Sacramento in 1854: State Capitals, Steamboat Explosions, and Chinese Burial Rituals

Margaretha Beatty's January 30, 1854 letter to her father-in-law, Adam Beatty.

Margaretha Beatty's January 30, 1854 letter to her father-in-law, Adam Beatty.

The collections at The Filson are known for their wealth of information on the history of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley. The Filson’s holdings include a variety of materials from the residents of the Ohio Valley dating from the first settlement of Kentucky in the 1700s through the present day. However, those who settled in the Ohio Valley often had a large web of family and friends stretching across the United States, and in some cases, around the world. As a result, many collections include letters and other items describing locales far from Kentucky. One example is the Beatty-Quisenberry Family Papers. During the antebellum era, the family of Adam Beatty, a Mason County judge and farmer, had members in Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Louisiana, and California. Their friends and acquaintances covered much of the eastern United States. The materials generated by these people living beyond the Ohio Valley demonstrate the patterns of life in other regions and enrich our understanding of life in Kentucky and the surrounding area.

In the 1850s, one of Beatty’s sons and his family moved to Sacramento, California. Mary Beatty, Adam Beatty’s daughter-in-law, frequently wrote to her in-laws, describing life in California in the early years of statehood. In one paragraph from a January 1854 letter from Beatty to her father-in-law, she reveals a variety of insights into life in California:

Sacramento is now the Capital of the state and I suppose it will always be we have a very fine state House and water works, the water from the river is distributed all over the city they are putting up gas works to light the city also. We had a dreadful accident here on last Saturday, the steam Boat Pearl blew up and killed about 60 persons. 53 bodies have been found and buried, or to be buried this afternoon. A solemn procession went out of the city yesterday to the grave yard to bury those that were buried yesterday. It is estimated that there were 7000 in procession beside those who went as spectators. There were 13 chinese bodies carried out, and a procession of 700 Chinese with Chinese Music. The Christians and Pagans were burying their countrymen at the same time. Quite near to each other with their different rites. At every Chinese grave there was a stick of incense and red candles burning and in the midst of the graves they had provisions spread out, with a hog roasted whole.

In that one section, Beatty reveals political developments in the still young California, the dangers of nineteenth century life, the large Chinese presence in California, and the close proximity of the Chinese and white populations.

Although letters like Beatty’s are less common in The Filson’s holdings than materials dealing with Kentucky and the Ohio Valley, they are present throughout the collections. They offer a breadth to The Filson’s holdings which makes them of use to researchers whose interests extend well beyond this region.

Filson Historical

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