Another Look at the Westward Migration

Life can be hard. Life was very hard for many of our ancestors. Last week, I was reminded of this reality when I came across an eighty-page manuscript consisting of transcribed letters between Henry Beers Underhill (1821-1904); an early settler of Stockton, California; his first wife, Harriette Young Fish Underhill (1827-1854); and other family members.

“The Isthmus of Panama at the Height of the Chagres River,” by Charles Christian Nahl (1850).

An 1845 graduate of Amherst College, Underhill was born in Troy, New York, to a Hudson River boat captain and his wife. Two years after graduation, he married Harriette Young Fish. Underhill spent the first eight years of his professional life teaching school, mostly in Mississippi. Disillusioned with life as a teacher, he decided in 1854 to seek his fortune in California in partnership with his brother, James W. Underhill (1818-1876), who had already made his mark as a Stockton businessman.

Underhill arrived in San Francisco in the spring of that year, having traveled through the Isthmus of Panama. He left behind in Saint Louis his wife, who died of cholera shortly after his arrival in California, and two small children, Anna Fish Underhill (1849-1943) and Henry Beers Underhill, Jr. (b. 1851).

At the core of this collection is a series of heartwrenching letters written in 1854 between Underhill and his wife. Underhill took pains to chronicle his journey westward, traveling first down the Mississippi, then sailing across the Caribbean to Jamaica and Panama. In the final stage, he headed northward up the Central and North American coasts to San Francisco. The anguish of separation from his wife and two small children was always close to the surface.

Meanwhile, Harriette waited at home with her children, adult sister, and aged father, plagued with uncertainty, loneliness, and rotting teeth. The feelings expressed in her letters can still be felt more than 150 years later. "My dearest one how I wish I could know where you are this dreary night," she wrote on March 24. "I hear from you so seldom that it makes me feel almost heartsick," she continued. "If it pleases God to permit us to meet again then I will tell you of my heartaches, of the bitter tears I shed for you and of my sighs and groans."

The letters don't tell us when or how Underhill learned of his wife's death. However, we do know from other sources that he eventually sent for his two children, who joined him after traveling to California via Cape Horn. Later in life, Underhill married again (twice!), was admitted to the California Bar, and held positions as a San Joaquin County district attorney and judge, and as a lawyer for the Central Pacific and Southern Railroads.

Sometimes I marvel at the intriguing surprises I come across in the Museum's archives. The Underhill Family Collection is one of them. Not only does it paint a picture of real, multidimensional people with joys, pains, and aspirations similar to ours, it also informs us in vivid detail that the westward migration followed many different routes and that the cost in human lives and emotions could often be high.

Researchers are welcome to view the letters by appointment, which can be made by contacting me at the following e-mail address: leighjohnsen@sanjoaquinhistory.org.

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