1852: James Frain to Joseph Frain

California Prospector

This letter was written by James Frain, an englishman who was prospecting for gold near Mount Shasta in northern California during the winter of 1851-52. Frain describes his adventures in the mountains — full of risk and and agony — and tells of his numerous misfortunes before returning to San Francisco.

He wrote the letter to his brother, Joseph Frain, M.D. (1820-1904), who received his medical education at Newcastle-on-Tyne, Edinburgh and London. Joseph qualified in 1845 at the Royal College of Surgeons in England and went into practice at South Shields. He was one of the surgeons at the Ingham Infirmary in South Shields.

1852 Letter


Addressed to Mr. Joseph Frain, Surgeon, South Shields, England

San Francisco, [California]
March 14, 1852

My dear Joe,

Page 1

It is but just now that I sit down to write an answer to yours dated June 5th and that invokes a much greater sum of ____ing and spare time than I at present time can devote to it as important as it may be. I do it when and where I _____ at a place called Shasta City and but for the snow storms which set in at that time detaining me, I might probably never have seen it. At that time I had made several inexcusable attempts to effect a passage through the mountains back from where I started ___ with provisions, but it was all of no use and it was after one of my ______ that I returned and got your letter.

Mt. Shasta in northern California

I assure you dear Joe that the contents of it gave me much pleasure mingled with pain with mention of my return as somewhat essential to the welfare of the family matters. Should you ____  ___ on some plan to write that, to be candid, I do not intend to come home if I can possibly avoid it, tho’ to tell truth, my life since I left this place a twelve month ago has been a continued series of damned misfortune in which starvation and personal risk formed no inconsiderable ___tion ___ only is possible. A year ago I was in a pest of the country where four years could have not got money ___ of no use. You will perhaps think I and _____ you a twister when I saw that for three weeks I had only 2 ½ lbs. of flour to live upon. Our staple ____ of food was sugar boiled with a sort of taffy. I wrote you a few lines in J____ at that time by some of the fellows who were returning down the country before the roads were completely shut off but do not know whether ever you got it for I had determined to stay there, if possible.

Page 2

Well after withstanding all this we were obliged to take our departure to a valley about four days travel  ___ to buy corn and wine, but to kill us _____. It is useless to _____ on the trials of that four days tramp thro snow principally some fainted by the way as the saying is but I thank God we got thro and eat of venison.

Well, I still with some ____ still tramped on to a place called by the name of Scott’s River ¹ where I worked with various _____ until the summer when I went into extensive damming of ____ which did not pay and sank all my dust. I was almost about to put out and never return again but thought different and went prospecting for some time with a s______ until he at last hit upon a place which paid us pretty well. Then we determined to pack in our provisions not to be caught in the lurch again as it was coming on to winter, when here again my ill luck convened anew. First by my animals being taken by the Indians and afterwards in the ____, by getting them froze in the mountains. My dear Joe, may yours always be _____ the ______ as mine has been a rough one lately, but thank God I am quite well in a personal way. Tho’ I have in my last trip slept several nights in the snow and for two days had not a bite to eat, yet I don’t feel anything the worse for it. Mind, I don’t mean to say that such a course of treatment is salutary in its effect, but I think that people at home fancy it worse that it really is. If you can have pair of blankets, you are all right for they are next in order of importance to grub. The hardest thing for me to bear was the four mules starving by inches. I suppose there were over 300 head of mules killed in that affair.

Page 3

This heap of ____ induced me to abandon all idea of trying the mountains for a time and try the city and here I have been for the last 2 months trying to get my head above water, but to be candid, I can just barely keep my nose out. Commercial affairs are in a bad state here. Nothing doing. A great many say that the ____ will make a great change. Maybe it may but maybe it may in fact things have been so bad that it has in a great measure prevented me from ____ year to come to a point ____ is not in a great hurry to get ______. I would like to give ___ a way with a treasure or two but I can’t manage it. It is different with you — get married and God will bless you in …

Yours affectionally, — James Frain


¹ The Scott River is a 60-mile-long river in Siskiyou County, California. It is a tributary of the Klamath River, one of the largest rivers in California. The 1850 discovery of gold during the California Gold Rush by pioneer John W. Scott at Scott Bar, downriver from Scott Valley, brought many prospectors into the area; Scott’s discovery led to the naming of the valley and the river in his honor.


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