The Dying Californian
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John Renfro Davis

The lyrics of this tune are based on a letter which told of a New Englander's death at sea while on the way to California. It first appeared in December 1854 in the New England Diadem. The words were set to many different melodies. This one was collected by George Pullman Jackson and printed in his collection Down-East Spirituals and Others (1940).

When gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in 1848 it began a national mania and a race for the California Gold fields. There were three main routes; overland via the Oregon and California Trails, by ship to Panama where travelers had to cross the swamps of the isthmus to take another ship, and a sea voyage around Cape Horn. Many adventurers died from starvation, disease, accident, exhaustion or shipwreck. Thousands of others who went in search of gold never found it. The population of California swelled. In 1848 California (then a Mexican province) had a population of approximately 30,000, most of whom were Mexican or Indian. Two years later the population was nearly 200,000 and a state constitution had been adopted.

Other Gold Rush tunes include:

Lay up nearer, brother, nearer,
For my limbs are growing cold,
And thy presence seemeth nearer
When thine arms around me fold.
I am dying, brother, dying,
Soon you'll miss me in your berth;
For my form will soon be lying,
Beneath the ocean's briny surf.

Tell my father when you see him
That in death I prayed for him
Prayed that I might only meet him
In a world that's free from sin.
Tell my mother, God assist her
Now that she is growing old,
That her child would glad have kissed her
When his lips grew pale and cold.

Listen, brother, catch each whisper
'Tis my wife I speak of now,
Tell, oh tell her how I missed her
When the fever burned my brow.
Tell her she must kiss my children
Like the kiss I last impressed,
Hold them as when last I held them
Held them closely to my breast.

It was for them I crossed the ocean,
What my hopes were I'll not tell;
But they gained an orphan's portion,
Yet He doeth all things well;
Tell them I have reached the haven
Where I sought the precious dust,
And I gained a port called Heaven
Where the gold will never rust.
Related Links
From The Ballad of America
See Bibliography for full information.