In the summer of 1869, Robert Evans, a Canadian carpenter sought his fortune in South Pass City, Wyoming. Sadly, near the end of November, he died. While Robert did not become a memorable figure of South Pass history, his personal letters found in his probate file and some basic genealogical research reveal an interesting life.
Robert was from Cobourg, Ontario, a thriving community on Lake Ontario in southeast Ontario about 73 miles northwest of Toronto. Robert was born in 1839 probably in the New England area to Henry and Mary Evans, immigrants from Ireland and England respectfully. The family later moved to Cobourg, where Henry and Robert worked as carpenters. A second son, Albert, was born in 1860 and would become a cabinet maker. Some family members lived in or near Toronto.
We can only speculate how Robert made the 1800-plus miles trek from Cobourg, Ontario to South Pass City, Wyoming, but his journey did not mean his broke all ties with friends and family. On the contrary, he wrote to them frequently, probably giving him something to do as well as staying connected to them.
Jonathan McCleery, a friend in Chicago, was jealous of Robert’s western venture and wanted go there himself. The problem was money. “Bob[,] I am anxious to get out there and if you can send me some money or a Pass or Ticket I shall Repay the first Money I get a hold of and if anybody can Rustle I am the man[.] you know that as well as I do [.] But how can a man get any money when these close-fisted-sons-of Bitches wont give it up.” One wonders if McCleery eventually made it to South Pass.
Robert wrote often to his parents, Henry and Mary. Besides reassuring them that he was alive and doing well, he sent them money, which was much needed and appreciated. In one letter he mentioned that he had quit drinking. After receiving this news Mary reportedly said “Thank God now I Can Dy [die] in Peace.“
Mary was very ill throughout most of the winter and spring of 1869. Robert had returned home once to see her but she later desired another visit from him. A future trip was not to be probably because Robert could not make the time or bear the travel costs. Then one day he received a note from his father stating that Mary had died on June 29, 1869 making “a happy Change from this mortal State to a State of Immortality where Sorrow never Comes.”
Lizzie West, a friend in Elko Nevada, consoled him. “Death is the only thing we are sure of,” she wrote. “Let us all strive to be prepared to meet it.”
Following the death of his wife, Henry urged Robert to write often and soon. The economic outlook in Cobourg seemed bleak but Henry believed he would persevere. But there was one thing that would really make him happy. “I would like if you could come home this winter,” Henry wrote. The date was August 13, 1869. Sadly Robert never made it home again.
Robert Evans died in South Pass City in November 1869. His estate was meager. It consisted of a house on Price Street valued at $25, notes on construction computations, a handful of personal letters, some outstanding loan and credit notices, and various clothes, tools, and groceries. Records do not reveal the cause of death but invoices show he had received some medical care during his illness. Robert’s estate was eventually settled in 1872.
It is not hard to understand why Robert kept his personal letters. They had a strong emotional appeal to him, and they made him feel connected to friends and family. For the modern reader, these records provide interesting perspectives about a pioneer of South Pass and life in the late nineteenth century.
— Carl Hallberg, Reference Archivist