My Dear Father – I am off for California…

The best part of being an archivist are the human stories you discover.  Going through boxes of correspondence, I recently came across a series of letters from the Harvey family that was donated to the Society by Dora Harvey Devlin.  One letter from 1849 was written by Edward Harvey to his daughter Mary.  Edward Harvey was an Irish Quaker who settled in Merion.


In his letter he copied a letter from his son, Richard, a doctor, written from St. Joseph, Missouri.  I’ve updated the punctuation to make it a little easier to read.

“My Dear Father –

I am off for California, I have determined to go when gold is said to be plenty.  It costs me nothing to go, so shall not lose much if I failed.  Your last spoke something like a wish to come west – would to Heaven that you had done so long ago, then I should have remained, but as regards me the news came too late.  I have begged and pleaded for years, but of no avail.  I am sorry for it.  If I have luck I should return in 2 years.  If no luck, why I should be back soon as possible.  Write to me at St. Francisco [sic].  I am in a company consisting of 48 men, 14 waggons [sic] and 53 yoke of cattle and 10 Riding Horses, 12000 lbs of flour and 8000 of bacon; sugar, tea, coffee and other things in proportion.  Everyman a rifle, [illegible] and Bowie knife.  God bless you all dear father – farewell

Your aff. son

Rich’d J. Harvey


Edward goes on to say that he had received another letter from Richard, written 70 miles west of St. Joseph and all in the company were in good health.

Sadly, a later letter tells us what happened to Richard.  In a June 19, 1850 letter written by Richard’s wife, Margaret writes that she has received a letter from a Mrs. Smith of the Prairieville Company.  “She confirmed our worst fears,” she writes. She goes one to transcribe Mrs. Smith’s letter.  Here is the pertinent part:

“The company travelled on together as they left P[rairieville]* till they got to Fort Laramie then they had a division of property and separated as a company.  They took the northern route leaving Fort Hall 60 miles north.  Mr. B[arnett] saw Dr. H[arvey] several times after, and then last time he saw him was west of the Sierra Nevada Mountains some 20 miles at Big Goose Lake.  He was then complaining with scurvy and diarrhea but able to walk and tolerably stout.”

Unfortunately, Mrs. Smith goes on to report that Dr. Harvey died on November 25, 1849 at Lawson’s Ranch, California.  The new widow writes, “that the dear one had all the attention that human hands could administer is to me inexpressibly comforting.”


Dr. Harvey’s sad story is a reminder of how precarious life was in the nineteenth century and how modern transportation and communication has changed our world considerably.

*I haven’t been able to figure out which Prairieville this was.



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