Category Archives: East Boston Fire of 4 July 1861

1861-64: Sumner Hill to John Hill

These letters were written by Sumner Hill (1838-1878), the son of Increase Sumner Hill (1806-1873) and Mary S. Perins (1806-1878) of East Boston, Massachusetts. Increase S. Hill made his living as a steamboat engineer and later as an inspector.

A post-war CDV taken in San Francisco of an unidentified man about Sumner’s age.
(Will Griffing Collection)

Sumner was married on 19 March 1860 in Boston to Caroline A. Keith (1839-1917), the daughter of Elbridge Gerry Keith (1804-1870) and Lucy Howland (1807-1883). In 1861, he appears to have been serving as chief clerk in the Salem Post Office. The Salem Observer posted a notice in the 27 February 1864 issue announcing the appointment of Sumner as a Justice of the Peace for the county of Essex. Sometime after the Civil War, he resigned his position on account of ill health and went to the Pacific coast where he regained his strength and took a position in the service of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, making frequent trips between San Francisco and Hong Kong. In the 1870 US Census, Sumner and Carrie were enumerated in the household of her father in San Francisco’s 7th Ward—her 66 year-old father laboring as a house carpenter and Sumner employed as a purser. Indeed, in 1874 there is notice of him serving as purser aboard the steamship Japan.

Sumner wrote the letters to his brother, John Hill (1836-?) who, in 1861, appears to have been on the crew of the Golden Fleece, a commercial clipper ship bound for San Francisco at the time. Other known siblings included Sophronia E. Hill (1832-1876) and Stephen C. Hill (1841-1903), the latter having served as an Ensign in the Navy during the Civil War.

Hill’s letter contains a description of the devastating fire in East Boston that destroyed several business establishments and over 100 dwellings on 4 July 1861. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

Letter 1

Salem, Massachusetts
September 18, 1861

My Dear Brother,

Nearly three months have passed since you left us and I presume by this time this arrives in san Francisco, your ship will not be far off from the same place. I expect however we shall have to allow 140 days for the passage. I see some ships are five months getting there but I hope you will not be so long. I was up to Boston two or three days of last week. Father wrote you while I was there. I am sorry, John, that Hattie is so inclined to go with other men during your absence but such is the case and you must now act the man—not a boy—for if she acts thus before you are married, God only knows how bad she may do after. I do not wish to meddle myself with your business but at the same time I feel as though I ought to advise you. The way I should act in this case would be to let her go. Don’t for heaven’s sake, John, marry a woman of that kind.

Another thing, there is time enough for you to think of getting a wife. You know you have got to get started in your profession before you can support one. Your aim now should be to go ahead as fast as possible. Work solely for the interests of those who employ you and when you get home, hold your head up like a man and have an independent feeling accompanying it. Damn this sorrowful look. It don’t amount to a red [cent]. I know it from experience. Now Johnny, take a fool’s advice and think of nothing but strive hard to get ahead and come home an officer if tis nothing but 3rd Mate.

Advertisement for the Golden Fleece that sailed from Boston to San Francisco

My health is about the same as when you left us. One day I feel first rate and the next one all used up. Thus passes life with me. My lungs trouble me some. I am going to Boston next week to consult with a Doctor in regard to them. Carrie got through her sickness after a hard trial. We have a fine boy. I hope when you go home he will be able to walk a little. His name is Sumner Atherton. 1 Carrie sends her love to you. Be sure and call upon Mrs. Keith and tell her we have not heard from her for two months. Ask her to write me, also Carrie.

We had an awful fire in East Boston on the 4th of July. It commenced down on the point below the new Ferry and sweeped through New Street taking the Salt Factories, Iron companies, Union Guard’s Armory, Clifton’s Lumber wharf, and about 100 dwelling houses. I thought one time Father’s would go sure. Such a sight I never saw before from the top of our house. Every engine in Boston, also Charlestown, Cambridge, and as far off as here were there. The loss was estimated at about one million, I believe. Clifton’s loss was heavy as he had his wharf full of lumber. 2

Father seems pretty well now. He has been off to the lake for three or four weeks and I think he gained very much. I hope he will feel better now.

Everything is war now. I tell you, Johnny, they are at it in earnest. We have hd two or three hard battles and I am sorry to say lost the largest—I mean the Battle of Bull Run. Our loss was 6 or 8 hundred. You can bet that this is the first and the last we will lose for we have a man now to lead our troops—Gen. McClellan.

The coast guard has broke up and the state has their guns—thus you see it did not amount to much.

I am somewhat of a hurry now or else would write more. Will write again, however, before you sail. Tell George Williams I will write him in a few days. Don’t fail to write me sure as soon as you arrive. Direct to Salem as I am here yet. See Chase if possible and don’t let him leave the ship. I wrote him today. With much love, I remain your affectionate brother, — Sum

1 Sumner Atherton was born on 19 August 1861 and died on 21 August 1863 at Salem. Massachusetts Death Records attributed the child’s death to “Dropsy in head.”

2 According to the book, “A Complete History of the Boston Fire Department,” by Arthur Wellington Brayley, “The first destructive fire which visited East Boston was on July 4, 1861, and was caused by a fire-cracker. A large fire was then in progress on Albany street, Boston proper, and the assistance could not be given which was need. The fire started on Week’s wharf, at the foot of Sumner street, and burnt an area of eleven acres. At this time was consumed the sectional Dock—one of the finest dry-docks in the country, also numerous dwelling houses, planing mills, stores, mills, etc.”


Letter 2

Post Office, Salem, Massachusetts
November 14, 1864

Dear Brother John,

Your favor of the 10th inst. was received this morning.

My time for P. O. Business grows “beautifully less” as I quit here tomorrow night, then goodbye post office for me fora spell anyway, for if I can earn my grub at outside business, you can bet that a P.O. won’t fetch me up very soon. I have my auction sale on Thursday and shall probably get up to Boston by the latter part of the week. I am not able to state now when the “D Cavannah: will get away but presume it will not be far from the first of December. Between now and that time I shall try for a consul’s berth but I am keeping it very quiet so don’t write home anything in regard to it as Father and myself only are in the secret of our family. Mr. Ryan who was the postmaster here when I came here, lives in Washington, and is now here on a visit but returns on Thursday and I am to send my documents on with him and he is a going to put them through the best he knows how. Of course there is nothing sure but you can’t tell what you can accomplish until you try. It don’t cost anything to try. I have got some 3 weeks before the Carannah sails and if anything can be done in that short space of time, I am bound to try it on. If I do nothing, why of course I got to China as at first anticipated.

We are all up in a heap at home, cleaning house, packing up &c. I shall be glad when I get all settled up down here so I can have a comfortable loaf in Boston. I wish you could get out of the Navy, but as you say, tis no use loafing. And as chances for officers in our merchant service are slim. I think on the whole (pecuniarily speaking) that you are better of where you are, I have no doubt that the time is only a little way distant when all you volunteer officers will have your “heads taken off” for in my opinion this rebellion will soon wind up. The overwhelming majority which “Old Abe” has received is the worst blow the rebs have yet received and as soon as they see this, they will conclude that a united North is against them adn all hopes of compromise, and all questions of peace, are settled, except upon our terms. The result of this election to the rebs has inflicted upon them more damage than the capture of 2 Richmonds would. I tell you, Johnny, that there is no way in which to bring them to terms except to whip them and I trust with the faithful leaders we now have, this will soon be accomplished and all enemies of our country, both South and North, will be on their knees pleading forgiveness. The mass of the people South desire peace, and on our terms also, but the damnable leaders are the men which we have got to subjugate. Those men once in our power and Southern Confederacy will be but a bubble.

Write us often and I’ll do the same. I enclose you the 24 stamps as you requested. Carried is well and sends love. I got a letter from Father this morning. He is better.

In haste. Your affectionate brother, — Sum