Saga of a Reluctant Whaler, Part 4

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Hardscrabble miners of the 1860s. File photo

There were no more letters from Harris Holcomb, the sailor. His ship returned to New Bedford in April 1854, and although he may have returned home to see his family, he did not stay in West Granby. Surprisingly, despite being “entirely sick of whaling” he signed up for another whaling voyage on the ship Menkar out of New Bedford. He was at sea from August 1854 to May 1859. Perhaps he was still hoping to jump ship in California with a different captain in charge. Unfortunately, it did not happen.

However, Harris did not give up his dream of finding gold. He gave up on travel by ship and within a few months he was heading west overland. A few more letters were sent to West Granby from Arizona. Because of Indian danger, Harris stayed in Arizona Territory in 1860, probably in El Paso, and it is not known if he ever made it to California or Texas or opened a trading post.

Arizona Territory 1859

“The snow commenced falling on us soon after crossing the Arkansas and we had it from four inches to two feet all the way here and a great deal of it on the bare prairies without a tree or bush in sight. All hands got frost-bitten more or less though I didn’t enough to hurt me any.

“The first mail left here for California the 20th of October but the Indians were so bad they had to turn back and there has been none get across yet. We expect to start the 25th of this month and go through or burst. I don’t know if I shall go. If not, I think I shall go down to Texas.

“This town is quite a large place, having about 4000 inhabitants. The buildings are built of adobe or sun-dried brick, white-washed outside and in, one story high and some with plank floors, but the most without. There are four or five churches, all Catholic, a courthouse, Governor’s palace, public square etc.

“There is a fandango or ball every night. The men are dark complexioned thieves, though some of the women are quite pretty. There are some American merchants, lawyers, doctors, hotel keepers and lots of gamblers.

“The route this mail company travels from here to California is call Beals route. I suppose you have seen the account of his surveys in the papers. We didn’t have a great deal of trouble with Indians coming out, though they stopped us once or twice and stole some mules and my horse.”

Birchville, Bear Creek, Palo Pino Mines, Arizona Territory August 11, 1860

“Dear Friends, I received a letter from you about five minutes before I left El Paso for this place. I got here on the 4th of July. The diggings are very limited. Generally the claims pay from three to twenty dollars a day to the hand, but there are a great many men here who have no claims and can get none. Wages are low and provisions high. There has been some quartz and silver leads discovered but we do not know how valuable they are. I am making a living but no more, though I am very well fixed. I had about two days sickness when I first got here, but am well now.

“There are about 300 persons here, nearly two thirds Mexicans. We are about 30 miles from the Overland Mail line which we leave at Rio Mimbres. It only costs 25 cents to get a letter to or from there.

“The diggings extend about six miles down this creek and three up Birches Gulch. We are only about 20 miles from the Rio Gila, which is plainly seen from the hill back of town. I am at this time on the dividing ridge between the waters of the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. Within 20 yards west, the water runs into the Gila and about the same distance east, it runs into the Rio Grande.

“It is cool and pleasant here. The days are not very warm and the nights are cold enough to sleep under three blankets. The air is so pure that we hang a quarter of beef outdoors, cut off from it a week or until it is gone and it will not spoil. We get the best beef here I have seen in two years, at 12 or 15 cents a pound.

“Bear meat and venison are plenty at the same price. Flour is worth 14 cents a pound, bacon 62 ½ cents, sugar and coffee 50 cents. I think I shall stay here till spring, unless I make a good raise, then I shall either go to Texas or to California.”

Birchville, Palo Pino Mines Nov. 1, 1860

“Dear friends, I received yours dated October 1st, six days ago. There is no news of interest here. Water scarce and everything high. There was a party came in from prospecting with reports of good diggings. They have gone again and if the report is correct, I shall leave here in a month or so.

“We had a duel here a few days ago. A young man by the name of Kennedy and one Dyer had a difficulty in a fandango room, when Dyer struck Kennedy with his six shooter. In the morning Kennedy challenged him and they fought with six shooters, twenty steps.

“I and a young friend have the promise of the trading post on the Apache reserve, We shall build in March and I think I can make all the money we want in a year. The reserve has just been surveyed and there is but one trading post allowed. It will be rather a dangerous place but I think if we try we can get along.”

Nov. 2nd, 1860

“Friends, As my letter is not sealed, I will give you an account of what happened last night. There was a ball given by some of the leading men of the place and as it happened there was a young man here by the name of William Dayck, who was in the employ of the Overland Mail Co., keeping a station. About a year ago, he and a man by the name of Taylor had a difficulty in Mesilla which was never settled.

“Last night they met in the dance, some words passed when Taylor drew his six shooter and commenced firing. Dayck also drew and fired one shot, when he fell shot dead. But this is not the worst of it. After he fell, three men (friends of Taylor) shot five shots at him, one shot one and the others two apiece. Taylor was shot through the thigh. Dayck had nine shots in the body, either of them mortal, and three in the legs. There was about one hundred folks in the house and both doors shut and not one person wounded accidentally. It lasted about one minute.

“After the house got cleared, two of my friends and myself came in and pointed out one of the men that shot him, as a murderer, when he pulled and shot at us, just cut one of my friend’s hat rim, my coat collar and struck another in one cheek and out the other. He then ran out the back door, one after him one way and one another. He got one shot in the neck when he ran into a house and partly crawled under the bed when a shot overtook him.

“There are four or five men under arrest but there is no law here. I was in the house and saw all the fight. I think it was a premeditated thing to murder Dayck. I was in the house and not over ten feet from them through the whole of it. Dayck is from Syracuse, N.Y., a fine fellow and well liked. Taylor is a discharged soldier and a perfect coward.

“There were four men shot, two will probably recover, one doubtful and Dayck will be buried in about half an hour. I am afraid it is not all over yet.

“It is very healthy here, but life is very uncertain. I have seen several fights and several men killed but such a cowardly, cold-blooded murder I never saw before. I did not sleep last night and am very nervous today. One woman was shot through the hoops.”

Harris Holcomb the gold seeker wrote no more letters that have survived. It is not known if he kept looking for gold or if he opened a trading post on the Apache Reservation. He may have finally traveled to Texas or to California. He did get a passport in 1867 when he was 36 years old. He was described as 5 foot 8 inches tall, long oval face, green eyes and black hair. It is very likely that he continued his life of travel and adventure.  

Eventually, Harris returned home to West Granby. He was not there in 1880 and the 1890 census is lost. He is listed in the 1900 Granby census. He was age 70 and worked as a day laborer. Harris owned a mortgaged house, not a farm. He never married and continued to live in West Granby until his death in 1906, age 76. 

This West Granby farm boy, with a passion for adventure, participated in two memorable events in American history—the whaling industry and the gold rush.  His letters paint a vivid portrait of the times. And yet, all that is left from the life of Harris Holcomb are the typed excerpts from his letters and two mementos; a cane made of whale bone with a whale tooth for a top, which was given to Harris by a fellow crew member, and a small vial of gold flakes from his gold seeking days. Both are on exhibit at the Salmon Brook Historical Society.