The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, near Coloma, California, in January 1848 sparked a rush of immigration, which brought an estimated 300,000 individuals to the region by 1855. One of the men who went to try his luck at gold prospecting was nineteen-year-old George Halstead Coe (1831-1873), who departed South Carolina in July 1850 and moved between California, Oregon, British Columbia, and Idaho, before dying in San Francisco without having returned east. The youngest son of George Washington Coe and Ann Agnes Baldwin, he was born in Savannah, Georgia, and reared in Bluffton, South Carolina.
The majority of the two hundred fifty-one items in this collection are letters to George from his mother and his sister, Emeline (ca. 1830-1865). While none of the letters written by him to his family in South Carolina are known to survive, there is a set of correspondence between Coe and his wife, Nancy "Nannie" Turner Hunt (1847-1932), following their marriage in 1866. Items in the collection dated after George Halstead Coe’s death include documents associated with his burial in the Masonic Cemetery in San Francisco and correspondence of Nannie’s niece, Katherine Dandridge Drew Giddens (ca. 1871-1919).
When Coe left for the West, his family did not envision him trying to make a living in the gold mines; instead his mother wanted him to choose the life of a sailor. In the first letter from her, written on 7 May 1851, she advised him to strive to be "master of your own quarter-deck in 7 years…it is true, it is a life of great hardships…but on board you will not be exposed to the temptations to evil as you would be at San Francisco."
However, she was soon disappointed, and a letter written in July 1851 expresses her surprise and regret that he had "left the ship" and was "at work in the gold mines." Besides his expenses and the danger to his life, she feared that the greatest hardship he would be exposed to would be "the danger of your soul." He evidently enjoyed some success in his early mining ventures because his mother’s letter of 14 September 1851 thanked him for having sent a half pound of gold in his last communication. This financial assistance did not relieve her mind completely, however, for in her next missive, 11 May 1852, she expressed her continuing hope that he would "obtain enough [gold] to enable you to leave the mines and engage in some other business which would bring you again into civilized society." She informed him that she worried constantly about her "youngest one away from his home away from his God away from every means of grace, amidst gamblers, robbers, murderers, profane swearers[,] drunkards, amidst that strife for gold." His sister, Emeline, also harbored some skepticism about his ability to realize success as a gold miner. In her first letter, dated 13 July 1852, she voiced her opinion that "you are never going to make that fortune… why will you allow yourself to yield to the mad excitement of gold hunting?" She advised him to leave the mines and "buy with what little money you have some farming land and implements, then build a comfortable log house and write for me, and see if I don’t come."
These early letters to George from his mother and sister, while chiefly offering advice on how to live, also convey some personal news and information on the branches of the Coe family living in Philadelphia and Buenos Aires (Argentina). Ann and Emeline seem to have spent their summers in the North and would return to Bluffton, S.C., during the winter months.
The financial difficulties of George’s older brother, Theodore (b. ca. 1825), frequently figured in their l tters. In hers of 7 May 1851, his mother notes, "Your brother talks of closing his business here and going there or to So[uth] A[merica], he says he cannot continue his business here for the want of capital…there is another store opened in Bluffton which has taken all this springs business."
On 2 December 1852 Theodore married his cousin Sallie Kirk. Though he seems to have improved his financial situation by doing so, his mother did not entirely approve of the marriage and anticipated difficulties with his new life. On 4 September 1852 she informed George that his brother was "building additions to his house in Bluffton…I am sorry only on one account, they are too nearly connected, I would rather my children marry out of the family." Again, at some point after the marriage in December 1852, she wrote to George: "if they only had good house servants to do the work, they would get on very comfortably, but they begin to experience a little of the difficulties of…managing lazy disobedient servants…I would rather live in the north, and do my own work…than drive the negroes and have it only half done." When Ann Coe wrote on 8 August 1853, Theodore still had not finished repairs on his house and he and Sallie had been forced to move into a servant’s quarters which she related was "so small and so open that…they are constantly taking colds" and must "hunt around for snakes every night before going to bed for the house is in the bushes."
Emeline Coe suffered most of her adult life with complications resulting from tuberculosis or "consumption," and nearly every letter contains some news regarding her health. Despite her infirmities, she maintained a strong desire to visit George in California. In April 1855, she promised him that "the first good chance I get, I shall be over that rail road in a trinkling, and sailing round…and riding horse back, or mule back, or bear back…up among those mountains to take tea with you some quiet evening." Her letters related more news of relatives and acquaintances of their generation than did their mother’s, with periodic updates on women eligible for marriage. Writing on 9 October 1855, she told "Georgie" that "Julia…is the wife I have chosen for you." Her next letter, written on 16 December 1855, gave more information on Julia, who she described as "the very girl for that [California] kind of life, as she can blaze away at any kind of fire arms without any of the feminine fears which beset me."
However, it was Emeline who would marry first. She first mentioned her plans to find a husband in a letter of 28 September 1858. "I think I will have to accept the first decent offer that comes along, I had one from an old codger last winter worth $200,000, but he was too disgusting," she wrote. She was evidently serious about accepting the "first decent offer," because on 31 December of the same year her mother wrote to George conveying her suspicion that Emeline had become engaged to "this man Train? a stranger a foreigner a Scotchman" who "has determined to open a boarding school and establish himself in Bluffton" and looked upon the matrimonial prospects as a means "to connect himself to one of the most respectable families here that he might get the children of respectable parents under his care." Moreover, Ann Coe feared that "your sister was to be made a stepping stone to his respectability" and that, in Theodore’s opinion, "it will be her utter ruin and a disgrace to our family."
Emeline confirmed her mother’s fears in a letter of 13 February 1859, confiding to George that "it will not be long before I become Mrs. Train. He is only a schoolteacher, and of course a poor man, but offers me a warm heart…I feel I am loved for myself alone, and this is a genuine pleasure…Mother says she was very much distressed about it…The truth is that she always had a prejudice against foreigners." Both women continued to plead that George exert his influence upon the other until the marriage finally took place on 23 June 1859. His mother wrote to him that day, informing him that Emeline "never told me when she was to be married until the week before last" and that she had not attended the wedding for fear that "I should have been sorely tempted to rise up and forbid the marriage."
Throughout the correspondence are scattered references to news that George had passed along to his family about his life in the West. He seems to have given up the search for gold by the time Emeline wrote him to on 30 July 1854 expressing her pleasure that he had "left the mines and taken some other employment." By June 1856 he had decided to make his living as a merchant, though this did not meet his mother’s approval either. Part of her hesitation over his engaging in "mercantile business" undoubtedly stemmed from Theodore Coe’s inability to make any profit at his own store in Bluffton. Since "he has not been able either to sell or rent his store nor has be been able to collect enough to pay his debts," she reported, "Theodore is now devoting himself to his planting interests, but he has a very poor prospect this year."
His mother and sister both worried that George would lose the refinements of society while living so far from home. Typical of these anxieties are the instructions related by his mother on 16 March 1855. She advised him to "go as much as you possibly can into ladies society," since, she claimed, "a man will become boorish, nay, almost heathenish who avoids the company of ladies." She also was concerned that he had remained a bachelor, and on 20 November 1857 asked: "Who waits on you and attends to you when sick? Have you servants to do your work or are you boarding or do you your own work…who cooks for you who does your chamber work and all the other little offices which devolves upon women?" The same letter grudgingly admits that she had been surprised by his surroundings as revealed in "those photograph views you sent us for your house or store" and acknowledges that she was "pleased to see so much like civilization…around you." By this time, George Coe had taken a position as commission merchant for a larger commercial firm in San Francisco and was traveling between the gold boom towns in Northern California. He would continue in a similar capacity for at least another decade. By 1859 he was living in one of these settlements. From the envelope with the letter his mother sent on 29 April 1859 it appears that his home was in Scott Valley, Siskiyou County, California. And the letter apparently had traveled to California "via Panama."
Emeline and Ann Coe’s fractured relationship never fully healed before the former succumbed to her lifelong illness in 1865. Emeline never forgave her mother for trying to break her engagement and then refusing to attend the wedding. Ann never forgave her daughter for marrying a foreigner without her permission. Following their marriage, Hugh Train opened a boarding school in Bluffton, and although it was never crowded with pupils, he did have enough work to hire a teacher from New York, identified in letters as Miss Marquand.
Mrs. Coe thought her daughter’s new duties as a housekeeper were too much for her and disapproved wholeheartedly of the financial situation in which Emeline found herself. Ann’s letter of 30 December 1859 complains that Emeline "had taken a fresh cold standing on the wet ground trying to fix a place to smoke two hams." Hugh Train, she contended, refused to allow his wife to use "negroes…to do such dirty work"; consequently, she "was out until late in the evening with her own hands in sausage meat and every other dirty thing whilst his lordship was seated by a warm fire in the house," which was described as "a large house with very little and that of the commonest kind of furniture no carpets on the floor’s, no curtains to her windows." And while Emeline claimed to enjoy her new duties, in a letter of 14 January 1860 she did admit to needing help around the house. "I am sometimes overburdened…but there is great pleasure in being the head of a household and contributing to the comfort of those around. My great trouble is with hired servants; if Mr. T. could have rented a house in Bluffton…and have bought negroes instead, I should have been much more pleased."
While Ann Coe and her family never amassed great wealth, they owned property in the newly incorporated town of Bluffton (in which Theodore Coe served as an alderman) and enough slaves to see to their needs. Ann first dismissed the idea that growing sectional tensions spurred by the national debate over slavery would result in war. Writing on 27 January 1860, she noted, "negroes are selling at enormous prices notwithstanding the late outbreak at Harpers ferry and the fears entertained by many that the northern abolitionist will not rest until they bring upon the South all the horrors of a servile war nothing but such scenes as was witnessed at St. Domingo will ever satisfy those wild fantasies. I hope…we have wise and good men enough left to save our Union…and we will be saved from civil as well as from servile war."
By December 1860, however, when secession was imminent, Ann realized the tenuous position in which her lifestyle rested. In a letter penned on 17 December she lamented the fact that "our glorious Union will soon be rent asunder, God grant it may be peaceable done and that we shall be saved from meeting in deadly strife. I…feel no fear of civil war but I do fear…we have much reason to fear servile war…the Abolitionists will continue to use their influence…to excite the slaves to rebellion." Her last two letters before the full effects of war were felt in Bluffton were written on 25 December 1860 and in February 1861. In these she told George of the erection of coastal defenses, the formation of a "Southern Confederacy," and his brother’s activities with the Hamilton Guards. If his mother wrote him at all during the war, the correspondence is not known to survive.
No record of George Halstead Coe’s activities during the Civil War has been found, although he received a commission on 10 September 1861 as "Engineer Officer with rank of Lt. Col. on Staff of Major General R.W. Martin Com’d’g 6th Division," bearing the signatures of J.G. Downey, Governor of California, and Johnson Price, Secretary of State. He seems to have continued his mercantile pursuits throughout the war with a partner named Edwin Powell. On 17 November 1863, D.D. Williams wrote Coe from San Francisco advising him where he might find a ready market for goods. "Boise River country," Williams reported, is "the best country on this coast either for mining or trading. The mines are better…than any I ever saw in California." He went on to assure Coe that "wherever you may locate in business…all I can do shall be done. So far as goods in our line is concerned you can get all you want." Judging from remarks in Williams’ next letter, Coe heeded his advice and realized a handsome profit from the tip. Writing him from Idaho City on 29 July 1865, Williams warned that "Many of the merchants have become very je[a]lous at your success and have used every means to pull the house down."
Although the war and its aftermath produced little change in George’s life, Ann Coe’s world was turned upside down. Writing on Christmas Day 1865, she reported that "the negroes are demoralized beyond any thing you can imagine they now do not only think themselves our equals but actually think they are above the ‘rebs’ as they call us - too lazy to work they will soon be in a starving condition and will obtain food by stealing… I surely look for the scenes of St. Domingo to follow this wholesale liberation of slaves so wholly unprepared for their freedom." Her next letter, written on 1 March 1866, complains that "the freeing of the blacks has been their ruin the ruin of the South and no benefit to the North…you cannot conceive of the insolence the idleness the filth of these blacks…they will not hire themselves out if they can get one acre of land to plant and that they cultivate so badly they raise very little on it we can no longer have gardens watermelons or fruit of any kind they steal everything." Similar complaints figure in nearly every letter Ann Coe wrote for the remainder of her life.
Along with this disruption in the social order, came a breakdown in the economic system resulting in poverty throughout Bluffton and the surrounding countryside. Ann informed her sister in Philadelphia on 1 March 1866 that "T[heodore] has not yet been able to get anything to do he cannot plant for the want of money to buy working animals and implements and provisions." Her new life was probably best summarized by comments in a letter written to George on 3 July 1866. "The planters are all complaining of the negroes they will not work, the crops generally are very promising but will be lost because these lazy creatures will not do half days work…the country has been so stripped of cattle that we never taste fresh beef…plenty of fish in the rivers, but the negroes who catch them ask such high prices we cannot afford to buy. How different everything is now from what it used to be."
George Coe’s business and personal prospects had a different outlook. By the summer of 1866 he had saved enough money to send his mother a note for two hundred dollars, which she acknowledged in a letter of 10 August 1866. He was living in Umatilla, Oregon, in early 1866, but by that September began looking to purchase a home and settle permanently in Idaho City. In October 1866 Coe married Nancy "Nannie" Turner Hunt, and the couple moved between Idaho City and Boise City for the first years of their lives together. They kept up a regular correspondence both before their marriage and whenever George was away on business thereafter. They were at the pinnacle of frontier society, and Nannie mentions attending dances at local hotels (1 May 1867) and meeting the governor of Idaho Territory, David W. Ballard, and his wife (5 May 1867).
This prosperity would be short lived due to a fire in Coe’s store and the disappearance of his business partner with an unidentified amount of the company’s assets. In a letter written by his mother to his wife on 19 August 1868 there are comments regarding the devastation of the store by fire, and a string of letters received by Coe between September 1868 and July 1870 document his efforts to apprehend Edwin Powell. Writing from Victoria, British Columbia, on 14 June 1869, Israel Wood Powell, a relative of Coe’s former partner, inquired about Edwin’s whereabouts. On 23 October 1869, postmaster and fellow mason Andrew Graham Ballenden Bannatyne wrote from Red River Settlement (located in present day Manitoba, Canada), evidently in response to Coe’s inquiries about Powell. He noted: "I have not learned that he is here still I believe that a short time ago I saw letters in the office to that name." Finally, on 9 July 1870, Charles Hosner wrote to Coe on letterhead stationery bearing the imprint of "J.M. Goewey and Co. Wholesale Liquor Merchants" to inform him that the company was prepared to bring suit against the firm of Powell and Coe, and assured him that "If we get it into judgment, we are determined to follow Mr. Powell as long as he leaves any Footprints."
George Halstead Coe apparently regained some of his wealth and standing in society before his death in 1873. When his mother wrote to Nannie on 15 October 1870, she made an interesting comparison between her son’s Chinese servant, identified in census records as a forty-five-year-old male house servant named "Ah Sing," and her own African-American workers. "I am glad you find your Chinaman so useful and that he loves the children," she noted. "I wish we could say the same of our coloured servants but they are so demoralized they are not to be relied on now for work or any thing else." Coe also received two requests to borrow money from friends who wished to relocate in Boise City (25 October 1870 and 3 January 1871) and had purchased five lots on "Block 39" in Boise City by 13 January 1871.
At some point prior to 29 July 1871 he took a position as a bookkeeper in the local office of the Ida Ellmore Mining Company, for on that date he received a letter from William Willis in San Francisco, offering advice on bookkeeping methods. He continued in this position until at least 22 March 1872, on which date he received a letter from the company’s secretary, Joseph S. King, in San Francisco, congratulating him upon the "the very efficient manner in which you have discharged your duties so far as they have come under my supervision." The final pieces of correspondence that deal directly with George Halstead Coe are eleven letters of introduction written on his behalf between 10 December 1872 and 12 January 1873. These were penned by notable individuals in Idaho including Territorial Governor Thomas Warren Bennett and Territorial Secretary Edward J. Curtis and were sent to acquaintances in Washington, D.C. They introduce Coe as "one of the pioneer business men in our Territory" and indicate that he desired a position in Texas with the Southern Pacific Rail Road.
The remainder of the items in the collection consist chiefly of letters and newspaper clippings regarding the stage careers of Nannie’s niece, Kate "Kittie" Dandridge Drew, and her husband, George Giddens (1845-1920). The letters were written by Kittie and her mother, Sally "Tabbie" Hunt Drew (who lived with Kittie and George), from points in England, Canada, New Jersey, and Massachusetts between December 1891 and December 1893, and sent to Nannie and her mother, Catherine A. Hunt.
Following George’s death in 1873, Nannie relocated to San Francisco with their two children, George Halstead Coe (1867-1906) and John Benjamin Coe (1868-1964), and had his remains interred in the Masonic Cemetery. She remarried twice, first to A.V. Shaw in 1874 (whom she later divorced), and then to William Lusk in 1907.