Asa Bement Clark: Kept a Journal
Asa Bement Clark was born in Conway, Massachusetts in 1817. His father, a farmer, died from injuries sustained from falling out of an apple tree when Asa was just fifteen years old. Asa remained on the farm until he attained the age of eighteen, but he eventually achieved admission to Amherst College in 1837. However, his mother died that year and Asa never returned to college. He went to live in Virginia with his sister’s family, where he taught school and traveled extensively.
In 1845, he returned to western Massachusetts and purchased an apothecary business in Westfield and, seeing immediate success in this venture, he opened a second drugstore at Palmer Depot, as well. He was well-established in his trade by 1848, when the reports of California gold began to reach the east coast.
He joined the Hampden Mining and Trading Company, which chose the Mexican route, traveling to the mouth of the Rio Grande River at Brownsville, Texas and then across the interior of Mexico to the Gila River in present-day Arizona, and across the deserts to the California coast. They sailed from New York aboard the John Castner on January 29, 1849.
Asa Clark kept a journal of his travels, which was subsequently published [under the name A. B. Clarke, with an “e”] in 1852, as Travels in Mexico & California. Beginning with his departure from New York, the journal gives us some insight into the trials the group eventually endured. But, not on their first day, which was celebrated in grand style:
“A large concourse of people had assembled to witness our departure. At 12 o’clock, M., being ready, we left the wharf amidst the cheering of friends, which was answered heartily by those on board, and as long as friends could recognize each other, between the vessel and shore, there was waving of handkerchiefs and other tokens of recognition. One of the company, in the mean time, had stationed himself on the quarterdeck, with the flag of our country streaming in the wind, and others had formed a little musical band and were playing some lively airs.”
The entry for the next day sets the tone for the rest of the journey. It states simply, “Jan. 30th. Out of sight of land. The greater part of the passengers sea-sick.”
The Hampden Mining and Trading Company endured many tribulations in Mexico, including the devastating effects of disease. As was frequently the case, the company dissolved itself and divided up its assets.
The Springfield Republican reprinted a letter from A. B. Clark, published first in the Westfield News Letter. Dated “Saltillo, Mexico, March 20,” the writer noted the proximity of the scene of a great American victory of the Mexican War:
“We expect to camp to night at Buena Vista, 8 miles from here. We saw nearly all the battle grounds. The Mexicans fear the Americans, and we are treated with politeness. I have got some of the most common Spanish words so that I can trade pretty well with them.
Some of our Company talk of going by land route by Chihuahua, and others by Mazatlan. The division will take place at Parras. Most will probably go by Mazatlan. I think of going that way. Many that started intending to go by land will go by Mazatlan. Our complexions will do well for Mexicans. There are a thousand vexations and troubles here, but for my part I enjoy it very well. We are now every man pretty much on his own hook as to finances. I mess with Barker, Hedges, Briggs and Burke.”
Asa Clark continued overland until he fell seriously ill on April 28th and left the group for the town of Janos. Briggs came from camp to see that he was safely ensconced in a bed with someone to tend to him. Mr. Barker came to visit him the next morning and remained for several hours. The group, apparently under the leadership of Briggs, their 1st Lieutenant, decided to camp three miles outside Janos to await the arrival of a company from Chihuahua, which had wagons. On May 13th, after being checked by a doctor brought by Burke, Clarke was loaded into a wagon and his journey resumed.
After reaching Los Angeles, the group followed the coastal trail up to Mission San Juan and then cut northeastward into the mountains and the valleys of the San Joaquin and Tuolumne rivers. They reached the gold fields around the Tuolumne on August 2nd, slightly more than six months after sailing from New York. In summary, Clark wrote:
“I have been more than six months on the journey. As one object in taking this trip was for the travel it afforded, now it is over, I do not regret it, as I think that I have been amply repaid, although I have been exposed to the scorching sun month after month, to hardships and dangers, have lain upon the ground under the open canopy of heaven, and been deprived of the refreshing shade by day, yet my health was never better for the same length of time in my life. All the time while camping out, I have not had a single cold.”
After arriving in California, Clark tried his hand at both mining and mercantile interests. When Clark left California in 1851 to return east, he left his store in the care of his brother-in-law, but a fire in Marysville on August 30th of that year totally destroyed it. If Clark had envisioned returning to California, at some point, those plans now dissolved.
Clark married Margaret Hedges in Westfield on October 15th, 1851, but apparently still had the urge to move, because in the spring of 1853, he packed his young family onto a train and then a stage coach, and migrated to Iowa, to be near his brother Albert. There, Asa studied law and was admitted to the bar. He also joined his brother in a real estate business. After a full life by any account, Asa B. Clark died at Independence, Iowa two days after Christmas in 1882.
We know about the travails of the Hampden Mining and Trading Company through the journal that Asa Clark left us. The Westfield Athenaeum also has several other artifacts attributed to Clark, including his money belt and vest.
Clarke, A. B., Travels in Mexico and California, edited by Anne M. Perry, College Station, TX: Texas A. & M. University Press, 1989.
Hampshire Gazette, Northampton, MA, 30 January 1849
New York Herald, 28 January 1849, 31 January 1849
Pease, Charles Stanley, editor, History of Conway, 1767-1917, Springfield, MA: Springfield Printing & Binding Co., 1917
Springfield Republican, 1849-04-26
Westfield News Letter, 21 March 1849