1846: Dr. Joseph Washburn Clark to Amon Hawley

Dr. Joseph W. Clark

Dr. Joseph W. Clark

This letter was written by Dr. Joseph Washburn Clark (1813-1878), the son of Abraham Clark (1780-1855) and Millicent Washburn (1784-1863). Dr. Clark graduated from Yale. He married Jane Wells Fessenden (1815-1896) in April 1842 and had at least one child by 1846 when this letter was written. He mentions the death of a sister in the distant past, which was Mary Wetmore Clark (1816-1845). The two unmarried sisters still remaining in the household who were dependent upon him in 1846 were Jennie Eliza Clark (1822-1902) and Lucy Ellen Clark (1826-1916).

Although he does not mention it, the 1850 Census seems to indicate that Dr. Clark shared a residence with his only brother, Dennis Woodruff Clark (1819-1904), who was a merchant in Plattville, and probably shared the household expenses with him as well.

In 1852, both Dr. Joseph Clark and his brother, Dennis Clark, relocated to California. ¹ Dr. Clark settled in San Francisco. Dennis lived in Sacramento a couple of years but then settled in Portland, Maine.

Dr. Clark wrote the letter to Amon Hawley (1785-1863), the son of Gad Hawley (1746-1836) and Lydia Gillet (1752-1819). Amon was married in 1814 to Flora Thomson (1788-1866). From the letter we learn that Hawley was a benefactor of Dr. Clark’s. The amount of money loaned by Hawley to Dr. Clark is not revealed by the letter.

Stampless Letter

Stampless Letter

Addressed to Mr. Amon Hawley, Farmington, Connecticut

Platteville [Wisconsin]
February 11th 1846

Dear Sir,

Your letter has been duly received and I hasten to reply without delay. Indeed, I have long expected a line from you. You express some surprise that I have not written. I had nothing to write as I wanted to write & therefore I have felt unwilling to pain you with any such communications as I had to make.

About the time that I remitted to you last, my affairs became so deranged & my means — what I had left — so unavailable, that I could do nothing. I removed to [Rockingham] Iowa & after doing nothing — or almost nothing — for nearly 2 years, I came here. My profession has barely enabled me to maintain those dependent upon me. I have made every exertion to lay aside something to apply for the liquidation of my debts, but hitherto I have been unable. There is a great deal of competition among physicians in all the west. A place of the size of Farmington will have at least 6 or 8, all claiming a share of public patronage.


Abraham Clark — “old & infirm” in 1846

Father is old & infirm, has not done anything for 3 or 4 years. Mother is much broken down — especially since the accident she met with last summer. She was run away with in a buggy, thrown out against a post, & taken up for dead. But Providence kindly blessed the means used & after a long & lingering illness, she so far recovered that she is able to be about the house.

I met in winding up of my affairs in Illinois very heavy losses. I lost at one time all I borrowed of you (or rather an amount equal to that). Two of my sisters are at home & very much dependent on me. Once in a while they can get schools & earn something to help themselves, but we are now obliged to have one of them at home & of course I must provide. To do this out of what I can earn often embarrasses me, but notwithstanding all my difficulties, I still keep up the confident hope that I shall one day be able to discharge my debts. My brother promises me that he will assist me to get out of debt as soon as he is through with some of his present engagements. My expenses must diminish with time. I cannot surely always have so large a family to maintain. You know also that a physician cannot where there is a great deal of competition collect up his earnings very close. I have considerable standing out which as I consider myself established here will be apt to increase.

Dr. Clark's family in San Francisco

Dr. Clark’s family in San Francisco

I feel that you acted from the most friendly motives in the accommodation you gave me & if my life is spared, I shall certainly pay you. My mind is often harassed by the unredeemed obligation you hold & what I owe to others. It goes far to destroy my peace of mind. You may rest assured that I feel the obligation as much as you could wish & only regret my inability. The vicissitudes & revulsions in business in ’37 & ’38 left me as they did many others — pennyless.

My property which I had considered valuable would bring nothing; in short, it fell till it was worth next to nothing, thus leaving me with hundreds of others stripped of everything. The hundreds took the benefit of the Bankrupt Law & are now on their feet again. I was laughed at for not doing it, but my sense of my obligations forbid it. I determined to struggle on & if I ever get through, I shall have the satisfaction of it. If I do not, I shall fail in the attempt, which will be more satisfaction than not to have tried.

Please remember me affectionately to your family. Also our family desire to be remembered. They sympathize with you in your afflictions. We have too been called by the dying bed of our oldest sister. Mr. [Elias] Gill is now, I suppose, in Hartford.

Believe me truly your friend, — J. W. Clark


¹ Dr. Joseph W. Clark and his wife wrote from Nicaragua on their way to California in October 1852. A transcript of the letter follows:

Mosquito Kingdom, Nicaragua
San Juan River
October 20th 1852
18 miles from outlet of Lake

Dear Janie,

We wrote before leaving the ship & left our letters on board to be mailed when they return to New York. Having got thus far across the Isthmus without having yet met the passengers from San Francisco by whom we can send letters to mail in New York & having leisure, we thought best to write again that your anxiety may be as little as possible.

Period map of Nicaragua

Period map of Nicaragua

We arrived at San Juan del Norte [Greytown], as expected, when we wrote & were immediately transferred to two small stern wheel steamboats, about the size of canal boats. Of course we were much crowded — about room enough to stand or sit on the baggage. Our boat started off about dark [up the Rio San Juan] and after getting 3½ miles, anchored for the night. The next day we reached the foot of the Castillo Rapids about 9 o’clock P.M., distance 85 miles from San Juan. I got a cot bed on shore for Jane & the children & I lay upon the baggage. The next morning we walked around the rapids a ¼ of a mile, & took the Steam Boat Director which plies between Castillo Rapids & this place which is as low as this boat can descend the river, being built for the navigation of the Lake.

We arrived her at 12 o’clock yesterday & are waiting for the passengers that were on the other stern wheel boat to come up. Some difficulty occurred about their boat leaking just as we were leaving & since we have not seen or heard from them. Hope they will reach here soon so that we may enjoy the trip through the Lake [Lake Nicaragua] by daylight. All our party are very well & the passengers generally.

Our voyage from New York to San Juan was three days longer than usual & now we have been 3 nights on the Isthmus & shall be one more if we get along after this in the most expeditious manner, & may be more. We hope to find the passengers from the Pacific at Virgin Bay, 90 miles from here, which point we shall reach early this evening if the passengers come up this morning. Then there remains 12 miles of pack mule travel before we reach the Pacific. We think we have seen the worst crossing the Isthmus on the Stern Wheel boat. With 50 passengers & their baggage, it would have been tolerable. But with 200, it was intolerable almost. The proprietors of this line have no business to crowd three little boats so. It is outrageous & the traveling public will take other routes unless they obviate this difficulty. It might be done very easily. This route might be made the best until the railroad is completed between Aspinwall & Panama. The confinement so long on these small boats is sufficient if we had room to move about. We have, however, made the best of it & our party all seem in good spirits though we lay upon the deck last night & fought mosquitoes most of the time.

Since entering the Caribbean Sea we have had rain every evening & cloudy weather much of the time which has been a great relief. The scenery on this river is all that it has been represented to be. The children have been amused at the stopping places with monkeys, parrots, &c.

It is now evident that we are to have a long passage [and] will not seal this letter till get to Virgin Bay when we shall probably be able to speak definitely about the time we expect to get aboard a steamship on the other side. We shall then feel as if all the difficulty of our voyage were surmounted.

[letter finished by Jane (Fessenden) Clark]

Alligators in San Juan River

Alligators in San Juan River

Here we are in the midst of the beauties in going to California. Sunday long we ___ the ____ as we expected. I don’t think you could possibly imagine persons in as close quarters as we were 24  hours — the baggage piled up in the center & we about 2 feet all around the cabin to sit, stand, eat &c. &c. — just as closely packed as 200 persons could be. I slept first night on mere trunks with Fanny at my side, but we have excellent appetites, eat our nice alamode beef, mutton, &c. which we bought in New ___. Some fish also, some nice sardines — a nice little fish which we can eat as it is. We are so well & are thus far doing well but I can’t give you one idea of our trip on paper. I have enjoyed myself much of the time. Everything is so new. At the rapids four of us ladies were accommodated with each a little single bed — canvass partitions — the house. We have seen a great many natives entirely naked but most of them wear as little clothing as possible. The scenery on the river is most charming — the vegetation beyond description. Trees as large as our tall forest trees covered with beautiful blossoms, some pink, some yellow. I’ve see some tall shrub with a flower the color of the scarlet geranium. the leaves of the trees are entirely different from our trees. I can’t describe them. Houses with thatched roofs. We have only seen two crocodiles — those not large. Some monkeys in the trees, some other creatures. When I looked out of our window at Castillo in the morning, there were roosters on a lemon tree and we passed one tree in the woods covered with oranges. We saw on a high hill the ruins of an old Castillian fort — it looked beautifully.

Fort Castillo rises above the San Juan River near the rapids.

Fort Castillo rises above the San Juan River near the rapids.

If we have anything happen particularly interesting before we get on the steamboat, we will leave a little place to add a few lines.

October 21st noon.

We are now at anchor in Virgin Bay. We learn from shore that the Steamer Independence came from San Francisco to meet us instead of the Pacific & her passengers are now waiting for us to go ashore before they come aboard. We wish very much we had met the Pacific as the Independence is smaller than the Prometheus. We are all very well. An island mountain is in full view.



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