Gold rush stories are great places to find drama and intrigue. The History Room at the Chicopee Library holds a series of letters that tell the fascinating story of the Gold Rush adventures of one Longmeadow resident. The letters are filled with the optimism of a young man, Gilbert Billings, ready for an adventure, and the worried warnings of his father, Lyman, left behind at home.
Gilbert Billings was born in the eastern portion of Longmeadow to Lyman and Roxanna Billings on May 17, 1831. He was 20 years old when he sailed off for California, likely inspired by stories he had heard recently of the chance to make a fortune in gold. In 1851, there was no easy land passage across the country, so he sailed from New York toward South America.
Early in his journey, on October 31, 1851, Billings wrote to his father from onboard the ship, Daniel Webster, “I did not think of writing until I arrived at San Juan De Nicaragua but all letter writing must be finished before leaving this boat in order that she take them back to New York. We sailed from New York Wednesday Oct. 22nd at 3 o'clock p.m. and my health has been good since, though I expected to be very sea sick, but thank God for my good health..."
Billings was apparently traveling with two companions whom he knew from Longmeadow, Wadsworth and Gilbert Lord, who had been sick on the voyage. Billings noted that he had paid the higher price ($100) to travel in a first-class cabin rather than steerage ($50-$75) because he hoped he would be less likely to become seasick. He felt that he would save money by purchasing steerage accommodations when he got to "the other side" - that is the Pacific Ocean. The cost of the voyage was fairly expensive, especially for a farmer’s son. The country was still recovering from the economic panic and crisis of 1837 and 1839. Using an inflation calculator, the $100 spent on the first leg of the voyage would be equivalent to approximately $3,870 in buying power in 2023.
Billings wrote of two events that surely worried his family back at home. First, he wrote that he accepted a dare to ascend the main mast of the ship and touch the brass ball on the top. He took the dare and won $10. Second, he explained that after arriving in Nicaragua and before embarking on the next leg of the journey, which required a trip up the San Juan River, the captain warned passengers of dangerous trouble ahead. He wrote, "While the passengers were preparing to leave the boat, the Captain received a letter from the Pacific side ... to the following effect: that a mob had broken out up the river and the passengers would be murdered if they ventured to go on," and the only other way to go was to go by way of Chagres in Panama, some six hundred miles below. Billings wrote that they decided that the "The mob" was "humbug."
Ultimately, news arrived that the steamship North America was on the other side ready for her passengers to San Francisco. The letter ends with Billings explaining that he along with some three hundred passengers and a “Mr. Vanderbilt”, the owner of the route and many ships, were going to leave in "the little steamboat" to travel up the San Juan River to the Lake and then cross to the Pacific Ocean.
The “Mr. Vanderbilt” that Billings was referring to was Cornelius Vanderbilt, the famous American business magnate. Many gold prospectors traveled west via Panama, crossing the isthmus on mule back. Vanderbilt had the idea of crossing Central America via Nicaragua. This route to California was several hundred miles shorter than the Panama route. He invested in the American Atlantic and Pacific Ship Canal Company. Mr. Vanderbilt's company crossed Nicaragua via the San Juan River, Lake Nicaragua, and a twelve-mile road (later to be a canal) to the Pacific. Gilbert Billings didn’t know it at the time, but by 1853 this same “Mr. Vanderbilt” would be worth an estimated $11 million for capitalizing on his preferred route of transport from New York to California.
It took just sixteen days for Gilbert Billings’ letter from Nicaragua to reach his family in Longmeadow. His father, Lyman, wrote back on November 22, 1851. He wrote of the health of family members and commented that he "ment" to tell his son before he left "about taking care of your health, that is for you to wear flannel wool shirts next to your body." He also advised his son "not to run any dangerous risks, such as climbing to the 'Brass Ball.' He went on to share advice from an acquaintance who was a sailor. He told his son about markets being "rather dull" and listed the price of turkeys and chickens. He did mention that another local young man in the gold fields had sent his father six hundred dollars:"I don't write this to you thinking of dunning you for money. I hope you will not think so." His father also heard that California is "a place for music" and wondered whether his son might make some money playing a fiddle there but cautioned, "... I do not advise you to use the fiddle unless profitable." He concluded with a remark that most parents would appreciate --"I hope any advice will be accepted."
On February 23, 1852 Billings’ sister, Beulah, and father wrote to him. Beulah wrote that she was well and working in the mill and was making $2/week. There was plenty of snow and it was good sleighing. Billings’ father let him know that he had been to the post office several times for a letter from him and, "began to think that something was the matter, you not writing." His father had heard stories of men being killed over arguments related to digging for gold. He cautioned, "I hope that you will not get into any trouble with anyone."
A year after Gilbert Billings left Longmeadow, sister Beulah wrote that their grandmother was ill, and in December 1852 his father wrote that she had died with "dysenteric symptoms." In the rest of his rather lengthy letter, Lyman shows how clearly worried he was for his son’s safety. He mentioned stories that he had heard and read about California and wrote down many of his concerns and questions for his son.
On February 6th, 1853, Billings wrote from Auburn, California, which today is the home of the Gold Rush Museum. Concerning his grandmother, he acknowledged that when he left for California, "I never expected to see her again." He continued, "She lived to a good old age, more years than I expect to see." He went on to report, "Ever since I've been mining I have made but two decent week’s work and last week was one of them. They were not much, but if I could do as well all of the time, I would not complain. Two of us took out Seventy two Dollars last week which made 36 a piece. We done about the same one week previous. The rest of the time we have made a little better than board, clothes and tools. No telling what I may happen to hit upon hereafter." He also went on to describe the relatively high prices of food, candles, and powder.
On March 9, 1853, Billings wrote to his father that he had taken "another start to better his situation if possible." On traveling from Auburn to Sacramento he ran into his cousin Horace and friend, Gilbert Lord, with whom he had set sail nearly a year and a half earlier. In a letter from Buck’s Ranch dated April 18, 1853, Billings explained that he left Marysville, California on the 8th, and was working his way toward Rush Creek. He began the trip with "some Mexicans, going with a pack train of mules loaded with provisions etc. for the same place. They are hired to take the cargo by some white men who are taking the goods to sell, and are along with us. We have had rather of a tedious time of it, stormy, bad trail, deep snow etc. We have about 30 miles of snow, crossing the high mountains between Maryville and Rush Creek."
Billings described feeling ill, having leg swelling "the same as when my leg was hurt and I have the erysiphelas [sic]." He also expected higher costs for room and board but also remarked that the weather would be better in a month and, ever hopeful, commented "if I can get a good claim, that will pay as well as it ought to for coming here" then it would be all worthwhile.
Unfortunately, the next and last letter from Billings was from San Francisco on Dec. 11, 1858 - over 5 1/2 years later. It is as if a few chapters had been torn out of this story. He informed his father that he would be returning home by steamer.
So what became of Gilbert Billings after his Gold Rush adventure? Apparently, he had enough money for the trip back to Massachusetts where he was able to purchase a farm and marry. The 28-year-old Gilbert Billings married Lucinda Richardson, 22, in February of 1860. They settled down to farm in the Chicopee area. The 1860 Federal census for Chicopee indicates that Billings’ personal estate was valued at $400. The 1860 non-population census data for Holyoke shows that he had real estate including 8 acres of improved land valued at $1300 and farming implements valued at $50. Compared to the other 59 farmers in Holyoke on the same census schedule page, his farm ranked 58th in value and the value of his equipment placed him at the bottom of the list as well. He had one horse, three "milch" cows, and one pig. He was growing Indian corn, oats, tobacco, Irish potatoes, and hay.
This all suggests that Gilbert Billings did not come back from California a wealthy man. While we learn from census records that Lucinda had one child, the child must not have lived long. Without children to assist with work on the farm, Gilbert and Lucinda were likely busy with farm chores. However, Gilbert was not too busy to devote time to town politics and he was the Chicopee town surveyor for fifteen years. He was also a genealogist and a historian. For a time he organized Billings family reunions. He also hosted well-attended husking bees - gatherings to husk corn - and dances at his barn!
Gilbert Billings died in September 1916 at age 85; His wife Lucinda died that same year. One wonders whether Gilbert ever told stories about his trip to California at grange meetings, before the start of Chicopee Town Meetings, Billings family reunions, or at husking bees.
-Contributed by Al McKee, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member, with support from Betsy McKee
The Chicopee Library Special Collections librarian provided digital images of a portion of the Billings documents including transcribed letters, deeds and genealogical information to the Longmeadow Historical Society. This story would have been difficult to produce without their generous assistance.
Want more stories of local connections to the California Gold Rush? See "Is There A Doctor In The House?" at www.longmeadowhistoricalsociety.org as well as the Pioneer Valley History Network’s work on the Pioneer Valley & the California Gold Rush at https://pioneervalleyhistorynetwork.org/project/gold-rush-stories/
“Daniel Webster (1851 steamship) at Point Isabel, Texas, March 30, 1861” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository
Jocelyn, Albert H. Government map of Nicaragua: from the latest surveys ordered by President Patricio Rivas and Genl. William Walker ; executed under the supervision of the Señor Fermín Ferrer, Governor of the Western Department. New York: A.H. Jocelyn, 1856. Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/2004629018/.
Parsons, Charles, Artist, and George Victor Cooper. Sacramento city, Ca. from the foot of J. Street, showing I., J., & K. Sts. with the Sierra Nevada in the distance / C. Parsons ; drawn Dec. 20th by G.V. Cooper ; lith. of Wm. Endicott & Co., N. York. United States Sacramento California, ca. 1850. New York: Published by Stringer & Townsend. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/93511486/.
Cooke & Lecount, Publisher. A newly constructed and improved map of the State of California: shewing the extent and boundary of the different counties according to an act passed by the Legislature April 25th,with a corrected and improved delineation of the gold region. composeds by Tassin, J. B., Cartographeriler San Francisco: Published by Cooke and Lecount, . San Francisco: Lith. by Pollard & Peregoy, 1851. Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/2018588046/.