• Curtis Brothers Seek Fortune In California Gold Rush, Face Hardships, Dangerous Sea Travel

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    The CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH (1848-1855) began on January 24, 1848, when gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in Colomo, CA.  The news brought about 300,000 people to California from the rest of the United States and abroad.  The sudden increase in population allowed California to go rapidly to statehood, but it had severe effects on native Californians who experienced an increase in disease, genocide and starvation.  Likewise, the Gold Rush provided risky opportunities for seekers of fortune, making them vulnerable to violence, severe financial risk and disease. 

     

    The Curtis brothers spent many years in California searching for gold.  Brother Charles was the first to go. He spent 13 years there.  Ebenezer followed.  Offering a very assemblage of 13 letters, various sizes, nearly 50 pp total, providing a look into their experiences. The letters are transcribed in chronological order.  The first and second are written by Ebenezer.  He outlines his plans to travel to California to join Charles and a description of Charles’ activities, from building a log house to live in, to the financial difficulty of gold miners who aren’t making more than $5 a day, to Charles’ difficult journey aboard the Steamer, The Gold Hunter, for 42 days – “She is dirty & small…One insane man jumped overboard and was drowned.”  Ebenezer writes of that the S.S. Sims landed 990 passengers in San Francisco. Sixteen of them died and many were sick.  The Sacramento papers were filled with news about the Gold Rush.  Ebenezer writes that miners are busy day and night digging for gold, fearing that the rivers would rise.  “Each party can take from 3,000 to 20,000 gold dust. About five million in gold dust passed Sacramento [in] October. I may live…on mining operations as you have a chance at seafaring life, useful to shipping merchants who want to charter a ship to a trading post.

     

    4 pp, 7 ¾ x 10, Boston, March 12, 1852, Ebenezer W. Curtis ALS to his brother. “…I received your letter…from Norfolk. I was glad to hear that you arrived in the land of tobacco after a fine passage & would sail in ten days…I have been here 2 weeks since.  I have got passage engaged in the good Thomas B. Wales that shall sail on the 16th for San Francisco. But Providence prevent[ed] me…My paid passage (200) has returned to me today at noon. When I called at the California Packet Office C. Glidden & Williams, I told them that my intention changed. They demanded me to all, allow them $50 discount and I refused. I tried to sell my ticket to some California Emigrants…One of Glidden & Williams asked me if I do not want to go to California, they will refund me $200 & I was satisfied with their hard heart melted…Paid me in full…When brother Charles shall call me to California…he would have good prospect at mines worthy. I have had a letter from Brother Charles…telling about his journey by the Isthmus & go to the mines. He wrote the letter to me dated January 17th at Columbia, California.

     

    “…Charles has arrived in San Francisco on January 2d & was going to mines on 3d…When he got to the mines in the Southern mines, he found Levi Ham well & build the log house & claim that they are at work but they do not know how well it will pay them as they have not had a fair trial yet – Charles, Levi Ham, Ezra Smith, Wm Springer shall leave the Southern mines early in the Spring for the Northern mines along Yuba unless they have some heavy rain. Levi Ham said the Northern mines is far the best place. There [is] a great many men in the Southern mines that are not at work because they cannot make more than 5 dollars a day so Charles did not want me to come out until I hear from him again.  He will write to me as soon as he finds a good prospect so as to make it worth. So, I stop in this state & wait a word from Charles…

     

    “Charles had a pleasant passage of 42 ½ days from New York to San Francisco by the Nicaragua River route & took a small river boat to cross the Nicaragua River & lake 200 miles to the place, 12 ½ miles from the Pacific, that distance he rode on the mules. The road was muddy & it took him 7 hours to get through and his travels had to leave the road often & go round the woods through to escape mud. He went aboard the Steamer Gold Hunter and proceeded on.  The Gold Hunter was a very uncomfortable boat for such a voyage. She is dirty & small & slow but she brought us through safe with one exception that was one insane man that jumped overboard & was drowned. One of the passengers died the next day…Living in the G Hunter was…the hardest that he ever experienced. He took particular care not to eat anything that he thought would tend to make him sick [and relied on] the hand of Providence for his health...As soon as you can, write to Charles, care of Samuel Adams…and tell him all particulars…I wish you good voyage…I am dead in California Fever! From your…Brother Ebenezer W. Curtis”

     

    2 pp, 8 x 9 7/8, Boston, December 5, 1852, Ebenezer Curtis writes to his brother J.R. Curtis.  Wonderful content about ship travels to the gold rush.  The letter is incomplete.

     

    “…Adams’ clerk said that I could go in the first steamship leaving New York about December 13th…I am willing to go round the horn in Clipper that may run in 100-120 days…I must mind that Brother Charles give me warning that it is only risking of crossing the Isthmus as though Ticket was sometimes pronounced worthless by the Pacific Steamship Company. Some passengers ought to return home from the Isthmus in consequence and likewise they should have hardships & sickness…California papers of October 29…stated that the propeller S.S. Sims landed 990 passengers in San Francisco in October from the Nicaragua Route. About 16 passengers died and many sick in want of the company of nursing…also stating that there was one death every forty passengers…Several large steamships of 2,500 & 3,000 tons…are plying between New York & Aspinwall…taking 600 or more passengers…If I should go by that route, Leeds folks and friends feel uneasy about the safety of my life. Some intelligent Bostonians prefer me to the way round the Horn…

     

    “I believe that Charles did not write home as he was busy perhaps by day & night.  As the Sacramento papers stated, party miners were busy to dig both day & night for fearing the rivers would rise as the sign for raining season coming on, the large amount of gold dust digged out in the rivers tower. Each party can take from 3,000 to 20,000 gold dust. About five million in gold dust passed Sacramento for month of October to states & foreign countries. I suppose that Charles & boys might make fortune enough.  California friends wrote to relatives living in the neighboring houses said that young men done well at mines…I should make [a] fortune. I may live or depend on mining operations as you have a chance at seafaring life, useful to shipping merchants who want to charter a ship to a trading post…” 

     

    4 pp, 7 ¾ x 9 ¾, Nelson Bar [CA], Feb. 7, 1865, C.J. Curtis to his brother Capt. J.R. Curtis of Yarmouth, Maine.  “…Charles is now stationed at Fort Whipple Arizona Territory, New Mexico. Henry about 25 miles from here in Co. with a man a Tanning, fled somewhere in Nevada Territory in the mines…I had a call to go to the Sacramento River and build a Ferry Boat. I went and built the boat, was absent about ten weeks. The boat I built was 60 feet-long…and pronounced the best boat on Sacramento River by all good judges…I should like to go back to Maine. There are but two objections…cold winter [and] I could not go back independent. I should be under the necessity of calling on business men for employ and then to have them craft a…look as if to doubt my capability and ask me what I would work for and what I would want for pay would be a little too much. I should then wish myself back in Cal[ifornia]…I have spent better than 13 years in Cal[ifornia]. To look back, it looks but a day…”

     

    4 pp, 7 ¾ x 9 ¾ Nelson Bar, July 6, 1865, C.J. Curtis to his brother Capt. J.R. Curtis.  In small part, “…I was not a little displeased to learn that you had been led away from your early training by Aristocratic Democrats.  I never took part in political matters but always endeavored to be found on the tide…in support of the National Constitution…How merry was the time I have heard it remarked by Northern men that we had no smart men in the North that were fit to fill higher places but there were a plenty in the South.  Now what of the South? Their aim was to rule or ruin from the cowardly…It is an old saying that it is an ill wind that blows no good.  I never was an abolitionist but after the Rebellion and the President’s [Emancipation] Proclamation…what else could I be.

     

    “Aristocracy is now dead but will go in to the South and alienate the land…New light, life and liberty will predominate through the land and I hope may shine over our continent and world…”

     

    3 pp, 5 x 8, Nelson Bar, March 2, 1869, C.J. Curtis to his brother J.R. Curtis. In part, “…I had some fearful apprehensions for your safety as I see the report of so many…turbulent waters on the English Court and supporting you to be there to share a part of the battling wave…

     

    “It appears that Uncle Eben died the day you sailed out from [San Francisco] Frisco.  I was in hope to see him once more…

     

    “We have had one of the mildest winters ever known by a white man in Cal[ifornia], a plenty of rain…the prospect for a wheat crop never was better…People in distant climes may have no fear for lack of bread as Cal[ifornia] can bread the world…

     

    “Tell me if the Detroit is again on the way to Frisco…I may be inclined to join her…

     

    “The earthquake done much damage, making the custom house and the P[ost] O[ffice] impossible. Racked the Cal Bank, throwed down many of the brick structures…”

     

    4 pp, 5 x 8, Nelson Bar, April 24, 1869, C.J. Curtis writes to his brother.  In small part, “…Should you know a good, smart hardy lady with a plenty of pin money without a family about the right age…[who] would meet my favor, send me her picture…”

     

    4 pp, 5 x 8, Nelson Bar, August 25, 1869, C.J. Curtis writes to his brother.  In small part, “…I have noticed the arrival and clearance of a number of ships that were in company with the Detroit at the Bay…have seen no report of the Detroit since you left her nor any other Yarmouth Ship…Where is Capt. Sam…at home or away…How do you get along with your adopted family…Have you good under officers…or do you have to stand double watch for yourself. You must look sharp for them. Radicals, they are on the lookout and may soon be in command…

     

    “Once Election comes off in one week from to day and it is through the Radicals will add largely to thin number…I expect our ears will be greeted with the report of…Chamberlain elected gov…”

     

    4 pp, 5 x 8, Nelson Bar, Dec. 10, 1869, to his brother J.R. Curtis.  In small part, “…Tell me if there are going to be two ships for me to calk.  Had you told me of the two ships calked by [other] calkers, I should have been hand and now been an inhabitant of Yarmouth…”

     

    One page, 5 x 8, Nelson Bar, Oregon Township, Butte Co. Cal, March 11, 1870, C.J. Curtis writes to his brother.  “…I now write in reference to your proposal asking me to come to Yarmouth and labor on the ships…I am trying to be in preparation to go…the first of April…I will in the meantime…act the carpenter and eventually calk the ships…”

     

    5 pp, 5 x 8, Nelson Bar, Oregon Township, Butte Co., Cal, September 29, 1870, C.J. Curtis writes to his brother J.R Curtis.  In small part, “…I did think of visiting ME [Maine], and left here with that intent. Went to San Francisco and there met many a man just over the road…I changed my mind to lay over for a while…I can now leave here in the morning and arrive in San Francisco in the evening all for $7. I noticed in an eastern paper a ship of 2,000 tons building at Yarmouth. Who are the builders? I think them worthy men to circulate their treasure and help the needy…I want a change…but little room for worse. I often think I would be a chore boy among pleasant people than a millionaire…I will tell a little of my late night occupation, a hunting story similar to many we have listened to…Coons are numerous here. They come around houses…and rob hen roosts. I have lost hundreds of poultry…I now have a dog that is constantly on watch…I have shot ten within two months at one time…I went to bed and waited until daylight when I rose and proceeded with my rifle and…my faithful dog Rube…I then [sent] a bullet up for our coon…and comes tumbling down to Rube’s delight…I shot one this morning, one the day before yesterday. Today made my dinner off baked coon…”

     

    3pp, 7 ¼ x 9 ¼, Nelson Bar, November 23, 1870, C.J. Curtis writes to his brother J.R. Curtis.  In small part, “…So, the world moves, the old saying every dog has his day with time. I think mine a rough one and thought myself worthy of better…I shall for but a little time need the cares or sympathy of any…How the Black Brethren will feel I know not. The White ones, I think a part of them, will shout Free. One more opposer of our development gone…Time works wonders…”

     

    4 pp, 5 x 8, California, June 1, 1871. C.J. Curtis writes to his brother J.R. Curtis. In small part, “…How does your ship progress. When do you expect her afloat? What is her tonnage and what part of her do you own.  Has Sam Y____ an interest in her. Is she clipper built.  Is she an oak ship…When do you expect to sail and where to if to Frisco…Port charges at Frisco are reduced. The wheat crop in the Southern part of the state is a failure. In the northern part – good. 

     

    “Last night at Cherokee, a young lady about 20 years of age on her way home from a wedding was murdered on the street…died instantly. Cause, refusal to marry the murderer…He made escape for the time…”

     

    One tear repaired with archival tape.

     

    2 pp, 8 x 12 ½, California, Bute Co. June 15, 1871. C.J. Curtis write to his brother J.R. Curtis.  In pencil, he discusses the lending of money to family members.

     

    Overall, the letters are in very good condition with expected folds, toning.  The second letter is partial, but still has good content. A tear has been repaired on another letter. The entire assemblage tells a wonderful story of the Gold Rush and the evolution of the Curtis’ brothers’ lives.


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