Mining through the past: Cambridge student visits Nevada County to research Cornish heritage |

Mining through the past: Cambridge student visits Nevada County to research Cornish heritage

Cambridge University student Sebastian Horton researches Cornish heritage in Nevada County for his college dissertation. He has been spending time in the various area libraries, including the Searls Historical Library on Nevada City Highway.
Elias Funez/

Sebastian Horton has always dreamed of visiting California. Growing up in Penzance, Cornwall, England, he’d imagine a land of sunshine and balmy temperatures, a place where he could surf and skateboard to his heart’s content.

The 22-year-old finally made his California wishes come true, but the purpose for his trip is much more significant than he’d initially imagined.

Horton — a third year student at Cambridge University — is visiting Nevada County in order to conduct extensive research for his dissertation which will be presented in April. The topic of the project will be Cornish mine workers who ascended to positions of social and political influence.

“One thing would be the Cornish — kind of seeing how they rose up through the ranks,” Horton explained. “It’s the idea of the American dream. In Cornwall, if you were born in the poorest area you’re going to stay in the poorest area. You aren’t going to become mayor of London or prime minister. But you could do it here in this new world situation.”

Horton chose Nevada County because of its rich Cornish history and dense population of Cornish descendants. His home town of Penzance is sister cities with Nevada City, which piqued his interest.

“When I initially proposed this project my supervisor came to me and said, ‘Are you going for a holiday or for a research project?’ said Horton. “After about five seconds I said, ‘research project.’”

Horton’s trip is being partially funded by Cambridge. He is spending much of his time with his nose in books at Doris Foley Historical Library and Searls Historical Library. A typical day will find him moving between the two, finding as much information as he can about Cornish folks who made their way to our little town in the heart of the gold country.

“I’ve only really just started so I am still finding my feet,” Horton said. “A few years ago I had to do a smaller dissertation project and I did it on Cornish women in the 19th century where I live, which was really interesting. This year I had to do a dissertation as well and I was thinking I really enjoyed the first project I did.”

It’s common, Horton said, for university students to travel in order to complete their dissertations. He explained that supervisors will instruct students to go to their location, conduct extensive research, and make a project out of it upon their return. He just feels lucky that his interests led him to California.

Because of the limited amount of research time — he plans on being on the West Coast for just over three weeks — he said the possibility is there that the focus of his topic will change before its completion.

In its final form, Horton’s dissertation will read about 15,000 to 20,000 words — about 30 to 45 pages. He will present it in April though he is aiming to have the project completed by January, allowing time for any modifications he finds necessary.

Nevada County resident Gage McKinney — himself a well-known historical author — has been serving as Horton’s host and has been sure to show him some of Nevada County’s culturally significant historical sites, like Empire Mine and North Star Power House Museum.

“Seb’s arrival here testifies to the cultural diversity of our region and to the perseverance of our Cornish heritage,” said McKinney. “Cornwall has one of the great minority cultures of the world struggling to survive. Our community is remarkable for sustaining that culture and attracting talented young scholars like Seb.”

Horton has been bemused by the popularity of the Cornish pasty in our area, and admits he is “gobsmacked” to know locals might be interested in the work he is doing.

While in California, Horton hopes to see some sights beyond Nevada County and explore the parts of the southern state which he has seen so often in movies and television. An avid skateboarder, he looks forward to seeing places like Venice Beach, where so many of his skating heroes honed their skills.

“I did decide to kill two birds with this,” said Horton. “I’ve always wanted to come to California. Everybody wants to come to California.”

Jennifer Nobles is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at or 530-477-4231.

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