Society Saturday: Howe Came They Here, 1857

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Howe Letters

In my last Society Saturday post featuring the work I’m doing for the local historical society on the family of Phineas H. Howe, I left off with the question of what could possess Phineas, a widower with two sons, aged 11 and 15, to leave them and all his friends and family behind for an unknown part of the country. To find the answer, this post will includes excerpts of his letters from 1857. These are direct transcriptions, and may contain spelling errors. Any notes of my own will be in parentheses.

Steam Ship Illinois, Apl 13th 1857

Dear Boys & Friends

I thought it might be some satisfaction to you to hear from me and to know that I am in existance and how I get along. the first day was as heart rending to me as any day I have seen since I started from Bryant Pond (~13 miles south of Hanover, ME, the residence of most of his friends and family) the next day went to Portland (ME)  took the boat that night arrived in Boston (MA)…Bot my ticket and paid 135$ for forward Cabin berth (for the Illinois) we Bot our tickets for NY and started at 5 1/2 A.M. by the Norwich Route went about half way by cars & the rest by boat – arrived in NY Sunday morn 6 oclock. found two other fellows from Me. going to Califfornia Hilton Longly. they had not been in NY 2 hours before they had the…pocket book game played on them (anyone heard of this?) and 20$ taken from them. Coy and I went about the city Sunday and Monday fore noon as the boat did no start until 2 oclock we went aboard at the appointed time and the boat was crowded there being some 400 stearage passengers and some 300 US Soldgers and we were all huddled together like so many sheep it stormed and they only run out about 2 miles and anchored.

Tuesday morning we started and then commenced our suffering we had nothing to eat but hard bread half-cooked beef pork and mean butter. I have been sea sick most of the time since I started  I have had to buy 2 pints of water gruel and pay 25ct each and have Bot most I have eat at the same rate since I have been aboard. We got up a petition to the US Consul at Kingston Jamaca to investigate our living.  but the authorities of the place would not let the Steamer land because there was people on board sick with measles. but we have lived better today and the prospects are that we shall continue to  there is a good many Maine boys aboard and some from most all the States in the union. we sailed part of one day in sight of the East side of Cuba which is very mountainous and romantic and also on the East side of Jamaca which is more so than Cuba…if nothing happens we shall get into Aspenwal (Aspinwall – the eastern end of the Panama railway) tomorrow 8 oclock and take the cars to Panama the 15th as quick as I get into California I shall write you again. give my respects to all.         P.H. Howe

Such an amazing journey outlined in a single letter. I am still looking into the methods of transport mentioned, like the Steamship Illinois (one was built later by the same name, so I’m having to weed out those mentions) and the Panama railway. It was one of the most expensive to construct, though it crossed less than 50 miles. It also was one of the most expensive to traverse in the world, and there’s a great summary with maps and pictures of what Phineas would have seen on his route here).

Sunday Aug 30th 1857

Douglas Flat   Colevasas County Cal (Calaveras Co., CA)

Dear Boys

I thought as long as I had moved from Antiock (Antioch, CA) I must inform you where I was. I am in the above town County and State. I am stoping with Stephen A Perry who married Julia Howe. They and family are well and I enjoy first rate health…we can hardly tell what will happen in a year it is very dry here…I can hardly tell what I shall go into yet whether mining or ranching. although I keep to work every day. I can have a chance to buy into a claim for 500$ that some think will pay 4$ per day from 5 to 10 years Could I be certain of it I Would buy but the people say that mining is uncertain business. I have been into to the mountains within four miles of the Big tree three times after lumber and I have been to Murphy’s Camp twice I went hunting stray stock one day and the rest of the time I have been diging wells…tell Uncle David I have had all the tomatoes I could eat since I have been in Ca. and for three weeks I have had all the watermelons I could wish for so you will understand taht I will high and drink cold water. I do not find it any harder  to be a temperance man here than at home although theirs but few here, but it is nothing as it used to be according to reports but bad enough now and I hope for the good of mankind that the cause of temperance will eventually progress at home. it seems to me that I cannot write any thing that will interest my friends at home for thiers but little that is interesting to me for the Country is brocken and uneven but the climate is beautiful & healthy plenty of gold if you can find it…                              P.H. Howe

The gold claims in Douglas Flat in 1857 produced over $100,000 dollars in gold. Phineas may have gone there for another reason, but it’s most likely he, like anyone else drawn to the area in that era, had a gold lust in him. Whether that’s what originally drew him west away from his sons and family, I cannot say – I have omitted parts of the letters that make it clear he thinks of them often and misses them. Many are mentioned by name with news to pass on to them, but I did not include them here for brevity. What is clear, at least, is that he misses his family and friends, especially his sons. He encourages them to write often and ‘write some…to your poor Old father’. Unfortunately, the return letters are not part of the packet in the society’s holdings, but the image it paints of Phineas is fascinating. It’s clear he is uncertain of the future, uncertain how long he will remain in California. Did he have plans to return to Maine and his sons?

Stay tuned for more next Saturday!

(These are transcriptions of actual letters written by Phineas H. Howe to his family and friends in Maine. The real letters are currently in the possession of the Nez Perce County Historical Society, which has generously loaned me these transcriptions for the project I’m doing for them. All other information herein is © 2011, copyright Genealady & JustFolks.)

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