This fascinating letter, dated 1837, was written by Martin Gardner, an Irish laborer on the Arkansas State House in Little Rock which was in a state of construction between 1833 and 1842. ¹ Martin says that he journeyed to Little Rock by steamboat from “Madison” which was probably Madison, Indiana — a thriving port town on the Ohio River downstream of Cincinnati.
Perhaps Garnder came with other carpenters recruited by the Arkansas Commissioner of Public Buildings, Elijah E. More, who had recently returned from Cincinnati (see footnotes).
Tracing the identity of Martin Gardner and his father, Joseph Gardner, of Baltimore, Maryland, has been difficult. The cover suggests that Joseph Gardner was “keeper” of the Franklin Street Inn but I could find no Inn on Franklin Street in the 1837 Baltimore City Directory. That same directory lists a Joseph Gardner (born about 1796), emigrant from Ireland, who kept a second hand furniture store on the corner of French and Potter Streets. This Joseph Gardner came to the United States in the 1820s and was naturalized as a citizen in 1836. The 1850 Census enumerates Joseph in Baltimore as gives his occupation as proprietor of a “second hand store.”
The 1837 Baltimore City Directory gives Peter Kraft as a carpenter with a residence on Rose Street north of Biddle. I believe Peter was married to Martin sister, Nancy.
Addressed to Mr. Joseph Gardner, Baltimore, Franklin Street Inn Keeper
Little Rock, Pulaski County, State of Arkansas
November 5th 1837
Dear Beloved Parents,
Once again after the absence of three months from thee and also another move of twelve hundred miles from thee, I feel myself happy that I can inform you that I am at present [well] but I had been, for the three last weeks that I was in Madison, very unwell. But I lost only a half a day’s work. I still was not well when we were ready to start here but I still was not afraid to start for I conceded traveling would agree with me for [traveling] in a steamboat is as pleasant as in a parlor of a house. I was the first week on the boat unwell but I commenced mending from that [time] on and got perfectly well when I got here, and I hope these few lines may find one and all of you the same.
We left Madison on the 14th of October and we expected to get here in 7 days but the water was low and we did not get here for 16 days from the time we left Madison which was the 30th when we got here. There is 8 of us hands and expect some more on this week. This is a large building and will take a great deal of work. It will take us about 18 months or two years to finish it. I may stay here until the building is finished if I have health here.
The climate here is much warmer here than in Baltimore, but it is not as warm as the South. It appears to be a healthy place. The Arkansas River passes here and runs up from here a great ways. There is a great deal of trade done on it. The Indians’ settlement is about one hundred and fifty [miles] from here. There is some here in this neighborhood but they are peaceable. I had intended to go to the South of this, but as those two men wanted me to go with them, I consented as it is healthier and the money better. The bank here is a state bank. Silver is not much in circulation but according to law, they have to redeem in specie in course of six or eight months.
I suppose you wish to know what I am getting a month. I am getting $50 dollars a month and boarded and expect to do some better after while. Yet it is as much more as I made in Madison. Work is plenty in this place. The next time I write to you I will give you a full statement of this State House we are at work [on].
This is a very wild looking town but is coming on fast. It will be a great place in course of time. The land around this place is very poor, but they say that the land some distance from town is good.
You perhaps would like to know what it costs to travel twelve hundred miles on water. It cost me $25 to travel it to go cabin passage. To go deck passage, it would only be half, but you must board yourself. Ask Mr. Kraft and he can explain it to you. I am fond of traveling for it [is] a great chance for to see the country. This is a great place for hunting and fishing. There [are] deer here, also bear, wolf, raccoon, turkey, geese, & if you or any other person wishes to know everything about this country, mention it in your letter and please to [write] as soon as you get this letter. I wish you to give this to brother Kraft & sister Nancy to read, and my love to you all. No more at present. I remain your humble son, — Martin Gardner
¹ The Legislative branches of government met in the central portion of the Arkansas State House, which was largely completed and first used in 1836, while construction of the west wing for the executive branch, and the east wing for the judicial branch, continued from 1837 until 1842.
A report by the Commissioner of Public Buildings (Elijah A. More) published in the Arkansas Gazette on 14 November, 1837, states that he had just returned from Louisville and Cincinnati where he had procured the necessary materials to finish the state house and other public buildings in Little Rock. He also states that he had made contracts with mechanics for completing the public buildings. “The carpenters, being first needed, are…already here, making preparations to commence the work…” he reported. The contract called for the delivery “of all the lumber in the State-house square by the 15th day of October.” This requirement was not met, though a sufficient quantity was on hand by that date to resume construction and to make some repairs to the roof of the legislative chamber due to the shrinkage of some roof timbers.