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From William Swain in “The Diggings” in California—Letter

Below is part of a letter that William Swain, a forty-niner, wrote to his brother in New York. Letters such as this one help us understand what daily life was like for people who participated in the California Gold Rush of 1849.


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January 6, 1850
South Fork of Feather River
25 miles from Long's Trading Post, and
16 miles above Bidwell's Trading Post

Dear George,

…After prospecting two days, we located a spot favorable for damming and draining the river. We made our claim and then built a house as soon as possible to shelter our heads from the soaking rains…. If there is no gold, we shall be off to another place, for there is an abundance of gold here, and if we are blessed with health, we are determined to have a share of it.

…Our house is a log cabin, sixteen by twenty feet…. It has a good door made of cedar boards hewn [out] of cedar logs, but no window. It faces the south and is on the north side of the river. In the east end is a family fireplace, in which large backlogs are burning night and day. At the west end is a bedstead framed into the logs of the cabin and running from side to side. The cords of the bedstead are strips of rawhide, crossing at every three inches, thus forming a bottom tight enough to hold large armfuls of dry breaks gathered from the sides of the mountains, which make a substitute for feather beds. On these are our blankets and buffalo skins. Altogether it makes a comfortable bed. Moore has a bunk in one of the other corners…. In the other corner may be seen our cupboard with its contents, which consist of a few wooden and tin dishes, bottles, knives and forks and spoons, tin frying pan, boiler, and coffee pot….

Goodbye George,
William

Excerpt from a letter from William Swain to George Swain.


Background

On April 11, 1849, William Swain left his home in Youngstown, New York, to seek gold in California. He left his wife Sabrina, his infant daughter Eliza, his mother Patience, and his brother George behind on the family's farm, but he wrote to them often while on his journey to and from California. William wrote this letter to his brother, George, after reaching California and beginning to look for gold. He includes many details about daily life and hunting for gold.