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The Cornelius Beekman you never knew

If you walk into Beekman's Bank in Jacksonville or take a tour of Cornelius Beekman's house, you're likely to think of a rich, old man with a beard who couldn't have had a care in the world.

But, of course, you'd be wrong.

True, it was Beekman who personally paid $500 for the 1,000-pound bell that was placed in the old Presbyterian Church belfry, nearly $11,000 in today's money. And his bank took in more than $15 million in Southern Oregon gold dust, while Beekman, instead of paying interest, was able to charge his customers for the privilege of doing business with him. And, yes, year after year he was always ranked as one of the two or three wealthiest men in Jackson County.

All of that and more is true, but even wealthy old bankers were young once, and you'd think with a man so prominent we'd know almost everything about those early days, but we don't.

Until he began packing gold, newspapers and packages between Yreka and Jacksonville in about 1853, we know very little about him except for a few short sentences that tell little more than where he was and what he was doing.

In the spring of 1850, 22-year-old Beekman sailed from New York, crossed the Isthmus of Panama, and arrived in San Francisco that fall. He had planned to rush for the gold fields, but after hearing rumors that all the good claims were already taken, he stayed in the city working as a carpenter and saved enough to invest in two restaurants.

In 1851, gold was being pulled out from around the Klamath River, not far from Yreka, and Beekman still had the fever. He sailed north to Eureka and crossed over the coastal mountains, where his party was snowbound for several weeks and nearly starved. The 125-pound boy finally arrived at Scotts Bar on the Scott River, a tributary of the Klamath. There he staked his claim.

There is a story, never confirmed, that this was about the time Beekman, a layman, prevailed over an actual attorney while defending three miners in a miner's court case. But other than losing $8,000 in gold dust in a flash flood and building some cabins for miners, what else he did while mining has been lost.

But a small window into the man's past recently cracked open.

"If you want to step back through the years," Beekman once told historian Fred Lockley, "you have to come to the right place."

Today, that place is a recently rediscovered story in the April 1875 edition of the Overland Monthly and Out West magazine. Written by William Turner, an Irishman and a Jacksonville newspaper editor who mined in the same area as Beekman, it tells the story of a gold thief and how Beekman was at the center of the action. That story is confirmed by a report in the March 21, 1852, issue of the Daily Alta California newspaper.

G.W. Smith, a young lawyer from Illinois, came to mine at Scotts Bar in 1852. "An innocent sort o' feller," Turner said. "Everybody liked Smith; he was always singin'."

Smith didn't drink, and he refused to gamble.

"There was a little wife an' baby back in Illinois that needed his money worse than the gamblers," Turner said.

Smith shared a cabin with Dr. A. Baid (the newspaper calls him Bardt), but they weren't friends and they didn't talk much. Just to be safe, Smith carried his gold around in his coat pockets. He nearly always took that coat down to the river with him, but one day he forgot it. It just happened to be the same day Baid, or, as the boys called him, "Frenchy," stopped by the river and told Smith he was leaving for another claim.

Smith rushed back to the cabin to get his coat and later noticed that 6 ounces of gold were missing, but, being good natured, he supposed he'd just remembered the wrong weight.

That fall he had $1,500 in gold in his pockets and was getting ready to go home and surprise his wife. When a few of the boys, including Beekman, came over to say goodbye, Smith tossed his coat on the bed. While they were talking, there was a rustling by the coat, but everyone thought it was just another mouse.

When Smith lifted his coat, he instantly turned white and began to cry.

"The meetin' with his little wife was a long ways off now," Turner said. "It was light as a feather." All his gold had been stolen by a hand reaching through a hole in the wall.

Smith told them about the missing 6 ounces and that only Baid had known where he kept his gold.

A miner's vigilance committee was formed. They tracked Dr. Baid down and put him on trial. All the men wanted to hang Baid, but Beekman, a member of the jury, said no!

"Old Beek was a kind o' natural lawyer," Turner said, meaning Beekman was a talker who would twist things around until he got his way, even if he first had to take a side he didn't believe in.

"It wouldn't never do," Beekman said, "to hang a man on suspicion."

Smith was furious. He pulled out his pistol, aimed it at Baid's head, and demanded to know where the gold was or he'd shoot. The boys joined in, threw a noose over Baid's neck, and lifted him up until only the tips of his toes were on the ground.

"If that didn't choke the money out of him, he was the wrong man," Turner said.

Baid confessed and, accompanied by Smith and the men, retrieved the gold.

"Great Moses! Wasn't old Beek mad," Turner said.

"Boys," Beekman said, "a man that can fool me that way is an awful dangerous element. The majesty of the law is busted wide open. Frenchy's got to have a little taste, to show him Americans won't stand no foolishness."

The jury agreed and passed a string of resolutions, the most important being that Frenchy would get 39 lashes on his bare back from a bullwhip, and when they were done, Frenchy had better get off the Shasta Plains within three days, or else.

Beekman counted each slash out loud until they were finished.

"Now, boys," he said, "I think justice ought to be satisfied. Let's make up a purse (from Frenchy's own gold) and give the poor devil a fair start!"

They took 3 ounces of dust and told Frenchy to "git and never be seen in these diggin's again."

"An' he wasn't," Turner said.

Beekman, 24, wasn't far behind. Jacksonville and 63 years of growing old were just a mountain away.

Young Cornelius Beekman mined in Northern California before coming to Jacksonville.