Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Charles S. Watkins Letterbook, 1853-1854

Finding aid created by
Rob S. Cox, March 1997

Summary Information
Title: Charles S. Watkins letterbook
Creator: Watkins, Charles S.
Inclusive dates: 1853-1854
Extent: 50 pages
Charles Watkins' letterbook contains copies of letters written by Watkins while searching for gold in California in 1854.
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:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1995. M-3178.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown.

Preferred Citation:

Charles S. Watkins Letterbook, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan


Early in December, 1853, Charles Watkins left his brother and sisters in Fort Lee, N.J., bound for the lucre and adventure of California. Boarding the steamer Northern Light on the Vanderbilt line, he crossed the isthmus at Nicaragua, amusing himself with imaging the intentions of the other emigrants aboard ship. To Watkins, California was a promising land, inextricably linked with fortune and the opposite sex:

"I have been much amused by conversing with and learning the motives which induced them to 'go to California.' Some are young men from the country who are bound to the mines in hopes of gathering sufficient of the dust to enable them to return home and buy a farm, marry Susan or Nancy and settle down. Others are broken down store keepers or mechanics who find that there is little or no prospect of saving enough for a rainy day, and are bound for California in hope of getting good wages and by economy amassing enough to make the future look more comfortable. We have also quite a number of California widows who have been separated from their husbands one, two, and even seven or eight years, and now alone and unprotected are going to rejoin them" (1853 December 13).

Financial need, so important to many California emigrants, seems to have played little role in Watkins' decision to leave home. His family seems to have led a comfortable life, if not necessarily an affluent one, and we are left to assume that it was a sense of "adventure," more than anything that drove him into the gold fields. Rather ambiguously, he summed up his motives in saying "At present emmigrating to California appears to me like Father's opinion of getting married (viz) 'You will be sorry if you do, and sorry if you don't'" (1854 January 1).

Arriving in San Francisco on New Year's Day, Watkins wasted little time in striking into the "interior." For several months, he wandered the northern, central and southern gold fields, making ends meet, but little else. Recognizing that few miners made a profit, Watkins was never concerned that his own efforts bore little fruit. At Michigan Bluffs, Placer County, for instance, he joined a company of Dutch, Prussians, Danes, and Englishmen, and headed with them into the high mountains, only to find that the new mines they sought did not exist. Yet Watkins shrugged off the situation, even after a fellow miner died in the deep snow, saying: "When I left them [the company] they were promising each other that if they ever could manage to get home to their families they would be the happiest men alive and stay home and curse California during the remainder of their lives. For my part I like the fun... I like California and a person who has no home or particular local attachments cannot do better than to come here and take his chance and I will garentee that in one year he will neither respect or bear anything, but adopt the pirates motto 'every one for himself and old Nick for us all'" (1854 March 12).

In March, 1854, Watkins was confined with "mountain fever," a disease that manifested itself in sweating and shakes similar to the ague, and within two months, he had returned to San Francisco and began to think about other adventures, soon deciding to head for the Sandwich Islands in search of "cannibals." A touch of sadness colored his last letter home, sadness over being too late for the real manly, profitable fun.

"I regret very much that I did not come here in '49 (as the first settlers delight to abbreviate the date of their arrival). California is fast changing its nature it is no longer the land of Gold -- the El-Dorado of the nineteenth century and future travellers though they may describe the beauty of the scenery -- the mildness of its climate and fertility of its soil, will never be able to describe California in the infancy of her settlement. I have often been surprised however to learn that very few of the early settlers have been at all benefited by their experience in the Gold days and it is a fact that of the many thousands who visited this country in '49 and '50 scarcely one in a hundred has retained enough of the precious dust to support his future old age. Easy come -- easy go is an old adage which has seldom been falsified... these disappointed and unsuccessful '49ers are the most pitiable objects imaginable, like the flying dutchman they seem compelled to maintain a ceaseless search for an object never to be found, they live in hope and die in despair" (1854 August 4)

Collection Scope and Content Note

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.

Subject Terms

    • California--Description and travel.
    • California--Gold discoveries.
    • Gold mines and mining--California.
    • Indians of North America--California.
    Genre Terms:
    • Letter books.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Volume   1  
    Charles S. Watkins letterbook,  1853 December 13-1854 August 4 [series]
     1853 December 13, Steamer Northern Light, Caribbean to John S. Watkins (4 pages)
     1854 January 1, San Francisco, Calif. to Emma Watkins (5 pages)
     1854 January 9, Rapps Cabin, Sierra Co., Calif. To Marianne Watkins (5 pages)
     1854 February 3, Michigan Bluffs, Placer Co., Calif. to Abby Watkins (7 pages)
     1854 March 12, Michigan Bluffs, Placer Co., Calif. to John S. Watkins (12 pages)
     1854 March 20, Michigan Bluffs, Placer Co., Calif. to Sister . (5 pages)
     1854 May 10, San Francisco, Calif. to Sister (2 pages)
     1854 May 21, San Francisco, Calif. to John S. Watkins (5 pages)
     1854 June 14, San Francisco, Calif. to Emma Watkins (2 pages)
    [ ca. 1854 June-July], [San Francisco, Calif.] to Marianne Watkins (2 pages)
     1854 July 6, San Francisco, Calif. to John S. Watkins and Abby Watkins (5 pages)
     1854 July 26, San Francisco, Calif. to Emma Watkins and Marianne Watkins (4 pages)
     1854 July 31, San Francisco, Calif. to [Marianne Watkins] (2 pages)
     1854 August 4, San Francisco, Calif. to Sister (4 pages)
    Additional Descriptive Data
    Partial Subject Index
    • 1853 December 3
    California--Description and travel
    • passim
    California--Economic conditions
    • 1854 July 6
    California--History--Gold discoveries
    • passim
    California--Moral conditions
    • 1854 March 12
    • 1854 July 26
    Coloma (Calif.)--Description and travel
    • 1854 February 3
    • 1853 December 3
    • 1854 March 12
    Gold miners--California
    • passim
    Gold miners--Costume--California
    • 1854 February 3
    Gold miners--Death
    • 1854 March 12
    Gold mines and mining--California
    • 1854 February 3
    • 1854 March 12
    • 1854 March 20
    Grizzly bear--California
    • 1854 July 6
    • 1854 May 21
    • 1854 August 4
    Indians of North America--California
    • 1854 May 21
    • 1854 July 6
    • 1854 July 26
    Jamaica--Description and travel
    • 1853 December 3
    • 1854 June 14
    Montez, Lola, 1818-1861
    • 1854 March 12
    Nicaragua--Description and travel
    • 1854 January 1
    San Francisco (Calif.)--Commerce
    • 1854 July 26
    San Francisco (Calif.)--Description and travel
    • 1854 January 9
    • 1854 July 26
    Steamboat travel--Caribbean Sea
    • 1853 December 3
    • 1854 January 1
    Sutter's Fort (Calif.)
    • 1854 May 10
    • 1853 December 13
    • 1864 June 14