Item #8174 [Lot of autograph letters, signed, by Dr. John W. C. Evans to his wife Martha with much commentary on the Washington, D. C. scene.]. John W. C. Evans.
[Lot of autograph letters, signed, by Dr. John W. C. Evans to his wife Martha with much commentary on the Washington, D. C. scene.]
[Lot of autograph letters, signed, by Dr. John W. C. Evans to his wife Martha with much commentary on the Washington, D. C. scene.]

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[Lot of autograph letters, signed, by Dr. John W. C. Evans to his wife Martha with much commentary on the Washington, D. C. scene.]

Washington, D. C., 1848–1870. 119 letters. 188 pp. Most of the letters in ink on white and blue paper, a few letters in pencil. Most letters come with their original envelopes. Some of the letters are dated according to month and day but not the year. Newspaper clipping included in one letter and one letter includes a partial note on a small piece of paper. CONDITION: Overall very good, no losses to the text.

A rich archive of 119 letters by an employee of the Treasury Department in Washington D.C. in the 1850s, with extensive content on life and politics in Washington; the vast majority of these letters were written to the writer’s wife Martha in New Jersey.  

Born in Philadelphia, John W. C. Evans (1809–1860) graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia at the age of twenty-one. While an excellent physician, he did not find the practice of medicine to his liking and so turned to the realm of politics. Evans was first elected to the New Jersey state legislature in 1844. Again a candidate in 1845, he and fellow Whig party candidates were defeated, owing to the drawing off of votes from the ticket by the nativist movement of that year. He was re-elected in 1846 and 1847, and during the last two years of his term served as Speaker of the House. During the presidencies of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, he held a patronage clerkship in the Treasury Department in Washington D.C. Their successor, Franklin Pierce (who was a close friend of Evans), continued him in office, despite being of a different political party than his predecessors. Evans was married to Martha D. Evans (née Gibbs (1811–1885), who came from a Quaker family long established in New Jersey. The couple had a number of children and made their home in Pemberton, NJ. A resident of Pemberton beginning in 1832, Evans died there in 1860. 

Evans was a fine writer and had many interests such as archaeology—one friend describing him “as addicted to ethnological researches” (according to this friend, Evans collected Native American relics and fossil remains). While working in Washington D.C., Evans witnesses military drills and attends speeches by Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and others. He records taking a trip to Baltimore and a few trips to Virginia (including a visit to Mount Vernon), and comments on a Whig Convention and visits of Native Americans to capitol city, including one by Seminole leader Billy Bowlegs. He notes working with Alexander Vattemare (the agent of the International Exchanges), and meeting prominent men including James Ryder (President of Georgetown College), Joseph Henry (the first Secretary of the Smithsonian), and naturalist Spencer F. Baird. Many of the letters here (none of those quoted below) deal with the physical separation of the couple and the challenge of maintaining a job in one place and a farm and a family at a considerable distance in another. There were crops to work, children to attend, itinerant workers to hire, and financial matters to deal with. 


Washington D.C.; 16 July 1850 “I went to see the Flying Artillery (which Ringgold used to command) drill on the public grounds, it was a wonderful sight to see the perfection of the men & horses in their exercises, the cannon appeared to be managed & fired with as much readiness & rapidity as a pistol.”

19 July “A terrible storm of rain & wind which last all day & night and has done great damage particularly to the trees in the city in some cases uprooting a whole square… we are full of rumors of the separation of the Union and other terrible things but I am not inclined to pay much heed to them, I have heard them too often before… just returned from the depot & saw Mr. Clay, Mr. Winthrop, Professor Henry & Col. Bliss starting off… I went up to the Capitol today, Clay was making a great speech but the crowd was too great for comfort.”

26 July “There has been great speech making in the Senate… [I heard] Mr. Butler preach in the hall, & it was worth going for he is an Episcopal, a learned eloquent persuasive and gentlemanly man, it is a nice place too for lazy Christians as you can have an arm chair & cushion or sofa as you please and plenty of room, ice water within reach or sit by the window & enjoy the air & prospect.”

29 July “Sunday at the South presents some peculiar features which are perhaps seen to as much advantage here as at any other place, during the greater part of the morning the country slaves & free negroes are coming in from all quarters with berries, chickens, herbs, & other similar articles for sale, many of them look like savages & males & females are strangely & coarsely dressed, in the afternoon the city dandy negroes of both sexes shew out, they are of every shade of color & I assure you most extravagantly dressed the style of walking. The bare arms & shoulders mode of wearing the scarf are shown in their full perfection.”

28 Sept. “I am seated at a desk in the House of Representatives, amidst a most glorious confusion it being the last night of the session and may last until Monday morning it being the usual custom to put off almost everything until the last & then hurry it through… I went to Mt. Vernon [Virginia] the other day and was exceedingly interested in all that I saw there, I have procured canes and several other relics for such of our friends who may approve them… I met Mr. Alexander Vattemare here and he was very glad to see me again. I spent one evening in examining his splendid collection of medals and valuable books he has bought for this government.” [envelope with Newell free frank.]

10 Oct. “I have been exceedingly busy engaged during this week at the Capitol (with the permission of the Treasurer) assisting Mr. Vattemare the agent of the International Exchanges in making a descriptive catalogue of the Medals of the French Government presented by him to the Library of Congress. It is very interesting but exceedingly laborious, and I doubt if we will ever get credit for what we have done.”

15 Dec. “I rode out the other night with Hay and Newell to the National Observatory and had a most delightful and instructive entertainment in viewing the Moon & planets through the grand telescope which is the finest in this country, you may guess how much I enjoyed this to me a novel and long desired treat. The city fashionables are making a great talk & preparation to hear & see Jenny Lind tomorrow night. I have determined that I will not go at the extravagant price which is asked. Four dollars being the lowest price for the back seats.”

Pemberton, New Jersey; 26 Dec. “I trust you had a merry Christmas. I staid in the house all day and night, too. We had holiday at the office but I did not feel like going out to hunt for amusement. In fact, I did not know where to look for any that would suit me, so I staid in and spent the time in reading… I mentioned in my last about my powder flask and shot bag which I would like to be sent…also my white vest which I left behind. I was at the President’s levee on Friday night last, and that appears to be the prevailing costume.”

“Jenny Lind, as you no doubt have seen by the papers, has departed after having received twenty-five thousand dollars for two concerts… I would sooner spend the money on a trip home if I could spare the time.”

Washington D.C.; 14 Jan. 1851 “We went to hear one of Mr. Giddens’ lectures on Egypt illustrated by a panorama of the Nile. It was very instructive, interesting, but the room was cold… I met Dr. Coleman at Burlington and he promised to attend to [son] Dayton in case the vaccination did not take.”

14 Feb. “The city is very full of strangers at present as a cheap excursion from Boston has been got up by some managing Yankee, and about 800 persons from down East have availed themselves of the opportunity, and they say 1000 more are coming on… I went with a friend the other day to pay a visit to Father Ryder, the President of Georgetown College and head of the Society of Jesus in this country, perhaps the most distinguished man in the Catholic Church in this country and one of the more learned. Devoted two hours to showing me the literary treasures of the college library among which are books and ancient manuscripts to be seen nowhere else in this part of the world.”

“Col. Randolph invited me to come to his house last night as he had a small part of distinguished men at his house, all scientific men, among whom were Professors Henry [Smithsonian Secretary], Baird, Espy, and some others. I had the headache [which] caused me much regret to lose the opportunity of making their acquaintance. Col. Randolph told me they wanted to get some information about the natural history of the section of the country where I live. … I have been much gratified by having the opportunity of hearing Professor Silliman lecture at the Smithsonian Institute last week. He is one of the best and most learned speakers I ever heard. At the last lecture, the President and two ladies came in and took their seats near him. I supposed them to be his wife, daughter. After I had left, a gentleman told me it was Miss [Dorothea] Dix. You may suppose I was out of humor at the disappointment.”

7 Apr. “I accepted an invitation from Mr. Mackale (who lives in Virginia some 8 or 10 miles from this place) to accompany him home. We had a very pleasant ride across the hills to his house, and I felt getting better every minute. We crossed the little falls of the Potomac on our rout and I was much delighted with the wild rocky scenery of the place, but on the following morning we paid a visit to the great falls, a place much celebrated for its grandeur, and indeed it well deserved its praise for it exceeds in magnificence and beauty everything I ever beheld. The far-famed Harpers Ferry must, I believe, yield to it, for it surpassed it on the height of the mountains surrounding it. This far exceeds it in the vast quantity of water dashing over the cliffs. My delight was much enhanced by the quantity of beautiful flowers now in bloom and many of them new to me.”

24 Apr. “We are here in the midst of a great mourning for Arch Bishop Eccleston who died here yesterday. I saw the procession this morning taking his remains to the depot for Baltimore … I send you one of the new 3 cent pieces as a curiosity as I believe they are not in circulation yet.”

Camden, New Jersey; 1 May “This is a great place for fires we have had several large ones in our immediate vicinity during the past week… the sight of these affairs and the distress occasioned among the sufferers make one feel anxious… I send you a slip containing an account of the Arch Bishop’s funeral at Baltimore [no longer present].”

Washington D.C.; 18 May “We are extremely hurried in the office paying off the Mexican claims… We have had [Edwin] Booth staying with us [at Evans’s boarding house] he is playing here and has repeatedly offered me tickets but I have always declined, I do not wish to be under any obligation and the stock company is so poor that there is little pleasure or profit. I send you parts of two play bills [no longer present].” 

27 May “What a glorious time they [his children] must have had fishing… I was trying it myself last evening on the Potomac Bridge and my companion Mr. Lantham had three of his little daughters with him. It made me think of my own flock… I took a very long walk on Sunday in the woods which are filled with locusts, and their music is almost overpowering. The laurel and magnolias are in full bloom… There is a great profusion of strawberries in the market but they taste rather stale by the time we get them and the peas are getting too old.”

2 July “I need not say how much I regret his [infant son Dayton’s] sickness… I put great faith in your care as regards his diet and nursing… It would I think be as well to have his gums lanced if they are swollen in order to relieve him. Use woolen stockings and perhaps a flannel roller round his[?] bowel with the use of arrow root gum Arabic boiled flour and milk and similar articles, the powders to be used when the discharge is light colored, and a little oil or spiced syrup of rhubarb when necessary… When the hay making commences, keep the children out of the fields and from the barn and hay house and do not in any single instance allow them to ride on the horses or the wagons. The papers are full of accounts of accidents happening to children, and I feel very uneasy about them. My delay on the rail road to Baltimore was all for the best, for the Washington train that I was to have met ran off the road and the passengers were kept on the road all night.”

10 July “There were great preparations here for celebrating the 4th of July, and I should have liked to have heard Mr. Webster deliver the oration on laying the corner stone of the extension of the Capitol, but I dreaded standing so long in the sun, and Mr. Mackale was so very desirous that I should spend the day with him on his farm that I rode out with him the evening before. We had a severe thunder storm that evening and the lightning struck a tree near the house and killed a large hog and a number of chickens, awfully scaring the negroes and we ourselves were not particularly at ease. We had company at dinner and spent the day rationally and agreeably.” 

7 May 1852 “Joseph Ellis of Ellisburg [New York] is here. He is one of the heirs of the Aspden estate [Aspden v. Aspden, 1853] which is now being tried in the Supreme Court. The amount is seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

8 June “I suppose next week we shall have a fresh supply of visitors who come on to attend the ‘Whig Convention.’ And when that is over, I shall begin to pack up and make arrangements for coming on to New Jersey… We have had one or more fires here every night for the last two weeks. Most of the rear of Pennsylvania Avenue but they have got in our neighborhood—two on Sunday night, the last one burning all the frames in Seventh Street in the rear of us.”  

3 Sept. “The place is now pretty much deserted as Congress has adjourned nearly all gone home. They did manage at last and by the casting vote of the Speaker to increase our pay somewhat. I certainly wanted it bad enough. Our Democratic members from N.J. opposed it bitterly, thinking it was quite too high already.”  

“We have here now on a visit the most magnificent body of Indians I ever beheld. They are Sacs and Foxes and of Black Hawk’s tribe, one of them is his grandson. He is as handsome as the Apollo. I don’t wonder at the girls in New York falling in love with his father. He is about 18 ears old. They wear a bright red blanket and buckskin leggings but nothing on the upper portion of their person clear to the loins, and when they throw their blanket back, they made a great display. Old Keokuk is with them.”  

11 Aug. [185?] “We were all much surprised to hear that Mr. Chaplin, a gentleman who has been boarding at our house for some months past was arrested near here on the road to Penns. with certain slaves belonging to Messrs. Toombs & [Alexander H.] Stevens of Geo[rgia]. [future Confederate Secretary of State and Vice President], whom he was attempting to carry off into the free states. This was very unpleasant in the excited state of feeling which now exists between the North and South, and I have been very careful not to intermeddle in any way… I attended a lecture at the Smithsonian Institute by C. Page on Electro Magnetism. As sister has heard a lecture on the subject, she may judge of the strength of the battery when it made a bar of iron weighing 165 pounds dance up and down a foot from the floor like a pea on a pipe stem, in fact the power was equal to a 5 horse power and was geared to a small saw mill. On Sunday morning Mr. Hay and I went to St. Matthews Chapel I was much pleased with the service the music & singing were excellent The Priest gave me a pretty fair sprinkle of Holy Water as he passed down the aisle with his attendants.”

“Great agitation again in the city some slaves belonging to a southern member of Congress have been found secreted in an outbuilding belonging to Mr. R. S. Coxe of this city formerly of Burlington, N.J. He of course has had nothing to do with it but the public mind is so excited & some men are so violent in their expressions that it behooves every one to be very careful.” [This letter was sent under the free frank of William A. Newell, who represented New Jersey for three terms in the House of Representatives, and later was the state’s governor. Then he became Governor of Washington Territory. He is best known for the Newell Act, which created the U.S. Life-Saving Service, a federal agency established to save the lives of shipwrecked mariners and passengers. Canons would shoot lines out to the wrecked ships for survivors to follow to shore.]

18 Aug. “It has been very stormy & unpleasant here for some time past the heaviest rain I have ever known, in fact the other night when it was very dark & storming a gentleman of this place was drowned in the sewer near the Railroad depot… it is a strange affair for a man to be drowned in a city street but this is a strange place every hour. I saw at the Botanic garden the other day a couple of adjutant cranes from India very strange birds they are can swallow a whole cat and eat 3 pounds of meat apiece a day.”

23 Sept. “A more delightful morning I never saw, it seems like one of the best days of Indian summer, and by the way it seems as if all the Indians of the west were coming here. We have now the great chief of the Seminoles Billy Bowlegs & his companions here, they are quite a showy party but not as fine-looking men as the last set.”

27 Oct. “It seems that our public buildings scarcely are stripped of their badges of mourning before it becomes necessary to reassume them. They are now all draped in solemn black for the last of the three very great statesmen, Calhoun, Clay, Webster. When will three such men appear together again?” [Daniel Webster had died three days earlier.]

25 Mar. 1853 “I met Marine Chandler this morning he has just returned from the Mexican Boundary line and I never saw him looking so well.”

13 Feb. 1857 “It does seem as if the elements had determined to prevent all communication between us here and the people north owing to the terrible freshets occasioned by the breaking up of the ice in the Susquehanna, they have not been able to cross for three days… The bridges are all gone on the Potomac & we will be very scant for everything in this city a bad time for the crowd expected.”

REFERENCES: American Ethnological Society. Bulletin of the American Ethnological Society, Vol. 1 (American Ethnological Society, 1861), p. 45; “Death of Dr. J. W. C. Evans,” The Sentinel of Freedom (Newark, NJ, 19 June 1860).

Item #8174

Price: $7,500.00

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