Blog post by Randi Richardson
The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 sparked the California Gold Rush, one of the most important events to shape America’s history during the first half of the 19th century. As news of the discovery spread, thousands of fortune hunters from the United States and abroad traveled to California by land and by water. They were known as the 49ers. Many were men without women for the most part. To finance their journey they borrowed money, mortgaged their property and spent their life savings. In pursuit of the kind of wealth only dreamed of, they left their families and hometowns. Isaac Owen was among the men who made that arduous journey, albeit with a different purpose.
Isaac Owen, born May 8, 1809, in Vermont, came to Indiana with his family in 1811 when Indiana was still a territory. Initially, the Owen family settled in Knox County where, it is believed, the father died in 1824. Afterward the widowed mother prayed that her children would be led to God. It wasn’t long until her prayers on Isaac’s behalf were answered.
Isaac accepted God as his Savior at the age of 16 and joined the Methodist Episcopal Church. After a time he was licensed to preach, two years later he was ordained a deacon, at the end of four years was graduated to elder’s orders and then labored as a Methodist circuit rider for a number of years. Eventually he was called upon to raise an endowment fund for Indiana Asbury University, a Methodist university in Greencastle now known as DePauw. He served in that capacity for four years and succeeded in raising about $63,000, an amount said to be more than that of any other man.
Sometime in the 1840s Isaac settled with his family in Monroe County. He was there serving as pastor in about 1846 when the Methodists built a brand new church for the Bloomington congregation. It was an early custom of the church to have a door keeper rather than a bell to call worshipers to services. On Sunday mornings the door keeper would blow on a great tin horn to alert parishioners that it was time for church.
In 1846 and 1847, Isaac purchased property in Monroe County, eight Bloomington inlots and one Seminary outlot. However, his sojourn in Monroe County was not destined to be for long. After the discovery of gold in California in 1848 with its attendant heavy migration, the Central Board of the Methodist Episcopal Church in New York called upon him to serve as a missionary in California.
Isaac accepted the mission with gladness in his heart. But there was no easy way to California, which was not admitted to the union until 1850. The 49ers faced hardship and often death on the way, a distance of more than 3,000 miles. One could go either by water or overland. Isaac opted for the latter. He was determined to take his wife, Elizabeth S. (Hardin) Owen, children, and other like-minded individuals as part of a wagon company led by a wagon master. In order to organize the type of wagon company he envisioned, he began placing ads in various newspapers in the Bloomington vicinity.
Watch for a continuation of this story in next week’s blog: In Search of Gold: Isaac Owen’s Journey West.
- William C. Smith, Indiana Miscellany: Consisting of Sketches of Indian Life, the Early Settlement, Customs and Hardships of the People, and the Introduction of the Gospel and of Schools Together with Biographical Notices of the Pioneer Methodist Preachers of the State (Cincinnati: Poe & Hitchcock) 1867, p. 286-290.
- Rockwell D. Hunt, “Golden Jubilee of the University of the Pacific,” Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, XXXVII, No., 5, May 1901, p. 1036.
- Charles Blanchard, ed., History of Morgan, Monroe & Brown Counties (Chicago: A. Battery & Co., Publishers) 1884, p. 480.
- Monroe County (IN) Deed Book K, pp. 123, 445 and 522, Research Library, Monroe County History Center, Bloomington, Indiana.
- “1851: Isaac Owen to Elizabeth S. (Hardin) Owen,” January 22, 1851, Spared & Shared 3: Rescuing Family History One Letter at a Time, viewed online at https://sparedshared3.wordpress.com/letters/1851-rev-isaac-owen-to-elizabeth-s-hardin-owen/ in January 2019.