Brother Tom Goes East

Thomas Bidwell was only in California about six months. In the Spring of 1850 he decided that he wanted to return to college and resume his studies at St. John’s College in New York, now Fordham University.

Here are two letters to his brother John: one from San Francisco when he is looking for passage that he can afford, and one written a month later from Chagres on the eastern side of the Isthmus of Panama, while waiting for a ship.

Thomas isn’t kidding when he says that the price of a ticket on the steamship Oregon is “very high.” According to the website Measuring Worth, $275 in 1850 would be worth $3397 today.  Maybe comparable to traveling first class by air to Europe? (I have never flown first class, so I don’t know. Expensive, anyway.) The Oregon was the ship that brought John and Thomas Bidwell to California; it was a top-of-the-line ship.

Thomas includes news of Miss Helen Crosby, who has married Samuel J. Hensley. Miss Crosby and Hensley were also on the Oregon coming to California, and the two men were rivals for the lady’s affections. Click the links to learn more of those stories.


Steamship Oregon

San Francisco  Apr. 24 / 51

My Dear Brother

I reached this city yesterday evening (Wednesday) in safety. As yet I know not on what ship I shall sail as the price of tickets is very high ($275) to Panama on the Oregon, there are some other craft that go cheaper – I don’t know whether I shall go to San Jose or not, the passage there & back by stage is ($40) by steamboat ($30) which would take about ½ of the ($10) that I was to collect of Maj. D.

I may get a few dollars of Mr. Wilson and may not, he says it is doubtful – so I shall either have to take a poor but cheap boat, or a steerage passage, or return until better times, perhaps the latter.

Hensley is married to Miss Helen Crosby. W. says she married him to escape the importunities of Maj. H. and the persecutions of her mother! Hensley loves her so devotedly that he cannot bear to see her extend to others the ordinary civilities of a lady!

I am glad they are married – affections as pure and disinterested as yours, never would have met with a due requital from that family. I hope you will marry one that marries you not your bulls nor bullion.

Dr. Conkling & Mr. Wilson send their compliments. Remember me to the capt. of the Dana when you see him. He gave me a free passage to Sac. city. My compliments to all without exception.

I shall remain ever your affectionate brother,    Thos. J. Bidwell

Halfway through his trip Thomas writes again to his brother. They are stuck in Chagres, “a filthy disgusting hole” of a town, until they can get another ship to take them up the eastern seaboard.

We think of the Civil War beginning ten years later with the seizure of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, but the troubles started much earlier than that. South Carolina frequently threatened to secede from the Union, and 1851 was just one of the years before the Civil War began that South Carolina was talking disunion and the federal government was discussing the blockading of her ports.

Chagres, May 31st, 1851

Dr Brother, We reached this point in safety about 5 days ago. We had a very pleasant though a very long trip. We were 25 days from San Francisco to Panama. I hope we shall not be obliged to wait here long for it is a filthy disgusting hole. We must however in all probability wait until the 8th of June as several of the ships that formerly plied between this port and N. York have been chartered for the purpose of blockading Charleston and Savanna. Dr. Jones, an old acquaintance of yours sailed in company with us from San Francisco. He has with him about 150 or 200 lbs. of gold dust, but his riches are very far from rendering him respectable. He is proud, cross, peevish, fretful, petulant, suspicious etc. etc. etc.

Present my compliments to Mr. Frye, Barber, Morford and in short to all those with whom I am acquainted. Do Barber’s disasters lay any complaints? (eggs) My Coyote is well. Farewell for the present I shall write soon after reaching N. York.

I shall expect to hear from you as often as practicable.

Yours affectionately, Tho. J. Bidwell

Peevish petulant Dr. Jones had plenty to worry about, carrying that much gold. In 1850 gold was worth about $20 an ounce, and there are twelve troy ounces to a pound of gold. With 150 pounds, Dr. Jones has some $36,000 — at a time when a pair of shoes sold for a dollar.

I don’t know the story behind Barber’s egg-laying “disasters.” I especially would like to know what “My Coyote” was. Not a live pet, I guess, but what?


About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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