Few men during California’s Gold Rush achieved such success as pioneer editor and nature writer Benjamin P. Avery – measured not in dollars, but in his reputation as an honest, thorough and intelligent man. The unsung editor and motivating force behind the prestigious Overland Monthly after Bret Harte’s departure, Avery championed the arts and challenged newspapers to be more informative than inflammatory. “Perhaps no one person did so much to educate the people of the State in the right direction — to lift the thoughts of men above the sordid interests of the hour and the mean ambitions of personal gain,” The Monthly’s staff wrote of him. Avery, a self-made man, was born Nov. 11, 1828, in New York City. His father died from cholera in 1832, leaving a widow and five children. Avery’s mother moved to Philadelphia where Avery attended common school until age 12. At 24, he left New York and sailed around the Horn for San Francisco. Like most Gold Rush miners, Avery discovered that the glitter of easy money quickly gave way to the drudgery of survival. Avery’s salvation came from George K. Fitch, the flamboyant editor of the San Francisco Times and Transcript. Desperate, Avery had written a poem with charcoal onto the back of his mining pan and sent it to Fitch. Fitch bought the poem, paying Avery in gold dust and telling him, “You can make better money in literature than you can in those hills.”
Avery moved to North San Juan in the Mother Lode, working briefly as a druggist. In 1857, he began editing the North San Juan Star, which he eventually bought. Avery changed the name, format and content and in August 1858 published the first edition of The Hydraulic Press.
In an era of extreme partisanship, Avery maintained journalistic detachment and a sense of honesty more akin to the press today than Avery’s time. In 1860, a group of publishers offered Avery the job of editing a new paper, the Marysville Appeal. Under Avery, The Appeal became the state’s leading Republican newspaper. The next year Avery was elected state printer and married Mary Fuller, a public school teacher in Marysville. Two years later he began a relationship with the San Francisco Bulletin that lasted for a decade and gave him statewide exposure. In 1868, Avery helped Bret Harte found the Overland Monthly, which included Mark Twain, John Muir and Ambrose Bierce in the first issue. Avery divided his energy between The Bulletin and the Monthly. His health deteriorating, he retired from The Bulletin in 1873.
Avery was often critical of gaudy journalism. “Our journals wrangle over, rather than discuss public measures,” he wrote in 1874. “(They) indulge in personal charges and recrimination rather than argument.”
He died a year later of Bright’s disease, a liver malady.’’’