In all my years of collecting Iowa City postal covers, these are some of my earliest specimens – and quite possibly, because of their content – some of the most intriguing…
All four letters, written between 1841-1850, are addressed to Gilman Folsom, Esq. – Iowa City and the first three are all written by Gilman’s compassionate, and very worried father, Winthrop Folsom, back home in Dorchester, New Hampshire. It seems that Gilman, born April 7, 1818 in New Hampshire, caught the “go-west-young-man-go west” bug and moved to Iowa City in 1841. Gilman came here to practice law, and according to all the records we’ve found, and other correspondence we have in our collection, Folsom did just that. But, much like it is today, starting a new business from scratch was no easy deal, and it sounds as though Gilman had some pretty lean years here in the Hawkeye State, before he finally got himself established.
And, did Gil’s family struggle back home during this season? Just take a look at these first three letters from his father, Winthrop, expressing great concern over his son’s well-being.
This 3-page hand-written letter is a family-affair letter, with most of it written by Winthrop, Gilman’s father, but we also have some short notes from two other Folsoms: LP Folsom and AB Folsom – probably siblings of Gil’s. Here are some highlights:
- Winthrop starts his letter by explaining how difficult it is to not hear regularly from their son. This is particularly hard for Gil’s mother and sister… Gilman. Yours (letter) of October 26 rec’d last evening. We have sent to the (post) office every day (for) the mail.
- (Over the last several months, the family had received from Gilman…) 1 letter from Boston, 1 letter from Buffalo, 1 from Cleveland, 1 newspaper from Detroit, and 1 newspaper from Iowa City . . . If you’d know the anxiety of the family – to know whether you were in the land of living or not – you might have mailed a paper once a week for your mother . . . Mother is melancholy since you left. Your mother said this morning that last night was the first good night’s rest she has had since you left . . . Your sister said but little – would take the Chicago paper you sent – sit with it in her hand and cry an hour. Your brother says you’re grand in that (you have) gone where (you) can live without our help. Now you have the whole story.
- Our crops are very good – 45c bushel wheat, 45c bushel oats, 25c bushel potatoes. Stock is very low – 2 year cattle sell for $5 to $10 a head. It is hard getting cash in this place – harder than you ever knew.
- At this point, sibling LP Folsom chimes in about school… We have an excellent school this fall – 8 weeks – then will go to school in the meadows – shall board there. Probably get through Arithmetic this winter. In the spring shall go to Hebron where I shall study French. And if you do not come home in less than three years I shall be able to write you a letter in French and read it if you should happen to write one in the same language. They will not let me write anymore for fear there will not be room for the rest. Grandmother sends wishes. . . If you are sick start for home then before you are so bad you can’t get home – if you do well we shall come and live with you.
- Now, we hear from AB Folsom, who must be a red-blooded brother… If you want any fighting done – send for me – I’m death on fighting. I haven’t found any gals that willing – if they are willing – I ain’t. So if you find any suitable ones out there – you take your choice and I’ll take what’s left. I can’t think of much – my mind is on the gals.
- Winthrop takes the pen back from AB (thank goodness) and finishes up the letter…Gil – be good. Be a gentleman in your department – learn to be easy in your manners, be careful not to talk too much, in your next (letter) name what interests you most here as I do not know what to write. I enclose twenty dollars. Your grand mother has sold her share of the geese for $2 and sends you the money. W. Folsom Write as soon as you receive this.
- In this letter written on June 12, 1842 and mailed the next day (June 13), Winthrop spends the entire first page talking politics – mentioning the Democratic party, the elections, the candidates, and the articles from the newspapers Gilman has been sending home.
- Finally, on page two… Now to our affairs – we have done planting – have got more seed in to the ground than ever before.
- The weather, for June, is certainly cold…Last night the ground froze for some thickness – Rumney Mountain was white with snow this morning.
- I wish to know how you live – I mean what your diet is – what is your varieties and what is your common food. Write of your self and the country often and let us have the whole story. I should like to know what you get for editing the paper. Gilman served as the editor of The Iowa City Standard. Read more here.
- Winthrop’s concern for Gilman’s well being…When your clients are poor and cannot pay cash – if you had a small farm or a store house I think labor or produce would be available once a year.
- More curious questions…I should like to know what your habits are – if you have put on that dignity you used to tell so much about. (Do you) attend public worship on the sabbath – what denomination you patronize? I have no fears but what you will avoid that worst of habits – drinking.
- Finally, in closing – more politics – I should like to know whether you and the Whigs generally are personal friends – you alone the editor of the Standard – rather hard some times. W Folsom
After attending Norwich University, Gilman studied law with Hon. Josiah J. Quincy, and was admitted to the bar at Haverhill, New Hampshire, in 1841. Our first letter was written just months after Gilman’s relocation to Iowa City, and mentions newspapers and letters being sent back home from cities as Gil traveled westward to Iowa. Apparently Winthrop Folsom and his son Gilman exchanged a number of letters and other correspondence (newspapers) from the time Gilman first moved to Iowa City (1841) until such time when Winthrop and his wife, Mary, moved to Iowa City in the late 1840’s.
While these early letters seem to indicate that Gilman was having a rough go of it in his first few years in Iowa City, eventually he became a very well-known and very well-respected man here, practicing law and serving in the Iowa House of Representatives – elected in 1850 and 1852. Gil married Emily Arthur in August 1843.
Gilman played a huge part in developing Iowa City’s first toll bridge over the Iowa River. Read more here.
Sadly, we have very little information about Gilman Folsom’s father, Winthrop and his wife, Mary. We do know that eventually, they moved to Iowa City, lived the remainder of their days here and are buried in Oakland Cemetery.
There was hope for Gilman & Winthrop Folsom to build a toll bridge in Iowa City in 1851, but the plan was vetoed by Iowa’s governor. Read more here.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Gilman Folsom, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 1872 – Number 4, 1872, pp. 298-301
Winthrop Folsom, Find-a-Grave website
Mary Noyes Folsom, Find-A-Grave website
Gilman Folsom, Find-A-Grave website
Emily Arthur Folsom, Find-A-Grave website
Pleasant Arthur, Find-A-Grave website
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