Three things struck me from this section of William Swain’s account of his journey to the California gold fields in 1849. The World Rushed In by J.S. Holiday compiled from the letters William Swain and his family exchanged, augmented with sections for the letters of other 49’ers to fill out the story.
The firs thing that struck me this chaptert is how important it was to keep the Sabbath. The men heading west in 1849, joined together in large teams of 50 to 100 for the overland trip across the plains. They wrote out contracts which they all signed, describing who was responsible for what, how much each had to contribute to the wagon team, what the behavior codes would be while on the trail and how they would observe the Sabbath. I’m using such an old-fashioned term because that is the term they used.
The Sabbath was such an important issue, that some groups failed to make it intact to California when members failed to observe it.
Before leaving, dedicating one day a week to rest and worship sounds like a good idea. It’s what these men were used to back home, there were plenty of preachers among them, so why would it be a problem. Once they were on the trail, they found out just how much work there was to do and just how rare it was to find yourself at a good stopping point when the Sabbath rolled around. Some groups decided to declare a day the Sabbath whenever they found themselves camping on a good piece of pasture ground. They might have their Sabbath on Thursday or Tuesday or Sunday, depending on the available grass and water.
William Swain’s group contained two preachers, but both were flexible about the Sabbath rules. His group did stop on the Sabbath, but their work did not. Instead, while each preacher gave their sermon’s in turn, the men would continue with their work, repairing their clothes, for example, while they listened. When hymn were sung, all of the men joined in, singing while they worked wherever they were in the campsite.
The second thing that struck me was how impressed they all were with buffalo meat. Buffalo were an exotic animal to most of the men in Swain’s group. They had never seen one, but they’d heard and read plenty about them. Each was anxious for the chance to kill one and they all sang to praises of just how good buffalo steaks were:
Oh, if I could only send this great, tender piece of tenderloin to my friends back home! Such delicious, juicy meat I have never before put under the operations of my masticating organs.
Finally, the letters from home moved me greatly this time. One thing that makes William Swain’s letters so important is that we don’t just have the ones he wrote to his family, we have the letters his family wrote to him. His wife writes to him in this section:
I assure you on one thing, and that is, if God spares you to get home again, I shall hang on to you as long as there is any of you left. However, my dear, I never have been sorry that I acted the part I did in letting you go, but I think I should act otherwise were it to be done again.
Both sides of this correspondence detail their daily lives which makes for very interesting reading, especially for those interested in this period of American history, but it’s the emotional content of the letters that make them compelling.
They are history with a heart.