Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"Won't Be Home Again": A Lynn Grocer's Letters Home from the California Gold Rush

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

"Won't Be Home Again": A Lynn Grocer's Letters Home from the California Gold Rush

Article excerpt

Abstract: This article examines the travels of John Bachelder Peirce, a 46-year-old grocer from Lynn, Massachusetts, who left New England for San Francisco, with dreams of striking it rich during the California Gold Rush. In a series of letters he wrote to his wife, Peirce details his fears, political beliefs, and adventures, while chronicling his daily life in the boomtown. He also examines the conflicts between Southerners and abolitionists that helped define early San Francisco politics. Michael Gutierrez is a lecturer in English composition at the University of Miami.

I look forward to meeting all my friends again with great pleasure, but I fear I shall not be satisfied to remain at home after tasting for two years the great comforts of such a climate as we have here, and living in such a whirl of business excitement as I do here. I fear I shall be very homesick to get back even before my three months visit is out.

- John B. Peirce from San Francisco, letter home to his wife Hittie in Lynn, Massachusetts, October 19, 1851.1

On December 5, 1848, ten months after the end of the Mexican War, President James K. Polk confirmed to Congress what newspapers had rumored for weeks: gold in California. The skeptics disappeared, and the rush was on. California had been seen as just another spoil of that controversial war but now seemed to vindicate it. Polk proclaimed that "the accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by authentic reports of officers in the public service."2 Seemingly reasonable men - farmers, merchants, artisans -abandoned their homes and families in search of fortune and glory. They embarked on a journey that took them thousands of miles from home and would cost them at least a year away from their families. To get there, they would trek across the continent by wagon, venture by ship around Cape Horn, or cross the Isthmus of Panama. Hard saved money might be lost. More importantly, they might die. But why were dreams of gold enough to brave the obvious risks? Historian Malcolm J. Rohrbough argues that "America at midcentury may have been a land of opportunity, but among those faced with the prospect of working hard jobs for long hours and low pay, as well as for those confronting debt and failure amid prosperity of others, it also generated much dissatisfaction."3

This deep discontent with the present, along with poor hopes for the future, persuaded many to venture west. Everyone knew the risks. Even newspapers that had drummed up so much curiosity with hyperbole and rumor hid neither the danger involved nor the poor prospects for success. A year after Polk's announcement, stories trickled back from the first rush of gold seekers. Not all the news was good. The Boston Daily Evening Transcript wrote:

Although gold exists in such quantities in California, there are many serious, unanswerable objections to undertaking the arduous and hazardous enterprise of procuring it in the first place, of those who survive the exposures, the dangers and the diseases of the country, certainly not more than one in five will be able to leave it with more than a fair remuneration for his labor... This is supposed by good judges to be the most reasonable estimate that can be made. At any rate it renders the expethency of a journey to California in pursuit of gold sufficiently doubtful.4

Gold's allure eventually persuaded many to ignore the well-described risks. Men left for California en masse. Prior to the Gold Rush, there were no more than 8,000 in California. By 1850, the population had swelled to 93,000. Even after the initial rush, many followed the "49ers." By 1852, the population had nearly tripled to 264,000.5

One such man who departed after the first rush of gold seekers was John Bachelder Peirce, a 46-year-old grocery owner from Lynn, Massachusetts. On February 16, 1850, over a year after President Polk's confirmation of California gold, Peirce sailed from New York harbor on a steamer bound for Panama. …

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