1850: John Stoddard Kirkham to William Kirkham

Commemorative Stamp

This letter was written by John S. Kirkham, a native of Newington, Connecticut, to his father William Kirkham (b. 1788), his mother Sophia (Leffingwell) Kirkham (b. 1796) and his siblings, James (b. 1821), Elizabeth (b. 1823), Sophia (b. 1828), William (b. 1831) and Richard (b. 1835).

John S. Kirham “was born April 6, 1826, and reared on his father’s farm, working hard and attending the common schools during such portions of the year as might be conveniently spared from farm work for that purpose. His education was finished in the Springfield High School and Newington Academy. In 1849 he went to California, being one of the pioneer band of Argonauts organized in Hartford by Major Horace Goodwin, C. G. Smith, Joseph Pratt, and others. He was chosen on the board of managers, and also clerk of elections in El Dorado county in 1850. After a valuable experience in the gold regions he returned to Newington, where, since i855, he has been justice of the peace. When the town was incorporated in 1871, he was chosen town clerk, and has remained such since, save for three years. From 1866 he has been school visitor, and is now chairman of the board. In addition to these places of trust he is treasurer of the State Board of Agriculture. He was a leader in the farmers’ organization a few years ago to contest the claims of the “Granite Agricultural Works” of Lebanon, N. H., growing out of fraudulent notes. Always a staunch defender of farmers’ rights and a leading spirit in the local and state Grange, he is more active in the support of agricultural interests than even the interests of the democratic party. In 1878 he represented Newington in the lower house of the general assembly, and ten years later served as state senator from the second district. Mr. Kirkham has been twice married; first to Miss Harriet P. Atwood, who died in 1882; his second wife being Miss Mary K. Atwood, to whom he was married in 1885. He has four children. He is a member and clerk of the Congregational church in Newington, and occupies an influential position in all local religious affairs.” Source: Illustrated Popular Biography of Connecticut – 1891, Compiled and Published by J. A. Spalding, Hartford Conn., Press of the Case, Lockwood and Brainard Company, 1891

From the Maritime Heritage Project we learn that John S. Kirkham booked passage on board the 407 ton barque Selma — one of the Mining Company Ships. She was built in 1839 in Bridgeport, Connecticut and left New York on April 11, 1849 with 93 passengers and 14 crew. She arrived in San Francisco on October 6, 1849, after 177 days at sea around the Horn, via Rio de Janeiro and Valparaiso. Traveling with him among the other passengers were: Harvey G. Brown, also of Newington, CT; Dr. M. L. Coe of Simsbury, CT; and Edward Sanford of New Britain, CT. These three are mentioned by Kirkham in this letter as being his prospecting partners.

Kirkham wrote this letter from Big Bar, which was one of the first settled areas in Trinity County, California, having been established in 1849. By 1850, it had a population of 50 residents and its own post office.

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Addressed to Mr. William Kirkham, Newington, Connecticut

Big Bar, Middle Fork American River, [California Territory]
May 14, 1850

Dear Father & Mother, Brothers & Sisters,

I half hour ago, I came in from the mountains (where I & two others have been prospecting for a couple of days) & to my great joy found the express man on the Bar with a letter from William for me and one from H. C. B. to Harvey. My letter is dated & mailed the 12th of March. This is the first I have heard from home since the 14th of January when I got all the letters that had been written up to that time in a heap. Then you had mailed my letters from Rio and it was about time for you to have got one from Valparaiso which Hervey and myself wrote and paid the American Consul to forward by his own mail via the Isthmus, but still was not surprised expecting an answer to that by next mail. But the next mail has come and with it one letter from William (for which I am very thankful) and in it the intelligence that nought has been heard from me since almost a year ago. Well this is queer, surely,  really very vexing, but I must make the best of it and write the more letters in hopes that some of them will reach their destination.

Well I will tell you when I have written and to whom so that you may know I do not deserve the charge of having forgotten my friends (an imputation which is about as much as I can bear). Forgotten my friends? Why, my very life & being, hopes & happiness, the occupancy of my mind by day and the subject of my brightest dreams by night. I supposed by those I know are my friends to be out of my mind. If you ever see this, William, you will see how the matter stands. But to the letters at Valparaiso, I wrote & cross wrote one sheet full — and fine at that — besides some in Harvey’s sheet. This was dated somewhere between the 8 & 16 of August then at San Francisco. I wrote 3 sheets (I think) to N. _. S.; these were dated between that & 18 of October at Sacramento City. I sent a letter by Justus Francis who sailed in the 1st of Feb steamer who will come and see you if he lives to get home. He is some relation of George Francis. N.B., I believe this letter was dated sometime previous and was filled up from time to time as occasion offered. The next two letters were commenced right off (1 to James & William, & the other home) in which I spared neither pen, ink, nor paper. As to the contents, I have forgotten about that, but these I sent in the March mail. Now you know the reason of letters failing to go through better than I do, but whatever it may be, it is evident there is something wrong somewhere. It seems that Father, James & William each wrote in November. I have got neither. I have an opportunity to send this to Sacramento tomorrow morning, or I would try to write more. I am not fit to write tonight, being very tired, and some disappointment in learning that my letters have miscarried.

There are at present 4 of us together — Harvey, Dr. Coe, Sanford, & myself. We have strolled over a good part of California ranging from the plains in the Sacramento Valley to the snow-crowned peaks of the Sierra Nevada. I am well and hearty. As to the diggings, I will be more particular in my next [letter] which I am going to begin immediately.

It is quite warm here in the middle of the day, but the nights are cool & pleasant. The mountains where I have been yesterday and today are covered with flowers of every description while only a short distance to the east of us (15 or 20 miles) the mountains are white with perpetual snow. The rivers are all very high on account of the melting snow which prevents much digging at present.

It is now so dark I can hardly see the lines and must close wishing Father & Mother, James, Elizabeth, Sophia, William, & Richard a kind good night. Much love to all, from your dutiful & affectionate, — John

P. S. May 15. This letter looks so bad by day light that I am ashamed to send it but have not time to write another. Excuse this one and the next shall be a longer & better one. By you not getting my former letters (Oct.) there will be quite an interval of which you will know nothing but I am in hopes you will get them yet. The general news of California you will get by the papers so when I write, I will try to be as particular as may be. Give my love to all my friends. Good Bye. — J. S. Kirkham

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