Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library University of Michigan

Finding aid for
William Roberts Letterbook, 1849-1851

Finding aid created by
Rob S. Cox, July 1991

Summary Information
Title: William Roberts letterbook
Creator: Roberts, William
Inclusive dates: 1849-1851
Extent: 29 items
Abstract:
The William Roberts letterbooks contains letters sent by a gold rush miner during his trip to and while working in California to his family back east. The letters comment on gold mining and other jobs available in California, prices for items, descriptions of the area, and religious sentiments.

Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site: www.clements.umich.edu


Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1987. M-2372.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open to research.

Copyright:

Copyright status is unknown.

Alternate Format:

Typed transcripts of William Roberts' letters are located in the transcript section of the Manuscripts Division.

Preferred Citation:

William Roberts letterbook, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


Biography

In January 1849, William Roberts helped to establish the Narragansett Trading & Mining Company with the intention of seeking a fortune in the gold mines of California, but he was far from a typical member. In fact, in many ways, Roberts defies the stereotype of the forty-niner: he was much older than most -- at 60 he was the oldest member of the Narragansett Company -- and he came from a happy, middle-class home, though apparently one not unfamiliar with financial worries. Roberts was well educated, and may have received some medical training, perhaps informal, and he saw to it that all three of his sons received a good education as well. But for Roberts, as for many of his fellow forty-niners, the opportunity to better the financial lot of his family was too good to pass up.

On February 6th, 1849, Roberts and the 60 members of the Company boarded the sailing ship, Velasco, and prepared to leave Boston for San Francisco by way of Cape Horn. The beginning was not an auspicious one for the group; bad weather and thick ice delayed their departure from Boston, and disagreements among the members of the Company led them to recast votes for officers of the company. While Roberts, by his own account one of the most respected members, was reelected as President, other officers were voted out, rankling some feelings.

The Velasco finally pulled out of Boston harbor after the ice broke, on the 14th of February, but ran into no better luck in the stormy Atlantic. The ship was blow far off course to the east, and at one point Roberts records that she traveled north (rather than south) seven degrees in seven days. The captain put in at Fayal, the Azores, for several days before continuing on, compounding the delay. It was in the Azores that Roberts first begins to turn to religion for solace. While never professing to be a religious man, he organized and began regularly to attend shipboard services and religious sentiments frequently enter into letters to his family. Despite the generally good nature of the company members, and aggravated by the fact that the ship paid only one significant port call after the Azores (in Chile), tensions rose to a boiling point among the Company members. Although they avoided any physical confrontations, in September, 1849, still at sea, the Company voted to dissolve. One month later, the Velasco docked in San Francisco.

Having refused to enlist with any of the splinter factions of the old Narragansett Company, Roberts camped out on the beach north of town and prepared to go alone to the southern mining district near Stockton. His journey, however, was aborted after poor weather made traveling nearly impossible and after he caught dysentery and, he thought, scurvy. He returned to San Francisco to spend the winter and gather strength for a renewed attempt in the Spring. His health was slow in improving because of the high and unstable prices for vegetables, but he was occasionally able to work at what, for Rhode Island, would have been considered high wages. He even managed to save some money. In Roberts' eyes, San Francisco was a bustling, anarchic town full of vice, poverty, illness, and death. He remarked that there are often "three or four coffins at a time standing in the burial ground...and often two, three and four buried one top of the other in the same grave." In this environment of gambling and drunkenness, Roberts' religious convictions seem to have grown during the winter of 1849-50.

On the 26th of February, Roberts turned down a well paying job for the potentially more lucrative work available in the southern mining district on the Tuolumne River. Although he claimed the mining district had degraded, and that the best sediments had been panned out, he was nevertheless able to make several dollars a day. He was meticulous in recording the prices he paid for foods, how much sediment he sifted, and how much money he had made each day. While he did not consider himself any better than an average "miner," he enjoyed the freedom of working for himself, and the higher wages he could make as an average gold miner than as an average Rhode Island laborer.

Hearing of better prospects further north, Roberts moved to a camp on Burns' Creek in Tuolumne County, intent on spending the winter. The Burns Creek diggings turned out, however, to be worse than those on the Tuolumne, with water scarce and gold scarcer. He remained in pleasant surroundings, though, and through his own industry, was able to make a decent wage. Nevertheless, in February, 1851, he joined a group of other miners who were returning to the Tuolumne, only to find that the area in which he had previously worked was flooded and not producing. Thus, on March 10th, Roberts set up camp along the Merced River.


Collection Scope and Content Note

William Roberts' letterbook contains his retained copies of 29 letters written to his wife, sons, daughter, and daughters-in-law between the time of his departure from Boston and his establishing camp along the Merced River. His early letters are filled with fine descriptions of the sea voyage and the ports of call in the Azores and Chile. They reflect his close family relationships and his growing sense of religious fervor. Roberts is at his best as a writer, though, when describing the economic instability and amorality of Gold Rush San Francisco. But, interestingly, as he spends more time in California, and begins to salt away money through mining, the religious sentiments decrease, and he begins to express the benefits of gold mining as an occupation. In the end, Roberts writes that he is planning to delay his return to Rhode Island, ostensibly to make even more money for his family, but indicating that the free life of the gold mines, even with its amoral aspects, is better than life back east.

Subject Terms

    Subjects:
    • California--Description and travel.
    • Religious life.
    • Gold mines and mining--California.
    • San Francisco (Calif.)--Description and travel.
    Genre Terms:
    • Letter books.
    Contents List
       Container / Location    Title
    Volume   1  
    William Roberts letterbook,  1849 February 11-1851 August 9 [series]:
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Partial Subject Index
    Agriculture--Chile
    • 1849 August 13-October 9
    Azores--Description and travel1849 March 9-12
    • 1849 March 13-19
    Birds--Atlantic Ocean
    • 1849 April 26-June 6
    Birds--Pacific Ocean
    • 1849 August 11
    California--Description and travel
    • 1850 January 15-27
    • 1850 June 9
    • 1850 November 17
    California--Gold discoveries
    • 1849 August 15, October 14, 21
    • 1850 January 28-February 3
    Cape Horn (Chile)
    • 1849 August 9-11
    Cape Verde Islands--Description and travel
    • 1849 April 26-June 6
    Chile--Description and travel
    • 1849 August 13-October 9
    Chileans
    • 1849 August 13-October 9
    Concepcion (Chile)--Description
    • 1849 August 13-October 9
    Crime--California
    • 1851 June 5
    Diarrhea
    • 1850 November 17
    Drinking of alcoholic beverages--California--San Francisco
    • 1849 December 24-1850 January 11
    Dysentery
    • 1850 January 15-27
    • 1849 August 9-11
    • 1849 December 2-3
    Fires--California--San Francisco
    • 1849 December 24-1850 January 11
    • 1851 August 9
    Flowers--California
    • 1850 June 10 to Roberts, Maria L.
    • 1850 September 9
    Gardens--Azores
    • 1849 March 13-19
    Gold mines and mining--California
    • 1850 February 17-24
    • 1850 June 9
    • 1850 September 9
    • 1850 November 17
    • 1851 January 16-21
    • 1851 February 9
    • 1851 April 6
    • 1851 June 5
    • 1851 August 9
    Gold mines and mining--Oregon
    • 1851 June 5
    Grizzly bears--California
    • 1850 June 11
    Hydrotherapy
    • 1849 December 24-1850 January 11
    Lynching--California
    • 1851 June 5
    Mexican Americans--Social conditions--California
    • 1851 June 5
    Missionaries--California--San Francisco
    • 1849 December 24-1850 January 11
    Motion sickness
    • 1849 March 9-12
    Murder--California
    • 1851 June 5
    Narragansett Trading & Mining Company
    • 1849 February 11
    • 1849 February 11-13
    • 1849 August 13-October 9
    • 1851 June 5
    Ocean travel
    • 1849 March 9-12
    Ocean travel--Atlantic Ocean
    • 1849 August 9-11
    Parsons, William P., ca.1817-1849
    • 1850 January 28-February 3
    Parsons, William P., ca.1817-1849--Death
    • 1850 January 28-February 3
    Plants--Azores
    • 1849 March 13-19
    Plants--California
    • 1851 January 16-21
    Poetry
    • 1849 August 11
    • 1850 February 17-24
    • 1850 June 10 to Roberts, Mercy V.
    • 1850 September 9
    Poor--California--San Francisco
    • 1849 December 24-1850 January 11
    Portuguese--Azores
    • 1849 March 13-19
    Postal service--California
    • 1849 December 2-3
    • 1849 December 24-1850 January 11
    • 1850 June 9
    Presidio (San Francisco, Calif.)--Description
    • 1850 January 28-February 3
    Prices--California
    • 1850 June 10 to Roberts, Maria L.
    • 1850 November 17
    Prices--California--San Francisco
    • 1849 August 15, October 14, 21
    • 1849 December 24-1850 January 11
    • 1850 January 28-February 3
    Read, Leonard B., ca.1829-1850--Death
    • 1850 January 28-February 3
    Religious life
    • 1849 March 13-19
    • 1849 March 28-29
    • 1849 April 26-June 6
    Religious life--California--San Francisco
    • 1849 December 24-1850 January 11
    • 1850 January 28-February 3
    San Francisco (Calif.)--Description
    • 1849 August 13-October 9
    • 1849 August 18, October 9
    • 1849 August 15, October 14, 21
    • 1849 December 2-3
    • 1849 December 24-1850 January 11
    Scurvy
    • 1850 January 15-27
    Smith, James, d. 1849--Death
    • 1849 August 9-11
    Talcahuano (Chile)--Description
    • 1849 August 13-October 9
    Trees--California
    • 1849 December 2-3
    Tuolumne River (Calif.)--Description
    • 1850 June 9
    Volcanoes--Azores
    • 1849 March 13-19
    Wages--California
    • 1849 August 15, October 14, 21
    Wedding anniversaries--Poetry
    • 1849 August 18, October 9
    Wildlife--California
    • 1850 June 11 to Roberts, Henry H. and Roberts, George A.
    Women--Social conditions
    • 1849 December 24-1850 January 11