Dr. John C. Neff: Dentist and Gold Rush ‘49er

Image of news of the Dr. Neff returning home from the gold fields. Carlisle Herald, April 1, 1850.
Photo of the Neff family monument in Ashland Cemetery, Carlisle.

Top: Dr. Neff returning home from the gold fields. Carlisle Herald, April 1, 1850;

Bottom: The Neff family monument in Ashland Cemetery, Carlisle.

Shortly before 1840, John Cassilus Neff1 and his family settled in Carlisle where he opened his practice as a dentist.2 During the 1840s, Dr. Neff would read newspaper articles about the great wagon train migrations to the west, the annexation of Texas and the battles of the Mexican War, but his life would change when he read that gold had been discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California on January 24, 1848.

News of the gold strike reached the newspapers in the east in August 1848. Four months later, Dr. Neff bid his wife and three children farewell3 and left for California with a party of local men. They traveled to California by way of Cape Horn.4 The 15,000-mile trip took from three to six months. The trip was dangerous, especially sailing in the frigid, treacherous waters around the tip of the Cape.

An alternate trip to California by ship was cheaper and shorter, but you had to cross the jungles of Panama with its poisonous snakes, swarms of insects, malaria and cholera. The overland route could be as brutal in a different way.

In November 1849, the Carlisle Herald announced “that intelligence has been received, by the last steamer, of the safe arrival in California of Dr. J. C. Neff, who left Carlisle last winter and took passage by sea….”5

Unlike many men who went to the gold fields, not only did Dr. Neff return home, but he actually found gold. “California Pickings,” headlined an item in the April 1, 1850 edition of the Carlisle Herald. “Dr. J. C. Neff,” the newspaper reported, “whose departure for the California “diggings” we duly chronicled about the 1st of January 1849, returned to this borough on Monday last, after a fifteen months’ absence. The Dr., we are glad to learn, has been highly successful, having been able to deposit at the Mint for coinage about $4,000 of the precious dust.”

Dr. Neff “saw the elephant,” as the expression of the day went, and he had his big adventure. Once back in Carlisle, he spent the remainder of his life tending to the dental needs of the town’s residents from his house on West High Street.6 He died at his residence on Sunday, June 1, 1884. He had been in failing health for some time, and a stroke killed him almost immediately.7 He is buried in Ashland Cemetery with his wife and several children.

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References (Sources Available at CCHS in bold)

[1] Records of the First Presbyterian Church of Carlisle state that John Cassilis Neff and his wife Margaret were admitted into the church on March 4, 1858.

[2] Neff’s first dental surgery was located at No. 7 Harper’s Row (later Irvine Row). Carlisle Herald, February 17, 1841. American Volunteer, January 13, 1842. Advertisement had run since August 1, 1839.

[3] The Neff’s had four children: Mary Josephine who died March 12, 1840; Annie (1831-1906); the second wife of Dr. George W. Stine of Harrisburg; Theophilus (1839-1908); James Polk (1844-1915). James Polk Neff’s Pennsylvania death certificate (#64340) gives his mother’s maiden name as Margaretta Stahl and born in PA. Her obituary stated that she was born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania 86 years previously. She died at the home of her son-in-law, Dr. George W. Stine of Harrisburg. Evening Sentinel, February 2, 1890.

[4] “Then, too, there were others who went to California by water, sailing around Cape Horn. Of these we recall Dr. J. C. Neff, the dentist…” Charles H. Leeds,

[5]Carlisle Herald, November 14, 1849.

[6] In June 1851, Dr. Neff advertised that he had just returned from Philadelphia “where he has made himself acquainted with all the latest improvements in the art…” Carlisle Herald, June 4, 1851. In 1858, Dr. Neff advertised he had resumed dentistry on High Street directly opposite the Cumberland Valley Bank and would also spend the last ten days of every month in Newville. Carlisle Herald, January 20, 1858. He paid for the ad to run for one year.

[7]Evening Sentinel, June 2, 1884