New York City native Benjamin Parke Avery (1828-1875) –– who began his California experience as a gold miner and later became a newspaper and magazine editor –– died while holding the imposing title of United States Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to China.
President Ulysses S. Grant nominated Avery for the diplomatic post on April 9, 1874, and he was confirmed by the Senate the following day.
Although the formal title has changed over the years, Avery was what today is called Chief of Mission and Ambassador to China. Subsequent Chiefs of Mission to China have included George H. W. Bush and Jon Huntsman.
Avery was an authentic 49er, arriving in San Francisco on July 8, 1849, and by the following summer was living in Nevada City –– working both Gold Run Creek and Deer Creek. He later wrote that he had moderate success as a miner, but did not become rich.
After a couple years here, he tried his luck at North San Juan and in 1856 was elected that town’s first postmaster. In addition, he acquired the San Juan Star newspaper and changed its name to Hydraulic Press.
Trained in New York as an engraver and journalist, Avery sold the Hydraulic Press in 1860 to become assistant editor of the Marysville Appeal. A year later he was elected California State Printer –– a lucrative two-year office for the 33-year-old newspaperman.
At the 1861 election, Avery, a Republican, had defeated John Rollin Ridge –– himself a Marysville newspaper editor (Marysville Daily National Democrat). And when Ridge became editor of the San Francisco Herald, Avery, in addition to performing his state duties, bought both the Democrat and Appeal and merged the two Marysville newspapers.
Soon thereafter, however, Avery left Marysville to become editor of the Sacramento Union. Then, from 1863-73, he settled in as editor of the San Francisco Bulletin.
It was in 1868, while editing the Bulletin, that the former Nevada City miner met with a half dozen other journalists including Abraham Lincoln’s confidant and biographer, Noah Brooks, and a young writer named Bret Harte. From that meeting, the Overland Monthly magazine was born.
Avery was a founding part-owner while Harte served as the magazine’s first editor.
Circulated throughout the country, Overland Monthly featured short stories, poems and artwork by Harte, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Ina Coolbrith, Joaquin Miller, John Muir, and many other iconic contributors.
In 1871, involved with both the Bulletin and Overland Monthly, Avery helped organize the San Francisco Art Association, (now known as the San Francisco Art Institute), serving as the association’s secretary. Three years later, the SFAA established the San Francisco School of Design with Avery as a charter director.
Then, to accommodate Bret Harte’s emerging national success and desire to concentrate full-time on writing, Avery stepped in as editor of Overland Monthly.
In 1874, when President Grant nominated Avery for the diplomatic post, the 46-year-old journalist was in declining health, but determined to accept the appointment. Unbeknownst to Grant, Benjamin Avery suffered from acute Bright’s Disease, a relentless kidney ailment, and died barely a year after arriving in Peking (now Beijing).
At his funeral in San Francisco, Avery’s pallbearers included former Nevada City attorney Lorenzo Sawyer, then a Federal Circuit Judge; Edwin Waite, a Nevada City newspaper editor who was later elected California Secretary of State; and other luminaries including former California Governor Frederick Low –– the man Avery succeeded as the United States’ diplomatic representative to China.
Regrettably, Benjamin Parke Avery, who in 1873 was named Secretary of the Pacific Coast Committee of the United States Centennial Commission, did not live to enjoy the 1876 international exposition in Philadelphia that he had helped plan.
Steve Cottrell is a historian, former city councilman and mayor and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.