California Gold

Although the majority of AAS’s manuscript collection is focused on New England, we do have collections that cover other parts of the country.  Our Book Trades Collection and Slavery in the US Collection, for example, have a national scope, and collections such as the Louisiana Collection and the California Papers are focused outside of New England.  These collections help diversify our holdings, and have definitely proven useful to our readers.  Former AAS Fellow Sarah Keyes utilized our California Papers during her fellowship and shares with us an interesting item found in this collection.

More than a year after he left Ohio for the California gold fields, David Howlett answered his wife’s demand that he tell her “all the partickulars (sic)” of his overland journey. Howlett acquiesced, assuring his wife that he had not “left all of his clothes on the Plains” but rather still possessed two under shirts, two pairs of summer pants, one pair of boots and his bed clothes. His pillow, he declared, was especially “grate”: “I do not see many pillows here when A man goes to bed here he pulls off his coat or boots & puts them under his head.” By telling her of this luxury, Howlett helped to lay his wife’s fears to rest regarding his life in far-away California.

This document is an example of a very rare find, a letter penned inside a letterbook produced by the short-lived Gregory’s Express Company. Joseph F. Gregory created these letter books “To facilitate correspondence between cities and towns, and the mining districts in California, and all parts of the United States.” Gregory expanded his business too rapidly, and, unable to meet demands, he closed the company in 1853.

Although Gregory failed, his letter books attest to the increasing importance of the postal service. The rise of the postal system in the mid-nineteenth century helped the Howletts and other families separated by vast distances to maintain their relationships. The growth of communication by letter was particularly significant for the approximately two hundred and fifty thousand EuroAmericans who left their homes in the mid-nineteenth century in search of opportunity on the Pacific coast. The departure from home initiated a process of familial separation that stretched across the over two thousand miles overlanders traveled to the Far West. Measured in time as up to six months, the sheer length of the journey helped it to overshadow the majority of other contemporary migratory movements such as the move toward urban centers, Texas, and the region now known as the Midwest. Letters, journals as well as material objects allowed family members to share the experience with relatives who had not traveled to the Pacific Coast.

Published by

Tracey Kry

Assistant Curator of Manuscripts and Assistant Reference Librarian, American Antiquarian Society

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