1850: John L. Tolman to Illinois

How John L. Tolman might have looked
How John L. Tolman might have looked

This fascinating letter was written by hopeful gold miner John L. Tolman (b. 1828) — a native of Illinois — not long after he arrived in Hangtown [now Placerville], El Dorado, California. He wrote the letter to family and friends back “home” — presumably Illinois — to inform them that one of their emigrant party was drowned while trying to swim across the Humbolt River within 250 miles of their destination. He mentions several members of his party, including his younger brother Cyrus (b. 1829) and a friend, Joshua Davis (b. 1831), who has co-signed a postscript to the letter serving as an affidavit of the death of Richard Squire (the drowning victim).

A poem eulogizing Squire is enclosed in the letter which looks to have been written by the same hand and can reasonably be attributed to Tolman as well.

[Note: I have not been able to locate any of these individuals in Illinois. I did find them in the 1850 Census in “Placerville & its vicinity”, El Dorado County, California though the Tolman brothers surname is spelled “Fallman.” They are all shown together. They were enumerated there in December 1850.]

U.S. Census taken in December 1850 at Placerville, El Dorado, California
U.S. Census taken in December 1850 at Placerville, El Dorado, California


Hangtown [now Placerville, El Dorado County, California]
September the 2d, 1850

Dear Sir,

I take my pen in hand to write to you to inform you of the death of Richard which will be sad information to all — both parents and friends. I hate to have such news to write home but I have it to do. He was drowned in the Humbolt or St. Mary River in attempting to swim after grass. ¹ All the grass on the side of the river that the road was on had been eat off by the emigration ahead so, therefore, we had to swim the river where there was plenty of grass. He came pretty near drowning once before he would if one of the boys hadn’t of pulled him out, and I told him then not to try it. I told him I would go over and get the grass and him and the rest of the boys give it to the cattle.

So I went over and the first thing I heard was, “Dick’s drowning! Dick’s drowning!” Well I had to run about three hundred yards through a slough and before I got there he was gone. Before he went in, there was a young fellow on the bank with him. He told Dick he had better not go in, he might get drowned, and Dick asked him if he wouldn’t pull him out if he went to drowned and the fellow told him he couldn’t swim. So he went in and was drowned.

We hunted for him all that day but could not find him. I stuck up a notice by the side of the road requesting that someone would look for him  [and] if they found him that they would bury him. So in four or five days after they had seen the notice and had looked for him and had found and buried him, which was a great consolation to us to think that he was buried.

Richard was drowned on the 18th of July 1850 when within about 250 miles of the diggins. It seems hard that it should happen after having come so far through a wild, unfriendly looking country. He was just as true a Christian when he was drowned as when he started from home. He read his bible every opportunity.

His clothes and things that are left, we will dispose of to the best advantage that we can. We had to leave our waggon back on the desert and pick up a lighter one which is not worth much. Our oxen were pretty thin when we got here and wouldn’t bring more than 50 dollars a yoke, so we put them on to a ranch where we have to [pay] two dollars a head per month, and in two or three months they will fetch from two to three times as much as they would now.

Independence Rock is just beyond circled wagons at right. The notch at Devil's Gate can be seen in the distance.
Independence Rock is just beyond circled wagons at right. The notch at Devil’s Gate can be seen in the distance.

Balenger has got in with his cows but had a pretty hard time — lost a great many. My brother Cyrus got through safe but John Greathart got lost back just this side of the Devil’s Gate ² and hasn’t been seen nor heard of since. I expect he was killed by the Indians.

It is very sickly here. There are so many new emigrants coming in and pretty near half of them is sick with the diarrhea before they get through. I have been very near sick ever since we got in though we done enough to pay board and a little more.

I should like to hear from you or any of my friends, if any, at any time for I have not heard from home since I left. So no more at present. This from your unworthy friend, — J. L. Tolman

P. S. This is to show that Richard Squire was drowned in the Humbolt River while on his way to California. — John L. Tolman, Joshua Davis

September 2d 1850

On the Death of a Friend

He left his home, his parents, and friends
His brother and sisters too
He gave them all the parting hand
And bade them a long adieu

Little did he think he ne’er would see
His parents on earth again
Little did he think of a watery grave
When far from them he came

But Death the fate of all our race
Has called him from earth away
To Heaven the Christian’s resting place
Wit the angels of God to stay

His body was buried on a lonesome place
Far from his native home
There is no friends to weep on his grave
Nor to place there a memory stone

He was buried there in a grass green spot
Where the flowers grew so fair
And a board was left at his head to stand
While the inscription of his name was there

Weep not for him his father and mother
He has gone to his home in heaven
Weep not for him sisters and brother
He is enjoying the reward that’s given

Written by a friend

¹ Other travelers on the California Trail in the same group, or nearly at the same time, wrote of a similar experience: 

…we struck the Humbolt or Mary’s River, (which is called by the emigrants, the Horse Killer,) and followed it 300 miles, to the sink. The river being very high, or some 8 feet higher than last spring, it was impossible to cross it with teams, or to grass our stock on its bottom, in consequence of the mire. The whole distance is one bed of alkali, or saleratus bottom, and perfectly destitute of grass, except in the slews and across the river. We were compelled to swim the river to get grass for our stock which was attended with some dangers even to good swimmers. — The river is some 300 yards across and has a very swift current. Several emigrants were drowned in the river this season. John Parrott came very near drowning; we saved him by throwing him a rope. The banks of the river are perfectly lined with dead horses, mules, and oxen which it was impossible to avoid, and which made it very unpleasant.

In addition to these difficulties it is infested with a tribe of Indians, called Diggers, who live in the mountain cliffs. They steal horses and shoot the passing emigrants for diversion. Our stock had to be guarded day and night, which tried the courage of our men to some degree. One man was shot through the heart with an arrow, on the night of 2d of July, while he was on guard. We were camped about 2 miles back and saw him the next morning. I volunteered several nights, to stand guard at dangerous points, where I was fearful that we should lose our stock, unless well guarded, while grazing on the bluffs at night. We saw but a few Indians, as they keep concealed from the emigrants, altho’ they stole a good deal of stock.

We arrived at the Willow Springs, 20 miles from the Sink, on the 19th of July. We went on to the Willow Meadows and made hay for crossing the Desert. We stayed two days and made about 800 lbs of hay. Leaving one of our horses to recruit 4 weeks and then to be brought through, we started on the 22d at sun down across the Desert. We travelled all night and camped at 10 o’clock the next morning at a salt spring. At 5 P.M., we struck tent and travelled until sunrise the next day, when we arrived at Carson River, a distance of 40 miles, 15 miles being very deep sand next to the river. We had plenty of water for ourselves and most enough for our horses, while many others suffered very much. We counted 160 dead horses and found wagons left too numerous to count, upon the Desert. Our stock stood it well. — Homer J. Austin

² The Devil’s Gate was a major landmark on the California Trail about one day’s travel west of Independence Rock. The “Gate” is a deep canyon 370 feet deep and 1500 feet long carved by the Sweetwater River.

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