My father just discovered a new Wikipedia page an historian wrote on J.Heinrich Lienhard, my great-great grandfather. The highlights: Born in 1822, died in 1903. Had nine kids. Emigrated from Switzerland. Roamed the Wild West. Tagged along with Sutter (as in Sutter’s Fort). Even mistakenly loaned him gold. Bad idea: he got repaid in sheep. But he was noble too. He stood up for the rights of the exploited Native Americans, documented the Anglo-destruction of indigenous people and of the environment, something that was at the very least, controversial dinner table conversation at the time.
Lienhard (weird to write that) via his travels with Sutter ended up in San Francisco during the peak of the Gold Rush. But he hated the lawlessness of California. On the other hand, he grew to love the indigenous people there. At one point, he actually lived among the Maidu tribe on the Yuba River where he learned their customs, saw their struggle, and bonded as an accepted outsider. It was clearly a transformative experience.
…His growing understanding [of the indigenous people] was extraordinary and increasingly run counter to the then dominant views. One night in the winter of 1848–49, he overheard his young Indian herdsmen talking of the times before the whites had invaded their valleys and of the ever worsening conditions.“The subdued talk of the Indians caused me to ponder,” he wrote. “In my thoughts I tried to put myself in the position of the Indians; and I wondered whether I would acquiesce if I were driven out of my and my ancestors’ homeland as had been the fate of the poor Indians. I confess that I was overwhelmed by strong feelings of revenge, always coming to the conclusion that I would take revenge on the shameless, greedy invaders in every possible way.”
He would journey back to Europe (via Panama) only to return a year later — then leave again and came back once more! His final home was on a farm in Nauvoo, Illinois, where he would outlive his oldest son Casper.
Beyond being a worldly and fearless explorer, the man was also an avid journalist. I, of course, love that he was so passionate about writing — lots of writers in this family it would seem (and I’m not counting myself).
In the mid-1870s Heinrich Lienhard began to chronicle the experiences of the first 29 years of his life from his childhood and youth in Switzerland up to his return home from California in 1850. In regular and fluent old German script he filled nearly one thousand pages, a task that was to engage him for several years, thus leaving behind a legacy of a very special kind.
His manuscript was packaged up in a book that underwent extensive revisions after the second world war. The historical importance of this chronicle has since been recognized by scholars as providing a unique perspective on early California, Sutter, The Gold Rush, the treatment of Native Americans, and the thrill of exploring a new land. Especially that.