Bruff relives harrowing journey west

| July 13, 2015

By Drew Everhart

COSHOCTON – J. Goldsborough Bruff took the Chautauqua stage Friday July, 10 to relive his unforgiving and exhausting journey west in search of gold.

Bruff, portrayed by Hank Fincken, was no stranger to disappointment as both of his parents and brother died very early on in his life, leaving him by himself without guidance or financial stability. Bruff grew older and more mature as he dabbled in many hobbies such as map making, and collecting plant and animal specimens. After marrying and fathering 5 children, Bruff was still relatively unsatisfied with his life and felt a void within himself that he strived to fill. In 1849, he filled that void as he made the decision to head west to California during the height of the gold rush, a time in which all prospectors were promised riches for their curiosity and desire for adventure. If gold was not to be found, Bruff’s fallback plan for the long journey would be a descriptive journal that he would write along the way. The journal would include maps and descriptions of the land for which travelers who succeeded him could use to their own benefit.

As Bruff and his men settled into their journey, they began to realize that they greatly underestimated the effort and preparation required to make the trip. Their mules began to suffer from physical exhaustion and the patience of his men began burning faster than a lit fuse. Conventional issues, such as Indians rarely presented themselves; but, an even greater setback began to boil over. That setback happened to be none other than Bruff’s own men. Tired and seeing that the journey had already turned into a lost cause, the men began to display unruly behavior as they often refused to follow orders and intentionally sabotaged his plans. To make matters even worse, Bruff grew ill as he and his men traveled through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He urged the remaining group members to go on and come back for him after resupplying and acquiring new mules. Bruff estimated that they would be back for him in less than a week; but, to his dismay, it became obvious that he had been abandoned. With both his health and food diminishing, he could have easily given up hope and met his impending fate, but his selfless nature ultimately prevailed as he so generously offered travelers like him a place to stay and an equal share of his remaining food.

The unforgiving winter passed and Bruffs health slowly began to improve; he finally was well enough to make the long trek back to Washington. With his journals in hand and pockets empty, Bruff hoped that this costly journey ultimately wouldn’t be considered at total failure. Upon returning home, Bruff got busy piecing together the best bits of his journal into a publishable work. His finished product combined over 2 years of observations and descriptive maps; but, all of the sacrifice still wasn’t enough to convince publishers to accept it. Many said that the book was generally too lengthy and the content was outdated. Bruff couldn’t believe it. He had sacrificed so much of his money and time for this journey, and in return, his turnout was as baron as the promises of gold and glory themselves.

Spectator Irene Miller had this to say about Fincken’s performance, “It was exceptional in part because I lived in Idaho and had visited Fort Hall which he talked about in his representation of Mr. Bruff.”

Miller also remarked about her own experience hunting for gold in saying, “Well actually my husband and I visited Alaska where we went to the gold fields and panned for some gold, and to think back to how those folks suffered was truly interesting and saddening.”

Hank Fincken had this to say about what drew him to Bruff’s character, “Well, I wrote a novel a long time ago in the early 90’s about a Hoosier who went out west to find gold, and in my research I kept running across this name, JG Bruff. Everybody remarked that he got stuck in the mountains and had to survive a whole winter, but instead of feeling sorry for himself, he did all these wonderful things for people for as long as they were there. I thought to myself, why not celebrate a normal person like you and me and not just someone who makes a million dollars or kills a lot of people in a famous battle?”

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