By Susan Martin, Collection Services
Serendipity is one of the great things about working in archives. Just a few months apart, the MHS acquired, purely by chance, two collections related to members of the Bliss family. Pelatiah Lawrence Bliss (Lawrence to his friends) and James Wheaton Bliss were very, very, very distant cousins. In fact, to trace their exact connection, you’d have to go back many generations, to the 17th century.
While Lawrence and James were contemporaries, there’s no reason to believe they knew—or even knew about—each other. And they didn’t have much in common. Lawrence (1821-1851) was the youngest child of a West Springfield, Mass. tanner. He tried his hand at various careers, working as a store clerk, teacher, and farmer in Georgia, Alabama, and Michigan, apparently without much happiness or success at any of them.
James (1825-1875), on the other hand, was an established Boston businessman. According to the Bliss family genealogy published by a relative, “as a prominent and successful merchant in the clothing trade [James] was highly esteemed. […] Few men of his age were more frequently consulted by their business associates.” He served on the Executive Committee of the Boston Board of Trade.
I did find one interesting parallel between Lawrence and James: both men traveled from Boston to San Francisco, though under dramatically different circumstances. In 1849, Lawrence joined the California Gold Rush and sailed on the Drummond around Cape Horn. The trip took seven months. Twenty-one years later, his distant cousin James rode on the first chartered transcontinental railroad excursion to San Francisco and back. He was home in just over a month.
Both manuscript collections are small, but Lawrence’s papers consist primarily of correspondence, including a detailed 18-page letter he wrote during his voyage on the Drummond. He seemed to have no illusions about his prospect for success in the Gold Rush, worrying, as he watched a sunset, about how “deceitful luster” can lead to “perished expectations.”
James’s train trip was luxurious. A colleague described the Pullman excursion here at the Beehive a few years ago. The MHS has also digitized a broadside about the trip, as well as the first issue of the newspaper printed on the train. You can find James and his teenage daughter Josie, who accompanied him, listed on both documents. I don’t have a picture of James, but here’s Josie, with the receipt for their fare.
Lawrence was unfortunately unsuccessful as a gold prospector. On 8 Aug. 1850, he wrote home, “Misfortune, disaster, & disappointment seem to have attended me ever since I arrived in the country. […] Don’t let anybody come to California whom you can influence.” And a few weeks later, “I cannot blame myself for my ill success, as I have done the best I could.” He died penniless in San Francisco just three days shy of his thirtieth birthday.
As for James, he married Sarah Jane Wood in 1849 (the same year of Lawrence’s fateful trip west) and had six children, four of whom lived to adulthood. He died in 1875.