Sunday, January 17, 2021

Peter Gittinger's 1847 letter home from California

Peter Gittinger's introduction came last week, in a post entitled "A Landlocked Sailor at Greenville Cemetery," which you're welcome to read. But to make a longer story shorter, Mr. Gittinger --- born during 1820 into a German farm family north of Baltimore, Maryland, and a Lucas County, Iowa, pioneer --- enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 18, in 1838, and continued to serve at sea for the next eight years or so.

By 1846, however, he was assigned, apparently as a U.S. Marine, to Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny's Army of the West during the Mexican-American war. Kearny and his men occupied New Mexico, declaring the territory to be part of the United States on Aug. 15, 1846, and then marched on to California where, once it was subdued, he eventually became military governor.

The following letter, added recently to the Lucas County Historical Society collection, was written by Peter to his mother, Sarah, from Monterey, California, during March of 1847 where, it would appear, he was assigned to Kearny's office staff. Although signed in Peter's own hand, he noted in a final paragraph that, having injured his writing arm, he had asked a friend to put his message on paper. Here's the text as best I can make it out:

Monterey (California), March 22d 1847

My dear Mother

I have now been absent from you for some time & would have written to you before this but had not an opportunity to do so. We have had no fighting yet. We were notified that we would be attacked one night week before last, and we were all prepared for an engagement, the night was rainy, dark  & disagreeable & I was on guard at the time. The Leader of the California Mounted Cavalry came in & gave himself up, stating he could not raise sufficient quantity of men to undertake it.

California is a beautiful & lovely country. The land is rich. The natives of the country are very hospitable but rather shy of the Americans. We have quite a Navy in Harbour, the U.S. Ships Independence, Columbia, Savannah, Warren, Lexington & Erie are in Port.

Vegetables are very scarce. Potatoes sell for 25 pounds for $2. Butter, $1 per lb. Eggs $1.25 per doz. A Bullock $5, A horse from 3 to 4$. When you hire in this place they tell you not to mind bringing back the horse, but not to forget the saddle. All the troops are well, both officers and Men. 

This is one of the most delightful climates in the world. Plenty of good land. All they want is men to cultivate it and the U.S. government would be foolish to forfeit it.

Five of our men got permission to go a hunting the other day and they have not been heard of since. They were either taken prisoners by the Mexicans or have deserted. The life of a Soldier, particular in an enemy country, is attended with may hardships. Many a night have I taken a piece of wood or a square shaped stone & laid my coat and blanket and slept delightfully. Our living is miserable. Consists of Fresh Beef & Pilot Bread, no vegetables as they are scarce and demand a high price. Ten oz. of Bread per day to each man. Consequently all hands are on short allowance.

I have been to one Fandango (a Ball) since I have been in this city, and to see the Mexican girls and the Curious stile of dancing seemed very singular to me. The are very fine of dress. It is Considered a great Compliment to brake shell of an egg over your head filled with Cologne water. They take an make a hole in an egg & extract the Contents of it & fill with Cologne & small & small pieces of Gold ribbon cut very fine and after it is broke over your head your hair has the appearance of Gold Stars, the egg shell thus prepared is enhanced in value & sells as high as $1. Any person who may happen to be on friendly terms with the possessor without any distinction of Age, Sex or quality. Clothing is very high. A Common Coat that Cost in the States $20 sells for $50 in this place. But of all my travels there is no place like home.

Gen'l  Castro of California has been deserted by his troops & obliged to take refuge in the Mexican Territory with a number of Outlaws with him, 300 of Col. Stevensons Regt. has arrived at San Francisco.  On their passage out a woman died in child bed, one man became melancholy & jumped overboard & four officers deserted in Valparaiso. The old Inhabitants of California have become satisfied with the change of government.

I am now attending to the office of Gen'l Kearny, Governor of California,  consequently have very little soldiering to do which pleases me as I do not like the life of a Soldier. 

The American Consul gives a Ball tonight & whilst I am writing this the Spanish girls are flocking in with their Spanish equipage on which gives a great display & the Band is now playing the Polka. Our office is in the same building as the American Consul & we are all the time in a State of excitement with music, Fandango &c. American callicoes sell in this place at Common kind 75 cts per yd, Common Cotton 50 cts, ticking $1 per yard, cheapest Broadcloth $12. Coffee 37 1/2 per lb. Flour $30 per brll.

This country is rich in mineral resources. Mines of Gold, Silver, Copper, Lead, Sulphur and quicksilver are being rapidly discovered. The Ladies of California ride on horseback, the Lady rides in front, the gentleman behind her as a support, she at the same time smoking a cigar.

My dear mother, my health is good & I am in tolerable good Spirits. Take good Care of your health & if it is God's wish we will meet again if not in this world I hope in heaven. My love to Sisters & Brothers when you see them. I got an old Baltimore friend to write this for me as I accidentally hurt my arm a few days ago. I must conclude by wishing you health, happiness & prosperity. I wish you many Blessings & may God Bless & Protect you is the wish of your devoted Son, P. Gittinger.

Write soon (torn) Postmaster (unclear) and give him your letter for (torn) it is fowarded to me, as it is his duty to do so & I have no doubt he will when he knows you have a son so far away from home. Direct your letter (to) Peter Gittinger, Care of Capt. C. Q. (torn), U.S. Army, Monterey, California, Pacific Ocean.

My Respects to Wm. Garrison family and in particular to Susa (torn) man & Frances Rinehart.


By his own account, Peter left California four years later, sailing down North America's west coast to the Isthmus of Panama during the fall of 1851, then traveling by land across to the Caribbean coast.

He eventually was assigned to Commodore Matthew Perry's East India Squadron, launched from Norfolk, Virginia, during November of 1852, and served during Perry's first expedition to Japan before giving up life at sea entirely.

At some point during 1854, and we have no idea what the circumstances were, Peter washed up on the shores of Iowa, about as far from the oceans of the world as one could get, and settled at Greenville in Washington Township, Lucas County.

There, on Nov. 30, 1854, he married Sarah Hawkins West (1820-1902), daughter of Greenville's founder and Washington Township's first settler, Xury West.

Both Peter and Sarah were in their mid-30s at the time.  They produced a family of four sons, James F. Gittinger (1855-1937), William E. Gittinger (1857-1908), George J. Gittinger (1859-1945) and Henry W. Gittinger (1861-1953), longtime editor and publisher of The Chariton Leader and the principal source for what we know about Peter.

Peter died of a heart attack at the age of 65 on Sept. 3, 1885, and was buried in the Greenville Cemetery after what could be described as an eventful life.

1 comment:

Tom Atha said...

Great story.