The California Historical Society (CHS) is honored to announce the recent acquisition of fourteen Gold Rush letters, exchanged by William Monroe, a Wisconsin doctor who journeyed to the California gold fields in 1850, and his wife Mary Monroe in Wisconsin. Generously donated to CHS by descendants of the Monroe family, this collection is extraordinary, not only for its well-written and observed documentation of Gold Rush life, but also and especially for its poignant insight into the struggles of a woman left behind to manage the family farm and household while grieving the death of her young child, and for its sad illumination of the emotional and financial hardships Gold Rush-Era family separations inflicted on women as well as men.
William Monroe (1818-1908) was a doctor in Fayette, Wisconsin, who had engaged in lead mining near Mineral Point, Wisconsin, while reading for the medical profession. In 1850, he went to California with a party from Mineral Point, leaving behind his wife Mary Jane Monroe née Beebe (1822-1903) and their two children, John and Harriet. Between 1850 and 1851, William worked as a gold miner and physician in California, while Mary ran the family farm and household in Fayette. The correspondence exchanged by William and Mary between April 1850 and December 1851 reveals two different yet stark realities: the hardships of the overland journey and mining life in California, and William’s deep sense of helplessness and grief upon learning of the death of his son John; and Mary’s struggles to raise a family and manage the farm while enduring illness, loneliness, and unimaginable loss. The medium itself—letters delivered months after they were written and often “miscarried”—is another source of the collection’s poignancy, as William wrote tenderly and hopefully about the couple’s children only a few weeks after Mary penned the heartbreaking letter informing him of John’s death.
The letters speak powerfully for themselves. Below are transcripts from two letters of bereavement: Mary’s letter of May 1, 1851, and William’s reply of September 15, 1851, written in a black letter book.
|William Monroe letter to Mary Monroe, 1851 Sept 15; William and Mary Monroe Correspondence, MS Vault 173; California Historical Society.|
Hopkins Creek, California, Sept 15, 1851
Dear and Affectionate Wife. It is only about six weeks since I wrote to you last a few days after receiving a letter from Father containing the heartrending news of our dear child’s death; when I wrote I could think of nothing but him I said nothing about what I was doing. I am sometimes sorry that I wrote in the state of mind to again fetch up all those tender feelings that probably had been [?] and burned in your bosom but My Dear how could I help it I had no other source to relieve my [?] distracted mind but to pore it out to you in silence even yet the thought of returning and him absent from our happy little circle seems more than I can reconcile or bear to think of all my blasted hopes only makes me realize to what a high I had allowed them to carry me but pardon me for I am now filling this one with that that will only disturb your mind that might otherwise remain at rest but his image is so impressed on my mind that I cannot keep him out of my mind for a moment do not neglect to have your and little Sissy’s Likeness I have received two letters from you one written before his death and one after….
Archivist & Manuscripts Librarian