Olney Thayer was just one of tens of thousands who rushed to California to seize the future. His experience is unique—and all too common.
Olney Thayer was born in 1825 in Mendon, Massachusetts. His forebears had helped found the community in the 166Os, and like most Americans of their time, successive generations had never strayed from their home. Then came the news from California, and Olney joined the throngs headed for the goldfields. What he found there is told in a series of letters that he wrote to his family “back in the States.” They are eloquent both of the exhilaration that fueled a nation-making migration and of the cost that that exhilaration could exact. The letters, never before published, come to us through the courtesy of a great-grandnephew of Olney, Richard N. Thayer, of Cleveland.
New Yorker Jan. 23rd, 1852
Respected parents etc,
… I shall have to be on board the steamer tomorrow noon, we sail at 2 o’clocke. … The Steam ship company have raised again on the Steerage fare and those who buy now must pay $200, guess they will raise to $300, have not taken pains to ascertain but am told that they are all sold up to March 9th could take fifty dollars premium on my ticket tomorrow without any doubt but guess I shall see the elephant myself.
Think New England has taken an emetic and N Y is the slop pail, by the looks of the people here from that way there seems to be a perfect fever for California old gray headed men who were never before out of the limits of their native town may be seen thron[g]ing the ticket office and striding the streets with rapid steps, eager to catch the slightest intelligence from California, the yellow dust almost glowing on their wrinkled brow and El Dorado in letters of gold is written on every thing they behold. … What this immense emmigration will do I cannot tell, give my hest wishes to all inquiring friends.
Yours with esteem
Olney Thayer G.G.
Panama NC Feb. 10, 1852
Brothers and Sisters
It is ahout three weeks since I was rubbing my fingers amid the snows of New England. Now the sweat is pouring out of me for good but I experience no inconvenience from it. I left N.Y on the 24th ult and had a pleasant passage to Havana in Cuba where we arrived on the following Friday, with the exception of 3 days on which I was seasick then I felt most disagreeable I assure you but have got entirely over it and can eat a raw dog now never felt so well all ways before in my life. … On Sunday we left for Chagres had beautiful weather all the way and arrived there Friday noon. … The scenery up the Chagres river is the most beautiful thing I ever saw. … I expect to leave here tomorrow at 4 o’clock I do not know how I shall succeed in my enterprise but mean to put the best foot forward and decide the matter as soon as possible if cannot succeed I shall be back as soon as I can. … You must take good care of my trees and get out all worms and borers and you shall lose nothing I am in a great hurry dont think of anything more so I will bid you good bye for the present.
Yours with esteem
Sacramento City Mr 16,1852
… I had a pleasant voyage here, arrived safely here and am in good health got a short job the second day here at $75. per month got through yesterday and am just starting today for south fork of the American river about 50 miles to try my luck at gold digging times are rather hard here at present and the emigration is so great I do not expect to make much out of California but must try to pay expenses. …
I subscrib myself
Your affectionate son
Placerville, June 10, 1852
I take this occasion to drop you a few lines from the eldorado of America and I might add of the world, for surely California is destined to exert a powerful influence, not only upon the destiny of this nation, but upon the whole civilized globe; the annals of history can furnish no parallel with the rapid rise and growth of this state. If you examine Olney’s old school atlas you will see unexplored regions marked upon the map south of Oregon. Such was the state of the country where I now am, not more than five or six years ago, unexplored and unknown to the civilized world & inhabited only by a few miserable Indians; now it is crowded by men from every part of the world, and vocal with the hum of industry, even now within hearing there is a steam engine puffing away sawing up pine logs by night and day, in fact California is now in advance of some of the old states & at least a century in advance of all the Spanish countries south of us. I was a little surprised upon entering the harbor of San Francisco to see more shipping than I ever saw in Boston & then the city, containing 35,000 inhabitants, presented all the pomp and show of the eastern cities. … I am in good health and I have not seen a sick day since I left home, can eat like a hog and board myself in a log cabin for 50 cents a day. … I think I have written enough so give my best wishes to father, Mother, little Frank and everybody else so goodby
Oct. 10, 1852
Respected Parents, Brothers & Sister,
As some time has elapsed since I wrote you from the Pacific shores, you might be led to suppose that I had forgotten my New England home; but far from it time may wing on its flight, mountain and seas interpose, but never will be erased from my mind the thousand fond appreciations that cling & cluster around my childhood home. Sometimes visions of the past will flit across my mind and in spite of myself will almost make me homesick, but I crush the rising spirit and all is well again; on the whole I am very well satisfied with my journey and new home, never have seen the moment when I regreted leaving home for when I did so I resolved to be content with any lot. … I shall go at mining again as soon as the rain comes. (We have had no rain since the 14th May) and try my luck if there is any for me. … I suppose when this letter reaches you, you will be poking in the snow but I shall be where the trees will be robed in living green & will be until near January. I would like to be with you at Thanksgiving but cannot make it convenient and will give you an invitation to come and spend the day with me I will give you a good dinner I will write again soon.… Accept my best wishes, give my respects to all inquiring friends and eat for me a piece of Christmas pie. …
Your affectionate son
Jan 30th 1853
Mr. Thayer Dear Sir
I take an opportunity to write you a few lines to inform you of news that is hard to carry or write your Son Only Thayer came down from the Mines sick and was sick but a short time here before he was numbered with the spirits in the spirit land he was sick with the Typhoid Fever he Died Jan 19th at the states Hospital he was trying to get home he wanted to come the first of the month he had worked and not got his pay and had hard bad luck. … He was at a Hotell I was very bisiy and did not see him for 2 or 3 days he was so as to be up round I went to se him and the Night before he was taken deranged and they was prepairing to carry him to the Hospital the loafers or some one had picked his pockets of money and papers I went to the Hospital with him he lived about twenty four ours
Yours in sorrow
Charles W Gates
Apr 16th 1853
Dear Sir I just read your second letter & with plesher I answer it altho on a solom ocasion I will answer a few of your questions as my time is short I will answer but few I have got the No [number] of Onlys Grave I have not seen it but it is easy found I shall find tomorrow if nothing hapens there is great panes taken here in the burial of people they are buried in a good dry place & in a good Coffin & caried in a splendid herse the undertaker sits down the name and numbers & numbers the grave the care of Only was good he was able to take care of himself until the day but one before his death he had good care as could be he said nothing about anything at home. …
A set of Grave stones here are worth from fifty to two hundred plain cheap Marble $50,
Excuse me for this time
as I must close
Yours &c C W Gates
U S Marine Hospital
Feb 27 1854
When I last wrote you I thought I should not be able to write you again for a month, but as I wish to get intelligence to Mr Thayer of the reception of his draft & what I have done I thought I would write the letter to you & so kill two birds with one stone I recieved a draft from Mr Thayer on Adams & company & made arrangements with Mr Gray to have Olney’s remains taken up and sent home in the Clipper Ship Bald Eagle Mr Gray agreed to perform his post for $150,00 & as he shiped home several at the same time the Capt, agreed to take the body for $52,50 I agreed to advance the money, that is fifty two dollars & a half & let Mr Thayer pay you the same, But the result of the disinterment of the remains will add another pang to the hearts of the distressed parents The remains disintered under the No. of Olney’s grave were those of a man about forty years of age, five feet nine inches in height with coarse red hair & whiskers It required but a glance of the eye to see they were not Olney’s. AGC Bucklin was with me at the time, but I have never as yet been able to find Mr Gates. The body we reburied again Mr Gray says their were probably three or four bodies buried at the same time & a mistake made in numbering them. He thinks by taken up three or four bodies in the immediate neiborhood the right one might be found. We can ascertain how many were buried at the time & their numbers & stand a chance to find the right one so. Thus the matter stands at present. I shall deposite the $150.00 in Page Brecon & C Banking house & wait for further orders If Mr Thayer would wish to be at the expense of disentering the bodies I will do all that I can to assist and think from my knowledge of such things I should have no difficulty in recognizing the remains if we could find them. If he does not see fit to do anything more about it I will pay Mr G for his trouble & send the money back to him, or if we make further search & are unsuccessful will do the same, but tell him their is no use to try to do anything without paying the money down either for freight or anything else & that it is useless to try to get it done for less than we have written him & if we are obliged to dig up seven bodies it will add $50 more to the expense Tell him I will manage the business as though it were my own, but that Mr Haskel or any body else at home dont know anything about how such things are here.
The rest of the letter has been cut off with scissors. The Thayers never found Olney’s body.