As is the case for many American families, we have relatives whose lives were changed by the Gold Rush to California in the mid-1800s. Brothers John and Martin Bruce were not miners, but instead were attracted to the Gold Rush boom town, San Francisco. Here is their story along with the genealogy resources that helped us find them.
Gold Rush: Prelude and Impact
On July 7, 1846, California was claimed for the United States during the Mexican-American War, and the town called Yerba Buena was similarly claimed two days later. On July 11, 1846, the American flag replaced the California Republic flag at Sutter’s Fort, a sign that California was joining the United States. The following year, on January 30, 1847, the town of Yerba Buena, founded in 1835, was renamed San Francisco.
Gold was discovered on January 24, 1848, at the lumber mill on the American River owned by Captain John A. Sutter. The gold discovery was published in the San Francisco newspaper The Californian in March, 1848, but gained little credence. Then, on May 12, 1848, gold fever was set off in San Francisco when merchant Sam Brannan from Sutter’s Fort waved a bottle of gold dust and yelled: “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River.” > See Source.
Population then surged in San Francisco, climbing from 1,000 in 1848 to 25,000 by December 1949. The Gold Rush boom town was off and running. And the United States moved quickly to bring California into the Union, making it the 31st state on September 9, 1850. > See Source No 1 and Source No 2.
The wealth being created was the major lure for miners and others. The value of gold exported from California in 1854 was $51,429,101, while in 1855, gold exports were valued at $44,640,090. Also in 1854, the United States opened the San Francisco Mint and in its first year turned $4 million in gold bullion into coins. > See Source No 1 and Source No 2.
Many opportunities for work and wealth developed. In 1855, a bill to develop a line of steamships running between San Francisco and Shanghai, China, was under consideration in the state’s House of Representatives. And Gov. John Bigler pushed for legislation to gain for San Francisco the benefits of the whale trade in the Pacific. San Francisco would become, for a time, the largest seaport and international trade center on the West Coast. Building and repairing ships would be essential to the city’s economy. > See Source.
Off to San Francisco
With its glitter of gold and opportunities for work in the ship building industries, San Francisco drew the two Bruce brothers, Martin and John, from their home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
They were born in Cammin, Kreis Cammin, Pomerania, on 27 March 1833 and 10 March 1835, respectively. They were two of the four sons of Martin Friedrich Bruss and Maria Sophia Stiemke Bruss. Oldest son Wilhelm or William was born 25 September 1829 in Cammin, but died as a youth. Next oldest was Augustus F. Bruss, born there 27 December 1830. Martin and Maria Bruss and their three sons left Cammin, just inland from the Baltic Sea in Pomerania, with the Old Lutheran migration and came first to Buffalo, New York, and then on to Milwaukee in the fall of 1839. > See Source with Bruss entry at bottom of page.
The traditional occupations for Bruss men were sailing, ship building and ship caulking, and they pursued this work in sailing on the Great Lakes and working in Milwaukee’s shipbuilding industry, according to books written by descendant William George Bruce.
About 1849, Maria Sophia Bruss died in a cholera epidemic in Milwaukee. Martin Friedrich Bruss remarried and was recorded in the 1850 Census with his new wife and sons Martin and John. He then died about 1854 as only his widow was listed in the 1854-1855 Milwaukee Directory. In 1855, older son Augustus married Apollonia Becker, a young woman of 18 years newly arrived from Zemmer near Treves or Trier in southwest Germany. He settled down in Milwaukee to establish a career as a ship’s carpenter and to have ten children with Apollonia.
In 1855, brothers Martin and John were thus on their own, young single men who needed to make their way in the world. They chose to go west. About this same time, the three brothers chose to Anglicize their surname to Bruce, and that is how they appear in records after that.
In his memoirs — I Was Born in America — William George Bruce wrote this brief synopsis of the three brothers: “While still a young man, Martin F. Bruce went south and located at Pensacola, Florida. This was before the Civil War. John went to California. Augustus F., who later became the father of William George Bruce, remained in Milwaukee.” That Martin also went to California, if only for a short time, was a new discovery in our family history.
Working as Ship Caulkers
Two brief entries in Colville’s 1856 San Francisco Directory reveal the presence of both of the brothers in the growing city. The listings on page 25 are as follows:
> John Bruce, caulker, brds Isthmus House
> Martin Bruce, caulker, brds Isthmus House
They were pursuing one of the traditional occupations of the Bruss men, calking or caulking ships, a process of making them watertight. And they both were living at Isthmus House, a residential hotel on First Street between Market and Mission streets, the address given on page 108 of the directory. Isthmus House, established about 1851 by Nathan Hellings, was about six blocks in from the Embarcadero, the site of the city’s wharves on San Francisco Bay.
These brief scraps of information are all we have to tell us that the brothers journeyed together to San Francisco in the Gold Rush boom era. But it is enough to evoke a glimpse of their lives as young men in the sprawling landscape of mid-18th century America.
Their Lives Diverged
By 1857, Martin Bruce had moved to northern Florida to work at the Pensacola Navy Yard. He met William Ollinger and they founded Ollinger & Bruce drydock and ship repair business. Martin married William’s sister Margaret Ollinger, they had two sons and three daughters, and lived out their lives in Santa Rosa County, Florida. Martin died February 20, 1894, and is buried in the Bagdad Cemetery, Santa Rosa County.
John Bruce worked as a ship calker in San Francisco for many years. City directories on three occasions listed the firms John worked for, including, in 1873, Middlemas and Boole, Shipwrights, a firm founded in 1869, and then in 1878 and 1885, the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, founded in 1848. John never married. He lived at several different multi-unit dwellings in the same area of downtown San Francisco his whole life.
The last known records for him are the 1904 California registered voter listings, showing him as aged 66, living in San Francisco at 560 Howard, 2nd floor, room 45, and the Crocker-Langley 1905 San Francisco Directory, page 357, listing him as John Bruce, calker, r. 560 Howard. We have not yet found the date of his death or where he is buried. But we now know much more about his life, thanks to the Gleanings entry in the recent Whitman County Genealogical Society newsletter that alerted me to the San Francisco directories on Archives.org. My thanks to the editor!
Dozens of San Francisco directories in the span of years from 1850 to 1982 can be found online free at the Internet Archive at this URL: http://www.archive.org/ Use the search term San Francisco directory and Media Type as Texts to find all of them. The 1856 Directory published by Samuel Colville can be found here. Choose the Read Online format for a digital book allowing you to flip through the pages. Note that the Bruce entries are not in alphabetical order by first name, John appearing after Martin.