Gage McKinney: Best family takes circuitous route from Cornwall to Nevada County

In its just released quarterly Bulletin, the Nevada County Historical Society tells the story of an immigrant couple named Best whose story reveals something essential about the immigrant experience.

Migration itself — the hardships, the travel, the struggle for success in unfamiliar settings — shaped the lives of immigrant families who settled in our county and influenced their descendants for generations.

So it was for William and Betsy Best, who hailed from Cornwall, in the southwestern most corner of Britain, where the Bests had been tied to the land for 1,000 years.


About 1824 William Best was born on the family farm. Being the fifth child, with no prospects for inheritance, he left the farm to become a china clay miner. In St. Austell, Cornwall, he became attached to Elizabeth “Betsy” Dyer, a servant in a prosperous household.

William and Betsy were raised in the cruel decade remembered as “the Hungry ‘40s,” years of potato famine, food riots and death.

“Everything was very dear and the working people were half starved,” remembered a Cornishman of those times. Thousands didn’t perish in Cornwall as they did in Ireland during those blighted years, because the Cornish were already looking seaward.

In the 1840s and even before, the British were investing in mining ventures overseas, and where sterling traveled the miners followed. Some Cornish parishes lost 25% of their inhabitants to foreign shores.


In November 1852, William, 29, and Betsy, 30, married, taking the first step toward a better life. A few months later, they entered the steerage cabin of a sailing ship bound for the British colony of South Australia. They undertook a voyage halfway around the earth — over 16,000 miles — something inconceivable to their ancestors. William and Betsy’s first son, William, was born in Australian waters in August 1853, a few days before they disembarked in Adelaide.

Like Cornwall, South Australia was rich in copper. William found work there, earning as much per week as he had earned per month in the old country. The Bests were accustomed now to challenges and after a year they accepted a new one by joining the gold rush in the neighboring colony of Victoria.


Men who had participated in the California Gold Rush found gold amid Victoria’s volcanic hills, making for a rerun of the California experience. The Bests settled in Creswick, a primitive camp of canvas tents. At the diggings the miners joined teams and used hand tools to uncover quartz ledges containing gold.

Tent life didn’t inhibit the Bests’ thriving family. Betsy gave birth to four children, two sons and two daughters, who were baptized in Creswick’s Methodist Church. The family remained until the surface gold played out in the early 1860s.


About 1862, the Bests returned to Britain, paying their passage in advance — a measure of their success. They returned to obtain medical care for their second son, John Best, born in 1857. The boy had contracted bone tuberculosis in the hip, an ailment still seen in developing countries today. An English doctor prescribed a lift in the boy’s right shoe so he could walk with a more regular gait. Having achieved their purpose in England, the Bests had no intention of staying. They had seen what the wider world could offer.

By 1870 William Best and his eldest son were mining copper on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts into Lake Superior. There the four younger children attended school, getting a level of education unavailable in their parents’ day. On the Keweenaw, wild flowers brightened the summers but winters were tough beside the frozen lake.


About 1874, the family arrived in Grass Valley, where William Best and his two able-bodied sons prospected for gold. Drawing on his Creswick experience, William staked the Magenta claim in the woods south of today’s Memorial Park. The claim paid well and later William sold it and comfortably retired. Betsy Best died at 59 in 1882 and William died at 66 in 1890


The son who didn’t mine was John Best, the boy with a lift in his shoe. While in Michigan, John apprenticed to a German cobbler. In Grass Valley, he opened a shoe store at 112 Mill St., and the John Best Shoe Store was a downtown fixture for four decades.

John Best married Amanda Richards, a dairyman’s daughter. “Aunt Amanda was tall and in her hat and pearls looked as grand as the queen,” remembered her grandniece, Brita Berryman Rozynski. The couple had a daughter who later owned grocery stores with her husband in Santa Barbara.

Their son, Elbridge John “Jack” Best, knew he wanted to study medicine after dissecting a frog in eighth grade biology. He studied at UC Berkeley and continued at UC medical school, graduating in 1911. He practiced internal medicine and became a UCSF professor.


Had William and Betsy Best remained in Cornwall, the lives of their descendants would not have been possible. In the old country few sons of miners established businesses and none attended university.

Yet for all that William and Betsy Best and their descendants gained from venturing across the seas, they lost something precious — a homeland. In Grass Valley they found a new home, living in a neighborhood where their cousins also settled and worshipping with Cornish families in the Methodist Church.


This restoration of home in a faraway place has assured the Best family’s loyalty to Nevada County for 140 years. The family recently made a significant contribution to the Nevada County Historical Society which will help preserve hundreds of family stories at the Searls Library in Nevada City.

You can obtain the full annotated story of the Best family by joining the Nevada County Historical Society. See details at the website:

Gage McKinney’s new book Gold Mining Genius: A Life of George W. Starr is available at The Book Seller, Grass Valley, and Harmony Books, Nevada City.

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