Go West, Young Man!

03 January 2014

Cultural Studies | History


Martin Prior Boss left home in 1867 aged 22. He left behind a comfortable, established life as a farmer on the east coast of America, to seek his fortune in the mines of Nevada and California.

His letters home are part of a collection from the California Historical Society which is being added to our Global Commodities project this year. They’re adorably newsy and affectionate, and my personal favourite is the one he writes with the news that he’s just become engaged and has decided to stay permanently in the West.

These days, communicating with someone on the opposite side of the world is unbelievably simple: email, cheap mobile bundles, Skype - take your pick. Everything is instant, easy and inexpensive. For Martin Prior Boss, three thousand miles away from his family, there was a very good chance that when they waved him off in 1867 it would be the last time they ever saw each other. Visits would be horrifically difficult and expensive, if they were possible at all. And if things went wrong for Martin out in the mines of Nevada, he would have to sink or swim by himself. No-one would be able to rush to his side by hopping on a train or a plane. No emergency injection of cash could be made into his bank account. He would be on his own, completely cut off, depending only on himself to build a new life and make friends among strangers.

One of the things which struck me most while reading Martin’s letters was how clear a picture we can build up of his family, through his responses to things they must have asked him in their letters. When Laura takes on the bulk of the letter-writing in later years, it’s obvious that she’s built up a strong relationship with her mother-in-law, even though they’ve never met!

We can never know everything about what pioneers like Martin were thinking and feeling as they went off on their adventures, although we know from a letter written by Martin’s great-granddaughter in 1982 that he struggled with depression in later years, dying in 1911 in an asylum. But despite that, what I take away from these letters is the love and closeness he maintained with his family despite the distance between them. Of one thing at least we can be certain - he sure made his mum proud!

About the Author

Harriet Brunsdon Jones

Harriet Brunsdon Jones

I’ve been working at Adam Matthew since March 2013, following several years in magazine and journals publishing. Projects I’ve worked on include Shakespeare in Performance, Popular Medicine in America, Global Commodities, and China, America and the Pacific – all assisted by copious quantities of tea.