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Home: Regional: U.S. States: California: Nevada County

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Re: Grass Valley- Cornish families
Posted by: Susan S. Date: April 27, 2001 at 16:30:25
In Reply to: Re: Grass Valley- Cornish families by Louise T of 190

The following book gives quite a different picture of Cornish mining families in Grass Valley than Louise T. gave regarding some of her family members. (Bless your heart, Louise, I could almost see you winking good-humoredly as you wrote about the scandals!) This book might serve as a nice balance. Best wishes.

(The text below is the editorial review on

Highly Respectable Families : The Cornish of Grass Valley, California 1854-1954 (Nevada County Pioneers Series)
by Shirley Ewart, Harold T. George

Our Price: $16.50

The author, Shirley Ewart , January 28, 1999
How the Cornish and their values survived in Grass Valley..
Anybody could shovel for gold, but when it was necessary to mine the hard rock and to pump the water-logged depths of those mines, the owners needed to call in the experts. The tin and copper miners from Cornwall understood blasting and were willing to accept the risks of using "black powder" to get out the ore. Cornish engineers had invented the machinery, the pumping and the stamping engines needed for efficient exploitation of the mineral wealth of California gold mines. From other mining centers in the U.S. and from Britain, Cornish miners made their way to the little town of Grass Valley in California. Most came in groups: Brothers; uncles and nephews; fathers and sons. Each time labor was needed in the mines, someone would tell the foreman "Cap'n, I do have a brother (or a cousin), back 'ome." They became known as "Cousin Jacks".
This was a different breed of miner. They may have come from tiny Cornish villages and were ignorant of big city life, but many had traveled to Australia, South Africa, Central or South America; wherever there were mines, there were Cornish. These miners were often semi-literate, but they knew the bible as read in the Methodist Chapel "back 'ome", and they intended to live their lives by the same precepts taught in that Chapel. Too, they were family men. As soon as they were able they sent for their families, and although their wives were reluctant to leave their own families, they packed up their children and a few household goods and made the long journey across the Atlantic and across the United States to their new homes.

As early as 1853 there were 200 houses in Grass Valley, but the village was already described as "moral" and the Methodist Church had been established with twelve members and activities that included a "Ladies' Sewing Circle". It was a far cry from the rough and tough mining towns elsewhere. Before the end of the century, the Cornish emigrants had attained a presence so visible and forceful they controlled much of the local business, education, and political affairs in Grass Valley. The customs brought from Cornwall influenced the ethical and moral standards of the entire community.

In 1979 I started to interview some of the families of those first Cornish immigrants, as well as some of the last people who had made the journey from Britain to California. I wanted to know what motivated them to emigrate, what the journey to the New World was like, what happened when they arrived, and how Cornish values had survived in California. With the help of Cornish descendant Harold George, I was able meet representatives of several families including the Georges, Henwoods, Bennallacks, Chinns, Rowes, Tremewans. I also interviewed Mary Ann Kent and Ed Farley, who were among the last people to emigrate from Cornwall. People were extraordinarily kind. They shared diaries, journals, photos and press cuttings. They treated me to Cornish cream teas, pasty dinners, miner's lunch bucket cookies and "heavy cake". They introduced me to other family members. Not one person who I asked to help me turned me down!

To get a perspective on how the non-Cornish residents of Grass Valley viewed their Cornish neighbors, I talked to many, many people. Especially helpful were two retired Salvation Army officers Eloise and Howard Sloan who had served in Grass Valley in the 1930s. They were both appreciative of the values of their Cornish friends, and amusing as to the impact of those values on their own, American ideas of proper behavior!

Finally, I was able to put the whole book together. Because I had partly grown up in Cornwall (my grandmother was manageress of a hotel in St. Ives), and also I had spent some of World War II stationed in Cornwall, I knew the County well, but research into the conditions of the 19th century mines and the people who worked them was, for me, an eye opener. A chapter documents these conditions. Using contemporary sources as well as materials from diaries, I was able to describe the journey both from the point of view of the men, who came first, and of the very different view of the women who followed them. With help from the Searls Historical Library, local newspapers and family members, I was able to understand the history of Grass Valley and the changes time wrought.

This book took an unbelievable twenty years to complete. In all that time I had the help of Harold T. George, Cornish descendant, musician, teacher and patient friend. The publisher, talented artist and historian Dave Comstock did a superb job designing the book and reproducing over forty photos as well as useful maps. "Highly Respectable Families" has been enthusiastically received by Cornish descendants in the U.S. as well as by the Cornish in their homeland. Critics have praised the quality of the research, the feeling and understanding shown in telling the immigrants' stories and the addition of appendices including listings of mining terms and Cornish names and even some Cornish recipes. Anyone interested in the history of Britain or of Northern California, or of the Cornish people should really enjoy this book.


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