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The search for George Crandall

Patricia L. Minch
Special to The Union

One hundred years ago, on July 20, 1908, one of Grass Valley’s earliest pioneers, George Henry Crandall, died at the old County Hospital on Willow Valley Road.

Few took note and fewer cared. His body was never claimed.

The situation might have remained unchanged but for a simple request in the spring of 2007 from an out-of-state genealogist, who provided a photograph, birth information, stated Crandall had arrived in Grass Valley in 1849 and wondered if some local record might reveal his death date.

Thus began the search.

George Henry Crandall was born in Newport, Rhode Island, on Oct. 16, 1825, the eighth and youngest child of Joseph (1785-1848) and Martha (Cottrell) Crandall (1790-1847).

Crandall’s ancestors had been in Rhode Island for many generations. Joseph Crandall was a seaman, known as “Captain Crandall,” and had sailed the waters of the Atlantic for 54 years.

In January 1849, 24-year-old George caught gold fever. Upon learning a company was being organized locally to strike out for California, he quickly signed on.

The Newport Mercury reported the purchase, repair and refitting of an old whaling ship, and on Feb. 15, 1849, with George Crandall aboard, the Audley Clarke set sail for California, rounded Cape Horn and arrived in San Francisco 198 days later, on Sept. 1, 1849.

From San Francisco, George likely took a crowded steamer to Sacramento, bought supplies, and then headed for the gold fields. Historic accounts place him at the site of the first discovery of gold-bearing quartz on Gold Hill in Grass Valley in September 1850.

In their “History of Placer and Nevada Counties,” authors Lardner and Brock gave an account of the discovery:

“In September 1850, George McKnight, who was camped on the top of the hill, noticed some gold cropping near his tent; he dug down a few feet, to find gold in the quartz. Young George Crandel (sic) rushed down to Boston Ravine with the news that the hill was ‘all gold.'”

Life as a miner was hard, often plagued by accidents, disease and fire. Successful in his early mining activities, George opened a hotel in Boston Ravine, but fire destroyed the establishment in 1855, with losses exceeding $5,000, and he returned to mining.

An early deed reveals that, in the 1850s, George was a principal in the partnership of Spencer, Crackling, Crandall & Company, owners of a 1,200-foot quartz claim on Gold Hill, while other deeds indicate he sold off several small claims described as part of the “Crandall Lode,” a 1,500-foot quartz claim in the same area.

George named Rhode Island Ravine in honor of his birthplace and built his home on Brighton Street at what is now the corner of Hocking Avenue.

Some descendants claim he brought the first white woman, a saloon singer, to Grass Valley, while a later census described George’s wife as “South American Spanish.” Aside from these fragments, the circumstances of his marriage are unknown.

In 1860 he appeared in the Grass Valley census with a 35-year-old wife, identified only as “A,” and two small children. Early baptism records found at St. Patrick’s Church for three Crandall children – George Jr., Alice and Charles – are also ambiguous, with the mother listed once as Louisiana Berber and twice as Louisiana Ross. The different surnames remain a mystery, but George’s wife was evidently named Louisiana, and the “A” of the 1860 census record probably referred to a nickname, Anna.

In April 1866 a fourth child was born, a daughter named Mary Louise. Anna died sometime between the birth of this child and 1870 and was almost certainly buried at old St. Patrick’s Cemetery. Whatever grave marker was placed at the time exists no more, and no burial records survive.

The oldest Crandall son, George Jr., remained at home, but the younger children were placed in the Holy Angels Orphanage operated nearby by the Sisters of Mercy. There, Alice, Charles Henry and little Mary Louise grew up.

There were separate facilities for girls and boys, but with both orphanages located only a short walk from George Sr.’s home, the youngsters probably saw their father and older brother from time to time and maintained some form of family relationship.

George Henry Crandall died on Monday, July 20, 1908, in the County Hospital outside Nevada City. A front-page story on July 22 in the Grass Valley Daily Union concluded:

“The deceased had an interesting and varied career, and kept to himself of late years, but was fondly attached to his old home in Rhode Island Ravine, where he lived so many years. His age was about 83 years. His remains are still at the hospital, and up to late last night it was not known what disposition would be made of them.”

George Crandall was likely buried in one of two pauper sites, the first on a hillside behind the old County Hospital and the second located not far away on Lewis Road.

It would be nice to think he lies in the small cemetery on Lewis Road. Most of the original wooden markers there have rotted away, but decades later the Nevada County Cemetery District fabricated identical crosses from angle iron for each unidentified grave. The site is quiet and peaceful, dotted with huge Ponderosa pines and old oaks which in autumn carpet the ground with golden leaves, a fitting site for the old pioneer, but there are few visitors and no flowers.

A year of searching has turned up George’s wife and 97 descendants. Most had no idea who he was, but each now has his photograph and knows the pioneer heritage of their Gold Rush ancestor.

The historical libraries of Nevada County now have a record of his life and family, and although his final resting spot remains in doubt, George Henry Crandall is no longer alone and forgotten.

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