'Journey To The Gold Diggins. By Jeremiah Saddlebags' (1849), from the colorized reprint of 1950.

James A. and Donald F. Read were two 19th-century brothers, who lived in the Eastern part of the United States. Barely anything is known about them, but they did make a picture story widely considered the first original, home made U.S. comic book in history: 'Journey To The Gold Diggins. By Jeremiah Saddlebags' (May 1849), along with XOX' 'Outline History of an Expedition to California' (June 1849). Both were the first known signed and published comic books written and drawn by American people on United States soil. 

Historical context
In 1848-1849, gold was discovered in California, which motivated many to travel and settle there, hoping to find fortune themselves. Most were badly prepared to survive in such a harsh environment and/or lacked the proper tools. Even so, there was barely gold to be found in the region. Not enough to return home as a millionaire anyway. To outside observers, these naïve, gold-lusting men were a comical sight. Which explains why they inspired many humorous stories, including James A. and Donald F. Read's picture story about the fictional miner Jeremiah Saddlebags.

Jeremiah Saddlebags
The story opens with Saddlebags learning his aunt has died. She leaves him 500 dollars, which he uses to travel to California and join the Gold Rush. The reader learns that Saddlebags isn't very bright, because he buys a cradle, "since gold diggers use it to wash gold." Unaware of homonym confusion he purchases a baby bed, instead of a sluice "cradle" (to sift river water through to spot gold). The twit also sails to Panama first, in the odd belief this is the "fastest way" to get to California. During the trip, he gets seasick and is attacked by an alligator. Once ashore, he meets a bunch of Native Americans. They want his scalp, but in probably his brightest move, he throws them his wig. While they fight over it, he steals their canoe and sails back to safety. Saddlebags travels over mountains, where he encounters more Native Americans, manages to escape and eventually arrives in Panama. There he sails all the way back to California. Halfway the voyage, a group of pirates board his ship and make the unlucky man walk the plank. Since he can't beat the buccaneers, he offers to join them. They accept his proposal, but a few scenes later they are defeated by the Navy. Saddlebags is taken prisoner. The marines take him to San Francisco, where they plan to hang him for piracy. Luckily, an old friend rescues him in the nick of time.

After these tribulations, Saddlebags finally makes it to California. He finds a lump of gold, but other miners threaten to kill him if he doesn't give it to them. Saddlebags throws it in their midst and runs away. When he comes back later to see if the coast is clear, his rivals have all murdered each other. He picks up his priceful possession and heads to town, where the fresh millionaire stupidly gambles most of his wealth away. With still some gold in his pocket left, Saddlebags heads off home. Once again, it's no safe journey. A bear and afterwards a group of Native Americans attack him. Saddlebags tames them down by joining their tribe. However, he doesn't plan to stay. After a dangerous escape, he meets a group of white people, who think he's a real "Indian" and try to lynch him. When Saddlebags finally arrives home in tribal dress, he's badly bruised and wounded. The punchline is - predictably - that Saddlebags' "gold" is in fact "all rubbish". Though the Read Brothers give the story some resemblance of a happy end, because their antihero still has an exciting story to tell to his loving fiancé, which happens to be the book that the readers just finished.

Legacy and influence
In the 1830s and 1840s, Rodolphe Töpffer's picture stories were very popular in Europe and inspired many similar prototypical "comic books". They were equally succesful in translation and available in the U.S. Most historians agree that the Read Brothers must've been aware of Töpffer's 'Obadiah Oldbuck', because their comic book is very similar in style. 'Jeremiah Saddlebags' is a humorous sequential narrative about a tall, thin, very stupid and laughably unlucky man. All action is told in text comic format, with the text written underneath the images. Like most 19th-century picture stories, the narrative isn't very structured. Many random events occur and some feel a bit repetitious. On two occasions, Saddlebags saves his skin by joining people who try to capture him. Also two times he leaves a possession behind and has his enemies fight over it. And up to three times he stumbles upon a Native American tribe.

Nothing is known about James A. and Donald F. Read, not even when they were born or died. We don't know who was the oldest of the two either. Likewise, it's anybody's guess whether one of them wrote, while the other illustrated and - if so - who did what? For all we know, they could have written and drawn everything together. On the same token, their home city is a mystery too. In New York 'Journey To The Gold Diggins. By Jeremiah Saddlebags' was released by Stringer & Townsend, while in Cincinnati it was published by U.P. James. Did the Read brothers live in New York and/or Cincinnati? They certainly lived in the Eastern part of the United States and likely never set foot in California. Historians aren't sure which of these editions was published first. Both have 1849 as printing year. A colorized edition of the book was reprinted in California by William Wrendon in 1950.

In the same way it's up for debate whether the Read Brothers created the "first comic book in U.S. history". Previously, U.S. editorial cartoonists had sometimes used speech balloons in their panels, for example William Charles and Edward Williams Clay. Yet few had come up with the idea of writing and drawing an illustrated sequential narrative. In 1808 William Charles created an illustrated book, 'Tom, the Piper's Son' (1808), which adapted a well known nursery rhyme, presented in text comic format. Edward Williams Clay published 'Life in Philadelphia' (1828-1830), but this was a thematical series of cartoons produced over a longer period of time, with no actual "story". Closer to a narrative was Clay's 'This Is the House That Jack Built' (1840), a political-satirical text comic. Yet this comic was only a page long. In 1842 an English-language translation of Rodolphe Töpffer's 'M. Vieuxbois' ('Obadiah Oldbuck') had been released in the U.S. in Brother Jonathan Extra volume 2 issue #9 (14 September 1842). This publication goes down as the first known comic book published in this country. However, this work contained no comics made in the U.S. That milestone can be attributed to the Read Brothers' 'Jeremiah Saddlebags' and 'Outline History of an Expedition to California' by XOX (1849). Both books are picture stories, several pages long, written and drawn by American citzens, created and published in the United States. Both contain original material and both are signed. And, interestingly enough, both used the California Gold Rush as their topic. The same event inspired another picture story a year later: 'The Adventures of Mr. Tom Plump' (1850), published by Philip J. Cozans. But the Read Brothers' book came first: it was presumably first published in May 1849, while XOX' book seems to have appeared in print a month later. As far as the digital archives of Newspapers.com can retrace, the Buffalo Morning Express first mentioned 'Jeremiah Saddlebags' on Saturday 2 June 1849, and 'Outline History of an Expedition to California' on 30 June.

Read the entire story on The Internet Archive

Series and books by James A. & Donald F. Read you can order today:


If you want to help us continue and improve our ever- expanding database, we would appreciate your donation through Paypal.