Sunday, November 8, 2015


As I have said before, you never know what will turn up in our historic little town. Such are the five letters dated 1850 & 1851 from "S. F. McAlister" to his family members, who are McAlisters and Ewings located in "Rome Smith City, Tennessee," which apparently is Rome, Tennessee, located in Smith County. The letters are from a young man who experiences the terror of attacks by Indians and the fear of being a victim of a cholera outbreak, all while attempting to gain his fortune by mining gold - though he ends up making on average about $2.50 per day.

The first letter describes the beginning of McAlister's odyssey as well as one of his most terrifying experiences - an attack by Indians. Excerpts from all five letters are shown below. Note the very colorful names given the various gold camps.

1) The first letter is headlined "California, November 7, 1850" and was sent to "Mother & Father." It includes: "...I will give a small sketch of my trip across the plains. Left Independence the 23rd May. I had a tolerable pleasant trip until we arrived near St. Lake & then comes on hard times & troubles the train stayed together until they got there then the train split up the stock was divided equally in the messes of 8 mules to 6 men. Some packed and some took carriage... (I) took a carriage and a buggy it was more "incumberian" than I liked to have but owing to C. L. Hanes having his limb broke... ...pushed them until we got 300 miles from St. Lake... we left the four horse carriage we then carried the other to "Krucley's?" River this side of the desert & there we sold the buggy... ...we got to the 1st digins. The Indians were very bad this season far worse then they were... ...they pestered us a great deal the worst place was on St. Marry? River they killed a great many emigrants & the emigrants killed a fine lot of them for they robed (robbed) several wagons of everything they had in the world... ...they tried to rob our train but the men were ready with loaded guns in hand... 10 minutes 20 men to 200 Indians. I with 6 other men had crossed the river & was on the other side. ...they then crossed the river and pursued us to take our stock but by this time we had turned to the river for it was nooning (noon?) time so here came the hole number under whip and spur after us. We all ??? our gate to a ??? walk & when we got to the river there was no crossing place & we were in a large bend a 1/4 mile deep. We had no arms except  3 pistols the Indians all had guns or bow & arrows so here we were... the Indians thought they had us safe they came up in our rear & formed a column from point to point well what next... cross we thought impossible for 1 bank was 12 ft perpendicular as far as we could see & the water deep & to go back to the Redskins that wouldn't do, so we thought we would plunge our horses off the bank & git them in the river & then swim over & over take the train & get the men & come back & give battle for our stock. ...Moore split the water first & I followed & after we got our ??? all in the river I saw a path 1 1/2 ft wide up on the rite side we got too of our stock out Moore and myself then Capt. Littleton told me to take my mule and over take the wagon & stop them & to have all ready with guns. I did so so we got clear & by night we paused? at one time ...mustered 4 or 500 men all armed. ... ??? in the mines the 1st of October. ...I left my miss on Deer Creek I moved to Auburn 40 miles from there & in 40 of Sacramento. ...William Bradley is on Bear River 15 miles from me..." McAlister speaks further of perhaps moving to the mines near Oregon City, or even to Texas and from there home. He goes on to state that the average miner is making $2.50 per day, though some are making more, and expenses are about $2.00 per day. One has to work, not play, to save any money at all. He then emphasizes the high cost of goods by listing prices for various items of food and clothing. In a short sentence written vertically McAlister adds, "The cholera is very bad in Sacremento a great many dying daly. None nearer than 4 miles of us."

2) The second letter appears to be dated January 24th, 1851; McAlister's location is difficult to decipher. It appears to read "Optziz" or similar spelling, and is addressed to his father and mother. I had a difficult time making out the words in this letter, for the ink had bled through from one side to the other. One oddity that I noticed was McAlister's referring to Tennessee and the eastern section of the continent as the "states." California became a state September 9, 1850, so perhaps McAlister was unaware that the "states" now included California.

Much of this second letter is devoted to personal conversation with his parents, but he includes: "...the mines in this section have failed almost entirely we can make from 2 bits to 3.00 per day, so have the mines failed in every part of the gold region so far as I can learn."

3) The third letter is headlined "Diggers Pt. Bear River, August 17th, 1851," and is addressed to his brother and sister. He has the usual personal tidbits to say, reminds his siblings that he may be returning home in November, then goes on with "...I have just heard that the cholera has broke out very bad in New Orleans & at Panama? as if the cholera is on the rout (home) then I shall not start until it subsides." 

4) The fourth letter is headlined "California (Middle fork of the American River), October 1st, 1851" and is addressed to McAlister's brother. Excerpts: "...I am now on this river have been here 2 weeks & will leave this place to morrow and go 15 miles further up the river this is at what is called Slap Jack Base. I will go to Volcano Base. There has been some very good digins struck there & I am going up with the intention of buying into some of them... ...I suppose that there can be an interest bought for $500.00 if it can I will buy and stay this winter... ...Dyer's letter give me but little news it only stated that father & mother was dead & the property the Negroes had was divided... ...there will be a crowd starting home next Sunday from here... seems to me that a Tennessean or a ???? has no business in this country... ...tell the girls that I will come home ???? & if they are not all married I may ??? some of them but for fear I may not want some one of them if they get a chance they better mary (marry)."

5) The fifth letter is headlined (once again) Optziz or something similar, January (I think) 24th, 1851, and is addressed to his sister, Sarah B. Payne at Wirts College, Summer City, Tenn. The stampless "cover" has an April 19 Gallatin, Te (5) hand postal stamp, so the date of the letter may not be January 24. The letter is difficult to read, but in it McAlister describes how the diggins have played out, and that new diggins have been located 6 miles from Sacramento. He adds, "...tell Booker to kiss my foot."