1849: John Holman to Elizabeth Holman

The following letter was written by 46 year-old John Holman (1803-1872) to his wife Elizabeth (Henderson) Holman (1807-1849) of Wilbraham, Hampden county, Massachusetts. John and Elizabeth were married in December 1829 and lived in the Boston area for a time before pursuing farming and stock raising in Wlibraham.

This clipping provides the names and home towns of the members of the Suffolk Mining Company

John wrote the letter in April 1849 from Rio de Janiero, Brazil, while enroute to the California gold fields as a member of the Suffolk Mining Company. The members of this company included “a clergyman, physician, lawyer, carpenters, tailors butchers, &c.” Newspaper notices pertaining to the company claim that the “company go on strictly temperance principles and pledge themselves to abstain from gambling and labor on the Sabbath.” The 21 member company was lead by Rev. Hiram Cummings (1810-1887)—an anti-slave lecturer. Other members included: F. E. Baldwin, E. A. Kendall, J. R. Carr, L. Cleaves, Joseph A. Whitmarsh, Humphrey Jameson, Hiram W. Colver, Amasa Bryant, Edwin Faxon, John Gregory, Jr., J. W. Gay, Thomas Emery, A. Sigourney, Leonard F. Rowell, Henry Soule, Peletiah Lawrence Bliss, S. W. Grush, W. H, Tupper, John Holman, S. N. Fuller, M. Bruwer, H. M. Adams, Enoch Burnett, Jr., H. E. Gates, James Gibbens, G. A. Hall, R. C. M. Boynson, F. Z. Boynson, B. White, A. 0. Lindsay, C. T. Mallett, E. B. Kellogg, Henry Hancock, George C. Cargoll, Henrick Cummings, Joseph C. Trescott, G. W. Colby, Albert Cook, Francis S. Frost, Albert Merriam, John Hancock, D. C. Smith, J. Lindsay, S. A. Stimpson, R. G. French, and G. J. Lindsay

The company booked passage aboard aboard the 210-ton barque Drummond which departed Boston on 1 February 1849 and arrived in San Francisco on 1 September 1849 (210 days). John claims to have been keeping a journal though I have not found a record of it. Another passenger, Charles T. Mullett, kept a journal also which has survived and is in the Peabody/Essex Museum in Salem. The enties are brief but mention celebrating Washington’s birthday with a 13 gun salute on 22 February, singing, prayers, and an address by Mr. Lindsay, and a dinner of roast pig, chicken, plum pudding and pies. He lists 21 passengers in the forward cabin, most of whom were members of the Suffolk Mining Company, and 22 passengers on the after cabin. [Forty-Niners Round the Horn, page 319]

John’s letter informs us that the Drummond was in port at Rio de Janiero for some two or three weeks making repairs and that the Captain hoped to sail without stop around the horn all to way to San Francisco. Another member of the Mining Company named Peletiah “Lawrence” Bliss wrote a letter [in the Mass. Historical Society] describing the ships voyage that informs us the Drummond had to make another stop at Lima, Peru, before sailing on to San Francisco. His letter also states that the Drummond departed Rio de Janiero on April 19th “to the spirited song of the generous sailors.”

I could not find any record of John in California or of his success in finding gold once there. I believe his experience turned out to be like so many other 49ers—the journey was not worth the cost, financially or emotionally. He mentions his wife and children but I could not find any children that survived his first marriage to Elizabeth. All of them appearing in census records died young, including the child that Elizabeth was bearing at the time of his departure for California. That child died three days after her birth in mid-July 1849 while John was still enroute, and Elizabeth died in early October the same year. If John had any surviving children by the time he heard the news after his arrival in California, he may have immediately booked passage to return home. He was remarried in March 1851 to his second wife and took up farming once again.

The only obituary notice I could find for John was the following: “John Holman, a well-known citizen of Wilbraham, died in his chair while eating his breakfast, Sunday morning. He exclaimed, “How dark it is growing!” and was dead before assistance could reach him. He was 58 [68] years old.” [The Boston Herald, 21 March 1872]


Rio de Janiero
16 April 1849

Dear Elizabeth,

I sent two letters—one to you & one to Mother B. the first opportunity I had after our arrival here two weeks tonight since we arrived in this port. Capt. [Thomas G.] Pierce thinks he shall be ready to leave on Wednesday next, the 18th, but I very much doubt whether he will. He has overhauled all of the rigging, is now a corking & painting. Has some carpenter work to do yet. I believe he intends to have everything in good order before he leaves for the old Horn. He told me yesterday that he did not intend to put in to any port again after leaving this until he arrives at San Francisco. I hope for one that he will not, even if he has to put us on allowance for water. I know he has a plenty of salt junk aboard to last us a year, & a plenty of hard bread. I think sometimes that it is rather hard fare but it is harder where there is  none.

I have great reason to be thankful that I enjoy so good health. I have not yet had a sick hour since we left Boston. There is but few on board that can say this. Should we all live to arrive at the gold region, the climate may agree with others better than myself. I think if we all arrive there in the enjoyment of good health, that there is some prospect of our doing well. There was a whaler arrived in this port yesterday from San Francisco. They bring good news from the gold regions. They were there  three months. The Captain had 50,000 in gold dust, one of the sailors 7000, & the remainder of the crew had about 5000 each.

I cannot think of much to write by way of news. Our company are all in good health except three or four gormondisers that have eaten so much fruit, it has given them the dysentery. The Wilbraham Boys will write for themselves.

Slaves in Brazil carrying “heavy burdens on their heads.”

I must give you a little sketch of what I have seen since I arrived here. I have seen the Emperor & Empress & Mr.  Gorham Parks, the U. S. Consul. I have been several miles out into the country, have seen a number of very fine  plantations. The trees are loaded with oranges. The coffee tree looks very fine; likewise the banana trees. I will give you a good description of Rio in my Journal if I live to return home to old Wilbraham. Likewise of the natives & slaves. The poor slaves have a hard time of it. They are compelled to carry heavy burdens on their heads. They will take a barrel of flour & a large bag of coffee & run through the streets. I suppose there are more than a thousand persons in this  harbor bound for the gold regions, but enough of this.

I keep the two letters you sent me before I left Boston. It affords me much pleasure to read them occasionally. I thank you kindly for the good advice you gave me in them. I hope you will keep your promise you make in them—that is, to pray for me daily. I will do the same for you & our dear children. Please give my love to them & tell them that although I am far away, they are not forgotten by me daily. I hope if I live to arrive at San Francisco I shall hear from you & them. I am well aware of your situation. I hope you will be well provided for during my absence. I hope you  will try & make yourself as happy as you can till we meet again. Please give my love to Father & Mother & all enquiring friends & accept the largest share for yourself.

Your best friend on earth and ever affectionate husband, John Holman

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