“It seems to me that a sick man in California digging gold in the water up to his knees would look funny”

An earlier post about bibliographies on everything from the California Gold Rush to tomatoes got me wondering about the impetus behind that heady experience (the Gold Rush, not the tomatoes).  How did a man who heard all the fairy-tale stories of incredible wealth just waiting to be picked out of the rivers make the difficult decision to leave his family and friends behind and go pan for gold?  What if he was already in ill health, but also desperately in need of money to improve his family’s situation?wrapper

Turns out a potential emigrant had many places to go for advice in 1849.  Newspapers and periodicals were full of the fantastic tales, and guidebooks started coming out almost immediately.  The Emigrant’s Guide to the Gold Mines: Three Weeks in the Gold Mines, or Adventures with the Gold Diggers of California was published in 1848.  According to this guide in AAS’s collection, the overland passage was “a route which we can by no means recommend.”  It is described as a dangerous, even deadly option.  “The usual starting point is Independence, on the frontiers of the State of Missouri. The distance is very great; there are deserts to be crossed, mountains to be scaled, and hostile Indians to be encountered.” (28)

AAS’s Grant-Burr Family papers (the manuscript collection is fully transcribed online here) shed further light on the factors weighing on such a decision.  Daniel Grant was considering selling the homestead he and his wife along with a toddler and a newborn had established in Washington to go to California.  Advice poured in, solicited or not, in letters from family members.  His older brother, mother, sister-in-law, and younger brother all weighed in on Daniel’s decision.  Certainly his wife Caroline Burr Grant did as well, although her voice is left out of the written historical record because their discussions were verbal as they had no need to exchange letters while they lived together.  Below are a few selections of how Daniel’s family members advised him to respond to this classic risk-reward dilemma.

  • Older Brother

Daniel’s older brother Joel Grant wrote on Feb. 26, 1849: “if you must be sick I had rather you would be sick here than abroad.”  Yet Joel then goes on to cheerfully argue the other side, describing the risks his brother may face but not letting concern for his brother’s health outweigh the potential for improving his situation.

You may be sick, you may die, & if you could avoid these things by staying at home, I would advise you by all means, not to go. As it is I am favorably impressed with the idea of your going.

  • Sister-in-law

Joel’s wife, Abby, included a post-script to his letter: “I hope Daniel will have his Daguereotype [sic] taken before he goes to Ca.”  She was presumably thinking of Daniel’s wife, Caroline, who would be left to retreat to family in Connecticut with two young children to tow and no husband in sight.  It seems Daniel may have taken her advice, as a daguerreotype of Daniel Grant does survive in the AAS collections. Daniel Grant

  • Mother

Not surprisingly, Daniel’s mother was against the trip wholeheartedly.  In a letter postmarked March 3, 1849, she implores her son with whatever tactics she can — including a healthy dose of motherly guilt — to convince him not to go to California. Mrs. Grant’s disdain for punctuation makes her words seem even more breathlessly anxious.

I do not hear from you near as often as I should like to but yesterday we received a letter from Joel stating that you Daniel was thinking of going to California which was to me inteligence [sic] of a very unpleasant nature and I thought I could delay writing no longer but must say to you immediately that I cannot endure the Idea your health is poor and for you to think of going to California in pursuit of health I think you will be disappointed should you do it your Physician may recommend it and so I might think favorably of it if you <was> were in circumstances to go there and live at your ease and have a Physician and nurse to attend to you <and> but under your circumstances I feel that your prospect is nothing more than an increased state of suffering and then how can you be separated from your Dear family dont indulge a thought of any such thing….

  • Younger Brother

Perhaps the sagest bit of advice comes from Marcus, the youngest Grant boy.

Monday March 4th 1859
My Dear Children [Daniel and Caroline],

I wrote you last week but on receiving a letter last evening from your Mother and Mary it seems to be necessary that I should write again though I know not what to say I am decidedly opposed to your going to California I feel that you would probably never return and if you should I believe that you would be poorer instead of richer[.] we are all journeying to Eternity and we had better not set our hearts on glittering dust I believe there will be more of the gold diggers that will be ruined than there will be made rich

I am sorry you do not prosper a little better where you are. As <for> to your going to California I think you had better do as you think best about it. You might go there and get some gold and you might succeed as well as you have <there> where you are. But it seems to me that
a sick man in California digging gold in the water up to his knees would look funny.

Your aff. [affectionate] brother Marcus

Published by

Elizabeth Watts Pope

Curator of Books, American Antiquarian Society

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