I am working on a picture book biography of Nancy Kelsey, who came to California in 1841 as the only female member of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party. I’ve done lots of research, but I am always looking for that last elusive bit of information.
Friday I was at the Bancroft Library to look at three letters written by Nancy Kelsey to her friend, Helen Murphy Weber, wife of Charles M. Weber, the founder of Stockton. The Webers have their own story— he was another member of the 1841 Bidwell-Bartleson Party, and she was part of the Stephens-Murphy Party of 1844 that were the first to get wagons over the Sierra Nevada. But that is a tale for another time.
I found a reference to Nancy’s letters in the bibliography to Cecelia Holland’s “dramatized biography” of Nancy Kelsey, An Ordinary Woman. Up till now I had surmised that Nancy Kelsey was illiterate, a not unlikely conjecture for a backwoods Kentucky girl who married at 15, and who dictated her memoir. But I was wrong.
Nancy could write a good letter — her spelling was somewhat uncertain but she had decent penmanship — and there is no indication that someone else was doing the writing for her.
Here is her letter written from the Owens Valley in 1872, two weeks after the massive Lone Pine Earthquake (estimated magnitude 7.4 to 7.9). I have retained her spelling.
April the 11 1872
Mrs. Helen A. Weber
As I promised to wright to you I will proceed. I would of written to you sooner but the country has bin in such An up roar that I couldnt. Ther was none of my folks hurt but they were all most scard to death. The earthquake shook down our chimney but the house did not fall. We have earthquakes every day and night yet, and my husband is sow dissatisfied that he is A-going to sell his place and leave. I am sory that he is A-going to sell for we cant get much for it at presant.
Rit to me and tell me if there is any land A round Stockton that we can get if we come out thair. The earth shakes so that I cant rite. Answer this or soon as you get it and tell me if you think that we can make A living thair.
Give my best regards to mr. webber and tell him that I would of A sent that money to him in this letter but I couldnt At present. Remember me to your children. . . . . . . . . .
I remain your Friend.
Mrs. Nancy Kelsey