Old Milford cemetery stone is piece of Gold Rush history
Ten years ago former City Historian Richard Platt got a call from a man who lived on Gulf Street near the entrance to the cemetery. The man had found a marble slab on his property, turned it over and noticed it was an old Platt family cemetery marker.
Platt didn’t have any use for the marker, so he declined an offer to retrieve it.
This past fall Platt got a call from a distant relative in Watertown who descends from the same line as Mary E. and Henry D. Platt, who died at ages 36 and 22, and are named on the stone, so Platt set out to retrieve the cemetery marker for the relative.
The man who had called Platt 10 years before had moved, and when Platt knocked on the door of the business that had moved in, the man and woman who answered didn’t know anything about the memorial stone. As Platt was about to leave, the couple went to the back yard and pointed to a slab that lay there. It was broken in four pieces, and when one piece was turned over, there were the markings that Platt was looking for.
The Platts named on the stone, Mary and Henry, were the children of Dan Platt, who was born in 1796 in Milford and died in 1856 in Watertown and Emily (Ford) Platt, whom he married in 1817.
The stone carries a story of travel, tragedy and the California Gold Rush, Platt said, explaining that the Watertown branch of these Platt descendants have letters that tell of young Henry’s youthful adventures as he took part in the quest for gold on the West Coast.
The story unfolds
A series of saved letters from Henry to his sister begins as Henry works as a schoolteacher and then as he sails from New Haven to California to join the Gold Rush in 1849.
He mentions Milford in a letter dated March 17, 1846, when he writes from New Jersey in response to one of his sister’s letters to him. He writes, “I should think from your statements that you had quite a pleasant visit at Milford.”
He writes to her of the mode of transportation in New Jersey, saying that it “lacks the refinement” found in New England.
“They generally ride in lumber box wagons or when there is snow on the ground place their box on runners and in it place a sheaf of straw, and all bunk in on the bottom sometimes taking 10 or 15 persons.”
Later he writes to his family that he is about to sail from New Haven to California, and then sends subsequent letters from Rio de Janeiro and then San Francisco as he seeks his fortune.
The Gold Rush
As former city historian, Richard Platt is fascinated by the letters that give a firsthand account of life in the 1800s, not to mention the search for gold in California, especially since they were penned by a man who carried the Platt name.
History.com describes this portion of history as follows: “The discovery of gold nuggets in the Sacramento Valley in early 1848 sparked the Gold Rush, arguably one of the most significant events to shape American history during the first half of the 19th century. As news spread of the discovery, thousands of prospective gold miners traveled by sea or over land to San Francisco and the surrounding area. … A total of $2 billion worth of precious metal was extracted from the area during the Gold Rush, which peaked in 1852.”
History books tell of three primary routes to the California gold: The Oregon-California Trail, 3,000 miles over land; the Panama shortcut, 7,000 miles aboard ship; and the 15,000-mile trip aboard ship around Cape Horn, according to goldrushofcalifornia.weebly.com.
The Cape Horn route is the one Henry chose.
“We have been 56 days out at sea or out [of] sight of land which I considered as average passage at this season of year,” Henry wrote from Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 2, 1849, in a letter to his father.
“I have a berth in cabin on deck, which berths 40 persons,” he wrote. “There are three tiers of berths on each side of the cabin, two persons occupying each berth. The upper berths having windows, one of which I had the good luck to obtain and find the windows a great convenience, having a draft of fresh air to breathe while sleeping which is much better than inhaling the close impure air of the cabin.”
In his letters home, he wrote of the various vessels that had sailed from New Haven bound for California, about the price of goods and the abundance and size of oranges in Rio de Janeiro. He noted the slaves who made up a large part of the population in Rio de Janeiro, and the religion, which he described as a combination of Catholicism and superstition.
In a letter to his sister dated Aug. 23, 1849, from Rio de Janeiro, young Henry Platt said news about the excitement of discovering gold in California still remained strong as he and the others made their journey west.
The journey, he wrote several days later, was slow. “It is going a comparatively long distance to get a little ways as some say the longest way round it, the surest and perhaps it may prove so,” he wrote.
The letter continues, “I understand from our last evening paper that the Gold Fever and together with the Cholera is making great havoc in the states.”
A Jan. 18, 1850, letter to his father announces that he has arrived in San Francisco, after a passage of 149 days from New Haven, excluding stops.
“We made a very quick passage round the Horn … the quickest on record since the Californian excitement with the exception of two, who were one or two days less,” he wrote. “We arrived at Cape Horn 6th Oct had a fine passage down the coast with a prospect of following it round from the Pacific rendering it impossible for us to double in that latitude that we were kept off 13 days in squalls of snow. Over 20 vessels have arrived to day with more than 100 passengers.”
From Sacramento in March 1850, Platt wrote that he was ill but that friends were helping to care for him. He wrote of making $200 speculating and working with the Sierra Nevada Co.
“We expect to divide the proceeds after we get to mining once in a week and then each one does what he pleases with it,” he wrote.
Henry also wrote of the land and the people, pointing out the differences between New England and the West. “Everything connected with agriculture and man is in a very rude state,” he wrote. “They have fine horses which are trained for the saddle or which they ride with great dexterity running them at full speed up very steep and lengthy hills. They usually go armed when traveling through the country. It is quite a sight to see them riding at full speed with their ponchos (a kind of blanket) about them and their lasso in hand which they are with a great deal of skill.”
From Sacramento he also wrote about the rain and its frequency, and the unpaved roads that turned to mud and covered boots and wagon wheels.
“[Give] my respect to my friends and tell them if they are doing well not to come to California,” he quipped, before writing about the rampant gambling in the West, which led to many men losing their fortunes.
He also wrote about another man from the East who “said he had accumulated over $23000 the past season [when] the company he was with turned a river and dug up the bed of it and were very successful [and he] says they were each arranging $300 pr day when he left but his health wouldn’t permit him to say longer.”
In a March 7, 1850, letter to his father, Platt notes that he is confident he can make his fortune in gold.
“I have made up my mind pretty conclusively about it from observation and what information I have obtained [and] I am satisfied that I can make a fortune here if I have my health and shall endeavor to take good care of myself as possible in preference to all the gold here.”
It was only two months later that Platt’s father, Dan Platt, received a letter stating that Henry had died of “the prevailing disease of the country — dysentery terminating in [lillious] & typhus fever” in Auburn, Calif.
Marker still stands
Back home in Milford today, Richard Platt now has the memorial stone to Mary and Henry Platt in his driveway, and he plans to deliver it soon to the Watertown family that is descended from that line of the Platt family.
He speculates that the stone he has was removed from the cemetery when a newer one was erected in its place. The new stone still stands at the Milford cemetery today, Platt said, although it doesn't have the details that the original had. A grave marker to Henry and Mary’s parents, Dan and Emily, also stands in the cemetery.