Actress Helen Hunt discovered her Gold Rush family roots, and you can discover your family’s history too.
- Written by Mark Boardman
- Published November 05, 2012
More people are getting into investigating history.
Their family history, that is. Not necessarily this column. Drat.
That includes Academy Award-winning actress Helen Hunt. She conducted her investigation on Who Do You Think You Are?, an NBC series which, unfortunately, became history itself not long after her episode aired this past March.
Hunt didn’t know much about her father’s family. His mother, whom she is named after, had died when he was five, and the family’s stories had died with her. So NBC’s team of historians, genealogists and other researchers dug up information on Hunt’s great-great-grandfather, who, it turns out, had an impact on the Old West.
His name was Wolf Scholy. He was born in Bavaria, Germany, in 1822, and he worked as a farmer. He and his family likely faced persecution in the homeland—they were Jews—so he moved to the U.S. in 1845, about six years after his older brother Abraham had made the trip. The brothers started a clothing wholesale business and met immediate success. Wolf changed his name to William Scholle.
When the California Gold Rush hit in 1848, the ambitious Scholles expanded their operation to the West Coast. William and younger brother Jacob headed to San Francisco in 1850.
Business was good. An 1855 newspaper article—shown to Hunt in the show—reported that the Scholle Brothers had taken in a $10,100 clothing shipment. That’s about $270,000 in today’s terms. By 1858 the brothers had moved into clothing manufacturing as well as sales.
In the ensuing years, the company branched into grain import and export, groceries and banking. Abraham retired in 1868, at the age of 51. William took over and raked in the bucks. An 1874 San Francisco newspaper called him and brother Jacob (and several others) the “Solid Men”—each worth more than a million dollars.
By then, William was married with four children (the youngest being Hunt’s great-grandmother, who had an amazing life herself). The household also employed three live-in servants. Not bad for a Bavarian Jew who had come to the U.S. less than 30 years before.
William relocated to New York in 1881, a year after Abraham died. He apparently slipped nicely into the Big Apple society—the New York Stock Exchange Directory of 1886 listed him and Jacob as members, and it called William a “gentleman of mature ability, genial, kind and liberal.”
In 1890, financier Isaias Hellman decided to bail out the failing Nevada Bank in California—and he offered shares to a number of his rich buddies, including the Lehman Brothers, Levi Strauss and William and Jacob Scholle. The Scholles went in for $25,000. We don’t know how their investment paid off, but Hellman succeeded in turning the red ink to black. In 1905, he also handled the merger of the Nevada Bank with Wells Fargo.
William died in New York City in 1913 at the age of 91. His great-great-granddaughter, born 50 years later, had no knowledge of him—until she appeared on Who Do You Think You Are? Hunt was stunned and pleased to discover a family history that she could pass on to her own daughter.
The good news for the rest of us—who don’t have researchers hired by TV producers to dig up material on our ancestors—is that the information on William Scholle is in the public record, and most of it can be found online. The same holds true for millions of Americans, so you too can do your own “investigating history” on your family roots.