Wallace Letters Online

Share this:

Record number: WCP356

Sent by:
John Wallace
Sent to:
Mary Ann Wallace (née Greenell)
28 August 1854

Sent by John Wallace, Columbia, Tuolumne County, California, USA to Mary Ann Wallace (née Greenell) [none given] on 28 August 1854.

Record created:
01 June 2002 by Beccaloni, George
Verified by:
22/08/2012 - Catchpole, Caroline (All except summary checked);


Re. rebuilding and surveying after fire in the town; presumed loss of the steamer "City of Glascau" (Glasgow); Wilson's plans to emigrate to Australia; widow McCann; mining speculation; quartz mine; Dr Pownall sharing house; growing tomatoes; interesting Californian spider and fly; Alfred Russel Wallace's assistant; hot weather.

Record contains:

  • letter (1)

View item:

LETTER (WCP356.356)

A typical letter handwritten by author in English and signed by author.

Held by:
Natural History Museum
Finding number:
NHM WP1/3/31
Copyright owner:
©Wallace Family
Record scrutiny:
22/08/2012 - Catchpole, Caroline;

Item notes

Physical description

Transcription information





August 28th 18541

My Dear Mother

I take the opportunity though very late of thanking you for your voluminous letter dated May 22nd & also Thomass which arrived by the same mail. I have also received several Times newspapers so that there is now some chance of getting some occasionally. I generally send you two or three every month. I suppose you get some of them. I suppose you got the papers giving an account of the fire I have been in a great bustle ever since and no time to attend to private matters. The fire was a clean sweep of the whole town & left a district of fifteen acres, a blackened mass without a single house upon it, where but a few hours before (as the Irishman observed) you could not see the town for Houses. As soon as day appeared and the smoke had somewhat cleared away so that the people could distinguish where their property once stood, a scene[?] of bustle and activity prevailed, many putting up a canvas tent or shanty and commencing business with what few goods or chattels they had saved from the devouring element, others sent off for boards & timbers and carpenters were in great request, our timber yard was besieged all day, with several waggons[sic] [[2]] loading and hauling all the time and by the evening many had got a temporary building and established themselves and transacted business as if nothing had happened. Perhaps I ought previously to have told you that I was no sufferer by the fire as I live about half a mile out of town at what is called the timber yard but I was up and at the town soon after the fire had commenced and assisted in saving some of the property & fixings of our office. As soon as the fire was somewhat abated I attended to the lumber yard. I sent to town several loads for an office building for our companys secretary. He is connected with a banking house & Post Office which was commenced as soon as they could get on the grounds for the heat and in three days we had a large building completed 30[?] feet long and twenty wide divided & fitted up for a banking house, Post Office & office for our company. I then had to attend to laying[?] off the streets and surveying and staking off the several lots and streets so as to improve the appearance of the town, a duty which I have been engaged in more or less ever since. The town is now however nearly all built up again. We are having a large fire proof brick building put up and there are several others nearly finished in the town so that another fire will never be so disastrous as this one as [[3]] the fire proof buildings will arrest the progress of the flames. I think I have now said enough about the fire; your account about Alfred is very interesting although I heard most of it before. The "City of Glascaw"2 steamer is evidently lost as nothing has even been heard of her since she started. I am sorry Mr Wilson did not get sent to Australia, but I suppose the war has disarranged all such peaceful projects & he will soon have to go at his own expense, but Australia or California will suit him better than England, where his energy & genius will be appreciated and rewarded. I am acquainted with most of the facts mentioned by your relative to Mr Wilsons kindness to the Widow (Mrs McCann) as I knew her previous to coming to the mines and knew Wilson had assisted her considerably since the death of her husband, but his last act of kindness was I suppose before he left for England and which I had not heard of. Mr Wilson I think is wrong in supposing that I might have done better at mining, there is of course a possibility that I might have done better but there is more probability that I should have done worse, as I know many that have since[?] as I know but few that have done much better, and the few mining speculations that I have been engaged in have all turned out failures or nearly so, the last speculation I was in I am in now [[4]] has cost me 250 dollars & no chance of getting any returns. I am also engaged with others in the erection of a Quartz Mill which will cost me about 500 dollars but whether it will ever pay remains to be proved. Thomass letter is very interesting but I do not at all understand his explanation of the portable hydraulic press nor the manner of its application. In my two previous letters I think I have fully explained the nature of California Farming and mining, but I will say no more about it at present as I have some idea of being able to talk the matter over the fireside this winter and fully explain my views on the matter, but however I have not thoroughly made up my mind yet but think I shall be able to drop into dinner about Xmas day or probably before, as this is now our slack time and the water is nearly all dried up in the river and very little business doing. Next week is our annual meeting for the election of officers, & should I not be reelected to my present office I should start immediately but in the event of my being again elected I shall have to remain a month or more to attend to some important duties when perhaps I may obtain leave of absence for 2 or 3 months which I shall take advantage of to visit England. I begin to get tired of cooking my own victuals and living in a Californinan way for all I am very comfortably settled I do not live exactly by myself as I have [[5]]3 now a particular friend stopping with me a Dr Pownall who is connected with our company a very intelligent & pleasant gentleman an old bachelor like myself but always talking of going home to get married & he is from the southern States. I have a great many fowls & they cost me nothing to keep. I have also a very small patch of garden in which I have Indian corn Melons & tomatoes; It is astonishing how luxurious the tomatoes thrive in this country. I have only about a dozen plants & they bear immense quantities. The chickens eat a great quantity of them but they ripen faster than we can pick them & there are always green ones & also flowers on the same bush so there are a constant succession of them till the frosty nights kill them in England tomatoes are I suppose rare and dear and when I first tasted them here I thought I should never be able to eat them, but I now like them any way, either off the bush or sliced up with vinegar or stewed into a kind of sauce, or stewed up with sugar. They are first rate and make a beautiful presence ~ We have some curious animals too in California you have I suppose heard of large spiders that catch birds & large insects [[6]] well we have them here and they are called Tarantulas[sic] but they are not the real Tarantula although they say their bite is poisonous & I dare say it is as they have a pair of tremendous fangs & when you get them mad they will bite a piece of stick & you will see the poison ouse out of the fangs. Well but probably you never heard of the fly that destroyed the spider, but we have such a one here, and I believe that it is the veritable "blue tailed fly" that you read about as he is blue all over & blue wings with a tinge of red on them and I believe too he has a tremendous sting and is about as large as a wasp and some are a little larger. This fly will [word illeg] attack the large spiders whenever they can find them and whether they eat them or not I do not know but I saw one hauling along a very large spider one day. The spider was alive and the fly had hold of him by the head and was dragging him along. The fly having to walk backwards and making the spider follow him, at first I thought naturally that the spider was lugging off the fly, so I separated them but the fly appeared very indignant at my interference and instead of flying away as I expected returned again to the spider and commenced dragging him along as before, the spider was very large with a body as large as a walnut and immense long hairy legs and to appearance could have eaten up a dozen of such flies as the one that had him in tow but he appeared to have been rendered perfectly powerless just crawling [[7]] along as the fly dragged him, where they went or what was done with him I do not know as I could not stop to watch them. But since then I observed one with a smaller spider which was quite dead & the fly was dragging him along with considerable rapidity crawling backwards as before and dragging the spider after him. I watched him for some time till he arrived at the edge of a small pool of water about a yard wide, he appeared to be rather puzzled but after flying across the water & reconnoitring the opposite bank he returned and pushing the spider into the water laid hold of him and by the assistance of his wings held him up and floated him across the water & then started as before he appeared to go in nearly a straight line over heaps of dirt or stones & I finally left him as I could not wait to watch him any further. The letter from the lad Alfred took out with him is very interesting and well written. I have no more nonsense to tell about just now so with love to all at home & kind regards to all friends believe me to remain

Your affectionate son John Wallace [signature]

[[8]] P.S. I have just received 2 Times enclosing an Australian Paper which is interesting & for which I am obliged. I send by this mail 4 papers. I do not have any thing to pay for the newspapers from England & I think you ought not for mine as I pay 4 cents postage on each, but they tell me here that they cannot be paid through & that the English postage had to be paid in England. The weather has been very hot here this summer, for several weeks the thermometer ranged over a hundred nearly all the day and one day it reached to 117o in the shade. I think that would beat some of Alfreds Tropical weather.


1. Written on the same line as the location.

2. The City of Glasgow, which sailed for Philadelphia from Liverpool on 1st March 1854 but never arrived.

3. Text from here is cross-hatched.

Please note that work on this transcript is not yet complete. Users are advised to study electronic image(s) of this document, if available.