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Gold Rush Letters of Father & Son

In the golden age of boating on Lake Champlain, so my father told me, steamboats made regularly scheduled landings at Crown Point (NY) by night as well as in the daytime.  All freight came by boat. Lumber from many mills in the back country and pig iron from the charcoal blast furnace in that town were shipped in canal boats to Whitehall and through the Champlain Canal and by the Hudson River to markets in Troy and Albany and places more distant.  When the Lake froze over whatever goods moved had to be freighted over its icy surface.  Travelers rode the thirty-odd miles in sleighs to Whitehall, which was the railroad terminus.  There they could take trains to Troy.  In summer there were packet boats on the canal to carry passengers.

We who are accustomed to several means of transportation, all of them swift and comfortable, may be appalled to think of the length of time and the relative discomfort of a trip to the city in those times.  We are likely to think the people living there during the middle decades of the last century stayed at home and were provincial. Such was not the case, however, — at least for people of means, such as the Hammonds and other well-to-do families, who made frequent trips to Troy and Albany and New York City and Boston, for business and to exchange visits with relatives and friends. There was much travel back and forth.  These people received and read a surprisingly large number of newspapers and magazines by means of which they kept themselves informed on matters of business, politics, and general culture.

One must have been a great lover of music to make the arduous trip to New York to attend a concert, yet Mr. Hammond wrote to his son, John,  November 22nd, 1850, ~~

“Thomas (another son) and I have been to the great city of New York to hear Jenny Lind sing, returned home last week much gratified.”

This Charles Franklin Hammond, of Crown Point, together with two of his brothers and sundry nephews and relatives, was engaged during the middle of the nineteenth century in extensive exploitation of the iron and timber resources of that locality in the eastern Adirondacks.  Hammonds & Co. carried on, also, a large business in general merchandise to supply their numerous employees and others of the community.  They also had interest in a banking firm in Albany, Higbie, Hammonds, & Co.  His son John and Robert Eliot, a youth from Albany, worked in their employ.

A little over one hundred years ago the country was astir with excitement over the discovery of gold in California.  These two young men caught the “gold fever” and made the perilous trip overland to that distant and little known land.  Young Hammond was twenty-one years old at the time, Eliot only nineteen.  The account of their adventures as told in their own letters and narratives is an intensely interesting story, filled with adventure and scenes of frontier life.  The letters written by John’s father while they were in California give an insight into an epoch in which people lived very differently – so differently that we cannot readily recreate the background against which the figures moved.  His letters take us back among the people of those times into the intimacy of the Hammond home.  One learns from them what people were thinking about and how business was being done in that rural community in northern New York.  The political geography of North America was vastly different then.  One sense the affectionate nature of this father, his warm interest in all sorts of people around him, and his love of young people. A sampling of some of the more representative topics is given in the following pages.

John Hammond and Robert Eliot left Crown Point in February, 1849, and reached Fort Smith, Arkansas, at the head of navigation on the Arkansas River, about the end of March.  Already they had met much adventure and had miraculously escaped death by cholera.  Letters from them at Fort Smith dated April 2nd and 9th and 15th were received at Crown Point.

Fort Smith, Arkansas Circa 1850


Each just about one month on the way (as father Hammond wrote in his reply.)

“We were disappointed in not receiving them sooner, but when received were overjoyed and unspeakably gratified to hear that you were well and alive and in good spirts, for we had almost given up that we should hear from you, having seen in every paper for a number of weeks that the cholera was very prevalent along the rivers in the Southwest and carrying off hundreds of thousands.  That you had fell a victim to that terrible disease was revolving constantly in our minds…. The scene must have been heartrending to you and others on board, to see you fellow passengers cut down as it were in moment, and I hope you may not forget that God has been very kind and merciful to you in protecting and preserving your life thus far on your long and arduous journey.

We got a little sketch of you and your company in the Tribune the other day by way of an extract from a VanBuren, Arkansas, paper, and I send the same Tribune with two other papers by the same mail that takes this letter. Fenton (the Crown Point postmaster) mailed letters from me and Wm. H. on the 12th of March to Memphis, Tenn., that was the nearest distributing office and he thought they would go direct to Fort Smith and that they would have reached you there in 28 or 29 days.”

Hammond’s party tarried several weeks at Fort Smith and that vicinity while John selected horses and mules and procured equipment for the long trip overland from there.  They started over the old Santa Fe Trail on the 18th of April but it was not until early September that they reached the civilized communities of Southern California.  Those months were anxious ones for the people back home and only a strong faith in the kindness of a Divine Providence sustained the father’s courage and hopes for his son’s safety while friends brought him dire rumor’s.  On June 21, 1849, Mr. Hammond wrote,

“all kinds of rumors and reports have circulated here and about here for a month past concerning you and I will give you a specimen or two of them.. About a week after I received your letter of the 15th of April, report said that you and two men who went from Whitehall had died on board of a vessel of cholera and that it came to Whitehall by telegraph.

(The telegraph was just then coming into use.  Two years later there were fifty telegraph lines in the United States using Morse patterns.)

Original “Morse” key circa 1840s


” I did not give it any credence at all.  The next day Allen Penfield brought me the news from Virginia that you and two others had died of cholera.  Did not believe it.  A few days after T. Farnsworth told me that it was reported in his corner of the world that you and all of your party had been killed by Indians except Robert, and when he was found where he had crawled away he had only breath of life in him and it was very doubtful if he would recover from his wounds!!!”

He finishes this report on rumors with the worst of them all, which asserts that John and all of a large party from Virginia died from cholera at St. Joseph, Missouri.

Contrast the following with our present transcontinental mail service —

August 17th, 1849. – We hope to receive your first California letter in a few days.  The California steamer will probably reach Panama this week and your California mail will reach N.Y. in 8 or 10 days form there and then we shall receive the long looked for letter (we hope).  The question is asked more frequent than ever “Have you heard from John? NO. When will you?  In a few days, I hope” That is the talk.

Nov. 3rd, 1849“I have delayed and postponed writing the last month  in hopes of receiving a letter from you but have been disappointed, and again resume my pen to address one who is very near and dear to me though far distant from me.”

“The only intelligence we have read, from you and company since you left Fort Smith was about two weeks since by a letter from Mr. Charles Austin to your Uncle John C. stating that Mr. Townsend of Albany had received a letter from your Captain written at Santa Fe  (NM)saying that your company were all well except Robert.  That he had shot his hand accidentally but was supposed to be doing well.  Mr. Austin had not seen the letter and did not know the date of it.  We hope the wound was not a severe one, if so, it would probably hinder you some and give Robert a great deal of pain and trouble.”

It was not until near Christmas that the long suspense and anxiety of the families and friends of the two young men were ended by a reassuring letter form John written on September 5th at the “village” of Los Angeles.  Christmas that year must have been indeed one of joy and thanksgiving in the Hammond home!

Mr. Hammond replied to this letter under date of December 20th, 1849.

“My dear son,

It is now ten months since you and Robert took your departure, and the last three months have been long and anxious months to me and to many others, up to the `12th inst., when we had the unspeakable pleasure and satisfaction of receiving two letters from you, one dated September 5, at Pueblo de Lost Angeles, and one October 5, at San Francisco.  Both came by the last California mail….The mail arrived here at midnight that brought your letters.  As soon as Esquire Fenton (the postmaster) discovered that they were superscripted by you, he started for our house and called us up, and Frank at the store, and Fenton and Frank stayed until Frank had read them both to us, and a happy time we had