History: A pioneer’s splashy arrival in California | TheUnion.com

History: A pioneer’s splashy arrival in California

Traveling from the East to California during the early years of the gold rush was never easy, no matter the route or mode taken — overland or by sea. Nearly 20% of all men, women and children who set out for California between 1849-1851 died trying to get here, with cholera a major killer, as well as shipwrecks where hundreds sometimes perished together.

Some ships wrecked sailing ‘round the Horn or trying to navigate the narrow Strait of Magellan, while others, battling dangerous tides and dense fog outside the Golden Gate, wrecked mere hours before an expected docking at San Francisco.

Maritime archaeologists exploring the Gulf of the Farallones, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Golden Gate National Recreation Area have documented more than 150 shipwrecks within an area of about 950 square nautical miles, although not all wrecks date from the gold rush. Among the vessels they’ve located is the SS Tennessee, a steamship carrying more than 500 passengers when it wrecked on the morning of March 6, 1853.

On March 6, 1853, lost in a dense fog and pushed north by a strong tide, the SS Tennessee missed the entrance to San Francisco Bay and wrecked on a Marin County beach. Among its passengers was Nat Brown, who became a typesetter at the Nevada Journal and in 1860 founded the Nevada City Morning Transcript.
Courtesy Library of Congress

Until a ship’s lookout spotted jagged rocks protruding from the fog-shrouded ocean, Capt. Edward Mellus was unaware that a powerful outgoing tide had pushed his ship up the Marin County shoreline, four miles north of its intended entry into San Francisco Bay. And by the time he was alerted, reversing course was too risky.

Mellus was, however, able to beach the ship near a sandy stretch now known as Tennessee Cove. And because of his decision to beach Tennessee, rather than attempt to navigate through the rock-strewn water and sail south, back to San Francisco — or, worse, wreck against an imposing cliff just north of the beach — all passengers survived and an important figure in Nevada County history was able to wade ashore and begin life in California.

The captain’s decision also affected future fashion, because among the passengers was 25-year-old Levi Strauss, a native of Germany, who would go on to produce riveted denim pants — originally intended for miners and now worn worldwide. But for the future benefit of Nevada County, a passenger who waded ashore that cold, foggy morning was Nathaniel Pettingell Brown, a 19-year-old typesetter from Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Nathaniel Pettingell Brown (1834-1927) survived an 1853 shipwreck and became a respected Nevada City newspaper publisher and community leader.
Courtesy Pattie Bernardo Shaw

Prior to Aaron Sargent leaving Newburyport in 1849, he and Brown had worked at the same newspaper, so, when Sargent returned home in 1852 to marry Ellen Clark, he told the young typesetter about his part-ownership of the Nevada (City) Journal and encouraged Nat to join him in California. A year later, penniless and weary from his misadventure on the isolated Marin County beach, Brown arrived at the Broad Street home of Aaron and Ellen Sargent, and the Nevada Journal had a new typesetter.

That first job at the Journal led to a remarkable career for a man who might well have perished in 1853 had Mellus not been able to avoid ramming into the cliff at present-day Tennessee Point. Unfortunately, after a few days of being pounded by the surf, salvage efforts ended when the ship broke apart and collapsed into the ocean.

Although his baggage and personal belongings were gone, along with his money, Nat made it to Nevada City, went to work at the Journal, and a couple of years later bought an interest in the paper — becoming Sargent’s business partner, not employee. Then, in 1860, he established the daily Nevada City Morning Transcript, which published from 1860 to 1911, with Brown at the helm until 1904.

From his 1853 arrival in California until his 1906 return East to retire, Nat Brown lived and worked in Nevada City, marrying Janetta (Nettie) Deal in 1862 and raising a family at 528 East Broad St. (known today as the Emma Nevada House in honor of the opera star who reportedly lived there as a child in the early 1860s).

Nat was always active in community life, serving on Nevada City’s Board of Town Trustees (now called City Council) and the Nevada County Grand Jury. In addition, he was a candidate for both county treasurer and state printer, a volunteer firefighter, and a member of Odd Fellows Oustomah Lodge No. 16 on Broad Street.

On February 25, 1927, in Roxbury, Massachusetts, 92-year-old Nat Brown died and his ashes were sent to Nevada City to be buried at Pine Grove Cemetery alongside Nettie, who had died in 1902. Mellus, who maneuvered the SS Tennessee clear of sharp-edged rocks and other obstacles, and brought it safely to a sandy cove in Marin County, died in China in 1856.

Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at exnevadacitymayor@gmail.com.

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