Four Letters from California

After the seekers of California gold left their homes in "the States," they were pretty much out of touch with friends and family for at least four months. A hasty note might be sent East with a party returning overland in that direction, or a letter might be dropped off at some port stopped at on the way around Cape Horn. Generally, however, the travelers heard nothing from Home until they reached California, where hopefully they found letters awaiting them. Those left behind couldn't expect to hear any news of their friends and loved ones until the travelers reached California, and were able to dispatch letters on ships bound for the States.

   Because information was so sparse and so tardy, and because interest in the Gold Rush was high, it was common practice for families to share their personal letters with the local newspaper. The four that follow were published in the Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Gazette on Thursday, 18 October 1849. All are from Pittsburghers recently arrived in California, so they are full of first impressions and expectations. Names are given for a number of the Pennsylvania "forty-niners."

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 I. From a correspondent to the newspaper, identified only as "B."

San Francisco, Aug. 22, 1849.

  Dear Gazette -- Since my last hastily written letter was addressed to you from the Missouri frontier, I have accomplished the unpleasant and laborious task of the overland route; and, after enduring more than I should be willing to do again, under any circumstances, at length find myself in the 'promised land' -- the place that we used to read about with such interest. Out of the large number of emigrants who left the States this season with wagons, it is now a pretty well established fact, that not more than one in ten will ever arrive with their wagons. Some are burnt, some sold, and many are broken down before they get to the mountains. These accidents give variety to the journey, as packing in all such cases is the only resort, and after one gets a little accustomed to it, is by no means unpleasant. Fortunately for those who come overland, the easiest part of the trip comes first. Arriving at Fort Hall, the already fatigued and almost worn out emigrant finds that two thirds of the distance has been accomplished, and the ardent aspirant for golden honors will probably console himself -- I did -- with the reflection that he is on the 'smallest end,' and just ready to step into El Dorado. But he soon finds out the mistake. From Fort Hall, a distance of some seven hundred miles, difficulties commence, and on the last 200 miles, each day seems as though all the vexations and trials of a whole life were crowded into it. With light wagons we were one hundred days in making the journey, instead of sixty or seventy, as we expected. Some companies with wagons, by dint of unparalleled exertion, have accomplished the entire trip in ninety days; being the shortest time in which the journey was ever made with wagons.

   For personal observation, I can say but little in regard to the mines, as I have been in the valley only a few days, passing on the way between, but not immediately through, the Juba [Yuba] River and North Fork 'Diggins.' Some of our company rode on and visited the placers, and reported on their return, that the average product, as near as they could learn, was about an ounce per day for each very hard working man. Arriving at Sutter's Fork [Fort], I found it, so far as business is concerned, among the things that were. It presents a forsaken and dilapidated appearance. Two miles below, however, at the junction of the American fork with the Sacramento River, Sacramento City is located. This city has sprung into existence since last April, and contains, at this time, several hundred cloth houses. A large amount of business is done at this place, it being the head of tide water, and place where all vessels from below, large and small, unload their cargoes. It is also the principal place of outfit for the mines. Building is going on rapidly, and speculation in lots is the order of the day. Several other cities are surveyed at different points on the river -- but you 'can't see the towns 'cause there aint any houses' in them -- all striving for the ascendancy.

   The Sacramento Valley, at this season, does not present a very interesting appearance, owing to the continued drought, causing vegetation to be almost entirely dried up. The soil is fertile, but want of rain is the great objection to its being occupied for agricultural purposes.

   Enterprise is doing everything for the country. A few days since, while on my way to this city, the captain of the little Sandwich Island schooner, in which I had taken passage, hailed the first steam boat that ever floated on the Sacramento. It was a novel spectacle, chiefly on account of its awkward model and slow progress. Her first appearance was not hailed with any joyful demonstrations, but on the contrary. I thought our captain, crew, and some of the passengers, were disposed to make fun of the whole affair. I thought of Robert Fulton's first experiment, and pitied the captain, who, by the way, attended to his own business, and took their jokes like a philosopher.

   The harbor of San Francisco -- the most spacious and beautiful, I believe, in the world -- has now some three hundred sail of vessels floating upon its surface, mostly ships of the first class -- from almost every nation. The greater portion of these are entirely idle, and can be purchased for one third their value at home. From two to five vessels arrive daily, landing hundreds and thousands of pennyless gold hunters, who generally find the reality of this case not quite so nice as they had pictured to themselves. Thousands of young men are working at any thing, to get money enough to return home. They came without means, or the knowledge of the difficulties in getting to the mines, and when they learn the truth, become discouraged. A person told me, a day or two since, that one of the principal salesmen in Stewart's fashionable dry goods house, of New York, came to this country, expecting to pick up gold in abundance, but in place of finding it, and wearing white gloves, as he did 'in the days of auld lang syne,' is earning money enough to get to the mines by carrying mud bricks for masons, sleeping on the ground, and cooking his own grub. So it is with hundreds: therefore, stay at home, all who are doing well, and never trust a ticket in the California lottery, with the expectation of gaining a fortune, unless you are willing to toil long and patiently for it. Business is inflated to the highest degree, and rests upon no certain basis. Goods are sold today at enormous profits, to morrow at a sacrifice. Lots are sold for ten times what they are worth in Pittsburgh, similarly situated. Rents are enormous. Single rooms that would bring about two hundred dollars in Wood street, rent readily for nine or ten thousand dollars. Wages from $5 to $20 per day, and board from $3 to $12. Ounces are valued about the same as dollars in the States; but expenses are in proportion, so that here is no great difference. Gambling is carried on extensively; thousands are staked -- lost or won as the case may be -- with perfect indifference. Almost every country has its representatives here, forming a heterogeneous mass of what can hardly be called society. The Americans are far more numerous than all the others, however, and give cast and character to all the affairs of the country.

   A convention is soon to be held at Monterey, for the purpose of framing a State Constitution, and apply for a place in our glorious confederacy. At present, there is not so bad a state of society as one might suppose, though there is little if any law, more than such as has been adopted to suit particular localities. The miners are generally honest and industrious, and do not countenance rascals and loafers. For stealing or robbery, in the mines, they either shoot or hang the culprit, according to circumstances; this keeps the rascals in check. I have not received a single paper from the States, I suppose on account of the large amount of business in the Post Office. Papers are all thrown aside -- have no time to arrange them, is their excuse. For the present, I close my imperfect communication. My next will be dated in the mines, when I shall be able to give correct information in regard to the prospects in the diggins, products, &c.  In haste -- Yours, B.

    P. S. -- The mail steamer arrived a day or two since, with three hundred passengers and two mails. She returns in a few days with mail, and, no doubt, a small amount of dust.

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II. From Joseph L. Moody, of Pittsburgh, to his parents.

Sacramento City, August 27.

   We arrived here all safe on Sunday morning, the 29th of July, in exactly three months from Independence. I wrote to James from all points west of the Rocky Mountains, the last from Fort Laramie. From there to the Great Salt Lake, the only accident we had was caused by the breaking of our wagon tongue, while descending the Eutaw Mountains, but we patched it up so as to bring it safely to the City of the Great Salt Lake, where we were delighted to find quite a large city of 'adobe' houses, as well as plenty of butter milk, cheese, &c. After getting a guide we left the 'mud city,' and on coming into the old road again (we left the regular emigrant trail on going to Salt Lake) we found some seventy wagons ahead of us. At the time we left the regular trail at 'Sublette's cut off,' there were but three trains ahead of us, we having passed all we came in sight of -- some 800 wagons or more. We had the trouble of again passing the wagons ahead of us, and succeeded in getting the tenth wagon into the valley of the Sacramento. Since then, a great many have been coming in daily. A great many left their wagons, and packed through, among them are Harvey Myers, James Mitchell, Joseph McKibbin, Thomas Perkins, Frank Robinson, Thomas Kennedy, and young Flood and Wilkinson. So far these are all the Pittsburghers that have come in.

   After crossing the Sierra Nevada, we met several parties out in search of gold. Fifty miles from here we came through the 'dry diggings,' and saw the 'modus operandi.' A boy of fifteen, whom I saw, had dug out with his butcher's knife, some five days before, $54 worth of the metal. Almost all the mines are alike, with regards to their richness. Some of the diggers make enough to pay expenses, and so on up, depending mostly on the way they work. Luck has a good deal with finding the 'big lumps.' The largest piece I have seen, was worth $40. Every one has plenty of money as well as a bag of dust.

   Sacramento City is quite a flourishing place, of some three hundred canvass houses. Building lots sell at from six hundred to twenty thousand dollars. Provisions and clothing are plenty and cheap. Flour, 9c per lb; Bacon 37 1/2 c; Sugar, 12 1/2 c; Coffee, 15c per lb. Up at the mines, high up on the river, Flour is a dollar per lb; Bacon a dollar; Sugar and Coffee seventy five cents each.

   All kinds of labor are very high. A wagoner that came over in our train, is getting $12 a day, and found. Mechanics, $25 a day. Hauling to the mines, a distance of twenty five miles, is 16c per pound.

   Merchandise has been sold at San Francisco at New York cost prices. The town is full of every thing, and some two hundred vessels yet to arrive. There are generally dozens of vessels lying here. At San Francisco the bay is crowded. To day the entire cargo of a vessel was sold at auction.

   We sold the wagons we brought over for $300. -- Mules are worth from $100 to $200. We could have sold our outfit for $2,200.

   Mr. [Crawford] Washington left us and joined another mess. Since we arrived here we have divided. -- [William G.] Johnston intends going to San Francisco. [William O'Hara] Scully and [W. B.] McBride are together, and [Charles] Kincaid and I. No more than two can work in the mines with profit. We will soon go up to them in a few days. The weather is almost too warm to work now. We are encamped in the woods at the edge of the city. The Pittsburgh boys are within hailing distance.

   I suppose you think that when an ounce can be made per day, we ought to be at work, but in 'Turkey we mean to do as the Turks do.' I like the country so far very well. The days are warm, and the nights cold. Men of capital are making the most money as usual.

   Ewalt and his party, I understand, have arrived at San Francisco. No account of Barclay yet. -- Know nothing positive of either party.

   I have not been sick a day since I left home. -- Charles Kincaid and Scully were sick for over a week. McBride was run over by a wagon, so he rode two weeks in it by way of revenge. The 'Colonel" [Washington] got lame, and we 'packed' him across, the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They are all well now, so indeed, are all the Iron City boys.

   I expect to get some letters in a few days, and hear the news from 'old Pitt.' McKibben and Kennedy have gone down to San Francisco, and will bring them up.

   The St. Louis Exchange is the principal hotel here. Boarding $3 a day, and sleep under the tree. The 'round tent' is equal to Beale's.

   There are any quantity of New Yorkers, Spaniards, Chilians, Sandwich Islanders, &c.

   Give my love to all at home, and believe me your affectionate son.

   Joseph L. Moody

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III. To Major W. F. Willock, Pittsburgh, from his brother John Willock

Sacramento City, August 13

Dear Brother -- I am happy to inform you that I have arrived here safely and that I am in excellent health and spirits. Indeed I have enjoyed excellent health since I left home. We were one hundred days on the plains between St. Joseph and Johnson's or Bear river, which is two hundred miles from the city of San Francisco. -- We moved down to Sacramento City -- which is situated on the Sacramento river, one hundred and sixty miles above San Francisco -- where we arrived on the 11th of this month. We have had a long and tedious trip of it, but we have it to say that we were nearly the first of the Pittsburghers in California. There were but twelve of us in company, and we 'packed' from Fort Laramie to this place, as indeed I informed you in my last. -- We travelled much faster after we commenced to pack. And leaving Fort Hall on the 15th of June we directed our course of travel by way of Fort Hall and found the road tolerably good until we arrived at Truckee's river, which is two hundred miles west of the Johnston settlement on Bear river. The roads we travelled on during the last two hundred miles are the worst I have ever seen. It is almost impossible for loaded pack mules to get over the rocks and fallen timber, they meet with in crossing the Sierra Nevada and the Bear river mountains. As there were but few emigrants ahead of us, it was difficult to 'keep the trail' in many places.

   We had a very hard time of it before we came to Truckee's river, for for about eighty miles the country is nothing but a barren plain, sixty five miles of which we were compelled to travel without any water except for what we carried along with us, which was all drank, however, before we had got twenty miles. We passed the boiling springs in this desert region, but the water is neither fit for man or beast to drink, although, as we had no other, and were almost choking with thirst, we were compelled to drink it. We made coffee with it, which we drank, and also cooled some of it to drink.

   We found that it was warm enough to make coffee without any further boiling than when it was taken from the spring. The ebullition of the boiling water makes a tremendous noise, and in some places the water boils up from one to two feet about the surface of the ground. Unfortunately we were not aware of the danger which results from drinking the water, and therefore made coffee and drank abundantly. But in four or 5 hours afterwards, we found its effects, and became extremely unwell. Some of our mess were troubled by this sickness for several days, although they all got over it, and we have been well ever since.

   I have made up my mind that I will never travel over the plains again, for I can assure you that the hardships which I have endured have been very great. But, will all these draw backs, I am very hearty, and enjoy excellent health. -- When I return home, I shall try some other route, though I have not thought of coming  back yet, and have never yet regretted my trip.

   Every thing here is new, and I will know more about matters and things in general, in the course of one or two weeks. There are multitudes of people here, working in the mines, and they appear to be doing pretty well, since they can make for five to sixteen dollars per day, and sometimes a great deal more, but the labor is very severe.

   They are about stopping work at present, as the season is too warm to work, but in about a month the season commences again, and will last two or three months, when the wet season generally commences, and they have to quit work again for about three months. Some of the miners have made money -- others again have not.

   Living in this place is very expensive, but you can live in the mines for about one dollar and fifty cents per day. Provisions sell at the mines for the following prices: Flour, $35.00 per bbl. Bacon, $1.25 per lb. Fresh beef, 75 cents per pound, and all other things in proportion. In the cities, they are cheap, but the expense of getting them to the mines is very great. Flour can be bought at San Francisco for six and eight dollars a barrel, and in this place we can purchase it at $16 and $20 per bbl. There is plenty of money here at present, and, though the town is only about three months old, lots which sold for one hundred dollars not more than two months ago, and now selling at five thousand dollars. There are but two or three houses in the whole town which have shingled roofs, though there are plenty of houses, as they call them, which are merely frames, made of poles, and some few of boards, which they side with canvass, and roof with the same material. They have no floors whatever, save the bare earth. They remind me of the scene at a camp meeting more than any thing else.

   The charges here seem outrageous to a man from the States. We have to pay twenty one dollars a week for boarding. They charge one dollar and fifty cents for dinner at the best homes, though in some of them a miserable meal may be obtained for one dollar. Tipplers have to pay from twenty five to fifty cents for a single drink of liquor.

   Carpenters get fifteen dollars a day, and all laboring men get ten dollars per day. There is more gambling and drinking going on than I have ever seen in my life. Indeed, it appears to me that every house has a gambling table, and some of them two or three. With all this vice, however, the people are very civil, and there has been no fighting, as far as I have seen. There is a good deal of sickness here at present, but it is the fever that the people get while in the mines during the warm weather. With this exception it is very healthy.

   There are several of the Pittsburgh boys her now -- young McKibben, McBride, Johnston, Moody, Kincaid, Scully, Perkins, and a number of others. Curry, Ewart and Bonnet have not arrived yet.

   I have made up my mind to go out to the mines in two or three days, from this time, to see what is to be made. Some tell me that I can make from ten to fifteen dollars every day I work, and a great deal more on some days, if I should happen to be fortunate. I shall write to you in about ten days from this date, when, if I keep my health, I can let you know how I am getting along. I am of the opinion that I can make money.

   Our stock turned out much better than I expected, since we have sold six of our mules for $715, and have two for sale yet. I bought a horse on the road for sixty-five dollars, which I have yet, and am offered one hundred and seventy five dollars for it, but ask two hundred.

   The profits of our stock make our expenses not so heavy for the trip. We passed Mr. John C. Risher about sixty miles back on the road, as also Mr. Brockway. They were both in good health and spirits.

   The weather in this country is very severe on the constitution. In the middle of the day it is so warm that you can hardly withstand the heat, while at night it is very cold. I have a very poor opinion of the country, so far as I have yet seen it. There has been no rain here for three months back, and every thing is burnt up with the heat. No vegetables are raised here except water melons, and they sell at from four to ten dollars each. Potatoes command fifty cents per pound.

   With love to all, believe me yours truly,  John Willock

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IV. Extracts from a letter W. B. Curry sent to Geo. Larimer, at Pittsburgh.

   We cast anchor at this city, San Francisco, on the 28th day of August, at 6 o'clock, after a long and tedious voyage around Cape Horn. Next morning early, we went ashore, and were rejoiced to find a number of letters from yourself, my wife, and other friends. We were glad to receive news of such a favorable character, from those we left behind us. I hope my wife will be perfectly satisfied when she hears of my safe arrival at this port.

   When I give you a brief account of the state of affairs here, the richness of the country, and this place, and the good order that prevails in this city, you will all be agreeably disappointed. There is more order and good feeling than in any city in the United States. The rumors about the gold differ so much that I can only say that reports from the diggings, from men who are just from there, run from about one to six ounces per day -- some much more fortunate. I think our company will be able to do as much as the best of them. My cousin, whom I have met here, and who was the first and last cause of my coming here, says we can average three ounces, at least, and he says he has been there, and talks as though he knew certainly on the subject. But do not calculate to much for us, as there is so many drawbacks, and expenses are necessarily very high, notwithstanding we supposed we have every thing we needed brought from New York. It will cost as much, if not more, to get our freight from here up the river, as it did from New York, and then we will  have overland sixty miles. You cannot turn around without having money demanded, in some shape or other. Board, enormously high, from $16 to $24 per week. We bought some provisions, and remain on the ship; but this is very expensive, as we have to pay one dollar each for a boat from the ship to the city -- the ship is anchored about 290 yards from the shore. The advance of our party has gone to the mines some time since. They, I am informed, purchased mules at Stockton, and for the present, intend keeping their team on the road, at least until we get together. Carrying goods is said to be very good, $25 per 100 lbs. a distance of sixty miles. They sold one of their wagons for $750, which I can now replace if I desire to do so, for $400. I sold out one box of boots on board the ship, for $7 per pair, that cost $2 in New York. I am sorry I purchased my provisions in New York, I could have done better here; but these things we did not know at that time. I have just heard from a person who saw our men at the diggings, and states that they are making from $45 to $50 per day. Our party all leave on Saturday for the mines, but myself, and I will follow as soon as possible.


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