Henry D. Mellen: Letter to “Sophy”

In the spring of 1849, Belchertown, Massachusetts – like all of New England – was caught in the throes of Gold Fever.  While word of the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California had been reported months before, its verification by no less than President James Polk and the display of an early shipment of gold dust to the White House had forced the stodgy Yankee press to admit that there was something substantial to the rumors.  Suddenly, western Massachusetts was alive with anticipation as hundreds of young, able-bodied men made plans for the uncertain trek west in search of quick riches.

Henry D. Mellen was one of those “argonauts” who made the trip to the California gold fields.  His wife had died two years earlier and he left his young daughter, Elizabeth Dwight Mellen, in the care of his widowed sister-in-law, Eliza Dwight Root.  On June 27, 1849, he secured a passport, or safe passage document, from the State of New York.  His application, found online, says he was 5’10” with blue eyes and chestnut hair.  He was thirty-four years old.

On June 30, he sailed aboard the steamship Crescent City for Chagres on the Gulf coast of Panama.  On board the same ship was another Belchertown man, P. W. Burnett.  Henry Mellen was also acquainted with Nathaniel Dudley Goodell, having been listed with him in the 1850 census in Sacramento.

We don’t know much about Henry Mellen’s life in California, but he left us this letter, preserved in the archives of the Stone House Museum for the better part of 160 years:

Placerville, Cal.  July 4/50
Dear Sophy
Having an opportunity of sending directly to Mass., I bent myself to write you a few lines just to let you know that I have not forgotten you although I have not written you as I promised when I left Worcester.  I have not much news to communicate this time as you know more about California at home than I know here in the mines.  I have been in this place ever since I first came to this country.  I am about 200 miles from San Francisco near Sutters Mill where gold was first discovered in this country.  This is the most eastern diggings in Cal about 50 miles from the Sierra Nevada mountains directly on the road from the States to the mines in Cal.  I live in a log house in company with two young men one from N. Hampton the other from Ware we live very comfortably do our own cooking washing & mending and have enough to eat.

We have had a celebration here this day an oration by a New Yorker and have a ball this eve.  There are a good many ladies in the mines.  one young woman formerly from New Haven, Ct. who made $1000 last winter making pies and others who have done better than a great many miners some selling[?] at $6 per dozen. We have people here from all the states in the Union and from all parts of the world black white and yellow

I have not time to write more now but I shall expect a good long letter from you Sophy telling me all the news

Tell Aunt Delia [Dwight Sanford] that I am much obliged to her for her letter that I found here when I arrived and tell her I hope she will write again.  I have a great deal of trouble in getting my letters.  I have rode 10 miles to get some letters from home this day.  I have secured but two letters from home since I come in this country.

Give my love to Aunt Delia & Mr. [Estes Howe] Sanford and Mr. & Mrs. Clarke

be a good girl go to school and improve your time and if I conclude to stay in California you must come out here and keep house for me.

Enclosed I have sent you ½ oz. of dust worth here $8 you must have a ring to remember the giver

Direct your letters to Henry D. Mellen 2nd Sacramento City Cal.
From your friend,
Henry Mellen

P.S.  Please remember me to Sarah and tell Mrs. Root if you see her that I wrote her by Mr. Allen of Ware and at the same sent one oz. of dust he left here for home June 1st.
H. M.”

The letter is addressed, “Dear Sophy,” and local historians have pondered the identity of “Sophy” for many years.  No one of that name is found in Henry Mellen’s immediate family.  He was born in 1814, the son of Dexter and Hannah (Gates) Mellen.  He had been married in 1837 to Mary Dwight, a daughter of Nathaniel Dwight.  After ten years of marriage, the couple had only one daughter, Elizabeth Dwight Mellen, in 1847.  Mary, who was never of robust health, died of consumption in July of that year.  Shortly thereafter, Henry, now a grief-stricken widower with an infant daughter, left for the gold fields of California.  As was the custom of the times, little Elizabeth Dwight Mellen was raised by a relative, in this case, Mary’s widowed sister, Eliza (Dwight) Root.

There are clues to Sophy’s identity in the letter itself.  He begins the letter with, “I bent myself to write you a few lines just to let you know that I have not forgotten you although I have not written you as I promised when I left Worcester.”  This sounds like he might be writing to a girlfriend left behind.  Furthering that line of thought, he finishes the letter with, “Enclosed I have sent you ½ oz. of dust worth here $8 you must have a ring to remember the giver.”

But then, there are other parts of the letter that sound different.  He wrote, “be a good girl go to school and improve your time and if I conclude to stay in California you must come out here and keep house for me.”  Is he writing to a younger person or a child, maybe?

The best clues are references to “Aunt Delia” and “Mr. Sanford.”  Estes Howe Sanford was married to Delia Dwight, the sister of Henry’s wife, Mary.  But Estes and Delia Sanford had only two children — neither one named Sophy — and no other near relations in the Dwight family were named Sophy.

The mystery was solved by examining the provenance of the letter.  As part of an inventory project being performed by the Pioneer Valley History Network, the old accession records of the Belchertown Historical Association were consulted.  The Henry Mellen letter had been given to the Association in 1904-1905 by Dr. George Thomson – who was married to Sophie M. Brown!

Sophie Brown was born in 1837 to Asa and Hannah Brown of Hadley, but Hannah Brown died two years later.  Young Sophie Brown was then taken in by Henry and Mary Mellen!  When Mary died and Henry left for California, Sophie went to live with Estes and Delia Sanford – the “Aunt Delia” and “Mr. Sanford” of the letter — who were living in Worcester.  They are enumerated there with Sophie M. Brown in the 1850 census.

Sophie’s daughter, Lucy Thomson once wrote a reminiscence of her mother that is among her papers at the Stone House and can now be read with a new meaning.  In it she wrote, “How keen a remembrance she carried all her life of these few years, beginning when she was four and ending when the family went back to the farm before the birth of Aunt Mary’s baby Elizabeth [Dwight Mellen], Oct. 1846, a joy to the little Sophie, clouded with one grief which Aunt Mary soon ferreted out — that when the baby was older she would know Sophie was not her own sister because her name was different, and Aunt Mary promised that as soon as she was well enough to go away and arrange it, they would adopt Sophie legally and have her name changed before Elizabeth was old enough to know, but she never was well enough to leave the Dwight Station home…”

So, it seems that Henry Mellen wrote his letter from the far-away gold fields of California to his twelve-year old foster daughter, Sophie M. Brown, then living in the family of Estes and Delia Sanford.  Sophie would later marry Dr. George Thomson and give birth to Lucy Thomson, two people to whom the Belchertown Historical Association is deeply indebted.

Only scattered pieces of evidence document the re­mainder of Henry Mellen’s life, but he apparently never returned to Belchertown, leaving behind both his daughter Elizabeth and his foster daughter Sophie.  The Petaluma Journal and Argus of November 24, 1864 reported Henry D. Mellon [sic] had married Mary T. Youle, both of Petaluma, three days earlier.  The 1870 census for Nicasio, Marin County, California (post office Petaluma), lists a Henry Mullen [sic], born about 1815 in Massachusetts, a hotel keeper, along with his wife, Mary, born about 1840 in New York.  A grave­stone for a Henry D. Mellen (1816-1899) in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, California, is posted on the Find-A-Grave website. That cemetery plot also contains the graves of Mary (Youle) Mellen and other Youles.

Land and probate records indicate that he owned a fair amount of land in western Massachusetts, inherited from his grandfather, which he sold off piecemeal during his years in California.  Estes Sanford acted as his agent in some of these transactions, the proceeds from which were invested for the benefit of Mellen’s daughter, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Mellen grew up in the Dwight House on Maple Street in Belchertown, which is now the Stone House Museum.  Elizabeth married Henry Wolcott Blake on August 27, 1874 in Belchertown.  Henry W. Blake was the son of Rev. Henry Blake, pas­tor of the Congregational Church.  The younger Blake was a writer for the Springfield Republican and later worked for the Milton Bradley Company. They had three children.

Ancestry.com. U.S. Passport Applications, 1195-1925 [database-on-line]. Provo, UT:The Generarions Network, Inc., 2007.

Belchertown Congregational Church Records, Book 2, 1833-1849, Archives Box 16, at Stone House Museum, Belchertown.

“Death of Henry W. Blake,” Springfield Republican, April 15, 1897.

Land records for Henry Mellen (1814-1899), Hall of Records, Northampton, MA.

“Letter from California Gold Mining District”, Henry Mellen to “Sophy”, Doolittle-Phelps Scrapbook, Stone House Museum, Belchertown, MA.

“Mrs. Sophie B. Thomson”, Belchertown Sentinel, November 21, 1924.

Probate records for Henry Mellen (1769-1836), Hall of Records, Northampton, MA.

Thomson, Lucy D., “Ancestry of the Thomson Family.” Man­uscript at the Stone House Museum, Belchertown.

Thomson, Lucy D., “Remembrance of Sophie Brown Thomson by her daughter, Lucy Thomson.” Manuscript in the vertical files at die Stone House Museum, Belchertown.



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