These letters were written by 33 year-old Charles E. Bowers (1826-1864) , the son of Henry and Jane L. Bowers, and the husband of Minerva D. Linsday (1831-1908) of Branch county, Michigan. Charles and Minerva were married in Branch County on 1 January 1852.
The following biographical sketch of Charles E. Bowers was published in the History of Branch County, page 307, published in 1879. Curiously, there is no mention of the gold seeking sojourn to California during which time he wrote the transcribed letters appearing below. Perhaps it was not a proud moment for the family that Charles should leave his wife and child on a wanderlust adventure of such danger and risk.
“His boyhood was spent in obtaining a fair education and in farm labor. In after-years he was engaged in teaching district school in the winter season, and in working at farming in the summer.
He taught several terms in Washtenaw Co. and afterwards in Branch Co. In 1847 he settled on 80 acres of wild land in the township of Butler. He erected a small frame house, and improved his lands during the summer and taught school in the winter for a number of years. He became attached to one of his pupils, Miss Minerva D. Linsday, daughter of Pioneer Preacher Rev. David Linsday of Butler Co., MI.
In 1864 Charles was drafted into the army [as a private in Co. B, 14th Michigan Infantry,] and, on the “March to the Sea,” strayed from his command, and for eleven long years his fate was unknown by his sorrowing widow and friends at home. But, after years of uncertainty, the full history of his sad death was revealed. He became sick and exhausted on the march through Georgia, and, delirious with fever, wandered away from his comrades. He was found by some people in almost a dying condition, and was taken to the house of Mrs. Bryson, the wife of a Confederate soldier.
This kind lady procured a doctor and nursed him until his death, which occurred in Nov 1864. He gave Mrs. Bryson the address of his family in Michigan, but, owing to some mistake in the name, the several letters she wrote to Mrs. Bowers never came to hand, and in after-years, by advertising in the Detroit papers, the whole sad story came to light. He was buried in the cemetery at Conyers, Georgia, but afterwards removed to the National Soldiers Cemetery at Marietta, Georgia.
At the time he entered the army he left his wife and one son, Don Juan. Two weeks after his departure for the war his wife gave birth to a daughter, to whom she named Jane L. At the age of 7 months the babe died, leaving the mother and little boy alone in the world.“
Because of the nature of Charles’ disappearance and death while in the service of his country, his widow had difficulty obtaining a widow’s pension. The official report from the Assistant Adjutant General was that Charles was “Missing from the Ambulance train of the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division, 14th Army Corps on 19 November 1864 on the march from Atlanta to Savannah, Ga., while in a deranged condition resulting from sickness—supposed to be dead.” Minerva’s claim appears to have been initially denied—“Deserted December 1864 in the field. No evidence of death.” The pension record reveals she was still seeking a pension years later.
These eight letters are part of several letters written by Charles Bowers on his overland journey to California by way of Salt Lake City. “In crossing the plains when we got to Salt Lake,” he wrote his wife from California, “we sold our wagon and packed our things on the horses, sold our tent and slept on the ground in the open air the rest of the way to California without inconvenience of any sort.” Before winter 1859, his party made it to California where they began their search for gold in Genesee Valley in Plumas county, California. By February 1860, after digging for three months, Charles was not very sanguine as to his chances of great fortune: “I hope to make enough to pay a little towards the expenses of my journey. I do not expect to make much, and I should not probably have made a great deal if I had stayed in Michigan. I shall have a chance to satisfy myself about this about this western country and I think a man can gain more information by making the trip than by any other way.” By June 1860, he informed his wife that he intended to return home in the fall.
May 9, 1859
I embrace this chance to inform you of my whereabouts. We arrived at Council Bluffs on Saturday, May 7th, all well. We are so at present. The boys have gone down to the city to buy our stock of provisions and have left me here to watch the tents. I forgot to tell you in my former letters that we got in company with four men from Genesee County, Michigan. We met them at Michigan City, the next day after we left home and have traveled with them to this place and shall most likely go through with them. They appear to be first rate fellows.
I was a good deal disappointed on not finding a letter from you at the Bluff. I had made a good deal of calculation on hearing from you there but presume I shall not. A letter now from you now would be one of the bright spots in everyday life. Alonzo and Daniel were also disappointed. We shall leave orders with the postmaster at the Bluff to send them on if they arrive soon. If you do not have a letter already sent when you get this, you need not send any till you hear from me again and then I will tell you where to direct one. We shall start from here in two or three days.
We are encamped about ¼ of a mile from the Missouri River. I went over on Saturday after we arrived and took a look at it. Well, how do you think I found it. I will tell you. I found it to be a mudhole about 4000 miles long and a little less than a mile wide. It is very muddy and runs very swift. The cause of the water looking so is because the sides and bottom are quicksand. I saw about a half dozen steamboats passing up and down the river yesterday. There was a very nice boat stopped to take on freight on this side of the river and I went over and made her a visit. We use the water from the river for cooking and drinking. We have to bring it and let it stand over night and settle, then it is very good. The inhabitants here use it altogether but there is no need of it as good water can be got by digging. The water in Iowa where we have passed though is generally the best I ever saw. It is first rate. There can be no better.
There is plenty of Indians here and they come to the tents and want to eat, eat off the trim. They are a hard-looking set—poor and dirty. The squaws in particular—a degraded and abandoned set. They do all the work, carry all the burdens, bear all the drudgery and ____ hard. The Indians march along by their side carrying their rifle perhaps and fixed off as grand as coffee.
Council Bluffs as a village is perhaps as large as Coldwater, situated on the river bottoms, three miles and a half from the river on the East side. There is a good deal of business done here, most of the emigrants fitting out here. Omaha City is situated in Nebraska Territory on the West side of the river. It is the capitol of the Territory and a very fine place, nearly as large as the Bluff to judge of its appearance from the east side of the river. The capitol stands on the elevation west of the town and is a fine-looking building.
Our company have been well since we left, with the exception of Len, he had the Ague every other day for a week but he is healthy now. We sleep on the ground on a blanket, cook our own grub and fare first rate. I have washed once since I left and did it first rate. We get along better by a good deal than I expected we should.
We shall probably cross the river this afternoon. We are camped near the ferry and it is three miles back to town. As soon as the boys get back, we shall go across the river.
And now about the [Pike’s] Peak. I cannot tell you much—only that there is an immense emigration that way. It is estimated that fifty wagons per day have crossed the ferry here for sixty days. There is all sorts of news but on the whole they are favorable. If I could hear from you and know that you and Juan was well, I should be better satisfied but I shall wait patiently till the time comes. Give my respects to all friends. Hug Dick for me a little and remember me.
Ever yours, truly, Chas. E. Bowers
May 11, 1859
I did not think when I wrote to you a day two ago that I should write to you so soon again, but having a little spare time this morning, I think perhaps that I cannot spend it in a manner more agreeable to myself or to you. When I wrote last, I had not got your letter, but the boys had gone to the village and when they returned, they brought me your letter. I need not tell you how well I was pleased to hear from you, and to hear that you and Juan were well as also all the friends.
I wrote to Lewis and Uncle Thomas at the same time that I did to you last.
We did not go over the [Missouri] river on Monday as we intended but we shall go today, for all I know now. We had a terrible thunderstorm last night—rain in torrents and wind in abundance. But we dug a ditch around our tent and got in and covered up and let it storm. This morning it is again fair and warm. Dan and Lon have not got any letter yet, but Dan is going to town this morning, perhaps he may find one. In my last letter to you I told you that you need not write to me again till I got established or wrote to you where to write. I cannot tell when I shall be where. I should be apt to get a letter from you with regard to the mines. I do not know anymore that I can depend upon than I did when I started from home.
There is some going home that have been three hundred miles west of here. They say that the whole matter is a humbug—that there is no gold there at all or none of any amount—that mining there cannot make 50 cents per day. In fact, we hear all sorts of stories and cannot tell anything about it. Some are going one way, some another. Some say one thing, some another, and that is all you can tell about the matter. Keep up good grit as I know you will, and all will come out right whether there is any gold anywhere or not.
I will tell you how much it has cost me up to this time. We have got all our provisions that we can draw and all our equipage with the exception of a very little and it has cost me a little over fifty dollars or will when we get everything complete. That will include what I have spent and all.
This Iowa that we have passed through is a good country, but I do not think I should like it well enough to settle in it. The prairies are too large and there is but very little timber on the route we passed through. There is thousands of acres that there is not a thing upon the grass. We did intend to go to Samuel Nicholls but did not go that route, so we did not see him.
Sometimes I get to thinking of home and of you and Dick and then I wish I could be there for a little while, but I do not get homesick. I only think of the enjoyment we have had at home and hope we shall have again. You wanted me to write good, long letters and I do as long as I can and what I do not make in length, I try to in number. I believe this makes six that I have written to you.
We intend to cross the Missouri this afternoon and go on slowly at first as our load is heavy. We have to carry some feed from here for the horses and that makes the load a good deal heavier. You need not look for another letter till we get to Fort Kearney, which is one hundred and eighty miles, but I will write if I have an opportunity to send back. We have a first rate time full well and enjoy ourselves as well as we can. We hunt some but there has not been much game so far. We expect more ahead. We are all well and hearty, have good fare but rough, as all do on this journey.
Tell your mother that the frying pan does the best kind of service and we keep it quite busy. I shall write to all the friends as fast as I can, but when we travel, we have to work hard. We get up in the morning, get our breakfast, pack up and move on. At night we camp, unpack, get our supper, go to bed and so it goes. There is a good many women going west with the emigrants, but it must be a hard journey and it certainly is a rough place. I saw one woman that was going through dressed in men’s clothes. She was not smart.
And now, Minerva, take good care of Juan. Make a hero of him if you can by making him do his duty and your own heart will reward you. We start in a short time, so good-bye now.
Yours truly, Chas. E. Bowers to M. D. Bowers
Fremont, Nebraska Territory
May 14, 1859
When I wrote to you last, I thought that it would be some time before I wrote again but today it is very rainy and we are laying over and I thought I would like to write a few lines to you as that it is the most agreeable occupation I can engage in. When last I wrote to you I believe the mines were as favorable as common but now they are of the worst possible kind. The talk is that it is all a humbug and thousands of men are coming back. I do not know anything about it. I cannot tell anymore about it than I could before I started, but I must tell you the truth—the matter looks very dull. But I am going through if possible and then I shall know for myself certain.
I want you to write to me and tell me what the news are from the boys that went from Butler and what they write back. And now Minerva, I shall write this to you as a private letter. You must not let anyone see this at present but write me a letter and direct it to Denver City, Kansas Territory, and I think I shall get it by the time I get there.
And now Minerva, if this matter is a humbug, what do you think or what would you think if I should tell you that I think of going through to California. The company that we are with are going through and I do not know but that may be the best way. I think so. When I get to Cherry Creek, I can go to California just as cheap as I can come home, and I think I would like to go. The news from the Kansas mines are very discouraging but I can’t tell you any more now till I get there and know for myself and I shall write to you as often as I can.
I think of you and Juan often and would like to see you, but I am not homesick and do not expect to be.
This is a splendid looking country but there is no timber and it is not near as ___ as Michigan. I went down to the Platt River this morning with Dan and took the first look at it. We are 40 miles west of the Bluffs. I cannot write much as we shall leave here this afternoon I suppose. Think the matter over and write me a letter directed as above and there I will have more chance to know. If you want any money, tell Lew so and he will get it for you. Take good care of yourself and Juan and then I shall be satisfied. I am healthy and feel first rate as far as health is concerned. Do not say anything to anyone of this matter.
Remember me and I shall remember you. God Bless you, — Chas. E. Bowers to M.D. Bowers
Shinn’s Ferry, Platte River
May 18, 1859
Again, I embrace the opportunity of writing to you. I think I do my only towards you in that respect but it may be that I shall not be able to write so often by and by so I will write while I can. We are camped on the bank of the Platte River. Have been here two days [and] expect to go on tomorrow.
Minerva, in my last letter I told you that the news from the mines were very discouraging. They are so still and a great many men are coming back from the mines. Yes, thousands of them who say they cannot make their board by digging gold. But we are going on and if the mines at the Peak do not pay, we are going on to California. We can do just as well by going through as to come home and go just as cheap from there as to come home. You can just not say anything to anyone about our going to California till I write to you whether we are going or not. I don’t think I can afford to come so far and not make it pay. The man that come with us from ‘Homer’ leaves us here. Thinks it will not pay to go farther. Perhaps he will call and see you if he comes home but I do not know whether he will or not.
Be of good cheer. Take good care of Dick and yourself and have no fears for me. I am health us and feel better drinking river water and sleeping on the ground than before in two years. I feel as well as I ever did. Remember me to all to the old folks especially, and believe me ever yours, yours, yours, — Chas. E. Bowers
I will write as often as I can to you and to all, but I shall write to you first. We shall not cross the ferry here but go up on the north side of the Platte—a river that is of no account at all to the country. C.E.B to M.D.B. Did not I write this side.
Fort Kearny, Nebraska Territory
May 25, 1859
This will tell you that we are all well and will also inform you where we are. We arrived here last night. We are not at the fort, but on the north side of the river. We are going on again shortly. I hope you will write me a letter and direct it to Salt Lake City, Utah Territory, as I requested in my last letter. I sometimes long to hear from home but think I can wait a little while. I shall not write again till I get to Fort Laramie which is 300 miles, or I don’t expect to but if there is a post office between here and there, I will write if I can.
We had a snow storm last night and it is cold this morning. We are camped with a company that are going over the river and I can send this over to the fort, so I thought I would write. I hope you are comfortable and enjoy yourself well. Keep up good courage and I will see you again as soon as possible. We are in the buffalo range and expect to have some fun soon. We came across a dead Indian last night before we got to camping plane. He lay wrapped in his blanket. He had laid there a good while. How he came there, no one knows. I have no news to write. I knew you would like to hear how we were getting along.
Give Dick a good hug for me and consider yourself hugged a little if you are a mind to. Yours truly, — Chas. E. Bowers
June 10, 1859
We are now within 15 miles of Fort Laramie, all well. We have had a lame horse the past week which has delayed us some but he is better now. We are camped now on the Platte River in a nice grove—the first almost that we have seen for two hundred miles. Lon is cooking dinner. We shall be at the fort tomorrow if nothing happens to hinder us. We have had some sandy roads but they are better now. Yesterday we came in sight of the Black Hills and soon shall be among them. From here it is 500 miles to Salt Lake. We can make that I suppose in about a month. We met a train of Mormons going east a few days ago. They stated the roads to be good but some snow on the mountains. There were some women with them—fine looking ones too. One in particular dressed in good style and wore kid gloves but when I saw her, she was cooking over a fire of buffalo chips. But one needs gloves to fuel the fire with such fuel.
I must tell you something of the kinds of winds they sometimes have on these plains. A company of emigrants going to California had stopped for the night about 200 miles east of here when a tornado struck them, upset their wagons and blew them upwards of 80 rods, broke their wagons to pieces and scattered their effects in every direction. We were some 40 miles east of them at the time. It blew terribly where we were but did no damage. We stopped and saw the wreck. When we came up on the wheels of their wagons, seven wheels were torn to pieces. Some of their things were blown 5 miles. One spoke of a wheel was broken in two pieces. It broke open trunks and satchels and scattered the contents on the ground. One woman had her arm broke and two men were hurt but not seriously. It is a wonder some were not killed. I would not have believed it if I had not seen it myself.
A young man in a company near us met with an accident a few days ago. One of the company was taking a gun out of the wagon when it went off and lodged a ball in his back or struck him in the shoulder blade and lodged in the bones of his breast, going nearly through his body. It did not kill him and he may get well. They have taken him to the fort to be attended to by the United States surgeon there. We have got mostly out of the region of storms of rain. I suppose that it rains here very seldom. We have traveled on the bank of the Platte so long that it looks like an old friend.
I hope you are well and enjoy yourself, will try to do so as well as you can.
Take good care of my boy (I might say your boy). Train him up in the way he should go but allow him to act like a child while he is a child for Saint Paul done that you know. I would like much to see him. I would give money now, as little as I have got to hug the little fellow. Perhaps I shall have the chance some time. I shall write you from Salt Lake again and I want you to write and direct your letters to Placerville, California so I can hear from you as soon as I get there.
I do not know that I shall write any more this time. If I get time when we get to the fort I will. And now good-bye, — Chas. E. Bowers to M.D. Bowers
Fort Laramie, Nebraska Territory
June 11, 1859
We are at the fort as you will see. I did not think yesterday that I would have any more to write in this letter, but I think I like to write to you best of anyone. I shall send some though besides this to others. I have not had time to write to my folks yet. I suppose you do not think of going to see them. If you should, you can tell them the news and I shall write to them as soon as I can. Keep up your courage and do not get downhearted.
I wish you was here this morning to see the Indians with their ponies and packs. We see lots of them now.
Enclosed I send you the seed of a small prickly pear that grows on the prairies here. We shall go on from here soon. As soon as I can I am going over the river to the fort which is on the point between Platte and Laramie Rivers.
I must say good-bye, which I very seldom say to anyone but will as it you. Hoping to see you at the earliest possible time, I remain your affectionate — Charlie
Chas. E. Bowers to M.D. Bowers
June 19, 1859
Today is to us as to all & should be a day of rest. We are laying over and shall start from here in the morning. We are well as common. We are camped on the bank of Platte River. I hope we shall see the last of this river soon. We have followed on its track about 700 miles. We are about 125 miles from Fort Laramie. The mountains on each side of the river begin to look up some. From where I am writing I can see snow on their tops in lots of places and yet it is 140 miles to the summit of the Rocky Mountains yet. This country has every evidence of having been formed as it now is by the force of volcanos or earthquakes. Of that I will tell you more when we meet.
We are in company with a company of seven wagons going to California by the way of Salt Lake. We expect to get there in about three weeks if nothing happens to hinder us. I shall mail this letter there. I thought I would commence to write you now and would have it ready when I get there. I am expecting a letter from you at Salt Lake and hope to get it too but if I do not, I shall be much disappointed. I shall have to wait, in that case, till I get to California which will seem like a long time.
I sometimes fancy that something is the matter at home, that you or Juan is sick or worse and often blame myself for not staying with you but perhaps this is not the case and I fondly hope that it is not. Of one thing you may be assured, I shall return as soon as I can, and I shall probably think the time as long as you. Take good care of Dick and yourself and the time will not seem long. I wrote you a letter from Fort Laramie which I sent one week ago yesterday. In that I told you all the news up to that time and I shall write this letter at intervals between this and the time we get to Salt Lake. I want you to be sure and write to Placerville, California and have the friends write that wish to and I shall get there sooner than if you waited longer.
We have got out of the region of rain I think as we do not have any more though we have some heavy thunder very. The feed that we find here in the mountains is as dry as hay but is very good. Sometimes it is plenty, sometimes none at all. Then we have to take our horses off two or three miles to where we can find grass, take our blanket along and lay down by them and sleep on the ground through the night. There is no dew of any account, so it is good sleeping. The weather here is very warm in the middle of the day when there is no wind but the nights are cool. I have not had better health in a long time than on this journey except a very sore mouth and lips. It seems that they cannot be cured. Everyone almost has them. I shall write enough before I send this to you to make out a good long letter, so I shall not write any more at present except to say that if I go to California and like the country as well as I expect to, I want to know if you will go there to live. When you write after you get this, let me know what you think of it. For the present I must close but you will hear more from me soon again if nothing happens. Till then Adieu, From your Charlie
Devils Gate, Nebraska Territory
June 27, 1859
When I commenced this letter, I expected to mail it at Salt Lake but conclude to send the some now, as I have a good chance and you will get it sooner. We are 200 miles from Fort Laramie. Expect to go on from here in the morning. We are now about 300 miles from Salt Lake. We are camped on the Sweet Water River at the Devil’s Gate—a passage of the river through a spur of the Rocky Mountains. It is a frightful looking place. The river passes through a narrow cut in the rocks which rise about 400 feet from the water, perpendicular on each side. It looks frightful to go down into the gap and look up, but nothing to be compared to the looking down from the top. I went up to the top, had to lay down and crawl up to the edge and look over. I am not nervous, but it made me have a horrid feeling to look down on the river, tumbling over the rocks below.
We have plenty of game here. Dan has gone out hunting. We are staying in camp today, so we have a little leisure. I hope you are well, but you cannot tell how much I would like to hear from home and from you all. I shall write from Salt Lake, most likely, if not before. Keep up up the best kind of courage and all will be well. I am not homesick but would like to see you and Juan the best kind. I shall write to you as often as I can and to all the rest, but you will get letters ahead of the rest of course. Be brave and strong and we will meet again soon,
From your Charlie truly