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Gold rush letters, 1852-1856.
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Gold rush letters, 1852-1856
Henry A. Parker gold rush letters, 1852-1856


Parker, H. A. (Henry A.), 1832-1916, creator


From February 26, 1852 through March 4, 1856, Henry A. Parker sent these 100 letters home to his family in Pepperell, Massachusetts. Most were addressed "My Dear Mother", although some are directed also to his brother and sister and the last is to his brother alone. There is also one letter from Mrs. Ann Parker to Henry dated March of 1852. During most of this period, Henry tried to send a letter on each mail steamer that left San Francisco, normally two a month. He made the most of each letter sheet with a closely written hand and by cross-writing on some letters.
In addition to letters, the Parker family exchanged newspapers to provide local news. Henry also sent gifts - in 1853, gold quarter dollars newly minted only in California; in 1854, a "lump of oro" for his mother's 53rd birthday; and, more prosaically, melon seeds for his brother to plant and dried wildflowers for his sister to admire. The Parkers also exchanged 'miniatures' in order to keep fresh their memories of each other and, in 1855, Henry describes having his portrait taken for this purpose: "Neither one of us fixed up at all, but left our business for an hour only, and had them taken in a hurry. I did not even stop to brush my hair, and wore the same clothes, that I have worn every day for months, and shall probably wear them for months to come, so you can imagine by looking at the miniature, just how I look at the present time." (Unfortunately, neither gold nor miniatures have survived with the letters.)
When he arrived in San Francisco in July of 1852, Henry had a small amount of capital and a determination to take advantage of the opportunities to be found in a rapidly-growing economy. His letters document his attempts to secure financial success through investments in shipping and various business enterprises as well as through his own entrepreneurship. After some initial failures, in 1854 he bought his first bookstand and, partnering with Ephraim Noyes, began to prosper.
Throughout this period his detailed accounts provide a sense of life in early San Francisco. For instance, he describes his first shop in 1852: "The water underneath our store is about 20 ft deep & we are on the outside street so that there are two streets above us that the water flows back under. The building is built on piles driven into the mud until they touch the solid bottom and the lot which it sets on which is the same size as the building is valued at 4000 $ although 20 ft under water."
And, in a letter written on Nov. 28, 1852, he tells of the living space he shares with two friends: "One side of the room is of iron the other side's of wood & the ceiling overhead is of cotton cloth & the floor is formed of fifty four distinct pieces of board although the room is only about 9 by 13 feet." He also provides new vocabulary when he refers to their communal efforts to cook and do their own washing as "ranching".
Perhaps due to his investments in shipping, Henry often writes of shipping disasters. One such in 1854 was of particular concern as his partner was on board. "He left here on the 30th Sept. on board the Steamship Yankee Blade anticipating a quick and pleasant voyage through to New York and a speedy return to San Francisco. ... the next afternoon, Sunday, at about 4 oclock P.M. the Steamer struck on a rock and was completely wrecked. Most of the passengers were obliged to remain on the wreck throughout the night during which time they were in imminent danger of losing their lives for the sea was continually beating against the wreck threatening to break her in pieces every moment, and as they were a mile and half from land it was impossible to get ashore in the night." The next day most of the passengers were rescued but the ship broke up and sank with all their possessions. It took several days for the rescue Steamer to pick them up and return them to San Francisco. Henry does not think Mr. Noyes will attempt a voyage again soon.
Fire, too, was a disaster which often threatened; three times in one year Henry was living or working where fire broke out. He and his businesses survived without much damage, except for in the fire of May 29, 1855 when Henry was injured. "It was so hot however, before I left, that I burnt the back of my coat so badly, that before night it commenced dropping to pieces. I also burned my hand to a blister trying to get a padlock off from a book-case that was on fire."
Business losses due to theft later that year had more of an effect and led to this reported discussion between the partners: "As soon as we found that our goods were gone I says to Mr. Noyes that we should be obliged to stop in California an extra month in order for to make up our loss. Says he - I am ready to go now for if we stay much longer we may lose what little we have got now - but I think we shall be obliged to remain just about the same as we are twelve or fifteen months longer, and do the best we can."
Beyond Henry's personal story is the story of San Francisco. In a letter dated Aug. 26, 1853, Henry talks of the rapid growth: "... & in case it rains as much the coming winter as it did last it will be more comfortable owing to the improved condition of the streets & buildings. Most of the streets are now planked & a large number of handsome & substantial brick & stone buildings have been erected within three or four months past & a larger number are now in process of erection & this city can already boast of some as fine buildings as any of the atlantic cities. Never was there a country in the world where improvements go on so rapidly as in this & I can hardly realise that it is in the power of man to change so greatly the appearance & business of a place as this has been changed since I first arrived here."
And in April of 1855 he provides a perspective on the city's coming into prominence in the nation: "Should you suppose that Flour would be shipped from here to New York? If you had been here in the winter of 1853 when it was worth $50 per bbl. you would not have thought so but times and things have changed here very much since that time and a large clipper ship (the Charmer) is now loading with Flour and grain for New York. She will take 900 tons of Wheat and Barley and 4000 or 5000 barrels of Flour. I understand that the shippers pay about $6 per bbl for the Flour, while in New York it is worth $9 or $10. I think there will be a great deal more shipped from here by these vessels, so at last, California can, not only furnish the world with gold, but also with produce."
Still, life in California in these years was always a gamble and Henry describes this aspect of the California experience as well. "Hundreds there are here who sleep out of doors night after night in plies of hay or beside a pile of barrels lumber or something of the kind. Thousands who leave their homes to come to this country have barely enough to pay their passage out here consequently they arrive here with little or no money in their pockets & as there are now hundreds in this city out of employment it makes it hard for new comers who have not friends to assist them. They loiter about here hoping that they shall soon get employment but as they do not succeed & having spent nearly all their money, they get discouraged, take to drinking gambling & their sister vices & are soon completely ruined. This I am sorry to say is a true history of many a smart young man who left a good home to come to this country with his heart filled with joyous expectations & high hopes which also are soon dashed low & his high & lofty feelings are soon exchanged for feelings of utter disregard for himself or friends & he ends his days in misery dying a young man."
There are only a few letters from 1856 and in those Henry begins to sound serious about returning home that year: "... now until I write to the contrary you may expect me to home with you your next Thanksgiving dinner." On March 2nd he writes a letter that sums up his California experience and provides a coda: "Since that time I have arrived safely in California, have been blessed with good health although have endured more hardship than I ever did at home. In the end I trust and hope that it will prove for the best, that I came to Cala."


1852 (issued)


n-us-ca -- n-us-ma
Parker, H. A. (Henry A.) -- 1832-1916 -- Correspondence
Businessmen -- California -- San Francisco -- Correspondence
San Francisco (Calif.) -- History
Shipping -- California -- San Francisco -- History
Fires -- California -- San Francisco -- History
Pepperell (Mass.) -- History


Henry A. Parker was born in Pepperell, Massachusetts, on July 17, 1832. His parents, Frederick and Ann Parker, later had two other children -- Charles, born in 1836, and Harriet, born in 1839. Frederick Parker died suddenly in 1841 when Henry was not yet nine. His mother then raised the children alone, although there was a guardian appointed for their financial welfare.
Henry finished his education in Pepperell and clerked at a local store for a family friend, J.A. Tucker. Sometime around 1850, he left home and worked for the firm of Thacher in Boston for some 10 months until leaving for California. Evidently his behavior during this period was somewhat irresponsible and he left for California in order to make a fresh start. He arrived in San Francisco in July of 1852. Although he visited the mining area near Murphys briefly then, and made another short journey to Natchez near Marysville in 1853 to attempt mining, he never committed to that endeavor as he always felt more comfortable in the city. There he engaged in business, including investing in the maritime trade and various establishments. In 1854 he found a partner, Mr. Ephraim Noyes, and the two operated several bookstands and engaged in other business enterprises together for many years.
Sometime after 1856, Henry returned to Pepperell. There he married Abbie Jewett in 1861. They had one son, Fred, and also raised a son from Abbie's prior marriage. Henry became an established businessman, incorporated as H.A. Parker & Co. and listed in directories of the early 1900s as a paper manufacturer and mill owner. He died on Oct. 25, 1916.
Henry A. Parker gold rush letters, 1852-1856
Unrestricted. Please credit California State Library.



Physical Description:

1 ms. box (ca. 100 items)







Copyright Note:

Unrestricted. Please credit California State Library.