1854: William T. J. Harris to Margaret Sheets

A California Gold Miner

A California Gold Miner

Unfortunately the envelope to this letter is missing which severely limits our ability to identify the correspondents. The author’s name is William T. J. Harris. The T. J. may have stood for Thomas Jefferson as many parents during that period named their children after US Presidents. Most likely he was born about 1825 +5 years and he came to California during the gold rush years — probably in 1853. From the letter we know that he came to California with another person named Harrison who later resided in Sacramento. Harris, we learn, has formed a company with three others to mine in an area of Nevada County named French Corral.

Harris wrote the letter to Margaret Sheets [or Sheetz] who was the daughter of William Sheets (1799-1892) and Sarah Ann Wiggins (1802-1872) of Des Moines, Iowa. Margaret (1824-18xx) appears in the 1856 Iowa State Census residing in her parents household with her brothers, Bassel Sheets (1826-1858), Thomas Sheets (1837-1871), and Isaac Sheets (1843-1909). On-line genealogy records reveal that she had another brother named Joseph E. Sheets (1831-1900). Before relocating to Iowa, the Sheets family resided in Allegany County, Maryland where William kept an Inn. The following biography reveals that they lived in Frostburg, Allegany County, Maryland.

William Sheetz was born in Washington County, Maryland. His father removed to what afterwards became Frostburg when the former was a child. William was raised here on a farm and also learned tanning, which was the family trade. He also had experiences on ‘The Stage-Box’ as well as teamster on the National Road. He drifted into hotel keeping when in mature life. He kept an Inn on Negro Mountain [near the summit] where it is fearfully bleak and cold in the winter but most charming in the summer on account of its bracing atmosphere and its magnificent and far-reaching view. No better place for hay-fever sufferers. It was the drover’s retreat. How the ‘cow-boys’ and ‘pig pelters’ would pelt their halting animals to reach this favorite resort; and well they might, for they were always well cared for and fed of the best, and not allowed too much cheap whiskey. (By ‘cheap’ is meant cheap in price not quality.) Sheetz was remarkable for his quiet and gentlemanly demeanor. Indeed he was an oldtime Maryland gentleman. He kept up the business with an adjoining farm until the road and its traffic went down. In the spring of 1855 he removed to Iowa with his grown family.” [Source: p. 124 “Brown’s Miscellanies”]

Since this letter was written in 1854 and the Sheets family did not relocate to Iowa until 1855, it seems evident that Harris’ parents continued to reside in the vicinity of Frostburg, Maryland, though I could not find a Harris family enumerated there in the 1850 Census. Harris may have gone to California on the overland route as he mentions leaving his trunk and tool chest in Illinois.

The relationship between Harris and Sheets is unclear. Nothing in the letter indicates they are relatives, nor does it seem they are sweethearts though they were certainly neighbors and exchanged tokens of remembrance. In this letter, Harris has sent Margaret a two-bit (quarter dollar) gold coin to remember him; he secured and concealed the coin beneath the blob of sealing wax he circled on the last page. Since there is no extant envelope, and because it contained a gold coin, perhaps the letter was hand carried back to the east coast by a trusted friend.

William was marginally literate. His writing is poor and a little hard to decipher so I have corrected the spelling in this transcription.

TRANSCRIPTION

French Corral, California ¹
Nevada County
November 16, 1854

Dear Margaret,

Once more I take my pen to write those few lines to let you know that I am well and do hope that those few lines may find you and all the rest of the family enjoying the same blessing. I received 2 letters from you and you can’t imagine what pleasure it afforded me. I perused them over and over until I wore them out. One of them was dated the 24 of August and the other July 29. I got them both at one time. I got them on Sunday. I was driving the team to the river. The teamster would not go and I had to go and I had no time to read them that day. It was a hard road to drive. The mountains is higher than any mountains that you ever saw.

I read the piece that you sent me and wished me to read and give my opinion. Well I can soon give my opinion. First, I think it was written by a woman that had a bad husband or else she wanted to be boss. I am very sorry to hear of the death of George Brau. You were right about the spell[ing of] Navadia [Nevada]. It is Nevada City, Nevada County.

I have commenced working in my claim. It will cost me about 6 hundred dollars to get in there but when I get in, I think I can do well. And if not, it will be bad enough for me. It will break me and a man is in a bad fix in this country. I have to pay a hundred dollars for the right-away through other claims. The company that I am in has to pay the same that I do. There is 4 of us in company. We will get in our ground again the first of March and then I think we can make money. The ground has paid 10 dollars per day to the hand and the men worked to every poor advantage. We are cutting the ground 7 feet deeper. We have to cut through a solid rock. We have to blast them.

I am very sorry to hear that my horse is gone for I thought a great deal of him. It may be that I can find him again.

I would like to know what that was that you blotted out in your letter. I could make a little of it out. You said you was not very well pleased — it was something about a gentleman that told something about me. I should like to know what it was and who it was but I don’t care for any of them. They may say what they please about me. I thought when I was so far away that they would let me alone, but they can’t. Well, Margaret, while they are talking about me, they are talking about no other person. Well if any person acts mad at me for what other people tell about me, will have to get in a good yawner again for I am a long ways from home — far from my native country and amongst strangers.

I received a letter from Basse since I got yours and one from Harrison in Illinois where I left my trunk and tool chest. He says that his brother that came to this country with me is in Sacramento. He has an express route from the city to Georgetown. That is south from the city, I think. That is a very poor business. Boarding is 10 dollars per week here.

A Two-bit Gold Coin

A Two-bit Gold Coin

It is getting late and I must bring my letter to a close. I want you to give my love to all the family. Tell Papa and Mother what I am doing and that I would like to be with them again. Give my love to Thomas and Joseph Eli. I have never got a letter from either of them. I send you a two-bit piece and want you to keep it in remembrance of me. I have the book marks you gave me and a picture. I have them here. So nothing more at this time, But ever remains, yours most truly, — William T. J. Harris

Direct to Nevada City. Write soon.

A gold piece under this seal. Give my love to Bassel, Isaac, Sis, and Julie.

¹ French Corral is an unincorporated community in Nevada County, California, 5 miles off State Route 49 via Pleasant Valley Road, and 9 miles northwest of Nevada City. It was one of the first of several historic California gold rush mining camps along the San Juan Ridge. The name was literal as the town grew around a mule corral built by the first settler in the area, a Frenchman, in 1849. Rich placer deposits were discovered in the French Corral area around 1851 or 1852 but the gold deposits there were scattered haphazardly along an ancient river channel which made placer mining methods used by the early miners such as panning or sluicing ineffective.


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