In the fall of 1849, the religious directors of the University of Notre Dame launched what they admitted was a "strange and extraordinary" venture. The seven-year-old school was in desperate financial shape and they decided to send four Roman Catholic Brothers of the Holy Cross to California to "dig for gold." So it was that in February 1850 four French religious brothers left South Bend, Indiana, for El Dorado. Led by Brother Lawrence Menange, they included Brothers Justin Gautier, Placidus Allard (who had been reprimanded for giving "rough and impolite answers" to the professors), and the talented Gatien Monsimer (whom one student recalled was capable of doing anything and everything).
The university hired a former sailor, George Woodworth, to direct the expedition, which was named the St. Joseph Company. Two students joined the party. All agreed to work together for two years and split the profits with the university, which had invested $1,450 in the enterprise. The monks left Independence, Missouri, on April 30, heading west with some 3,300 pounds in supplies, including six gallons of whiskey and brandy. Some 50,000 other adventurers crowded the California Trail that year. "We see on the road young and old, rich and poor, men and women, children and babies," Brother Justin wrote. There were many hard cases, but some gold seekers were real gentlemen "and behave better than is generally thought." Fortunately, "many among us can crack good jokes."
The brothers passed through 200 miles of Pawnee country and saw only a few deserted tents "but not a single red man." At Fort Kearny, soldiers told them they had nothing to fear from the American Indians--if they were robbed, it would be by white marauders. The St. Joseph Company next reported from California in mid-July. It is not clear which route they took to the gold fields, but Woodworth got them safely over the Rockies and the Great Basin deserts in close to record time. (Apparently they didn't stop in Salt Lake City.) The party passed 3,000 abandoned wagons and 10,000 dead animals on the Forty-Mile Desert before crossing the Sierra Nevada.
From Hangtown (today's Placerville), Brother Gatien wrote in September that El Dorado wasn't as golden as rumor indicated. Prices were eight times what they were in the states. "Only the smartest & luckiest of emigrants can get along and make a fortune. People ought to stay home." By November, Gatien was a mere skeleton and the picture of death. He wanted to return home and reported the other brothers had been "reduced to the last extremity." Tragically, the rough-and-tumble Brother Placidus didn't survive the rigors of California's gold fields.
Notre Dame's authorities had launched the venture without notifying their religious superiors in France, who were not happy when they heard about it. They chastised the university for sending brothers to a place where they could die without the sacraments among "the adventurers and the dregs of society who people this California." (Notre Dame, of course, later discovered its true gold mine: football.)
The Brothers of the Holy Cross weren't the only religious organization that sent men to California. Brigham Young called a number of "Gold Missionaries" to go to El Dorado in 1849, including Henry Bigler and James S. Brown, who had witnessed the gold discovery at Sutter's Mill. The Mormons fared no better than their Catholic colleagues. Ironically, the charitable works of Catholics in the American West proved a godsend for the people of pioneer Utah. In 1875, the Sisters of the Holy Cross established the first hospital in Utah Territory. Today Holy Cross Hospital (now Salt Lake Regional Medical Center) stands as a proud Salt Lake City historic landmark.
Utah historian Will Bagley is writing a history of the Oregon and California national historic trails.