In 1849, 26-year-old David Barclay Campbell and some other young Warren County, Kentucky men were out west trying to strike it rich in the gold fields of California. David’s family and friends wrote from Bowling Green to update him on all the local gossip, but one of his pals (the torn letter has obliterated his name) was particularly chatty and irreverent. He even found something to snicker about when recounting the city’s cholera outbreak of 1850, which “swept away several of our inhabitants to that last resting place in which there is no return.”
Writing jauntily of efforts to avoid the scourge, he declared that “Never in my life did I witness such confusion [as] a great many of our citizens vamosed or absquatulated to parts unknown.” Unfortunately, the contagion occurred at the same time as a scheduled drill of the county militia, and David’s correspondent mirthfully described the outcome: “[A]s the military gentlemen armed and equipped as the law directs, would come riding in squads & sections and approach the main plaza or square of the city & hear of cholera, they would wheel to the right about face in double quick time, and homewards antelope without waiting [for] orders.” And so, he concluded, “the glittering steels and toploftical plumages” of the citizen-soldiers “remained unsheathed,” and gone were the “conspicuous field officers parading up and down the streets on their high headed war nags.” But no matter. The gloomy summer plague soon passed, business and social life revived, and our correspondent resumed his youthful pursuits.
Letters to David Campbell during his sojourn in California are part of the Garvin Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections. Click here to access a finding aid. For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.