Family Stories · Snowden and Warfield Descendants in the California Gold Rush
Snowden and Warfield Descendants in the California Gold Rush

Click here to see the full account of Snowden descendants in California :
(Warning: Not for the "faint of heart")

Richard Snowden Samuels, a Journalist in Chicago, has written a fascinating historical review of Snowden and Warfield descendants who struck out for the promise of the California Gold Rush and endured the hardships which accompanied such ventures.

In particular, Mr. Samuels has traced the lives of Richard N. Snowden, Sr., Richard N. Snowden, Jr., Gustavus Warfield Snowden and Charles Snowden Fairfax as they relocated their lives to California and Territories destined to become Nevada. The first three, a father and two sons, died violent deaths related to Western adventures. Mr. Samuels describes a strong violent undercurrent connected with the westward movement which "thrust tens of thousands of Americans and foreigners into the gold fields of California, the towns that grew up around them and the cities nearby that supported them."

Charles Snowden Fairfax (1829-1869) was the son of Caroline E. Snowden (1807-1899) and Albert Fairfax (1802-1835), who settled Fairfax, Virginia. The town took its name from the prominent Fairfax family, which had achieved nobility in England. Caroline was the daughter of Richard Snowden (1775-1823) and Richard's second wife, Louisa V. Warfield (1790-1820). Richard N. Snowden, Sr., was the son of the Richard Snowden (1775-1823) and Richard's first wife, Elizabeth Warfield (1781-1817). Sisters Elizabeth Warfield and Louisa V. Snowden were both daughters of Dr. Charles Alexander Warfield (1751-1813) and Elizabeth Dorsey Ridgely (1752-1808). Thus, Richard N. Snowden and Charles Snowden Fairfax were first cousins once removed.

In 1849 cousins Richard N. Snowden and Charles Snowden Fairfax sailed on the "Glenmore" from Richmond, Virginia, around Cape Horn in South America to the Golden Gate in California. Moving into territories surrounding Sacramento and Sutter's Mill, where gold was first discovered, they prospected for gold in Yuba County and later sought silver east of the Comstock range in what is now Nevada. The reasons for moving west, possibly related to the loss of two inherited homes, "Oaklands" and "Ellerslie", remain one of the fascinating elements in this story. Richard Snowden was known as a "man fo quick and sometimes violent temper." Others, less kind, saw him as a "hot-tempered, large, coarse-mannered Southern man, who was always steaming and puffing and snorting like Dickens' Pancks."

In contrast, Charles Snowden Fairfax, Richard's shipmate on the long trip to San Francisco, was one of the characters who gave California 's early history a "unique flavor". One newspaperman spoke admiringly of Charlie: "He was handsome and every look was of a high-born race. He had a grace of action, a natural courtesy, a thoughtfulness for guests and a way of making men feel that he had a solicitude for their well-being and happiness that could not be imitated by any man that I have ever met." Because of titles bestowed in 1627 on his fourth-great grandfather, Sir Thomas Fairfax (1560-1640) Charlie could claim to be Lord Charles Fairfax, the 10 th Baron of Cameron. Californians delighted in calling him "Lord Fairfax".

Being the consummate politician, "Lord Charlie" served in a variety of political positions, including Clerk of the Supreme Court of California. Ultimately, he married well and retired to Marin County, north of San Francisco, where he became County Supervisor for the First District of Marin County. He and his wife, Ada Benham, built "Bird's Nest Glen", a beautiful mansion along Cascade Creek. The mansion was later destroyed by fire and today the land is part of the Marin Town and Country Club.

Whatever Charlie earned passed through his hands rapidly. However, Charlie's eccentricities engendered a number of widely told anecdotes or "Charlie stories", humorous, self-deprecating tales about gambling and drinking. The best "Charlie story", originating most certainly from the deep south on the east coast, is told on page 112 of Richard Samuel's historical review.

Charlie also served as an expert moderator in episodes of "dueling", the method by which men could settle claims related to "honor". On November 6, 1960, a bronze plaque, erected by the Marin County Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, has stood on the periphery of what was Bird's Nest Glen, designating it as a California Historical Landmark, Number 679, and crediting Charlie Fairfax for having been the "host to the principals and friends of the two antagonists on the occasion of the state's final duel".

In Marin County Charlie partnered with James Dixon to run a logging operation on the coast, with the intention to log and mill the redwoods (the Sequoia). Following Charlie's death from chronic debilitation, James Dixon was killed in a log jam and the logging operation came to a halt. Ada took up residence in San Francisco with her mother and niece for awhile, but then moved to Washington, D.C., where a benefactor found her a job with the Treasury Department. According to one account, she became the "Belle of Washington", who entertained Grover Cleveland and the future Presidents, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Other accounts say that Ada lived reclusively and died in Washington, D.C. on September 27, 1888 after a lingering illness.

In 1931 the neighborhood around Bird's Nest Glen, with 2,250 citizens, voted to incorporate as a township under the name of "Fairfax".

Richard Snowden, Sr., worked variously as a "sometime miner", California State Printer, newspaper publisher, prison administrator, volunteer soldier and political operative. At one point he became the Director of the San Quentin State Prison. Ultimately, Richard again took up the hunt for precious metals and moved east of the Comstock range to a silver mining town initially called "Dixie" but soon changed to "Unionville" after the Civil War was won by the North.

I will leave it to the reader to learn from Richard Snowden Samuel's historical review, the details of violence by which Richard Snowden, Sr., and his two sons, Richard Snowden, Jr., and Gustavus Warfield Snowden, died. However, had "Uncle Dick", as Richard, Sr., was known in California, lived, he might have found the fortune that eluded him. His partner at the time, Richard Hammond, soon turned from mining to railroading, which centered on the completion of the transcontinental railroad to the Pacific Coast. Hammond later served as General Superintendent of the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad and moved on to become Vice-President of the Board of Directors of the California Pacific Railroad. In time, he became a confidant of Leland Stanford, Chairman of the Central Pacific. For some Californians, the transcontinental railroad became the greatest bonanza of all.

Elizabeth Ridgely Warfield Snowden died on May 7, 1903 at the age of 86. Among the belongings that she left behind was a collection of locks of hair clipped from the heads of Warfield and Snowden children and tied with ribbons during the period from 1752 through 1853. This "Hairbarium" was ultimately left to the Howard County Historical Society. There, today, one can see the childhood ringlets of Elizabeth Ridgely Warfield Snowden; her long-estranged husband, the murdered Uncle Dick; their middle son, the massacred Dick, Jr.; and their eldest son, Gus Snowden, the suicide.

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©2005 George A. Scheele MD