It was a nicely composed and written letter that Amos Catlin received in 1850 in Sacramento. A distant cousin, Ann Vaughan, had written him to learn of her husband Dr. John M. Vaughan. Dr. Vaughan had left for California in the spring of 1850 as a physician for a company of men making the overland trek to the land of Eureka.
The last letter she received from her husband came from Salt Lake City. Since then, there had been no correspondence. With a small child, Ann was desperate to learn the fate of her husband.
Manchester [VT] November 26, 1850
A long time has elapsed since we allowed our correspondence to fall into a decline and die a natural death; and many changes have taken place with us since last we met, but I have not forgotten you, and my heart has been with you often during your sojourn in a far distant land.
I have continued to keep track of you and often thought of writing, but you know how we postpone such things continually and often with the best intentions, fail to do what one desire and intend to. I hope you will not think me influenced entirely by selfish motives when I inform you that my first motive in breaking this long silence is to beg your assistance in obtaining tidings of one very dear to me.
I am confident my appeal to you will not be in vain. My husband, Dr. John M. Vaughan, left Council Bluffs the 20th of last May for California by the overland route, as physician for a company of one hundred, and reached Salt Lake City in good health and spirits in fifty days.
I received a letter from him dated Salt Lake, July 10th in which he stated that he expected to reach Sacramento City on the 5th of August. Since then, I have not heard from him, but accounts have reached us of horrible suffering among the emigrants; strong men with their wives and children dying of starvation or subsisting upon the putrid flesh of starved animals, hundreds dying daily of cholera and the survivors of these horrors toiling slowly on the heartsick and despairing.
I fear some misfortune has happened to Dr. Vaughan for people in this place who have friends in California receive letters by every steamer and he is not a man who would neglect to write if he was alive and well. He intended to stop in Sacramento City and directed four letters to him, which if they still remain in the post office of that place would afford sufficient evidence that he had never reached there.
I know no one of his company except Dr. Melville Turner, but some of them must have arrived and someone must know what has become of him. I beg of you to make diligent inquiries and try every means in your power to ascertain his fate and write me immediately. Should my fears prove groundless and you find my husband alive and well, I trust you will not regret the trouble you may have in prosecuting your inquiries for he is a gentleman and a person of intelligence and scientific physician. If you meet —- you must be good friends for any sake.
Aunt Lucina’s David started for California last spring and in a quarrel with one of the company was shot in the back, and being unable to proceed was left at Fort Laramie, since which time no information as to his fate has reached his friends and they suppose he is dead.
I was at Mr. Dickinson’s in October and found them all in usual health. He has returned from Europe and is about publishing a narrative of his travels. Helen was in Kingston on a visit and your friends there were well. I received a letter from Jane Decker and long since which though interesting to me contained no news that would interest you except that Christina Tappan and Mr. Kenyon and Mary DeWitt and Evans are married.
I have the brightest and sweetest little girl imaginable with large dark eyes and silken lashes who bears the hallowed name of Mary. She is twenty months old and is a great comfort to me in the Dr.s’ absence.
I fear many a poor fellow who started for California with high hopes will be sadly disappointed. The accounts that reach us from there are not very encouraging and I fear many an aching heart yearns for the distant fireside where loved ones wait anxiously for those that will return no more.
How is it with you my dear cousin, do you find the Eureka state a glittering humbug? Please write immediately and particularly about everything. Perhaps I may hear from my husband by the next steamer, if so, this letter will do no harm and if you meet with him will serve as an introduction.
If you should find my letter to him still lying in the Post Office and all inquiries for him prove futile, write to me and let me know the worst. Judge Hastings who lived in Sacramento las year and may still be there was a friend of the Dr.s when he lived in Iowa.
Trusting in your friendship, I remain my dear cousin your very sincerely, Ann R. Vaughan, Manchester, Vermont.
There is no evidence that Dr. John M. Vaughan ever reached Sacramento. However, in a Salt Lake City newspaper, The Deseret News, an August 10 story introduces a J.M. Vaughan, as a physician to the community. There are also other mentions in the newspaper over several month’s advertising Dr. Vaughan’s medical services.
Of course, there are questions that persist such as why didn’t Dr. Vaughan continue his travels to Sacramento after arriving in Salt Lake City in July? Why didn’t he write to his wife? It is possible that having arrived in Salt Lake City in July, the company was discouraged from making the long journey over the desert during the summer. If the company decided to stay in Salt Lake City for the winter, it is reasonable that Dr. Vaughan would practice medicine to earn some money.
In August of 1850, a complimentary quote about the children of the Mormon faith was attributed to a Dr. Vaughan. Perhaps Dr. Vaughan became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Or, there was another Vaughan in the community who happened to be a doctor with the same first and middle initials of Ann Vaughan’s husband.
The next reference regarding Dr. Vaughan comes from the Sacramento Union that announced his death in Salt Lake City. From Ann’s letter, we know Dr. Vaughan lived in Iowa, so there is a high probability that it is the same man.
Of the other men listed in the letter to Amos Catlin, Judge Hastings was most likely Serranus Clinton Hastings. Judge Hastings lived and practice law in Iowa. He found his way to California and was appointed to the California Supreme Court and later won the election to become the state’s Attorney General.
David, the gentleman Ann wrote had been shot in the back, did make it to California. David Beach was also a cousin of Amos Catlin and several people wrote to Amos about news of David’s gunshot injury. One letter to Amos noted that cousin David Beach had made it to California in the 1850s. A David L. Beach did work for Amos at the American River Water and Mining Company managing the operations of the North Fork Ditch on the North Fork of the American River in the 1850s.
Ann Vaughan’s letter represents just one of many from women whose husbands traveled to California never to be heard from again. Their deaths a mystery. What does stand out is the composure of the letter indicating a woman who had some education. As a wife and mother, she was doing all she could, which was writing letters, to learn the fate of her husband and the father of her young daughter.
The original letter resides at the Huntington Library, Catlin Papers, Box 1.