|Dornin Gravesite (Photo by Michael Colbruno)|
George Dornin was one of the first successful daguerreotypists in California, as well as a successful insurance executive. He also wrote an account for his children entitled “Thirty Year Ago,” which was such a great description of the 49er days that it was later published in book form.
Dornin was born in New York City on December 30, 1830 and beginning at the age of 13 worked as a clerk on Wall Street. In January 1849, after hearing endless cries of “Ho, for California!,” he paid $135 for a ticket on the Panama and sailed for the gold fields of a distant California. The trip was difficult and he became homesick, writing that he cried “often and bitterly” over a daguerreotype of his mother.
He arrived penniless in San Francisco and slept aboard the Panama while looking for work. One of his jobs was painting memorial markers for Yerba Buena Cemetery (at the site of the new City Hall). This led to him becoming a sign painter and carpenter, but the ever enterprising Dornin also became a restaurateur and retail/wholesale grocer. His accounts of his time in San Francisco also includes a vivid description of the Vigilance Committee of 1851, of which he was not a member, but supportive of their cause.
In 1852, he moved to Nevada City arriving via boat and stage coach. Upon arriving in the gold fields he worked a number of odd jobs, including launderer, sign painter, baker and wallpaper hanger. That same year, he also took one of the first known pictures of Nevada City. He settled down for 18 years and worked as a merchant in Nevada City and San Juan, where he also got married and raised his children
In 1856, he helped form a Rocky Mountain Club, a Republican club set up during the Presidential campaign of John C. Fremont. The club was jeered with taunts of “Negro Worshipper” and “Black Republicans” because of their opposition to slavery. In the 1860s, Dornin served four years in the State Legislature while simultaneously working as an express agent, telegraph operator, bookkeeper and stage line operator.
In 1867, he began work as an insurance agent, at which he became highly successful. By 1873, he had already become a vice-president at Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company. A 1906 article in the Oakland Tribune announced the resignation of Dornin from the National Fire Insurance Company when he disagreed with the company’s method of discounting claims from the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco.
Dornin’s grandson was John D. Eldredge, who had a fairly successful career as a supporting actor on television and on stage.
George Dornin’s obituary aptly described him as “the oldest insurance man in the State, and a pioneer of ’49.”
[Original bio by Michael Colbruno, based on "Thirty Years Ago" and Oakland Tribune articles]