Jesse VanDolah writes his wife in 1851


Postmark: 10 Aug 1851, Sacramento, California. Personal letter (copied by Jim Ehlers in March 2000) written by Jesse VanDolah to his wife in Jackson County, Perry Township, Iowa, and then a note appended by Mary Ann Hadley VanDolah and forwarded on to Jesse's mother, Sarah Craig VanDolah in Fayette County, Madison Township, Ohio.

[spelling and punctuation retained as in original]

Dear Wife and children. I embrace this opertunity to inform you that i am well at present and hope these few broken lines may find you and the children enjoying the same blessing. i received your much interesting letter of the 15th of May and was highly gratified to here that you were all well. i was also very glad to here that you had another young daughter and that it was stout and hearty. i will give you a sketch of who i have been following since I have arrived in California. i have tried my luck in the mines for five months and made nothing of account and i am now farming two miles from Sacramento in California with Elbe Blackwell and L. Phillips. We have in about thirty five acres of a crop which part of looks fare to promising. Part of our crop suffered very much with the drought which disapoints our expectations of making a large raise. i hope still to make seven or eight hundred dollars out of the operation. i will now give you a short sketch of our crop and types of different vegetables. We have a few acres of corn which sell for 50 cents per dozen, some potatoes at 6 cents per pound, watermelon four acres that sell for 25 cents to $1.00 apiece. Cabbage price 10 cents per pound to $15.00 per hundred. Tomato plants, the price 12-1/2 cents per pound. Two acres of onions, price 20 cents lb. and various other kinds of vegetables to tedious to mention. I was very much alarmed today to here of the great flood you have had at home on the first of June. Mr. Jan received a Andrew paper a few days ago which stated that there was the great flood of water in Jackson Co. Said it was known that all the Mills drifted away and mine among the balance was taken away. This news troubles my mind very much. I have thought of coming home this fall but I have since made up my mind to stay till next spring and to try mining this winter and i think there will be a pretty good chance to make some money if there is plenty of rain to work in. The dry diggings last winter i think i should have made considerable money if there had been water, but it being so dry a person could not wash dirt. i have not seen as much rainfall since I am in California than I have seen in the states in one week. i have sometimes been very much disapointed since i have been in this country. But i begin to like the country pretty well that i think if i had you and the children here i could feel contented to stay in California, for i think there is more money to be made in California and by less labor than there is in Iowa. Wages is from $1.00 to $6.00 per day. The country has been very healthy for me since last fall. I was sickly last fall but I think it was as much from exposure than any other cause. I want you to wright me an answer as soon as you recieve this letter and let me know how you would like to come to California as i may take a notion to put in another crop this next spring. So i want you to make up your mind whether you will come or not so that i can make my arrangement to come or send for you. I here enclose a draught of One Hundred Dollars to you on Tage Baron and Company in St. Louis. You had better go to Joseph Smith or Mr. Hinecoup and Mr. Wadkins and get the above draught cashed and let me know concerning it in your next letter. i should have rote to you long before this but i did not want to wright to you until I had some money to send to you. I send my respects to you and children and give my best respects to father and mother and friends in general. Take good care of the children and likewise of yourself. No more at present. I ever remain your affectionate husband until death. -- Jesse Vandolah

[The wife, Mary Ann Hadley Vandolah then added a note to her husband's letter and sent it on to his mother. The following is the letter she wrote to her mother-in-law Sarah Craig VanDolah]:
Dear Mother: We are well at present. You requested me to write as often as I heard from Jess and I thought I would just slip this letter in an envelop and send it to you and it would render you more satisfaction. You need not be afraid of his settling in California for I do not think I shall concent for it will cost him so much to go to California as would give us a good start here and then it is no place to raise a family. If he is ever permitted to return I shall persuade him to go and make you a visit. If we can have the comfort of this life without moving our whole family to a heathen land. I am willing to wate untill we go to that heavenly country where all our wants are suplied. This letter has been through a good many hands so it is very much soiled. I hope you will excuse the apearance and look at the contence. I have rote to you some time ago and have not recieved an answer. I hope you will answer this as soon as you recieve this and let me know how you all are. Write and I shall answer as often. No more at present but remain your affectionate daughter. Signed, Mary Ann Vandolah to Sarah Vandolah.

It is uncertain who the infant daughter in the May 15th letter was, born sometime between October 1850 and May 1851. Jesse is known to have been in Iowa as of October 1850 (1850 census, taken on October 7, 1850) and in California at least by March 1851 (he talked about five months in the mines plus unknown additional time as a farmer). It is not clear how long he has been a farmer, but it would appear to me to be likely one month (probably getting a job to work the harvest). Plus it would probably have taken about 3 months to travel (by horse) from Iowa to California. He says in the letter that the country has been healthy for him since last fall, so it appears he left around Oct/Nov 1850; however, it might have been prior to October 1850 if Mary had enumerated Jesse in the home even after he left since she knew he would not get counted en route to California.
• Jerusha -- clearly the daughter Mary Hadley VanDolah mentioned in her May 15, 1851 letter was not Jerusha. Jerusha was on the 1850 census as a two-year old.
• Minerva -- possibly, but only if Minerva was in error about her birthdate. On the 1860 census Minerva is listed as 10 years old (and she is missing on the 1850 census). This would seem to make her born ~1850, certainly consistent with the October 1850-May 1851 window. However, she is consistently younger on all the other censuses: 26 on 1880, born Oct 1852 on 1900 census, 57 on 1910, 67 on 1920, 77 on 1930, and 85 on her July 1938 obituaries (no 1870 census found for her). Of particular concern is her listing of her birthmonth as October. If she were the newborn child listed in the May 1851 letter, she would have to have been born in October 1850, not even 1851, so she would have to have been off two years in all her census data and obituary. October 1850 is a possibility as Jesse could have left just after the census on October 7th, or Mary might even have listed him on the census just after he left. However, this means that Mary waited six months after the birth to let Jesse know the outcome of the birth (possibly due to Jesse traveling, and not having an address for him before he wrote to her).
• another girl who died young -- perhaps there was another daughter who was born in the spring of 1851 who died prior to the 1860 census, and Minerva was conceived in Jan/Feb 1852 after Jesse returned to Iowa. While I do not think it likely Minerva would be off two years on her birthdate, it is suspicious that she was listed as 10 on the 1860 census, and just two years younger than Jerusha; usually the census closest to the birth is the most accurate in age. Plus, at least in August, Jesse did not plan to return home until Spring 1852, which would be too late for Minerva's conception in Jan/Feb -- he had originally planned to come home in the Fall; perhaps he changed his mind back again and left California circa Oct/Nov 1851, in time to conceive Minerva.
Clearly, it cannot be determined with certainty if Minerva was born in October 1850-May 1851 and not the October 1852 birthdate she stated on her census, or if Jesse revised his plans again and came home prior to spring 1852.
(see descendants)

1906 boulder erected at Wyoming's South Pass
California Gold Rush. From the letter it appears the main impetus of the trip was to look for another line of work, and from the fact that Jesse spent five months as a miner, he apparently went to find his fortune in the California Gold mines. From Wikipedia -- "In January 1848, James Marshall discovered a small nugget of gold in the American River, sparking the California Gold Rush. It is estimated that about two-thirds of the male population in Oregon went to California in 1848 to cash in on the early gold discoveries. Many returned with significant gold which helped jump-start the Oregon economy. Over the next decade, gold seekers from the Midwestern United States and East Coast of the United States started rushing overland and dramatically increased traffic on the Oregon and California Trails. The "forty-niners" often chose speed over safety and opted to use shortcuts such as the Sublette-Greenwood Cutoff in Wyoming which reduced travel time by almost seven days but spanned nearly 45 miles (72 km) of desert without water, grass, or fuel for fires. After 1849 the rush continued for several years as the California miners continued to find about $50,000,000 worth of gold per year at $21 per ounce." To get to California, Jesse would have traveled by horse on the Oregon Trail; the first transcontinental railroad was not completed until 1869. Wikipedia: "Gradually the trail became easier with the average trip (as recorded in numerous diaries) dropping from about 160 days in 1849 to 140 days 10 years later." The origination point of the trail was either Independence,MO or Westport,KS, and the terminus was Oregon City,OR -- traveling alone, and from Iowa, Jesse would have made considerably faster time, but probably still would have been 2-4 months..

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