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Looking for a California 49er
Column published: 09 January 2010
By: Shirley Gage Hodges   Biography & Archived Articles

One of the things that I have enjoyed most about being a columnist for the Global Gazette are the contacts that I have had from individuals. I have heard from people from all over the Globe from places as far away as Berlin and London. It is fascinating to see how much our world has expanded our contacts during our lifetime.

One of the most enjoyable contacts came from a gentleman named Grant Kearns. He wrote to me after reading my article on the California 49ers. Grant's great-grandfather John Kearns was a 49er. He had always hoped to find information about him so that he could share it with his father, Harry Kearns. Harry had always hoped that he could learn more about his grandfather who went to California in 1849. Harry is 94 years old and would love to know more about claims in the American River area to locate where his grandfather might have been.

Harry and Jane Kearns. He is the grandson of John Kearns.

John Kearns took to the trail in March 1849 from Pittsburgh, along with 250 others. They had contracted with the steamboat, Cosignee, Captained by Benjamin Lockwood to St. Joseph, Missouri. They then went by a wagon train with Master Captain Ankrim, a veteran of the Mexican War. Things didn't go well by the time they were crossing Nevada and the party split up. According to what has been passed down, John set up a claim on the American River and got as much as $3500 in gold. He soon fell sick with a fever and his tent mate made off with the gold. Somehow, John got passage on a ship to Panama and walked across the Isthmus and then went by steam ships or boats back across Gulf/Caribbean to New Orleans and then back to Pittsburgh. This occurred before Feb. 1852 when he was married. Unfortunately, John did not leave a diary. Some of this is passed down in family history and some of the rest Grant has been able to piece together.

Left to right: E. E. Grant Kearns (John's father); John Kearns; Johns son Forest Kearns and
Kesiah Bell Kerns, John's wife. This picture was taken on the front porch about 1894.

Grant had the opportunity to join the Corps of Discovery II, of St. Charles, Missouri and participate in the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Re-enactment, from 2003-2006. He and the Corp of Discovery II's Newfoundler Dog "Seamen" were at Cairo, ILL on the Mississippi River where he dipped John Kearn's Bowie type knife into the river. This was the knife that John Kearns carried with him on his way to California in 1849.

This is a picture of Grant Kearns, great grandson of John Kearns. He and his Newfoundland Dog
had gone to the Mississippi River and dipped John Kearn's Sheffield knife into the River at Cairo, Illinios.
This was the knife that John had carried with him on his way to California in 1849.

Grant had heard that there was a diary written by a member of Captain Ankrim's Wagon Train. I have discovered that a book has been published entitled Overland to California with the Pioneer Line: The Gold Rush Diary of Bernard J. Reid. Grant has been able to get a copy of the book. It was a diary of a fellow Pittsburger, but with a different group, but certainly experiencing many of the same things. The book makes two references to the group that John Kearns was with.

If you have any good ideas I know that Grant and Harry would appreciate hearing about them. Harry is a rare individual who can claim that his grandfather was a 49er. Not many people living today can make that claim. Even though it is not worth much monetarily, it is a wonderful piece of the history for their family.

Until next time :)

Shirley Hodges, biography & genealogy lectures; email:

Editor's Note: Shirley Hodges is the author of the popular Guide to United States Census, 1790-1930

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