This letter was written by John Rollin Ridge to his mother, Sarah Bird Northup Ridge, at Fayetteville after he crossed the frontier west on the way to the goldfields of California. He started with a large retinue of people from Fayetteville and the region, but the group split up at Fort Laramie and Deer Creek, Wyoming.
The letter was published as a serial in the Northwest Arkansas Times, March 11-14, 1973.
The editors of the newspaper noted that John Rollin Ridge never returned home from California, although Aeneas Ridge and Wacooli, a slave, did return to Fayetteville. As an additional note, this letter from Ridge does contain a racial slur. Ridge appears to have used the slur not in a general way but rather very specifically in reference to a particular class of slaves. His few remarks about Wacooli, on the other hand, demonstrate no similar disparagement.
Yuba City, Oct. 4, 1850
Dear Mother: — It is with pleasure that I sit down to relieve what I know must be your great anxiety to hear from your wandering children, torn as they are from you, and cast, as they so well can feel each morning that they rise, and each night that they lay down, on a strange and distant land. Believe me, it is no ordinary thing to come to California, as the thousands that sigh here in the midst of all its wealth can testify.
I am wasting golden hours I giving you what I intend shall be an accurate account of everything connected with us and our interests in this vagabond land. You have, I hope, received letters from me giving an account of our journey as far as Fort Laramie.
After we left Fort Laramie we traveled 150 miles. Then finding that the grass was growing thinner to perhaps none, at all, we concluded to abandon our wagon and pack. This conclusion as the events proved saved us the miserable alternative of walking over the Sierra Nevada with our packs upon our backs.
It was at Deer Creek, a tributary to the North Platte where we packed. From Deer Creek to the Salt Lake, we encountered the roughest road you can conceive, thinly provided with grass all the way; for 50 miles at a time no grass and no water. A large portion of the way was through sand and alkaline ground. Before reaching the Salt Lake a road turns to the right which is called “Sublette’s cut-off” saving some distance in travel. We should have taken this “cut-off” which avoids Salt Lake, but we were compelled to go by the Mormon City to get provisions — of which we were nearly out — although we had purchased frequently from those who, following our example in abandoning their wagons, were glad to sell a part of what they were forced to leave.
We resolved to pack very light because I saw plainly at an early day in our journey that it would be nearly as much as a horse or mule could do to carry his own body to California over such a road with such subsistence without adding a heavy load to his own weight. With this view, we threw away at one fell swoop, all our clothing except one pair of pantaloons, one pair of drawers, etc. with a change, reserving also our overcoats. We threw away all our meat except enough to last us as we thought to the Salt Lake which it did not. We threw away no flour at all, but had only enough at the start to last us to the Salt Lake, owing to the fact, I suppose, that we did not eat as much of the bacon as we should have done had we not been fonder of the flour. All our cooking utensils, save a coffee pot, mill and a frying pan we abandoned of necessity.