1854: John Buck to John Thompson Siler

This interesting letter was written by John Buck (1830-18xx). From the letter we learn that he lived for a time (early 1850’s) in Morgan County, West Virginia — probably in Bath or near Berkeley Springs. This letter describes his journey to Keokuk, Lee County, Iowa, where he has taken a job teaching a select school in Keosauqua, some 40 miles northwest of Keokuk up the Des Moines River. Though he talks of moving on to California, census records suggest that he married and stayed in Keokuk until at least 1860. A John Buck & wife (Mary) are residing in Ward 1 of that city in 1860, birthplaces “unknown.” John’s occupation in given as “S. B. Man.”

Buck wrote the letter his his friend, John Thompson Siler (1826-1908), the son of John Siler (1783-1847) and Susannah Thompson (1785-1863). From before 1860 until after 1880 he was a dry goods merchant having his own store in Bath, Morgan County. By 1900 he was a bank president in Bath and also served as an officer of the Berkeley Springs resort. He was married to Caroline Amanda Hammond (1824-1893), the daughter of Thomas Hammond, Sr. and Mary Crumbacker of Ann Arundel County, Maryland.

1854 Letter

1854 Letter

Addressed to J. T. Siler, Esqr., Berkeley Springs, Virginia

Keosauqua, Iowa
February 27th 1854

Dear namesake,

I scarcely know how to apologize for delaying to write to you till this time. When a fellow gets off into the world — as we may say — he gets into a sort of excitement and his attention is attracted first to one thing and then another and as it were is kept continually engaged, and in a great measure drawn off from things he ought to do.

You know before now my whereabouts; well how did I get here? I got here easy enough. After trying Western Va. to my satisfaction, I conceived a strong desire to see the great and glorious West. I therefore settled up, bid all hands good-bye, shed a few tears, and embarked on Elk River in a canoe, & after a voyage of two days and half, landed safely in Charleston where I felt pretty much like a gentleman, after a hard summer’s work.

From Charleston I took passage on a steam boat to Cincinnati and had a fine time. Landed in Cincinnati on Sunday morning and walked up to the Black Bear and there I saw an old friend — William Hunter, Jr. ¹ — at his old trade dealing out headache drops with might and main, and so busily was he engaged that he did not see me till I walked up and spoke to him. We made a good use of the time as circumstances would allow talking over old times &c. &c. He seems to be very well satisfied with his situation & was in good spirits, altho’ he says he is kept very busy and has but very little leisure time. After being very comfortably entertained at the Black Bear by my old chum till the next day, I started for St. Louis.

You can hardly imagine the pleasures of steam traveling. You have nothing to do but to make yourself happy. The living is as good as Col. [John] Strother ² dare get up for his boarders and you have any quantity of newspapers and novels, cards, chess, backgammon &c., besides singing, music, and a ball at night. I rather guess you would laugh to see some of the verdant ones going through the cotillion. After all we had a sermon preached to us on Sunday so we were not ay a loss for the consolations of religion in case of accident.

We landed at St. Louis on Sunday afternoon and about a dozen of us off of the steamboat took passage on another for Keokuk, Iowa, and landed there on Tuesday morning about one o’clock. Keokuk is a thriving town on the Mississippi a short distance above the mouth of the Des Moines [River] & contains a population of four or five thousand. I spent a week there pretty tolerably rich. The weather was fine and I fell in with some fellows who thought themselves pretty much sportsman. Of course to keep up appearances, I had to shoulder up an old double barrel and take a turn with them in the fields. We soon started a flock of partridges. I fired away wit the rest and to my utter surprise the partridges fell. After that they considered me an accomplished sportsman, but I didn’t tell them that was the first bird I ever killed on the wing. But afterwards I found it was not so hard to kill a bird on the wing as I had imagined.

John, if you were out here along the Mississippi you would not have to run your legs off to find game. It may surprise you to tell you we reckoned wild geese by the acre while coming up the Mississippi. So many acres at this sand bar & so many at that. Besides ducks, swans, pelicans, cormorants, &c., and the country is alive with partridges, prairie chickens, pheasants, wild turkeys, rabbits, &c.

This is a fine country — as rich as Egypt, climate delightful, girls beautiful, and their mamas clever. This country is far ahead of Morgan [County]. You can see fine brick buildings scattered over the prairies in every direction and the villages are from four to six miles apart & contain a population of from three hundred to fifteen hundred and then you must remember the first settlements were made here about 18 years ago but there is abundance of government land in this state yet — further back, but will not be very long.

I am teaching school this winter. It goes tolerably well but is not very profitable. It is out next week and then I think I shall go into a land speculation or go to California.

Please let me hear from you soon and give me all the news of Bath and vicinity, who the candidates are for sheriff &c.

I remain yours as ever, — John Buck

Street Map of Cincinnati in 1854 showing the area near 9th & Sycamore where the Bear Tavern was located on SW corner.

Street Map of Cincinnati in 1854 showing the area near 9th & Sycamore where the Black Bear Tavern was located on SW corner.

¹ The 1853 Cincinnati City Directory has a William Hunter listed as a barkeeper at the S.W. corner of 9th & Sycamore Streets. I can only assume that Buck’s reference to Hunter’s “dealing out headache drops” means serving liquor at the Black Bear Tavern. The 1850 City Directory confirms the location of the tavern at that address and lists J. C. & S. B. Murphy as the proprietors. The SW corner of 9th & Sycamore is a parking lot today.

² Buck is referring to the 500-room Pavilion Hotel (later Berkeley Hote)l built prior to 1846 by Col. John Strother in Berkeley Springs — a popular resort for guests from Virginia and Baltimore. Here, guests could enjoy drink and bath cures using the warm mineral waters; baths were taken at cool and artifically heated temperatures. Ills ranging from rheumatism, and skin afflictions to digestive and nervous disorders were said to benefit.

One response to “1854: John Buck to John Thompson Siler

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you for posting this! I am a ggg(g)-granddaughter of J.C. Murphy and S.B. Murphy and just found out about the Black Bear Tavern from their 1850 census listing… well, at least there were happy customers at the time!

    I have 19th- century ancestors who lived in many industrial cities in the Midwest: Dayton, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit… I look up their addresses in Google Earth, and over half the time they’re parking lots now, or under interstates.

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