Day 142 - June 13, 1849

On the Water - Gold Rush Day 5


Based on the careful examination of Van Valen’s journal and supporting primary sources:

  1. How long had Van Valen been away when Susan’s letter was written?
  2. How did Susan and Van Valen feel about being separated?
  3. What was Susan doing to help with the family’s expenses while Van Valen was away?
  4. What was happening in New York City that made Susan plan to go to Poughkeepsie (Upstate New York)?


Van Valen’s Journal Entry

Wednesday June 13th 1849.
Clear. light wind from the west, Lat 20° 07' South Long 91° 08' West.

Sounds at Sea

The weary Sea is
tranquil, and the breese
Hath sunk to Sleep on its slow heaving breast,
All sounds have passed away, save such as please
The ear of night. who loves that music best,
The din of day would drown the wondrous Song
To whose sweet notes the mingled charms belong
Of Sadness linked to joy. the Breakers Small
(Like pebbled rills) that round the vessels bow
A dreamlike murmur make. the Splash and fall
of waters crisp as rolling calm and slow
She loves alternately her shining sides.
The flap of Sails, that like white garments vast
So idly hang on each gigantic mast.
The regular tread of him whose skill presides
O’er the night-watch, and whose brief fitful words
The ready Helmsman echoes, these low Sounds
are all that break the stillness that surrounds
Our lonely dwelling on the dusky main.
But yet the visionary soul is stirred
While Fancy hears full many a far off Strain
Float o’er the conscious Sea. the scene and hour
Control the Spirit with mysterious power
And wild unuttenable thoughts arise
That makes us yearn to pierce the starry skies

Primary Sources

Letter from Susan Van Valen to her husband June 13, 1849

Communication between persons on the East and West Coasts in 1850 was extremely slow, and very unreliable. It took months for letters to travel from New York or Boston all the way out to California via sea or land. It was common for people to actually send off several copies of each letter, to make sure that at least one reached its destination. In this letter, Susan confesses her loneliness and talks about her health and that of her two sets of twin toddler girls, whom Alex left behind for the California gold fields.

New York June 13th 1849

My Dear Husband

You cannot imagine how happy I was to receive a letter from you. O how anxiously have I watched for it. It was a long time to be separated from my dearest friend and not hear any tidings of you I received your letter on the 9th of this month dated March 24th but have not received the note you send previous to that. I was very happy to hear that you had not been sick since you left, but am sorry to hear that your provision has been so poor. I am afraid that you really suffered for the neccessaries of life, and fear you will yet have to encounter many hardships. O if it were so that I could only be with you to prepare your food to share with you your trials and difficulties, I feel as if I would be willing to endure any hardship if I could add to your comfort. Dearest Alex do not imagine for a moment that I charge you with neglect in not returning home on that memorable Sunday in which you left, never shall I forget that day. when you left the house I thought my heart would break. I felt as if the only friend I had in the world had gone. I tried to hide my feelings from you, that you should not see how unhappy I felt. the children would say to me Ma dont cry Pa will soon come back he has gone to buy gold to buy us a sight of things. when Mr. Tower returned about 11 O Clock he said you had not gone but was expecting to go every moment and did not think the captain would be willing to have you leave the vessel even if you should not get off that day.

I did not hear from you until Kerr returned and said he has seen you off. He gave the Cakes you sent to the Children they said they was California Cakes and that I had given them to you. O how often through that day did I wish that you could come but I did not censure you in the least. You who was always so kind to me, I was one of the happiest beings while blessed with your society O heaven grant that we may yet be spared to enjoy each others society for many years, and never again to be separated while life remains. I feel very lonely without you at times blame myself for not urging you to remain at home, again I feel as if that would not be fulfilling my duty you knew what was for the best....

I have enjoyed excellent health since you left the children have been well with the exception of colds. I moved from Stuyvesant Street the first of May Kerr assisted me in moving I am now living at 45 Perry Street I have a room Bedroom and Kitchen on the second floor at $75 a year. I have had as much sewing as I could do, have drawn 70 dollars to pay my rent the quarter in Stuyvesany Street and until the first of August where I am now living, as if nothing happens to prevent I intend going to Poughkeepsie this week and then to Albany County and will remain all summer as I think it will be much healthier for the children. there was 36 cases of Cholera yesterday and 11 deaths. The little creatures talk of you every day when I show them your likeness they say that is Pa but I want to see my other Pa. everything you ever told them to do they seem to remember. I do not think they will forget you unless you should again let your beard grow, then I am afraid I would not know you. I dream of you often but I am always in trouble as it seems as if you was Just leaving home, or have returned without success according to the old saying always take dreams the contrary therefore you will meet with good success. we do not hear much from the gold regions but shall soon expect to hear from you may all that we have heard prove true and may you meet with the success you anticipated....

affectionate wife
Susan M Van Valen

Susan Van Valen (1823-1853)

Born in Poughkeepsie, NY, Susan was married in 1844 to Alex Van Valen at the age of 20. A year later, the couple had their first set of twin girls. The couple had another set of twin girls in 1846, less than two years before Alex left New York for a two-year trip to the California gold rush. Susan gave birth to two more girls in 1851 and 1853. She died less than three weeks after the birth of her sixth child, just a few days after her 30th birthday. It is not known when this portrait was created, but it appears to have been closer to her 30th birthday rather than before Alex left for California.