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Letters of a Gold Rush Pioneer

Rochelle's interest in California history was rekindled when she began leading tours at a local museum in an 1850s gold rush town.

Not everyone came to California by Covered wagon.

Not everyone came to California by Covered wagon.

The forest of masts sprouting from sailing ships in San Francisco Bay swayed with the tidal surge like trees in the wind.

Wreckage of vessels from earlier years lay against the shorelines in in some places. Looking back out at the harbor in October 1853 Horace Snow, a twenty-three year old carpenter from Massachusetts, realized he was on the last leg of a journey to seek his fortune.

He was one of thousands of young men who traveled to California in the early 1850s with only a few dollars to his name. Like the rest of them he had dreams of filling his pockets with yellow gold, but even more important to him was finding his brother, Hiram, who had left for California three years before.

His trip from New England had started inauspiciously on a leaky ship that sank off the coast of Georgia. Despite nearly drowning he soon was back on another ship heading toward Central America. His journey was quick and easy compared to some.

San Francisco Bay harbor with sailing ships.

San Francisco Bay harbor with sailing ships.

The Golden Gate

He reached his San Francisco destination in about five weeks. Pioneers crossing the plains or those sailing around the southern tip of South America, as his older brother had done, often needed five to six months to complete their journey.

Horace had sailed to Panama, crossed the isthmus on foot and was lucky enough to arrange immediate ship passage north when he reached the Pacific side. Some people waited for weeks before a northbound ship was available.

San Francisco had undergone an amazing transformation in the early gold rush years. Beginning in 1849 it changed from a sleepy port settlement to a bustling and noisy international metropolis.

Four years later, as Horace arrived, the city was beginning a more subtle economic change. The rents for storefront spaces were soaring and contributing to business bankruptcies.

The strong demand for luxury goods and even for necessities was slowing down. A glut of products shipped in from all over the world was now being turned away for lack of buyers. Many ships sailed back out of the harbor with their cargoes intact.

California Gold was becoming harder to find. The easiest pickings were gone. Some of the original 49ers began to follow rumors of new gold strikes in Australia or New Zealand as well as Colorado and Canada. Others gave up and headed back home.


Gold Seekers Kept Coming

Despite these economic changes there was still a steady stream of new arrivals willing to try their luck at making a fortune. The disillusioned prospectors were being replaced by new hopefuls like Horace.

The sights and sounds of California during the gold rush amazed Horace at every turn. He was more temperate and better educated than most of the gold-seekers.

He neither drank, gambled or swore like many of his acquaintances which gave him somewhat of a "bad reputation" among the rowdy miners who often spent their down time buying one another rounds of drink in the busy saloons.

When down on his luck, traveling through some of the towns, Horace wasn't too proud to discreetly partake of the free lunch of "roast beef, pickled cabbage, crackers and cheese" that some bars offered to their patrons. Since he was not a drinker, he felt no need to "trouble the proprietor" by purchasing a beer.

Despite this petty larceny, Horace was a hard-working man of character who seemed immune to the temptations of the wild frontier.

He was amazed that anyone could bear the deafening din of the noisy gambling and drinking halls for any period of time. He did, however, have an insatiable craving for the written word in a land where there were still few books and newspapers.

A Long Walk

Traveling southward mostly by foot through Mother Lode country, he eventually reached the mining camps at Aqua Fria near Mariposa California.

It was here he found his long lost brother who was alive and well, living a prospector's life. Apparently Hiram was not inclined to spend his time writing letters home.

Though happy to be reunited with his lost sibling, Horace developed a severe case of homesickness. He moved into his brother's cabin and immediately began writing to his old friends and college classmates, asking them to send him newspapers, books and letters about what was happening back home.

He was disappointed that more of his school friends did not bother to reply, but one acquaintance back in Massachusetts, Charles Fitz, took his pleas seriously and the two started a regular correspondence.

Back in Massachusetts Charlie seemed eager to receive written descriptions of California's rough and tumble gold rush culture that had suddenly thrown together adventurous young men from all corners of the world.

There were a great number of Americans from the eastern and southern states in the gold fields, as well as Europeans, South Americans and Asians. All of them had their hopes pinned on striking it rich.

And how did Horace, this upstanding respectable young man, end up in a frontier courtroom?

One day when the local sheriff came riding toward a group of prospectors, someone sounded the alarm and a lot of the old-timers ran for cover and hid themselves.

He and some other new arrivals knew they had done nothing wrong. The lawman summoned the newcomers for jury duty, and the more experienced men came back and resumed their panning after they were gone.

Snow's observations, tinged with good humor and incredulity described personal experiences to friends back home. He wrote about seeing spectators in a jury trial armed with knives and sidearms, commenting that these kinds of accessories would never be allowed in a Boston courtroom.

Long days of "throwing up dirt" to prepare for sluicing when the rains came, were described. Sharing the small log cabin with his brother and another man, he took his turn at learning how to cook, and congratulated himself for mastering the art of making biscuits in a frying pan.

A Spring Morning

His description of a beautiful morning Could have been written today about the same location.

"This is a beautiful morning, Charlie.

"I rise this morning at half-past five and went down to the brook that runs by our cabin and had a fine bath. The water and the atmosphere were very warm. I couldn't help thinking of Bridgewater times when we used to go down and fathom the depths of that muddy stream.

"Nature looks splendid here today. The grass is about four inches high, thickly spotted with flowers of all colours, the trees and shrubs are preparing to leaf, the rays of the sun are warm and genial, the fragrance of the atmosphere is beautiful and refreshing and in fact, all vegetation is smiling. The birds sing, the frogs peep, the coyotes bark, the wolves howl, and the deer grazes at pleasure, all within sight of our cabin."

Criss Cross Letters

The content of the letters isengaging and the format is also interesting.

In order to save money on paper and postage, Harold wrote his letters in "criss-cross style", meaning that once one side of a writing sheet was filled, the paper was turned ninety degrees and the second page of sentences was written across it.

He did the same on the back of the page and was thus able to get four pages of letter on one sheet of paper by writing "criss cross". Actually, the writing is not quite as hard to decipher as you might think.

Our eyes and minds are trained to read the English language from left to right and from top to bottom on a page. The writing going in another direction tends to become "wallpaper" in the background.

This style of letter writing was also frequently used during the Civil War, when soldiers writing home didn't have writing paper to waste.

Little did Horace know as he penned his epistles, that they would inspire artist, designer and Gold Country historian, Muriel Neavin, to use his words as the theme of a small history museum more than a century after they were written.

Excerpts based on his written observations of everyday life complement most the exhibits of the Mariposa Museum and History Center in Mariposa, California.

So how did the letters, written almost 100 years before, find their way back to Mariposa?

An example of a "criss-cross" letter with lines written at right angles.

An example of a "criss-cross" letter with lines written at right angles.

The Letters Return to Their Place of Origin

Horace Snow wrote many letters to his friends and family back home in Massachusetts, but his most faithful letter-writing friend, Charles Fitz, saved most of the pages that Snow had so carefully penned. Charlie's descendants later passed the letters back to the writer's family .

Even though they were written in "criss-cross style", the family recognized that the content had historical significance.

The letters were generously donated to the Mariposa County Historical Society which has carefully preserved them and put them to good use as primary research material. Snow's detailed observations of everyday life in gold rush days provided the inspiration for the museum.

Copies of letter excerpts add a first-person narrative to the items now on display in the Mariposa Museum and History Center in Mariposa, California, very near to where they were originally written.

When visitors began reading quotes from the letters they wanted more. The historical group decided to have the content of the letters put into book form so everyone could enjoy the "Dear Charlie Letters".

Horace returned to his home state rather abruptly after spending about 20 months in California. We know he did find some gold and apparently worked very hard for it. He paid his old debts, reimbursed Charlie for the postage on all the books and newspapers that were shipped to California and even sent a few small samples of gold to his friends. He never revealed in the existing letters if he achieved the "yellow pocket" he had hoped for.

We don't have the letters that Charles wrote back so the context of the replies and comments is sometimes fuzzy. Unlike a mystery novel where all of the details are ultimately connected, these true excerpts from a life experience leave questions unanswered.

We don't know why Horace suddenly left school on the east coast though he gives some reasons for us to consider. We don't know why he came back to Massachusetts sooner than he had planned, though he had abolitionist leanings and perhaps felt he should be ready to join the Union cause.

Later Life

We know some things about Horace Snow's later life. We know he served in the Union Army during the Civil war. In Kentucky he was commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the 45th Infantry . After the war he married Margaret Fox Butcher and returned to Northern California where he owned a general store. He was a successful businessman.

The Mariposa Museum has a large safe which was donated by his descendants and was apparently used in his business in Eureka, CA. The ornate lettering on it says "Snow and Co."

The safe is empty but the real treasure that Horace Snow left behind is his collection of memories of an important event that changed the history of America. The details of a time he saw with his own eyes and recorded under the words, "Dear Charlie".

You can buy a copy from Amazon

© 2011 Rochelle Frank

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