Albany’s Amazing Gold Rush Piano and its Connection to the Donner Party

A recent post by Carl Johnson (part of the Friends of Albany History blogger community) in caught our attention. There was a nugget of a story about a piano made in Albany that sailed around Cape Horn and made its way to California in 1849. It was called the “Pioneer Piano” since it was one of the first pianos to come to California.

Yikes!! That’s interesting. We needed to know more about this piano made in Albany that traveled 6,000 miles around the tip of South America in 1849, and ended up some 40 years later on the California coast.

The trail starts with a reference to a newspaper account, “Her Pioneer Piano” from the 1884 “Santa Cruz Daily Surf” by Mrs. Frank Lewis. With some research we pieced together one of the most fascinating stories we’ve come across in a while.

First, let’s talk about the piano

francis_putnam_burns_(pianos_and_their_makers)Albany was a hub of piano manufacture dating back to the early 1800s and a magnet for young men who wanted to go into the business. The man who made the piano was Francis Putnam (known as F.P.) Burns, born in Galway in 1807. He was probably in his early 20s when he came to Albany to learn cabinet making and piano manufacture.

In 1833 Burns married Myra Cole, from Duanesburg, and went out on his own in 1835. Burns was said to be “…of an artistic temperament and an excellent mechanic …would never permit piecework in his shop, impressing his workmen with the idea that a piano is a work of art, requiring the most painstaking efforts, without regard to time consumed in its construction.” Within a decade his pianos were winning awards in NYC (1842) and Albany (1848).

F.P. appears to have been moderately successful in selling his excellent quality pianos (his pianos cost between $100 – $500) despite intense competition in Albany. Francis and Myra has 5 children, 4 of whom survived to adulthood. By 1860 Edward, his only son, joined the business. But the Civil War intervened. Edward enlisted and had a successful military career. Upon his return from the Army Edward went back to piano making. But when his father died in 1868, Edward closed the firm, married a young woman from Middleville in Herkimer Co. and went into her father’s leather tanning business. And so the F. P Burns piano co. came to an end.

Why and how did the piano get to California? (The plot thickens)

Gold was discovered in January, 1848 at Sutter’s Mill just east of Sacramento. Within 6 months men were flocking to the West. President Polk announced the momentous discovery to Congress in December, 1848. Gold fever spread throughout America and the entire world. Men from Albany were not immune and hundreds of men in the Albany area set out for California to make their fortunes.

Some went alone or in twos or threes, and started a trek westward across the country with a small grubstake, pickax and a bedroll. Others, with more means, formed companies to support major expeditions.

The Albany Mining Association was created by 100 men from Albany and its environs who bought “shares” for $300 to finance the venture and make their fortune. The Association purchased the ship “Nautilus” (for about $9,000) and retained Capt. Wilson as master. In late February, 1849 75 mostly young men from the Association set sail for San Francisco from the New York docks. (The total passenger complement was 93.) It was a major event reported in the NYC and Albany newspapers.

The ship was fitted and provisioned for a two year mining venture. (The prices of tools, etc., would be double, triple or quadruple in California than if purchased in Albany.) Significantly, for our story, items that would make their anticipated 4-5 month trip more pleasurable were loaded on the “Nautilus”; these included musical instruments for a ship’s band and a piano!

The story of the voyage is documented in journals kept by 2 members of the party – James L. Pangburn – from Schoharie (now in the San Francisco Maritime Museum) and Dudley E, Jones, from Clifton Park (University of Arkansas archives) They describe the hours of enjoyment derived from the piano. Its “delightful strains” eased the monotony of the journey down one side of South America, around Cape Horn and up the other, with a stop at Rio de Janiero. The “Nautilus” landed over 7 months later in San Francisco in late October, 1849.

Well, what happened to the piano in California?

1849 burnsThe “Nautilus” was sold, as well as other items that would not be used for the mining enterprise. The money would be put towards the purchase of provisions and other necessaries for the miners. (Capt. Wilson had Gold Fever and had agreed to to join members of the company.) James Reed bought the piano from Capt. Wilson, for $1000, for his daughter Patty in November, 1849. “It was regarded as a great curiosity when it arrived in San Francisco and crowds flocked to see the instrument and listen to its melody”. (Patty later became Mrs, Frank Lewis, the owner of the “Pioneer Piano”.)

The Donner Party Connection

downloadMrs. Lewis started out life in Illinois as Martha Jane “Patty” Reed, daughter of John Frazier Reed – one of the organizers of the Donner Party – “the infamous wagon train caught in the early winter of 1846-47”. Reed had a fiery temper and killed a man during an argument while on the trail. He was banished from the group in October, before the winter snows started to fall. The group he left behind, including his wife and 4 children, was trapped in what is now called Donner Pass, northwest of Lake Tahoe, in the Sierra Mountains. Reed tried several times to reach his family and the others with whom they were stranded. Finally in February 1847, he and several other relief parties rescued the 47 survivors, including his wife and children.

The family recuperated and settled in San Jose. But Reed heard reports of gold and headed back to the Sierras. He found his fortune near Placerville, about 80 miles from the location where his family has been trapped in the winter of 1846-47. Reed hit pay dirt. He was said to have returned with many saddle bags bulging with gold. More than enough to pay for a piano for a daughter whom he had once abandoned to hellish circumstances.

The 1884 newspaper article describes the piano as “.. a square, rather plain in finish, unostentatious in appearance and made of rosewood. It has not lost its pristine sweetness of tone through age as was evidence yesterday afternoon when a (Daily) Surf representative listened to some of the old time airs that Mrs. Lewis kindly reproduced. So highly was this piano respected for its early associations that for the 5 years it was in San Jose it was omitted from the assessor’s roll, that official facetiously remarking that as old men are exempt from paying poll tax, why should not this instrument be free from taxation on account of its age and valuable services.”

(Based on research by Heather Morris, the F. P. Burns Albany piano was the 4th piano to arrive in California; 3 others were delivered to Spanish grandees in the early 1840s.)

After Mrs. Lewis’ death, the piano went to Sutter’s Fort Historic Park in 1946—to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of her family’s ordeal. Today, the piano is said to be the California State Archives warehouse in Sacramento.

Thanks to Heather Morris and her blog –“The beginnings of my search for the first piano to come to California” April 2014 and “The Bad Luck and Good Luck of James Frazier Reed”, James D. Houston, Oakland Museum of Ca.,

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor