Local writer explores life of Gold Rush ancestor

January 25, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Kristin Delaplane of Vacaville is an oral historian, a journalist, and a writer with an unusual family background. Combine all these elements and the result is nearly inevitable: she has written a book on a Gold Rush ancestor. The book is "A Gold Hunter: Memoirs of John Berry Hill" and it has just been published through Delaplane's publishing and oral history business, "Masterpiece Memoirs."

Delaplane says the time is right for the publication of this book since 1998 marks the beginning of the 150th anniversary of the Gold Rush, the sesquicentennial, which will be celebrated over the course of the next several years.

The three important dates being celebrated are the discovery of gold in 1848, the Gold Rush of 1849 and California statehood in 1850.

And Delaplane says the book about her great-great-grandfather may be one of the last complete memoirs of someone from that era.

If the name Delaplane sounds familiar, that's because her father, Stanton Delaplane, was a travel/humor columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle for many years. He died in 1988.

Kristin Delaplane's married name is Conti. Her husband, Charles Conti, owns Aaron's Rod, an antique store in Vacaville where copies of "A Gold Hunter" are available.

If the name Conti sounds familiar, that's because Kristin Delaplane was the reporter behind "The Question Man" column ("By Conti") in the San Francisco Chronicle for 20 years, from 1972 to 1993. She now writes a weekly history column for the Vacaville Reporter.

Asking questions and telling stories runs in the family.

"My Dad knew (John Berry Hill) when Dad was a little boy," Delaplane said.

John Berry Hill came out to California from the Midwest in 1850 and worked in the gold fields for three years in places such as Sutter Creek and Fiddletown. He did well as a gold miner and returned to the Midwest, to Charleston, Ill., with enough money in his pocket to open a grocery store.

"While he was in California he kept a little diary with very sparse details but then in 1870 he sat down and wrote his memoirs," Delaplane said. Delaplane put together "A Gold Hunter" in three parts: the first is John Berry Hill's journey to California along the Emigrant Road, the second is his life in the gold fields, and the third is his prosperous return to the Midwest.

Delaplane said about 40,000 prospectors came to California in the two years between 1848 and 1850. Only a few struck it rich.

"The vast majority found it discouraging," she said. "The work was hard and monotonous." Many dejected miners later settled in Solano County and became farmers or fruit ranchers. The main road from San Francisco to the gold fields in the Sierra ran right through Solano and Yolo counties.

Included in Delaplane's book are maps, illustrations and photos of John Berry Hill and his family and anecdotes from the young prospector.

"He talks about a cholera epidemic in the gold fields and caring for his friends. He talks about meeting Indians. He talks about mining a certain area and missing a fortune because he walked away from it too soon. He talks about a man who was hung as a horse thief, only to have the real horse thief show up two days later. He talks about old-timers salting a mine in order to scam people in town."

The 23-year-old John Berry Hill survived all these adventures and returned to marry the fiancee of his dead partner. He and his wife, Mary Ann Wright, had 11 children. But his fortunes were uneven. He lost the grocery store, started a pork factory, and ended up a berry farmer.

"Dad wrote a column about going to the Charleston farm one Thanksgiving when he was just a kid," Delaplane said.

Stanton Delaplane heard stories from his grandfather about his partner's death in the gold fields and his grandfather's subsequent marriage. His grandfather also showed him pieces of gold.

"Dad had a vial of gold on his dresser for years and told me it belonged to John Berry Hill. I took the story with a grain of salt but now I think it probably was true," Delaplane said.

John Berry Hill died in 1917 and was buried under a tree he planted in the cemetery he founded in Charleston. There's no doubt, according to Delaplane, that his experiences during the California Gold Rush made a profound and lasting impression on his life.

"A Gold Hunter" is available by mail for $20 by writing to P.O. Box 128, Vacaville CA 95696 or from the El Dorado County Historical Society at 524 Main St., Placerville.

Delaplane's next book will be about the history of fruit-farming in Solano County. She is currently collecting oral histories on the subject.

Portrait of Kristin Delaplane Kristin Delaplane is the author of "A Gold Hunter," published by Masterpiece Memoirs, 1997, $20.00.

She is an oral historian, a journalist, and a writer with an unusual family background. Read Elisabeth Sherwin's interview with Ms Delaplane in "Local writer explores life of Gold Rush ancestor," the January 25, 1998 PRINTED MATTER column.

Photos and captions by G. Richard Yamagata.

[Author Menu] [Date Menu] [Genre Menu] [Printed Matter Home]
The Davis Virtual Market