top of page

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.  Thomas (John’s younger brother) and I had watched the mail for a long time, and Thomas would have sat up the night they came if I had not prevailed on him to retire to his bed, saying that I did not think the mail would arrive before morning.”

Pan & Sluice Methods

In this community as elsewhere, Yankee mechanical inventiveness was rising to meet new needs.  After John was supposed to have reached “the diggings” father Hammond writes –

“From all accounts I see of you gold washing machines I think they are valueless so far as separating gold dust is concerned and I suppose you will have to resort to the Tin Pan and Washbowl. Esq. Phelps of Schroon (Lake) is full in the faith that he can get up a blowing machine that will separate it to perfection where the formation of gold dust is similar to sand and of a globular formation.  He thinks it would operate on the flat thin scales better than any machine out.  He separated sorrel seed from clover seed the sorrel seed not being quite so heavy and clover is blown beyond the sorrel, — so he scrapes up the sorrel furthest from the machine which is pure and clean and puts the remainder through again and again until it is entirely separated.  He also separated pease from oats and oats from pease, says he could work the wet diggings by drying the earth and dust.  What do you think of his plan?  I do not know what his plan for feeding it into the machine.  I believe the old gent could be induced to go out to California if his plan was thought to be practicable.

(Later) –  “Mr. Phelps was here again yesterday and had more to say about his gold operating machine that I mentioned in my last.  When he was here 4 or 5 weeks ago he carried hom #1 of fine shot and he says he mixed them with about ½ bushel of sand such as commonly used for making mortar and he says in one minute he had every shot clean from the sand, and his sand separated from the shot.  He says he can operate it in the wet diggings as well as in the dry except he will have to dry the earth before he puts it into his separator.  He says if the dust is found in a clay formation he can separate it by drying and pulverizing.  I have the utmost confidence in his machine to separate everything except the very thinnest scales of gold.  He says he has seen accounts about there being much of the gold dust about the size of flax seed and somewhat shaped like it.  Anything, he says, of the size of flax see he can separate it at the rate of a bushel of earth and dirt in 1 ½ minute or even in one minute if necessary.  I shall go to Troy tomorrow or next day and Esq. Phelps is very anxious that I should procure some gold dust and bring home to mix with earth to make further experiments and I intend to do it.  He is very anxious to get some of the earth from the diggings, a peck or ¼ bushel but this would cost too much, unless you could prevail on someone that is venturing to this country to take some with the understanding that he should have a machine at cost and the right to use it.

The cost of the machine will be less than $25 I think and it can be built in your country as well as here.  Esq. Phelps says that he will give me any interest that I will ask if I will assist in getting the right material to make the trial, and if you can aid or assist in any way to bring it about soon you shall have an interest with us.  This machine is the first one that I ever knew Frank to come out and say it must do the work to perfection without some ifs or misgivings about it.”

A latter letter continues –

“When you(r) Uncle John was in New York a few days since he bought one ounce of gold dust for Esq. Phelps and I have sent it out to him today.  He will mix it with dirt or sand and put it though his machine and then he well decide whether he will go to California or not.  I think he will be successful and if so he will be able to run almost any quantity of earth through his machine in a day.  It operates well and he will make money fast where you miners do not consider it worth your notice.”

His next letter tells —

“Esquire Phelps has tried his machine on the gold dust and is confident that he can separate earth at a rapid rate.  He was here last week and said we might put only two particles or grains of dust into 400 bushels of earth or dry sand and he would find and deliver them to us in a half day at the longest.  There is a company of 40 or 50 at Vergennes (VT) going out this spring and they have sent for him to go over and see them and he has gone.  Now he thinks of going to California and a son-in-law of his, Wyman, to put up the machines.  If they go I will advise, you, that you may write him at San Fran. And also to call on you, if possible.”

Epidemic cholera was at this time raging over the whole populated Southwest and to a great extent in the East, there being cases even in this Champlain region.  John had fought the cholera all one night as he rode up the Arkansas River on a pest-ridden steamboat.  He actually credited his victory in his struggle against death to having chewed pieces of charcoal during those desperate hours.  How primitive were the ideas and practices of even intelligent people regarding sanitation and prophylaxis is revealed in father Hammond’s advice –

“if the cholera should prevail in California you will find the use of a little sulfur very beneficial, taking a little in the morning as you did when a boy in molasses or a little spirits.  I have had some of the first symptoms and used a little as suggested to me at once. If there is no cholera with you, you had better get a little and take a little occasionally, as it is a preventative from other disease.  Wash or bathe every morning if you want good health, and I beg you to practice it.”

Cholera Lithograph

Sage advice about caring for his health and making money are curiously intermingled with exhortations to cultivate his spiritual welfare.  That he placed cleanliness next to godliness and pretty close, too, is evident in such passages as this one –

“Let me entreat you again to bear in mind at all times and places that everything depends upon good health.  Therefore attend to that first and read at least one chapter in your bible daily or seven or more on the Sabbath….. Take care of your health before making money.”

In another letter he again recommends the salutary effects of bathing.

“Let me repeat again to you that you must remember to bathe every morning if it is in your power to do so and if not convenient every morning, then two or three times a week and in no case let a week pass without doing it once……  A little Alkali throwed (sic) into your water is an improvement.  If you are attacked by a fever be sure & was often.  With a little salaratus added to the water.  It cleans the pores of the skin better than soap and water.  The greatest guaranty for good health is cleanliness and least possible exposure to night air and a hot sun.”

Had John receive this advice before crossing the desert he hardly could have practiced it.  At night his party either slept in the open under the stars during the last 800 miles or they traveled at night to avoid the heat of daytime, as their thermometer registered as high as 150 (degrees) at the Pimos villages.  As for daily bathing, there were many days when each member of the party was rationed to a pitiful minimum of water for drinking, and their animals were sometimes driven 36 hours without either grass or water.  A number of times their packers even resorted to drinking their own urine.

These letters make frequent allusions to consumption, such as this one, —

“It is quite healthy here this fall generally.  Mr. S.F. Murdock is very bad with lung fever and it is very doubtful about his getting up again.  Caroline Spencer is in New York and is quite feeble and has a light hard dry cough.  Miss Lucy P. (enefield) was married about ten days since to Dr. Nichols.  Nichols is in rather feeble health, having bled at the lungs last summer.”

And a terse one like this —

“Luther Hopkins died after a short and painful illness caused by taking salt peter in lieu of salts.”

Mr. Hammond, Sr., was an ardent patriot and humanist.  Later, during the Civil War, although too old himself to go to fight, he did much to further the cause.  In one letter he adds this postscript, —-

“What a curse slavery is.  They have not yet done anything in Congress but quarrel about slavery in California.  The people in California have taken a noble stand for freedom, and we in the North rejoice in their firmness and patriotism, and will sustain them—“

Mr. Hammond’s business interest were numerous and varied. He was always on the lookout for opportunities to make a good investment.  Withal he was cautious and his judgement was good. His advice to his young son in California reflects these characteristics.  In one letter he says, —

“There must and will be a great reaction to all this speculation sooner or later, and depend upon it, it has always come sooner than anyone anticipated and I repeat again that you must be on the lookout for breakers ahead and do not run too much risk as it is better to advance slowly than go headlong into the ditch or gutter.”

To be continued – Part I

From our library collection, Part I of a two part series:  “Letters of Charles Franklin Hammond to his son John, 1849-1850.”  From the original paper prepared and edited by Elmer Eugene Barker with further editing by Wm Dolback.

1/15/17 – wgd

If you like reading narrative history, may we suggest a similar book written by  Frederick G. Bascom ~~ “Letters of a Ticonderoga Farmer.”  A selection of correspondence between another father, William H. Cook, and wife, to their son Joseph Cook – 1851-1885.  Compiled from the Ticonderoga Historical Society’s “Joseph Cook’s archival collection.  Available in our Gift Shop.

258 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page