1862: Thomas Wainwright Colburn to George Wood Colburn

This letter was written by 46 year-old Thomas Wainwright Colburn (1816-1882), the son of dry goods merchant Joshua Colburn (1783-1873) and Eunice Jones (1784-1871) of Boston, Suffolk county, Massachusetts. Thomas wrote the letter to his older brother, George Wood Colburn (1814-1896) who married Sarah Hovey Foster (1820-1914) in 1842.

Thomas made his way to gold fields of California in the early 1850s, taking up residence in Nevada City, California as early as 1852, possibly earlier. In was here in Nevada City that Thomas met and married his wife, Louise Mather (1821-1916) of Albany, New York. While in Nevada City, Thomas apparently entered into the firm Colburn & Jenkins which went bankrupt in 1856. I don’t know for certain what this business was but think it may have been a water canal enterprise associated with the mines. In 1870 Thomas was still affiliated in the mining industry, serving as secretary of the Hidden Treasure company in San Francisco. Thomas died in Stockton, California in 1882.

The letter is marvelously written and readers will no doubt marvel at the author’s prescience—and the confidence with which he expresses it—at the outcome of the civil war that has erupted between the North and South. He, I think, fairly accurately puts his finger on the cause of the “acrimony,” attributing it to the lack of understanding between the residents of the two regions who for too many years were fed falsehoods about each other by biased newspapers, leading to an “unjust prejudice.” [These distortions of reality are captured wonderfully in Thomas Flemings’s book, “A Disease in the Public Mind” published in 2013]

I particularly like his final sentiment which reads: “But while the Country is struggling through this sad and bitter experience in order that it may arrive at that future greatness with greater speed and certainty that is its unequaled destiny, let us who have not been so bereaved drop the tear of sorrow in sympathy for those who have offered up on the field of battle their sons and brothers, to secure to us and to those who shall come after us, the preservation of of the most beneficent and freest Government the world has ever experienced.”

Engraving of San Francisco in 1862

Transcription

Per steamer via Panama
215 California Street
San Francisco [California]
February 20th 1862

Dear George,

Since my sojourn in this city, which dates back to the middle of October last, I have written sundry and various letters to the members of the family at home, to none of which have I as yet received any response and I am therefore during this long interval without any intelligence of whatsoever kind or nature of the movements, welfare or condition of those to whom I am bound by the ties of family and love, in the land of my fathers. This state of things is not, I assure you, the most agreeable; and to obviate it I will make at the present time another effort by remarking once more, that all communications from home sent to me by the overland mail during these troublous times, are quite sure either to fall into the hands of the Rebels hanging and prowling about the State of Missouri, burning bridges and robbing mail bags, or in the event of their escaping such a catastrophe, have hitherto met with the delays and total losses, incident upon the attempt to make the passage of the Continent during the inclemencies of a winter for the severity of which, the history of the county has no parallel. My letters homeward, therefore, during this interval, have been forwarded per Steamer via Panama in charge of  the Express of Wells, Fargo & Co. and I have especially recommended letters from the family addressed to me to be dispatched by the same route in preference to having them subjected to the uncertainties and vicissitudes of the Overland Mail.

In the letters which I have written and remain unanswered I have adverted to the fact that it was my purpose to make this City my future place of business and home. That in this resolution, I had to some extent been encouraged by the prospects before me and I have no reason as yet to regret the determination to which I had arrived, but to the contrary shall make every effort to finally accomplish this purpose within the next two months at farthest, in removing my family from Nevada permanently to this City. I only feel sorry that circumstances have prevented me from carrying out this project a long time ago, but I feel that it is even now, better late than never.

San Francisco is and must ever continue to be the great emporium of the Pacific and as such contains within itself many more resources for all classes of society than a country village like Nevada. Besides which, to me, there is something more congenial to the feelings to live in and be identified with the affairs and events of a large city such as this has now become. When I can see my way clear for making some money, over and above current expenses, I will dilate fully upon my business matters generally. That time, I trust and have reason to think, is not far distant.  Meanwhile my letters must continue to deal in anticipations and generalities. “Rome was not built in a day.” Neither is the hydra headed monster Rebellion to be annihilated in a moment. But we commence now to witness the beginning of the end.

Our last telegraphic news is the fall of  Fort Donelson and the flag of the Union floats from the housetops of the City in commemoration of the joyous event. California has been from the first as loyal as any State of the Union and her great heart throbs in unison with her loyal sister States east of the Rocky Mountains. Sarah asked me some time since whether when this foul rebellion is once crushed, we would ever again become in sentiment—as well as in name—a united people. My reply is most emphatically in the affirmative. The acrimony which now exists on the part of the South had its origin in an unjust prejudice based upon almost inexcusable ignorance as to the real sentiments and feelings of the North. When the truthful page of history commences to make the record of this eventful period, this and future generations of southern men—when the passions of the human heart have subsided and reason reigns once more supreme—will peruse that page thoughtfully & dispassionately, and when the task is done, they will acknowledge with shame their ingratitude, their madness, and their blindness in the suicidal course they have pursued.

“But while the Country is struggling through this sad and bitter experience in order that it may arrive at that future greatness with greater speed and certainty that is its unequaled destiny, let us who have not been so bereaved drop the tear of sorrow in sympathy for those who have offered up on the field of battle their sons and brothers, to secure to us and to those who shall come after us, the preservation of the most beneficent and freest Government the world has ever experienced.”

Thomas Colburn, citizen, San Francisco, 20 February 1862

The North in its magnanimity towards a conquered brother, will seek every opportunity to show its generosity by word and deed and thus within this generation link again the South to itself in bonds of fraternal amity which no future contingencies can ever sever again. And another decade will witness the great and glorious spectacle of the most united people—the most prosperous and the mightiest nation on the face of the globe—never again to be disturbed by any internal dissensions and impregnable against the combined forces of the Old World. It takes no prophet nor the son of a prophet to predict this—and even far more. But while the Country is struggling through this sad and bitter experience in order that it may arrive at that future greatness with greater speed and certainty that is its unequaled destiny, let us who have not been so bereaved drop the tear of sorrow in sympathy for those who have offered up on the field of battle their sons and brothers, to secure to us and to those who shall come after us, the preservation of the most beneficent and freest Government the world has ever experienced.

With much love to Sarah and through you to our dear and venerable parents and the rest of the family in which Louise would heartily join me were she here, believe me, dear George, always

Your affectionate brother—Thomas

Mr. Geo. W. Colburn, Boston, Massachusetts

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