The James V. Mansfield papers amount to approximately 10,000 pages of outgoing correspondence to his wife and children in Chelsea, Massachusetts. Spanning from March 7, 1862, to June 3, 1864, the letters cover Mansfield's journey to, as well as his two-year stay in, San Francisco, California. The collection's historical significance, however, is largely derived from Mansfield's meticulous recording of major events that occurred during this period, such as news of Civil War battles, earthquakes, and the S.S. Golden Gate disaster, and from his detailed descriptions of the cultural milieu of San Francisco between 1862 and 1864.
In his first journal, Mansfield recounts his journey from New York City to San Francisco. He traveled aboard the ship the North Star until he reached the Isthmus of Panama, and then continued the rest of his journey on the Sonora . He describes the deplorable conditions on the overly crowded ships, including shortages of food and clean drinking water, and flea and bedbug infestations in the sleeping quarters. He also reports his first impressions of San Francisco, such as the general appearance and attitudes of the people, as well as the climate and geography.
His correspondence is particularly instrumental in illuminating the social conditions and cultural life of San Francisco. Mansfield describes the diverse array of people he encountered, social attitudes, and ethnic tensions. In addition to indigenous peoples of California, immigrants from Mexico, China, Ireland, and Germany were all living in the city in substantial numbers. Those from China and Ireland comprised the largest immigrant groups that he observed. A large number of people had also traveled from the East Coast or the southern states to San Francisco. Some of these newcomers found work as miners or servants. Like Mansfield, most New Englanders came to California with the intention of staying only for a short period of time before returning home.
Although San Francisco was far removed from the operations of the Civil War, the people felt the impact of Confederate and Union victories and defeats. Likewise, Mansfield was deeply concerned by the war, and records his impressions of the news of battles as it was reported in San Francisco. Though California was part of the Union, Mansfield witnessed discrimination against free African Americans and frequently encountered anti-Union sentiments. He notes, "…they will not for a long time submit to allow the colored man or woman the same rights, same privileges as they themselves claim a Strong Southern feeling is Evident on the face of things here …" 19: 224. He provides examples of African Americans being barred from privileges the white people enjoyed, such as not being able to ride on steam engines and in horse carriages. One such case was brought before a municipal judge, who decided in favor of African Americans, granting them the right to use public transportation. Although such victories were possible in Civil War era San Francisco, racial segregation remained prevalent.
Mansfield observed vast differences between New Englanders and the people in California. Of the latter he writes, "…they are a hard set of people driving on from 4 oclock in the morning till 10 or 12 oclock at night, their general appearance is of Brown Complexion long hair, long whiskers and not more than one in 4 Ever shave; so you can imagine what for a looking people they are and all invariably Chew & Smoke Tobaco and drink the meanest Kinds of Whiskey. Consequently they swear much and their word is usually not worth a fig either…" 12: 115-116. Throughout the 27 journals, he provides a substantial amount of commentary on the indigenous people of California and Native Americans in general, of which his opinion is also not high. He thought Native Americans deliberately interfered with mail sent overland, especially when he had not received his wife's letters: "…the mails are to be conveyed by steam and not overland -- you see the trouble the Indians gave the mail carriers…" 1: 16-17. He did, however, recognize the atrocities white people committed against them, and later admitted that the Native Americans were not at fault for poor mail service.
Mansfield also provides a great deal of commentary on gender, noting differences between women on the East Coast and in San Francisco, especially in terms of appearance and dress. He was very conscious of feminine beauty, and was quick to note the physical aspect of a woman he encountered, and whether or not she was sufficiently attractive. He describes women from different ethnic backgrounds, including Chinese and Irish immigrant women. A great number of the former worked as prostitutes, while the latter were overwhelmingly employed as servants. In several instances, he discusses the hard life such women endured, especially those who worked as domestic servants. He also notes differences between the ways in which "Western" and "Eastern" women are treated, especially after noticing public displays of subservience among Chinese women.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of San Francisco was its markets. Mansfield found a variety of foods in San Francisco, which he had not seen before, or at least in such abundance. The overwhelming plentitude of fruits of all kinds included strawberries, cherries, apples, pineapples, bananas, figs, peaches, mangoes, pears, grapes, oranges, and watermelon. He also relates what he ate for his daily meals and the prices of food. Wine was widely available, which "…they drink here as they would water in the East…" 11: 83. Mansfield periodically visited his brother and sister-in-law, Jera (b. c.1825) and Nellie Mansfield (b. c.1836), who had moved to Napa several years before his arrival. In Napa, they planted a vineyard, where Mansfield was first exposed to the blossoming wine culture in California.
Mansfield became acquainted with a number of important people in San Francisco. The one who perhaps had the greatest influence on him was the preacher Thomas Starr King (1824-1864). Mansfield dutifully attended King's sermons every Sunday, and wrote about him profusely, including his impact on the city. He considered King to be one of the greatest minds of the 19th century. When he died on March 4, 1864, the entire city mourned, including Mansfield. Shortly after his death he wrote, "How lovely the Sabbath morning appears to those who were wont to attend Thomas Starr King's meeting there is no use his departure has created a vacuum that cannot be filled in the minds in the hearts of this people -- The Bell Tolls now for church service but it has lost its charm for me. It seems like tolling for the funeral requiem of the great good man rather than an invitation to listen to his heavenly soul stirring thoughts…" 26: 509. With the exception of his fellow spiritualist, Emma Hardinge Britten (1823-1899), Mansfield wrote of no other person with such admiration.
Spiritualism and the general religious community also figured prominently in his correspondence. Although he referred to himself as the "…notorious Spiritual Writing Medium …" 2:51, his being a public person did not always guarantee financial success. He did, nevertheless, procure enough business to send money to his family on a regular basis, via Wells Fargo and Company. Mansfield often gives detailed accounts of these séances, revealing the names and messages of the spirits. Likewise, he describes a variety of individuals who came to him to communicate with the departed, some wanting advice, others seeking comfort in the wake of the death of a loved one. He usually charged five dollars for a one-hour session, and three dollars for a half hour. Even the famous wished to utilize his talents, such as Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882). Only once, however, does he describe the process by which a spirit "entered" his body and commenced writing. He wrote communications in many different languages and alphabets, most of which, he claimed to not know. He often spoke of other mediums, especially his friend, the eminent clairvoyant and public speaker Emma Hardinge Britten. After much encouragement, Mansfield convinced her to travel to San Francisco, thinking her talents would earn her great success. Indeed, once in California, her lectures attracted sizeable crowds that rivaled those of Thomas Starr King.
As he was meticulous in his observations of San Francisco, so too did he keep detailed records of his séances. Also owned by the Clements Library are two alphabetized account books that originally belonged to Mansfield, containing entries on séances from December 24, 1860, to March 26, 1883. Volume 1 contains names and dates of séances of people with last names of the letters "A" through "B," but he never finished his entries. Inside the inner cover is a printed advertisement for Mansfield, which includes a lithograph of him. The rest of this volume, as well as volume 2, are blank, with the exception of two pages of the latter that were used in 1933 by an unknown individual.
In addition to these 29 volumes are 13 miscellaneous items that include two letters written in 1874 and 1875 to his son while he studied art in Paris. At this time, Mansfield was living in New York City. Two earlier letters to his daughter are also present, one written in 1859 and the other in 1860. Another letter that dates to 1877 is addressed to a grandson named Bertie. Among these items are also a lithograph of Mansfield and his business card.
The Mansfield collection is very valuable for the chronicling of Civil War era San Francisco, and for the insight it provides into the spiritualist movement. It is an excellent source of common attitudes regarding women and various ethnic groups. Although the lure of wealth drew many enterprising individuals to California, Mansfield's writings, above all, bring to light the many hardships endured by those endeavoring to attain such prosperity.