Bonfield, Lynn A., ed. New England to Gold Rush California: the Journal of Alfred and Chastina W. Rix, 1849-1854. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.
· Reviewed by David E. L. Brown, M.L.S.
Diaries interest historians because of the immediacy of their record of everyday life, especially when they are written in extraordinary times. Mary Chestnut, a member of the Southern slave-owning planter class at the time of the Civil War, kept a diary that is still read today. Anne Frank kept her famous diary as she and her family vainly sought safety, hiding in Holland during World War II. Now we have the diary of Alfred and Chastina Rix, edited by Lynn Bonfield and published (2011) by Arthur H. Clark, an imprint of the University of Oklahoma Press.
It begins in Peacham, Vermont, in 1849 with the Rixes’s marriage and continues during a time of great personal and social change (western migration), ending with them in California in 1854. Today, such hand written records have been replaced largely by blogs: great masses of unedited material. Alfred and Chastina were pre-boggers, b ut of the same mind. Lynn Bonfield’s editing and commentary have added immeasurably to their work.
Alfred Rix was the twenty-seventh principal of the Peacham Academy, and then law partner of William Mattocks. His wife was a teacher, daughter of Roxana Brown Walbridge Watts of Roxana’s Children (Lynn A. Bonfield and Mary C. Morrison, Roxana’s Children: The Biography of a Nineteenth Century Vermont Family. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995). Their wedding trip in 1849, to visit Alfred’s relatives in New Hampshire, suggests something of the enforced intimacy of the time. After Alfred leaves Chastina behind in Peacham, with their young son, Julian, and goes west to seek his fortune in the goldfields of California, Chastina’s status in the community changes. “She found herself diminished in the community without Alfred.” (p. 226) She records her resentment and depression. Alfred, failing to succeed as a Forty-Niner, becomes again a teacher and sends for Chastina and Julian. Her 1853 trip, by way of Panama (the Transcontinental Railroad was not completed until 1869), was extremely dangerous, especially for a woman and child travelling without male protection.
The diary is essentially a story of America as the Land of Opportunity: how a young couple from Peacham with vision, talent and determination left behind a world of subsistence farming and opened doors to abundance. Although they express regret about forsaking Vermont, it is clear that they had little to lose. As it happened, Alfred eventually established himself as a lawyer and became a very wealthy man, although Chastina died too young to enjoy his success.
Peacham Patriot readers will recognize that Alfred and Chastina were part of the great out-migration that reduced Peacham’s population from 1,443 in 1840 to as few as 433 in 1960. The diary provides the particulars of what this trend meant for one couple: what it required of them and their family and what they gained. Lynn Bonfield, retired San Francisco State University archivist and known to many Peacham friends as a summer resident and PHA member, has done a loving and thorough job as editor. She will help readers with a Peacham connection recognize people and places. Alfred and Chastina hoped that “future generations” would read their account of devotion, danger and determination; because of Lynn’s work, their intention has come true.
New England to Gold Rush California is recommended for purchase by libraries with collections of New England or California history, and by anyone who cares to continue the story of Roxana’s family, and by general readers who see value in following the dramatic story of one couple’s transition from small town to boomtown.