"I have had a great many adventures:" The Gold Rush Letters of Samuel Stone Richardson

Terry Abraham

1981, revised 1998

San Francisco, Cal
May 12, 1850
Dear Sister,
You may have learned that I left home for this place last fall, for I suppose that you have received letters from home since I left. If not you will see by this that I am here, and enjoying good health, arrived here the 2nd of this month 161 days from Boston in the ship Hannibal. I have not time to write much now, but if this finds you I hope you will write me all the particulars with regard to the country you live in, I have not been here long enough to know anything about this country. (1)

Samuel Stone Richardson (known as S.S. to his family) wrote this letter to his sister immediately upon arriving in California from New England. His sister, the renowned Mary Richardson Walker, had come west with her husband in 1838 to missionize the Indians in Oregon Country. At S.S.'s arrival in California in the wake of the 49ers she and her husband Elkanah Walker and her children had been living in the Willamette Valley since 1848. Because of the murder of the Whitmans at Waillatpu, near present-day Walla Walla, Washington, the Walker's abandoned their mission among the Spokan Indians in northeastern Washington, never to return. The Walker's role in Northwest history has prompted both historical attention (2) and an effort to preserve their diaries and correspondence. Among these, now at Washington State University Library, are letters to and from S. S. Richardson, as well as many mentions of him in the family correspondence.

Even so there is little material on which to reconstruct his life and, except for the fortunate tendency of his sister to save her old letters, even less would have come down to us. Through these letters and brief references we view not only Brother SS but catch a glimpse of California history.

Samuel Stone Richardson was born in 1821 in Baldwin, Maine, the seventh child of Joseph and Charlotte Richardson. (Mary, born in 1811, though the second child, grew up as the eldest of a family of ten children; her older sister had died just after Mary's birth.) (3) Of a religious family in an era of religious ferment, S.S. was considered somewhat of a black sheep. This may have influenced the correspondence with his family and provided the momentum for him to abandon the family hearth. About the age of 24 S.S. left home to make his way in the world, apparently jumping from one sort of employment to another. By 1849 he was "engaged in Sash manufacture at Steep Falls, doing well", (4) and "published' to be married on November 29th to Miss Mary Sawyer. (5)

Instead, he abandoned a New England marriage for California gold. S.S. went to California a typical gold-seeker, hoping to find his fortune and return home with vast riches. His first impressions of San Francisco were not too encouraging, however. In his first letter to sister Mary in May 1850, he wrote:

This is a strange city, I doubt if the like ever was or ever will be again. A dollar is no more here than a dime was in the states. Drinking is the order of the day and gambling is the business. Of all the sandy, dirty, dusty, hilly, God forsaken places in the world this is the worst yet. There is much business doing here and much money is made here. We had a large fire here since I arrived but the burnt part of the city will quick be rebuilt again. Lumber is very low here. The mines are just doing very well. I would write more but I have not the time. (6)

By December of 1850 he was writing to a cousin in the east:

Death has walked in here beyond what I can describe, at San Francisco there are several men whose business it is to dig graves', and I have known night to overtake them with 25 coffins in the cemetery not buried. The cholera has been around here, but I believe it has nearly left the country now. (7)

S.S. was originally going to try the mines himself, but the cholera had him in its grip for about five months after his arrival. Instead of mining, he turned to hunting wild game in the mountains south of San Francisco for his living. In the same letter he wrote:

I gave death the slip by leaving town and coming out here some thirty miles on the road to San Jose and hunting for a living. It is fine sport to hunt in these woods. I have killed two deer this week, and geese with other small game, any quantity. There are some bears, pa[n]thers, lions, tigers, and big wolves, in these woods, and a little million of coyotas, the last are like the prairie wolf. (8)

While you and I may be surprised by this account of the wildlife of the peninsula, we must remember that California is a very different country than it was a century ago. S.S. goes on to describe his hunting experiences, perhaps a little stretched for his eastern audience, but surely with a germ of truth in them:

The grizzly bear is somewhat of a terror to the natives, I have not seen one yet in the woods although I have seen some tracks, they are plenty in the mountains six miles from here, I think they will not attack a man unless they are wounded, then they are sure to, and very bad to deal with. I have seen one panther, I fell in with him some two miles back in the woods, just as it began to grow dark, he had quite an idea of eating me, I had no chance to get out of his way, when I first saw him he was some hundred yards or so from me coming the cat on me. I drew the shot from one barrel of the gun and put in a ball, when I stopped to do this he stopped and watched my maneuvers. I had left my pistol at home, a thing I do not often do. When my gun was all right, I commenced walking towards him, my only chance was to daunt him, it was too dark to get good aim. I made him believe that I wanted to catch him, when I was within 30 yards of him, he walked slowly the other way. I did not think best to try to make him run, but I walked after him two or three hundred yards and then turned the other way and have not seen nor heard from him since, and I hope I never may....
Of the lions I have seen two, both together about ten days ago, they are very much inferior to any lions I ever saw before. They looked like some lions and are most as large, they showed no signs of hostility or of fear, when they saw me they came up near to me, and seemed to have much curiosity to look at me, when they had looked long enough they walked away, and looked very beautiful as they did so. The tigers are not much more than the wild-cat we have at home, a little longer bodied. I see them most every day. I found one yesterday, my gun was loaded for quail, I fired both barrels at him but he did not move a step, I put in a charge of big shot and let him have that, when he left in a hurry. I have had a great many adventures that I would like to tell you about, but they do not look well on paper. (9)

After spending the winter, and perhaps the following summer, in the woods, S. S. returned to San Francisco and cast about for another form of livelihood. Although he had earlier mentioned the mines and miners he had apparently realized that it was not quite a sure-fire moneymaking operation. "They are doing something in the mines, they are generally making from 3 to 5 dollars per day, when they are at work, but they run about a great deal trying to do better and there are only a few that do very well in the long run," (10) he had told cousin Flint in December. This was when S.S. was figuring on earning 5 to 10 dollars per day "if it does not come very rainy this winter." In September he got a powerful urge to travel north to Oregon and check out the commercial possibilities of establishing himself there. He wrote to his sister Mary for information. He asked:

Are first rate American cows to be bought there? How many, and at what price. Are eggs to be had there? At what price and how many can be had during this f all and winter if I should come there and make a business of collecting them. I want to know the same with regard to butter, rye, matches, hogs and of any other articles that you may have in Oregon, that you think there is a demand for here. Also write what things are in demand there, that may be abundant here. (11)

S.S.' list of things indicate perhaps more what was in demand in California than what might be in abundance in Oregon. As it turned out, however, S.S. was not to visit Oregon until the following spring. Instead he went into the dairy business, buying milk in Benicia and selling it in San Francisco. (12) This was the same sort of business he was considering between Oregon and California, supplying goods to the miners and their camp followers. But Benicia was much closer than Oregon. In his letter to his sister in which he informs her that he is unlikely to visit Oregon until the following year, he tells her a little about his environment in San Francisco:

But in this city there are the hardest set of people in the world. There are a great many women in the city now. But I should state what I do not know to be true if I said there was one virtuous one in the whole city. I have not seen fit as yet to put myself on a parallel with any of them. But some men think they must be fools any how if they are in Cal. I am acquainted with a number of these fancy women, they are good hearted girls, and all very well if it wasn't for one thing. (13)

In April of 1852 S.S. arrived in Oregon and visited his sister and her family. He apparently traveled some and investigated various commercial possibilities. Mary's diary records their first poignant meeting in fourteen years (14) and mentions a few of his activities during that summer. Aside from making pigeon nets (15) and catching pigeons (16) and building a granary, (17) she says little of his activities. Her son Joseph, then eight, later remembered both trapping birds and the fact that "Uncle Sam" wore a belt embellished with octagonal fifty dollar gold pieces. (18) The following spring and summer there is some indication that S.S. was shipping corn, flour and other grains to the Walkers for eating and selling purposes. (19) The letters referring to these transactions were written to the Reverend Elkanah Walker and not to sister Mary.

Within a few years we find S.S.' grain shipments reinforced through employment as a baker at the What Cheer House in San Francisco. There is also evidence of a number of commercial transactions with William Pierce of the New England Bakery there. (20)

The death of his almost brother-in-law, Nathaniel Sawyer, "who was lost on the 'Central America' last Sept. [1859] (You will recolect that dreadful disaster). He was on a flying visit home to see his sister Mary and when he was almost in sight of home, he perished," (21) took S.S. north to Yreka to settle the estate. Detained by lawsuits, probably over mining claims, he remained there from May to late July, 1860.

In July, a letter to Reverend Walker commented on the new gold rush in British Columbia:

I may be in Oregon again some time or other. I had thought of going this summer to purchase cattle but I will have to wait now till "Fraser River" is all over for I fear, if Oregon folks are like our folks in California they will raise the price of everything up there as much as the price of everything here has fallen....
I think I know what you think of the Fraser River Gold mines, and you can guess without much trouble what I think. The class or set of men that have gone there from Cal. is very extraordinary and if there is not much gold up there -- then the Indians must lookout or they will be robbed of all their horses, their children and their lives. (22)

But almost immediately, S.S. turned to mining himself, perhaps as a result of his settlement of Nat Sawyer's estate. His mining was not of the lone prospector with gold pan variety. He was, of course, interested in a commercial proposition. To his sister Mary he wrote:

I spent last summer in Esmeralda, building a running a quartz mill for other parties. In the fall I came here into the mountains 12 miles above Downieville for the same purpose, to build a mill and superintend the whole business of the company, but I suppose you wish to know more about that is, what I do, and what I got for doing it. I will tell you a little more beings you are my sister, my business is to hire 25 men, tell them what to do and how to do it, receive all gold and moneys and pay all bills, this does not occupy one tenth part of my time. I have an office and a private fire, I look after the men when I feel like it, read when I feel like it, or go hunting and fishing just when or where I please, for this I receive $200 per month and all my expenses paid. This is big wages, even for this country--but in my place a man must know to do almost everything, he must be sober, industrious, and honest, for the company have to trust their gold with me, and all they know about it is what I tell them. I have been here six months, may stay here a long time and may not. I have other business that I ought to look after, but I am very well situated here and like to stay....
We are within 1 1/2 miles of the top of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the storms for the last five months have been grand and sublime all the time, but we had plentiful supplies, and it was fun to see them howl. I do not know when I will go to the states, but some time, there is nothing to make me hurry. I am not married, and not in love, and, don't know when I shall be. I have not seen a woman for five months. (23)

Samuel Stone Richardson was forty-one years old, "not married, and not in love," and in no hurry to return to Maine. He was twenty-nine when he first came out to California. Then he was in love and about to be married. He had a sash manufacturing business in Steep Falls and a girl in West Baldwin, Maine. "S.S. sailed for California Oct 21--said he meant to see you before he returns. He thought at first to be married & take Mary out with him, was published, not married & then concluded to try his fortune alone." (24) His long projected marriage to Mary Sawyer, sister of shipwrecked Nathaniel, prompted concern among his brothers and sisters. One wrote-in 1851: "His intention is to come home & get Mary when he has money enough." (25) Mary's letters to S.S. indicate that she, while faithfully waiting for him, was anxious for some resolution of her unmarried and Sam-less state. She continually hinted at the subject by mentioning other wives who had gone to California, or discussing long trips. In some she was much less subtle: "I want to 'go somewhere'" (26) and "I expect you have nice times out there, sometimes I almost wish to be there, then again it scares me to think of it. Could I be mesmerised and awake in Cala. I would not object to it." (27) Their correspondence apparently continued for six years until some time before 1856 when Mary Walker learned that Mary Sawyer had given up waiting for S.S. and eloped with someone more available. (28) A friend of Sam's writing from Chicago chided him on his prospects as late as 1858: "How is it? Do you intend to marry in that country? I advise you not to do it. Wait till you come to this town before you make any engagements. There are some of the nicest women here you ever saw and they will marry any man for $5000 provided he will pay in advance." (29) And as S.S. himself in 1862 wrote his sister: "I am not married, and not in love and don't know when I shall be."

Engaged in manufacturing in New England in the 1840's, Samuel Stone was apparently of an inventive turn of mind. In 1844 he petitioned for a patent on an alleged improvement in fitting ladies drapes." (30) After S.S. turned to mining in California, he was again struck by the inventing bug and he applied for a patent on an improved water-motor or turbine in 1883. Water wheels were an important engineering element in California mining, leading to many innovations and inventions. "The object of my invention is to combine the power of the ordinary rotating spouts with that of a water wheel by utilizing the waste of the former, whereby I am enabled to provide a powerful and effective device." (31) The patent specification locates S.S. in Happy Camp, California in March, 1883. Another clue to S.S.' engineering bent is his inscribed copy of Jeremiah Day's A course of mathematics, containing the principles of plane trigonometry mensuration, navigation, and surveying which was presented to, or left behind at, Sister Mary's in Oregon. (32)

S.S. appears then to be a businessman of varying success, a sometime inventor, and a man of strong character. To his family, however, he had a rather unfortunate tendency in terms of religion. Unfortunate in a religious family that had produced several generations of missionaries. In April of 1852 when S.S. first visited his missionary sister in Oregon she wrote in her diary:

Felt sad to find what feelings & views br. entertains on the subject of Religion. But still I find it pleasant after a separation of 14 years to renew a family acquaintance. (33)

S.S., position, or lack of it, is never mentioned explicitly. Sister Persis exclaimed: "Oh! that he were a Christian & I would be content. Should he ever reach your shore may he be as a missionary and not an infector. (34) Brother-in-law J.M. Merrill wrote to Mary after S.S.' visit in 1852 and asked: "How do you like his religious or irreligious position?" (35) Mary's answer, although to her brother D.T. Richardson, was apparently never sent. She wrote describing their first meeting in fourteen years:

I can see a family resemblance but he resembles any of the rest of you quite as much as the bro. S. I left behind 14 years ago. He appears to be a man of as steady habits as could be looked for in one of his religious principles. He says chewing tobacco is the worst habit he has contracted. That is bad enough but in my estimation breaking the third or four commandments are worse. He says he does not swear before decent folks & that his sisters do not know that he does at all. He appears to be sensible on other subjects. But on that of Religion a perfect monoman [leaving unfinished the thought, the word, the sentence and the letter] (36)

Nephew S. T. Walker later recollected that his uncle "boasted that Shakespeare was his Bible;" a secular view which surely alarmed young S.T.'s mother. (37) Among the many letters received by Samuel and forwarded to Mary for their share of family news was one from sister Phoebe that was a veritable sermon on mending his ways:

But as nearly as I can judge you are only growing more hardened and I am compelled to lift once more a warning voice. It may be this letter will alienate your affections entirely. Well then it must be so. (38)

It does not appear that even this stirring call had any appreciable effect on S.S.' religious beliefs nor his family feelings. Perhaps his westering was in some sense a response to the heightened religious sense of mid-century New England.

Unlike many of the hordes of gold-seekers who came to California, Samuel Stone Richardson did not take up his pick and shovel to follow the next strike on to the Fraser, or perhaps Australia, but continued in California, contributing to its growth during the second half of the nineteenth century. According to a genealogical note written in 1934, S.S. is reported to have died in California in November, 1903.


1. Samuel S. Richardson (SSR), letter, May 12, 1850, San Francisco, to Mary Richardson Walker (MRW), Oregon, in the Papers of Elkanah and Mary Richardson Walker in the Washington State University Libraries, Pullman, Washington. All of the letters cited here are from this collection.

2. Clifford M. Drury, Elkanah and Mary Walker: Pioneers among the Spokanes. Caldwell: Caxton, 1940; Ruth Karr McKee, Mary Richardson Walker: her book. Caldwell: Caxton, 1945; Clifford M. Drury, First White Women over the Rockies, v.2, Mrs. Elkanah Walker and Mrs. Cushing Eells. Glendale: Arthur H. Clarke Company, 1963. Some of the Walker family letters have been quoted in these volumes.

3. Drury, Elkanah and Mary Walker, 36.

4. Persis Richardson, letter, ca. November 25, 1849, to MRW.

5. Phoebe Richardson Merrill, letter, November 29, 1849, Sedgwick, to MRW.

6. SSR, letter, May 12,1850, San Francisco, to MRW.

7. SSR, letter, December 29, 1850, to R. F. Flint.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. SSR, letter, September 19, 1851, to MRW.

12. SSR, letter, November 3, 1851,, to MRW.

13. Ibid.

14. MRW, diary, April 2, 1852.

15. MRW, diary, June 28, 1852.

16. MRW, diary, August 10, 1852. Brother-in-law J.M. Merrill later asked: "How did he make it in the pigeon speculation?" J.M. Merrill, letter, October 15, 1852, to MRW.

17. MRW, diary, June 19, 1852.

18. Joseph Elkanah Walker, "A sketch of the lives of Rev. Elkanah Walker and Mary Richardson Walker," ca. 1910.

19. SSR, letter, May 23, July 6, 1853, to Elkanah Walker.

20. Colville's San Francisco Directory, 1855-1857. San Francisco: Commercial Steam Press, Monson, Valentine & Co., 1856. p. 185; Scrapbook No. 1. Oversize Miscellaneous Collection, California Historical Society, San Francisco.

21. SSR, letter, July 23, 1860, to Rev. Elkanah Walker. For more on the Central America, see the unindexed and unfootnoted Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by Gary Kinder (New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998).

22. Ibid.

23. SSR, letter, March 28, 1862, Gold Valley, Cal., to MRW.

24. Charlotte R. Smith, letter, December 4, 1849, Baldwin, Maine, to MRW.

25. Phoebe R. Merrill, letter, ca. May 19, 1851, to MRW.

26. Mary Sawyer, letter, August 30, 1851, to SSR.

27. Mary Sawyer, letter, April 10, 1853, to SSR.

28. Phoebe R. Merrill, letter, June 23, 1856, to MRW.

29. R. F. Flint, letter, June 5, 1858, Chicago, to SSR.

30. U.S. Patent Office, form letter, January 16, 1844, to Sam S. Richardson, East Baldwin, Maine.

31. Specification forming part of Letters Patent No. 289,560, dated December 4, 1883; U.S. Patent Office. Official Gazette, December 4, 1883, p. 928.

32. Jeremiah Day, A course of mathematics. New Haven, Durrie and Peck, New York, Collins, Keese & Co., 1846. Walker Library number 126.

33. MRW, diary, April 2, 1852.

34. Persis Richardson, postscript to Charlotte Smith's letter, November 25, 1849,, to MRW.

35. J. M. Merrill, letter, October 15, 1852, to MRW.

36. MRW, letter, April 9, 1852, to D. T. Richardson.

37. Samuel Thompson Walker, "Reminiscences," ca. 1935. p. 10.

38. Phoebe Merrill, copy of a letter, November 11, 1852, to SSR.

39. Edwin Richardson, letter and genealogy, June 29, 1934, East Baldwin, Maine, to Samuel T. Walker, Forest Grove, Oregon.

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