Among the most interesting and literate Gold Rush collections in the Clements Library, Charles Watkins' letterbook contains copies of 14 lengthy, descriptive letters, written to his siblings during a sojourn in California in 1854. With an exceptional eye for detail and an enjoyable sense of humor about himself and others, Watkins' letters provide a startlingly carefree perspective on the California scene, where even personal misfortunes paled in the face of overwhelming opportunities for "fun."
Watkins' upbringing remains something of a mystery, although a few hints can be gleaned from his correspondence. His letters indicate a highly practiced hand, and the larding-in of classical allusions suggest that his education may have been somewhat better than average.
Nearly every letter is polished and well thought out, and suggest he was as wide a reader as he was a traveler: at times, his readings of romance stories and dime novels seem to have helped him to cast his own experiences for his sisters and brother. Thus, in describing his meeting with a group of California Indians, to his sister, Abby, he recreates the dime novelist's melodramatic Indian: "The California Indians are different from any others that I have ever met with, they are filthy in their habits and treacherous in their disposition. I had an encounter with a few of them at night shortly after my arrival in the mountains. I had lost my way travelling alone about 10 miles from Coloma and did not know exactly where I was, stopped by two of the Indians belonging as I afterwards learned to a camp near Coloma, my hand was instantly on my trusty revolver and visions of poisoned arrows, scalping knives, burning at the stake &c &c flitted through my mind as I prepared for the combat, it was a fit scene for a novel or tragedy..." (1854 May 20). After building the suspense and drawing out the encounter at great length, in the tradition of the classic dime novel, Watkins suspends the conclusion of his story to a later letter, where he deflates the apparent danger of death-by-poison-arrow into a pathetic account of poverty and beggary.
Watkins' letters include fine descriptions of the passage across the Nicaraguan, and some excellent descriptions of the wandering life among the central and southern mining districts. Particularly in his early letters, he provides fine descriptions of mining techniques and mining activities, and the composite picture that emerges of the miners themselves is fascinating.