Monday, November 25, 2013

Land Ho! — The Gold Rush voyage of Henry Weld Severance

"Barque" by Thomas Somerscales (detail)
Presented to the Club on Monday Evening, November 18, 2013 by Charles F. Sawyer

It is December 31, 1848. A young man of 19 from Augusta, Maine boards a sailing ship in Boston Harbor, bound for San Francisco, some 10,000 miles away. He is among 25,000 who will take that treacherous journey around Cape Horn in 1849. Between 1848 and 1850, San Francisco grows from a sleepy little town of 1,000 to a bustling city of 35,000. By 1852, California's non-native population increases from 14,000 to 250,000.

This great migration is, of course, occasioned by the discovery of gold at John Sutter's saw mill on the south fork of the American River. The young man from Augusta is my great -grandfather, Henry Weld Severance, who, in his own words, was "leaving all most near and dear, to seek a fortune among strangers in a distant land." He kept a journal of that journey, which I recently discovered among some family papers. I found the journal fascinating, even beyond the fact that this was my great -grandfather speaking. It provides a look into a very different time, when The world, and especially America, were young and expansionist. When self reliance and self improvement were critically important. When colonialism and the idea of manifest destiny were redefining political and geographic lines.
So my paper this evening will be to join Henry on his 10,000-mile adventure on the high seas.

He begins.
To you, my dear parents, I now dedicate my journal, and although its various incidents may not be so interesting, as while detailing them gives me the hope that they will be, still I know that wherever I am, you feel interested in my welfare, and especially so at the present time. There may be trifling scenes connected with the voyage, which you will probably ascribe to me folly in detailing them, but still, any occurrence, however minute, seems to me worthy of note. Our voyage thus far has not been entirely monotonous, but some parts deeply fraught with peril, aye with danger from which we knew we could not escape, without the aid and guidance of him whose home is on the mountain wave, whose eye o'er spreads the deep.