerly owned and operated by the late ‘Frendy’ Jean Renier, which in former days had been a good prospector.”

“She accompanied August Pelletier to the Golden Eagle Mine Wednesday morning, and according to Philip R. Newberg, coroner, Pelletier said he was working in the tunnel and came out about 11 a.m., heard her moaning and found she had fallen 30 feet over a bank toward the river. He took her home and called Dr. Carl C. Sutton who advised hospitalization, particularly on account of a heavy cold, but she declined for lack of finances…. Pneumonia is said to have attributed to her death.

Bergemann Funeral Service came for the body and Newberg ordered an autopsy to determine cause of death.”

The report that Gertrude’s funds were depleted to the point that she could not afford a stay in the hospital shocked and saddened the community. She was considered to have been living in comfortable circumstances. Many surmised that her money had been slowly siphoned away. The autopsy report noted that Gertrude’s death was indeed a result of a “fall from the trail down a steep bank while walking along a narrow trail.”  Investigators further concluded that the fall had been an accident.

Regardless of what the official document read, how she died was a source of continual gossip. Stories circulated that she had been drugged and that had caused her to fall. Others claim she was hit in the back of the head with a rock and that caused her to lose her footing.

Copies of the autopsy report that were snuck out of the coroner’s office, made their way through the community and fueled the skeptics’ scenario that Gertrude had been hit. According to Newberg’s findings, “When the skull was open during the standard procedure, it was seen there was a large hematoma under the scalp in the middle portion of the skull.” Newberg insisted the bruise was consistent with an injury from a fall, but doubters would not be satisfied.

Conspiracy theorists even dissected the statement of eye witness, Leta Ketcham. The sixty-one-year-old woman informed investigators of everything she had seen the morning Gertrude died, beginning with the fact that her home was located across the Downy River from the Golden Eagle Mine. “I can see the Golden Eagle Mine and trail to it from my kitchen window. I have seen Mr. Pelletier and Mrs. Peckwith going to the mine by the trail many times. It was customary for Mrs. Peckwith to be walking alone along the trail in going to the mine and again in returning along the trail to the car after they were through working at the mine. I had seen Mrs. Peckwith walking along the narrow trail a number of times by herself and Mr. Pelletier would follow in about five minutes.

“On August 27, 1958, about eleven o’clock, I looked out my kitchen window and saw Mrs. Peckwith hanging on to the roots of several trees near the top of the bank at the edge of the trail. Mr. Pelletier was trying to push her up on to the trail. Mr. Pelletier finally got Mrs. Peckwith on to the trail. He let her rest a few minutes and then helped her up and they started to walk along the trail. They went behind some trees and I saw them again about fifty years down the stream. Mr. Pelletier picked Mrs. Peckwith up and carried her to the car. Mr. Pelletier then went back along the trail and got his tools and returned to the car.

“I had worried many times that Mrs. Peckwith would fall from the trail as it was very narrow in spots along the banks. At times she would hang on to the brush and even crawl on her hands and knees to make her way along the trail.”

Those who believed Gertrude’s death was not an accident supported their premise with Ketcham’s statement that she saw August and Gertrude as they “went behind a tree.” Speculation rose that in that moment the lady miner could have been “knocked in the skull with a good size rock.”

Throughout the ordeal and the days and weeks after Gertrude’s demise, Pelletier steadfastly maintained his innocence. He vigorously denied having anything to do with her fall or with taking her money. The power of attorney she had signed over to him was terminated at her death. Gertrude’s niece was named as heir of her estate and of the Golden Eagle Mine.  August left Downieville for whereabouts unknown.

Gertrude’s mine proved to be played out. Her relatives decided to leave the property alone and allow time and nature to reclaim the diggings.

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