Letters From Gold Rush Days Tell Grandfather's Quest to Make His Fortune

To make his fortune, man risked everything to cross the country during the Gold Rush days.

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Anna Ryan Greenwell of Lakenan, Missouri, has a packet of 13 letters over a century old written by her grandfather, Alden Rice Grout, as he made his way across the plains to California during the Gold Rush days and labored there hoping to make his fortune. The letters were written on thin blue and white paper. When the writer had covered the pages, he turned to the margins and filled them with last-minute thoughts. One space in the center was left for the address, and the page was sealed with a dab of sealing wax. Here are excerpts from the letters:

"Richmond, Mo., April 22, 1849 – If practicable, I wish to go on to California as I have been foolish enough to start, and try to be paid for some of the trouble and anxiety I have already felt by leaving a pleasant home for the miserable life I am now enduring."

There was a disagreement among the leaders of the 32-wagon train. At Ft. Laramie, Wyoming, Mr. Grout and seven other men broke away to form their own company. He wrote: "The captain, as good and clever a man as ever lived, wished to please all; the consequence was nobody was pleased."

Estimating that they had passed 1,000 dead oxen in 150 miles of alkali plains along with deserted wagons, tools and clothing, he says: "I can think of nothing I ever read to compare with it except Bonaparte's excursion to Russia."

The company arrived at the diggings near Sacramento on Sept. 16, 1849. Mr. Grout's letters soon were filled with admonitions to his friends in Missouri to remain there. There were days when he dug $200 worth of gold from the hills, but these days were preceded by weeks of labor that netted nothing. To a friend asking his advice about making the trip, he wrote: "I doubt not but you almost weekly hear of this one and that of having taken out his pounds and pounds of gold. But do you hear of the one thousand and one that have died, or are lying sick, unable to labor for their bread and not any means to buy it with?"

The fantastic prices took their share of his hard-earned gold. At one time he wrote of flour being $2 a pound; onions, $1.50; potatoes, $1. Hay was $10 for 100 pounds, and cornmeal $25 a barrel.

In all his letters, Mr. Grout begged for word from home. His wife wrote, but it was May 29, 1850, more than a year after he left home, before he received his first letter. It had been sent east to New York and by steamer around South America.

The last letter in the packet informs his wife he will leave for home in December 1850. He had found gold, but not enough to keep him in the treacherous golden land. There was much, he discovered, that gold could not buy – the love of wife and children, peace of mind, a little comfort, such a small thing as a table on which to write.

"I have been reading this letter over," he laments, "and confess it goes a good deal like riding in a lumber wagon over frozen roads."

Mrs. Robert G. Lanham
Monroe City, Missouri


Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.