Iowa City – April 1843 – The Letter Back Home.

In 1843, Iowa City was only four years old, and traveling in or out of the new capital city meant going by foot or by horseback. If you had a lot of extra cash, stagecoach was your improved option – leaving from Chauncey Swan’s Swan Hotel – located near the Capitol Building and right on the National Road (see below). Read more here.

Here’s a rare postal letter – dated April 7, 1843, and written – here in Iowa City – by Edward Eastman. This one-page letter is headed back east to Edward’s uncle – Moses EastmanPostmaster in Salisbury, New Hampshire.

(JP-016) This stamp-less postal cover is postmarked on April 7, 1843 in Iowa City and addressed to Moses Eastman, Esq. P.M. (Postmaster) Salisbury, New Hampshire – Merrimack County. Since the letter is going directly to a postmaster, the postage charged is FREE.

Sadly, we know very little about Edward Eastman, nor do we know the reason this 55-year old native of New Hampshire has ended up here in Iowa City. Yet, from this unique one-page letter back home, written in April 1843, we do learn a lot about what life was like living in this new Territory called Iowa. So now, paragraph by paragraph, let’s unpack Edward’s comments to his Uncle Moses…

Iowa City, Iowa April 2, 1843 – Uncle Eastman –

Moses Eastman was born in Salisbury, N.H. on August 11, 1770, making him 72 years old at the time he received this letter from his nephew in Iowa. His first wife, Sukey Bartlett, had died in 1806, and Moses is now re-married to Eliza Swester. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Eastman to the job of postmaster for Salisbury, and after a few years away (1826-1834), in Concord N.H., Moses returned, picking up right where he left off. According to family records, his brother – Benjamin Eastman (Edward’s father) and his family – lived in Salisbury as well.

Having a leisure moment, I am induced to improve it by addressing a few words to you. I am very well with the exception of a complaint which affects all new comers called the “Prairie Itch”. If not remedied it will destroy the health, but it can be easily cured and I am using the proper medicines.

Apparently, the Prairie Itch is a nasty skin condition (see pic above) caused by several types of mites, and it’s characterized by very intense itching. As Edward states, it’s very common for newcomers from the East to be welcomed to the Heartland with this friendly little skin rash caused by mites. According to medical reports, this stuff also goes by other scratchy names like barley itch, mattress itch, grain itch, straw itch or lumberman’s itch, and fortunately can be treated with calamine lotion.

The winter here has been unusually protracted and very severe. At the time I am now writing it is good sleighing, a circumstance never before known in this country. The poor Indians – the red man of the forests will come to the city often [and] say they never knew so long a winter, not making any preparation for such an event. They are suffering for food. They appear much alarmed at the circumstance – and think it portends some evil from the “Great Spirit.”
The climate here is usually mild although it is in a north latitude on a parallel with New York City. The snow on an average is never over four or six inches deep – but the present winter it has been twelve or fourteen inches deep. Spring usually commences about the first of March, but at present there are no signs of its approach.
“The Comet” a strange light about which so much has been said – has been visible here. By one of the public newspapers, I notice that a writer remarks that some great public calamity, war, pestilence, a famine, has followed every comet that has been visible for many years past. Thus, after the comet of 1836, thousands were swept away by the prevailing epidemic, the cholera.

First observed in early February, The Great Comet of 1843 was so brilliant that it was observed in broad daylight – roughly one degree away from the Sun! It passed closest to Earth on March 6, 1843, and was at its greatest brilliance the following day. The comet was last observed on April 19, 1843 – so when Edward wrote his letter in early April, the comet was, obviously, a topic of much conversation around the country. Read more about The Great Comet of 1874 and its impact on SUI in Iowa City.

I take the liberty of again calling your attention to the “Oregon Territory.” By the papers which I send, you will notice that “Emigration Societies” are being formed throughout the West. Some of those societies are going to start on the 10th of May next, but most of those will not start till a year from that time. Hence the people of Salisbury will have one year to prepare themselves to go. It is fifteen hundred miles from here and will require a journey of four months to go there from this territory. The month of May is always the starting time.

Without a doubt, from the moment Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France (1803), Americans had become intoxicated with moving westward. The Oregon Trail was laid by fur traders from about 1811 to 1840 and was only passable on foot or on horseback. By 1836, when the first migrant wagon train was organized in Independence, Missouri, a wagon trail had been cleared to Fort Hall, Idaho. From the early to mid-1830s – and particularly through the years 1846–1869 – the Oregon Trail and its many offshoots were used by about 400,000 settlers, farmers, miners, ranchers, and business owners and their families.

There are many things of importance to be considered about Oregon – and among them are the climate and health of the country which possess advantages superior to any other part of the world. Being situated on the border of the Pacific and enjoying a mountain breeze – it is said to be very inducive to health. Soto the climate it is said to be equal to that of New Orleans.

In May of 1843, one month after our letter was written, early settlers in Oregon met at Champoeg – just south of present-day Portland – and passed a resolution to adopt a provisional government. Working from the only law book they had – The Statute Laws of the Territory of Iowa (1839) – the settlers formed sub-committees to draft the proposed constitution, which served these early pioneers until the establishment of Oregon Territory in 1848.

Please send this home and let me hear from you often. Respectfully your nephew – E. Eastman

As we said earlier, we don’t know too much about Edward Eastman – the son of Moses’ oldest brother – Benjamin Eastman (see below). Born in Salisbury, New Hampshire on September 12, 1788, Edward was married to Susan Cheeney (1793-1879) of Bristol, N.H. At age 55, when he wrote this letter, there’s no way to know how long Eastman actually stayed in Iowa. We also don’t know if Edward ever pursued his Oregon dream, but apparently, he did eventually move back east before he passed on April 11, 1880 – at the ripe old age of 91. Both Susan and Edward are buried at Elmwood Cemetery in Northfield, Vermont.

(On the left) The nine children of Edward, Sr. & Anna Eastman of Salisbury, N.H. – Benjamin and Moses (the recipient of our letter) were brothers. (On the right) The family line of Benjamin Eastman – showing Edward, Jr. – the author of our letter – as one of three Eastman children (below) and his brother Moses under the list of siblings (far right).

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

History and genealogy of the Eastman family of America : containing biographical sketches and genealogies of both males and females, Guy S. Rix, Concord, NH, 1901, pp Introduction, 221-222

New Hampshire’s Post Road and Post Office History, Janice Brown, July 8, 2014

Grain itch, Wikipedia

A Clinical Study of the So-Called Prairie Itch, Lumberman’s Itch, etc., With a Consideration as to its Entity, William T. Corlett, M.D., October 13, 1888

Great Comet of 1843, Wikipedia

Comet of the Week: The Great Comet of 1843, Alan Hale, March 14, 2020

Territorial Timeline – Oregon Provisional Government established, Washington State Archives

Oregon Trail, Wikipedia

The Statute Laws of the Territory of Iowa (1839), The Iowa Printing Company 1900

Moses Eastman, Find-A-Grave

Benjamin Eastman, Find-A-Grave

Edward Eastman, Find-A-Grave

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