California Emigrant Letters

Feather River, Sept. 29, 1849

Now I will tell you what we have done since we got here; we have worked eight days and have made $16,000 — we have had extremely good luck, are on the Feather River, and pretty well up at its head, about 600 miles from Sacramento City. This is no farming country . . . I would not bring a family here for any consideration, for many reasons too tedious to mention, but you will do well to leave your family and come yourself for I believe there is a fortune for everyone who will come and get it . . .

So wrote Robert and Charles Springer, forty-niners, to S.W. Springer (probably their father). The letter was printed in the St. Joseph Adventure newspaper on February 1, 1850.

Editor Walker D. Wyman collected letters that were sent home and printed in local newspapers, mainly from newspapers in Missouri. Newspaper editors were eager to print news from the goldfields, and many a letter written to parents and friends ended up being published in newspapers for all to read. California Emigrant Letters was published in 1952 — you can buy a used copy for around $10 or find it in many public libraries in California.

The book quotes from numerous letters and collects the extracts under such chapter headings as “Overland in 1849,” “Life in the Mines,” and “Law, Order, and Religion.” The letters are lively and packed with colorful detail.

What has broken loose in the States? [writes a resident of Ft. Laramie] About every five minutes during the day, a white top wagon with a pick-axe slung to its side, rolls in from the frontier, stops for a few minutes, while the driver, with the “want of gold” stamped upon his appearance, enquires for the shortest cut to California.

Not all forty-niners were as lucky as the Springer brothers, but all seem to agree that the gold was “inexhaustible,” a word that shows up over and over in the letters.

In regard to the extent and richness of the mines, there is but one opinion here, that is, that they are inexhaustible.

“M.M.” Missouri Republican, March 22, 1850

The labor attending digging is of the most unpleasant character, and well calculated to try a man’s constitution and see of what material it is composed. About the time the mines were first discovered, persons could, with but little labor, go along the margin of the river and make far more than they can now by laboring all day. The cream has been taken off, in short, yet there is an abundance, of gold here and will be for years.

Anonymous, Missouri Statesman, March 1, 1850

For the emigrant seeking advice on how to outfit himself for the overland journey, M.M. explains in his letter what kind of wagon to select (“new, or as good as new, and made of the very best timber”), how to select your team of oxen, what staples to pack (“125 pounds of bacon and 125 pounds of flour”), and how to cook beans. The letters were full of good advice to the emigrant, so that as one man wrote, they will not “be caught in the same snap I was.”

Not all the correspondents are men. A woman running a boarding house writes:

We have now been keeping house three weeks. I have ten boarders . . . We think we can make seventy-five [dollars] clear of all expenses, but I assure you I have to work mighty hard — I have to do all my own cooking by a very small fireplace, no oven, bake all my own pies and bread in a dutch oven, have one small room about 14 feet square and a little back room we use for a store room about as large as a piece of chalk.

Another woman boasts, “I have made about $18,000 worth of pies — about one third of this has been clear profit.” But it was hard work — she had to drag her own firewood off the mountains and chop it herself.

I’d love to see a fuller version of these kind of letters published anew. They are endlessly fascinating and full of the rich flavor of the Gold Rush.

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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