Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

A Massachusetts Entrepreneur in Gold Rush California: Jonas Clark and the Economic Foundations of Clark University

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

A Massachusetts Entrepreneur in Gold Rush California: Jonas Clark and the Economic Foundations of Clark University

Article excerpt

Many books and articles have been written about easterners stricken by "gold rush fever" who remained in the Golden State until their deaths. Not so much has been written about those New Yorkers and New Englanders who went out to California in the 1850's to seek their fortunes and returned, either flat broke or successful enough that they could contribute to the economic and social development of their home regions.1 Among the latter group was Jonas Gilman Clark (1815-1900), a regional entrepreneur from Hubbardston, Massachusetts who returned from his eleven-year California sojourn (1853-64) with the beginnings of a substantial fortune. That fortune enabled him to invest in land and other economic activities in New York, Boston, and Worcester, to make several trips to Europe, to donate a library and town hall to his native town, and eventually to found a university in his home county.


Clark, the son of a prosperous farmer and stock raiser, attended Hubbardston's winter district schools, worked with his father on seasonal farm tasks, and occasionally traveled with his bachelor uncle, a prosperous Boston merchant, on business trips. His only formal education was in the district school. But from an early age, young Jonas was encouraged to become an avid reader by his mother, who was a great reader herself. He began with the Bible and old political pamphlets and continued to add to his collection. Old books that area farmers brought to town along with their produce added to his library. One of the purchases he made from his mother's legacy after her death in 1857 was a Doré Bible. As we shall see, he eventually began to collect many books and to join and then to build libraries to house them.

At sixteen, Clark apprenticed himself to a wheelwright and learned the art of carriage building, and after five years established his own carriage factory. In 1836 he married Susan Wright (1816-1904), a neighbor. As the town's farmers began to manufacture wooden chairs in the off-season, Clark began trading carriages for chair stock, and from 1835 onward began marketing both carriages and chairs in Boston and elsewhere in New England.2

Around 1845, discovering there was a better profit margin in "tinware" than in furniture, Clark sold his carriage and chair shop and transferred his capital into the manufacture and sale of tinware and hardware. By 1845 he had taken his brothers into the business, put twenty-five teams on the road, and was selling his products throughout rural New England. Leaving one brother to manage the manufacturing end, he expanded into general hardware and building supplies, opening retail stores in Hubbardston, Lowell, and, in partnership with a brother-in-law, Milford.

Jonas and Susan Clark were also active in the social reforms of the time. Clark was interested in the common school movement and was an admirer of Horace Mann. They were members of the Hubbardston Unitarian Church, where Jonas Clark taught a class in its church school. In the early 1840s he and Susan Clark, along with his sister Caroline and her husband, James Alson Waite, became active in William Lloyd Garrison's New England AntiSlavery Society, attending meetings both in Hubbardston and nearby towns, as well as the New England Anti-Slavery Conventions in Boston. The Clarks became officers of the North Division of the Worcester County Anti-Slavery Society, contributed money to the cause and hosted both black and white speakers in their Hubbardston home. They also knew Adin Ballou and others in the antislavery Utopian colony of Hopedale, Massachusetts. Clark was also a vigorous opponent of the American war with Mexico, begun in 1846.3

Around 1850 the Clarks moved to Boston, where Jonas Clark became interested in the possibilities of the newly lucrative California trade. In 1851 he sold his share in the tinware business to his brothers and also sold his stores. The following year he formed a partnership with Isaac Church, a partner in a Boston store selling crockery and glassware. …

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