Four travelers from East and West.
Four travelers to California.
Two brought as children, one drawn by gold, one taken in arranged marriage.
Generations pass, and their offspring fall in love.
Four travelers converge in one American family.
This story was originally published Nov. 18, 2010.
BY ROBERT DIGITALE
A 49er learns hardship. While crossing the desert we faced scorching sun and a lack of water. And after we finally arrived in the diggings, I found so little gold during those first months. In those scrub-brush canyons you had to dig down six to 10 feet in the hardest kind of digging you can imagine and then bale 100 to 1,000 pails of water. I worked so hard until I could hardly stand the pain in my right breast. I spent a miserable day that first October sick and lame and in debt and my partner discouraged, too. We began to wonder why we ever had come to California.
But I left behind a wife and children in Illinois, and that woman experienced a different kind of hardship. It was easy for me to take stock of my own toil and troubles. But perhaps I found it harder to consider her woes.
You must understand that I often thought of Sybil, my second wife. We had been wed six years when I left for California. I had a boy and girl by my first wife, Amanda, who died in 1841. Sybil and I had two more children, a girl and a boy.
We knew beforehand that it would take months for me to travel by wagon to California, and I would need more months to dig for gold. Even so, I’m not sure we realized how hard it would be for her to spend so many months worrying whether I was dead or alive. And it didn’t seem to comfort her much even when at last she did hear from me.
I wrote her in September 1850 soon after reaching Georgetown amid the gold fields of California. (The town sits some miles north of Hangtown, which I hear now goes by the more-refined name of Placerville.) Would you believe it took almost five months for my letter to get to Illinois? So Sybil went 10 months without hearing a word from me.
“I had almost given up having a letter from you,” she wrote back to me in a March letter.
That was just one of the hard parts of her letter. She wrote that at night “I must water my pillow with my tears.” And she told me “there is not a day goes over but what I lament the decision we made when the question was asked, ‘Shall you go?’”
Of course, she had to hold our home together while I sought out the gold. She wrote me that she had suffered poor health and run in debt on the farm. “How I wish I could tell you how we have lived since you left but I cannot. If you and I live to meet in this world, you will get some outlines. We have borne all without saying anything. I would not have the neighbors know all for the world.”
In the days when she was writing her letter, she received a second letter of mine that I had sent her in December. At least she acknowledged that getting a second letter “seems better” than the months when she was looking for a letter in every mail and none arrived.
Well, I could comprehend some of that feeling. I had been gone a whole year and only received one letter from home. But I was the man and the one who had gone forth to provide for my family. Now that I was in California, that was all I could do. So I dug and I washed thousands of buckets and a few months later I sent home to her $150. Now you may not know the value of a dollar. But in those days the amount I sent home was close to a year’s worth of wages for a farmhand. And that was just a portion of the gold that I would bring back from California.
You might call it Providential that I ever learned of Sybil Pike’s hardships while her husband was gone in the Gold Rush. Here is how it came about: My mom’s youngest brother, Wesley Wise, had preserved a large batch of old family letters and he decided to give one each to the many descendants of the Wise and Pike clan. For his selection process, my uncle drew lots. Thus, my name was matched to the March 1851 letter of Sybil Pike, who technically is my step-great-great-grandmother. Joseph Pike had carried back this letter with him from the gold fields to Illinois.
The letter remains a testament to the women who held things together while their men went off to California on the adventure of a lifetime. And when the men never returned, that must have been one more hardship for those women to endure.
This is the 11th vignette in the saga of an American family.
The main characters of “American Risotto” are:
Carol – Robert’s girlfriend
Joseph Pike – Robert’s great-great-grandfather
John Digitale – Robert’s grandfather
Kwong Check Fee/Franklin Fongson – Carol’s father
Ng Sau Ping/Elaine Fongson – Carol’s mother
To learn more, go to the “American Risotto” page.