History of Major William Downie and the Downie House

    "Major" William H. Downie, a renowned gold prospector, recognized as the founder of Downieville, California, was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1820. His innate sense of adventure led him to become a sailor as a young man. One of his voyages took him to Ontario, Canada. From Canada, he journeyed to the Buffalo, New York, area where first heard of the gold strikes in California. . He was involved in two gold rushes, one in California and the other in British Columbia during the mid-19th
Century. Determined to seek his fortune in the gold fields, Downie set sail aboard a clipper ship bound for San Francisco via Cape Horn, arriving there in mid-summer of 1849. He and a group of 
other gold seekers almost immediately headed for Sacramento, and then traveled up the Yuba River to what is now Marysville. While there, they heard of gold being found northeastward on the North Fork of the Yuba. In October of 1849 Downie's group then trekked upriver, reaching a spot in late fall known as 'The Forks', where a smaller tributary, later to be named the Downie River, joined the North Fork of the Yuba. He arrived several months after Philo Havens discovered gold on the upper North Fork of the Yuba. Philo Havens was believed to be the first white man in the area. Here the group was successful in finding sizeable gold nuggets embedded in the exposed bedrock.
    Downie's group was a motley sort, mostly ex-sailors, including both whites and African-Americans, with either one or two Native Americans. Operating on a share and share-alike principle, they divided the day's take each night. On December 10, 1849, with a harsh winter already upon them, they moved into the first house built in the area, a rustic log cabin situated high above the river. It is by virtue of this structure that Downie claimed to be the founder of Downieville. He was said to have offered a coffee can full of gold if they would name the town after him. It is not clear whether he actually gave the gold to the town. However on March 3, 1850 a meeting was held at the Kelly cabin to set a series of laws to govern claims on the Upper Yuba District. One of these laws were “none but native or nationalized citizens of the United States shall be allowed to hold claims”. Downie became embroiled in a law suit in which “claim jumpers” accused him of not being a citizen. Major Downie’s statement was: “I soon vindicated my rights as an American citizen, notwithstanding the fact I was born in Scotland and proud of the land that gave me birth”. Soon after the meeting at the Kelly cabin there was a proposal to change the name of the township from “The Forks” to Downieville. On June 1, 1850, after being elected to the office of Justice of the Peace, Mr. Galloway, of the Galloway ranch located above Downieville, made the name official and this date was considered the official founding of Downieville.
    Major Downie married a Scottish woman from British Columbia and brought her and other members of his family to Downieville and replaced his log cabin with a new house. It was later sold to the town Constable. The Constable and his family lived there for many years. The Downie house went through several owners and then in June of 2007 it burnt down and was rebuilt with the present structure.
    When the Big Bend Gold Rush in British Columbia of 1865 began, Downie traveled up the Columbia River to try his luck once again. Major William Downie died December 27, 1893 aboard a steamer “City of Puebla” just before disembarking in San Francisco from Victoria, British Columbia.
    Downieville was home to some 5000 souls, many, if not most, housed in tents and other temporary structures. As such, it was one of the largest cities in California at the time.
    Destructive fires were continuous occurrences, destroying at times much of the town, including later structures built on Downie's original cabin site.  Happily, a new bungalow has recently been completed on the site and is available for short term rental. You can experience the beauty and serenity which William Downie recounted in his memoirs. "The scene that burst upon us was one of marvelous beauty and after these many years, it still lays before me like a lovely panorama in my recollection of the moment I first saw it."
    Situated in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, the Downieville area abounds year round in recreational, sporting and sightseeing opportunities. Call or E-mail us to book your stay in this magical, historical place.



This is believed to be the original Major Downie log cabin

Downieville circa. 1850