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Young Man Tells Parents He Will Trap Furs in the Rockies, with Early Mention of Chicago
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In a letter home to his parents in northern New Jersey, John Brown describes his plans to join a group of men trapping furs in the Rocky Mountains. If that plan does not work, he and others will trap in the Winnebago Swamps of northern Illinois and southern Michigan Territory (Wisconsin). At the time he wrote this letter, Brown was helping to build the two-story Peoria County Courthouse in Peoria, Illinois.

JOHN BROWN. Autograph Letter Signed, to John Brown, July 7, 1835, Peoria, Illinois. 3 pp., 8 x 9¼ in.

Inventory #25781       Price: $1,250

Complete Transcript

                     Peoria Ills July 7th 1835

Dear Parents

            I received your letter July the third and since I received it my calculations are widely different from what they was when I sent you word that I was going to the Pickatolica[1] to look for a farm. I had no doubt in my mind but you would come out here for  A farm to me would be of no use as I have no idea of getting married  till I received your last letter my expectations was the same as when I started from home  that is that I should yet see the time when I should live with you again but for me to live amongst the Jersey stone heaps is out of the question and for Culver to leave the carriage shop and come it to the back woods is out of the question also and my expectations though strong before has left me and John now feels that he has become a citizen of the world at large  there has a lot of young men concluded to go to the Rocky Mountains A fir hunting in case we could raise twenty men and we want as many more as we can get  the articles will be drawn to night and I expect before my letter starts the number required will have signed it. in case we cannot raise that number we will go to the winnebago swamps[2] and trap there this winter  there is twelve of us all ready  the calculation is to go to the Columbia River[3]  we will trap in the mountains this fall and next spring and next summer to go to the mouth of the Columbia  it is the calculation if we like the country to come back and get our tools and whatever else we want and go back again  I want you to see Wm Laurence[4] and tell him if he can raise spunc enough to go along to come as I should be glad to have him go with us  I would like you would see him and <2> let me know in your letter whether he is coming or not  if he does come tell him to start as soon as he can  the time we have pitched upon to start is the first of September and it is likely we will not start for four or five days after  if William does come tell him to bring a good supply of shoes and stout clothes for he cannot get them here  tell him to bring a couple A pair of pistols brass barrals and rifled if he can get them  they ought to be as large as horse pistols  his rifle he will get in Cleaveland as cheap as any where  tell him to try it before he buys it  it ought to carry about 32 balls to the pount[5] and if he can get A good spyeglass cheap to get it  I expect by this time you think I had better stay where I am, but I dont  the people are coming in to this Country so fast that they are like to eat us all out  flour is seven dollars a barrel here and twenty at Chicago, and every thing in proportion  you can tell the people there for I dont [think they] have any idea of it  that a steam boat starts every 2 weeks from [St Louis] twelve hundred miles up the Missoura and last wensday week one to go 2000 miles up  there is 100 families next may going from Mo to the west Calafornia  that is south of the Columbia River  tell Mother that the people in the old settlements make their own cloth but round here they do not  wool is fifty cents per pound and not very fine at that  flax I have seen none  cows from 15 to 25 dollars generaly 18 and 20 dollars  the winters is not as long as there but pretty cold, for the wind blows over these prairies at A curious rate  the summers is about as warm as there but would be warmer if it was not for the wind as it is A rare thing to see A day without a fine breese  the nights are cooler than they are wit you  I want you not to forget this time to send me word if you get the paper called the Chicago Democrat[6] or not—I am at work on the new court house building in this place[7] and get 26 dollars per month and found[8]  if Alexander Parks has any notion of coming here tell him <3> that Jane Dearwell is the worst piece of furniture he can bring for she will be sure to get him into a quarrel and they will knife or shoot him in a minute.[9]

I want you to send me word in your next if Nancy Forsyth is dead or if she has got well.[10]

            the next letter you get from me will be when I get to the council bluffs on Missouria

I want you to send me A letter so as to reach me by the 25th of August if you can  if not as soon as you can  tell William to get a short rifle if he can as it will be the handyest

            No more at present but remain

                                                                        Your son  John

[Address:] Mr John Brown / Mendham[11] / Morris County / New Jersey

Historical Background

The North American fur trade began in the sixteenth century, when French explorers traded with Native Americans for furs. From the mid-sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries, felted beaver fur hats were extremely popular in the fashions of Europe and led to intense competition among European and Native American nations to control the trade in beaver pelts.

By the 1820s, the fur trade had expanded to the Rocky Mountains, where American and British traders vied for control of the important trade. After the War of 1812, the demand for bison robes began to grow, but beaver remained the primary fur trade item. By the 1840s, the bison trade grew sharply, while the beaver trade began to decline, as European fashion turned to silk hats.

Trapping and trading furs was an extremely lucrative business, and some made tremendous fortunes. John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), for example, became the first multi-millionaire in the United States from the fur trade. Soon after the signing of the Jay Treaty in 1794, Astor made a contract with the North West Company to import furs from Montreal to New York and then ship them to Europe at great profits. He established the American Fur Company in 1808, and it came to dominate the fur trade in the Great Lakes area. A beaver skin, weighing an average of twenty-four ounces, was worth about $2 in Oregon in the 1830s, where it was the circulating currency of the area. The same beaver skin could be sold in New York or London for $7.50.


Expected folds; tear from opening seal that affects three lines with small loss of text; repaired tears on some folds.

[1] The township of Pecatonica, along the Pecatonica River in Winnebago County, Illinois, was named from a corruption of the Native American word “pickatolica,” which was the name for a species of fish. It was first settled in 1835. Pecatonica is approximately fifteen miles west of Rockford, Illinois, and fifteen miles south of the Wisconsin border.

[2] The Winnebago Swamp(s) once covered nearly one-half million acres in northern Illinois, but by the 1830s, the Swamp was an area thirty miles long and up to three miles wide in Henry and Putnam Counties between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.

[3] The Columbia River flows south through eastern Washington, then west to form the border between Washington and Oregon until it flows into the Pacific Ocean. Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery reached the river late in 1805, and traveled down it until they reached the Pacific Ocean on November 20. Their Corps of Discovery built Fort Clatsop on the south side of the river, which served as their winter camp until March 1806, when they began their return voyage.

[4] William L. Lawrence (1810-1895) was born in New Jersey. In 1870, he was a mechanic, living in Mendham, New Jersey.

[5] “balls to the pound” was an early nineteenth-century measurement of the bore of a gun, based on the number of round bullets that could be made for it from a pound of lead.

[6] The Chicago Democrat was the first newspaper published in Chicago. Established in 1833 by Jacksonian Democrat John Calhoun (1808-1859), who had moved west from Watertown, New York. It virtually disappeared in the first months of 1835, but Calhoun sold it to a group of Democratic politicians who turned the editing over to “Long” John Wentworth (1815-1888). He used the newspaper to support his own political ambitions and represented Chicago in the U.S. House of Representatives (1843-1851, 1853-1855, 1865-1867) and twice served as mayor of Chicago (1857-1858, 1860-1861).

[7] In 1835, Peoria County constructed a new courthouse in Peoria. The two-story building was completed in September and replaced the log cabin that had been used as a courthouse. It served until the 1870s, when it was replaced with a larger structure.

[8] The phrase “and found” meant that Brown received his meals and lodging as well as wages.

[9] Alexander A. Parks (1803-1884) married Jane Dearwell (1812-1883) on December 25, 1834, more than six months before Brown wrote this letter.

[10] Nancy Forsyth (1813-aft. 1880) married John S. Alexander (1808-1883) ca. 1838, and they had at least five children.

[11] Located about 32 miles west of New York City.

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