Our Iowa Heritage: Gilman Folsom – An Iowa City Pioneer.

In all my years of collecting Iowa City postal covers, these, by far, are some of my earliest specimens (1841 & 1844), and are quite possibly, the most intriguing.

Both letters are addressed to Gilman Folsom, Esq. – Iowa City – Iowa Territory and both are 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 two letters from his father, Winthrop, expressing great concern over his son’s well-being.

Let’s begin with Letter #1:

(C-0260) Stamp-less postal letter, dated Sunday, November 28th, 1841From Winthop Folsom (Gilman Folsom’s father) of Dorchester New Hampshire (mailed in West Romney, NH), addressed to Gilman Folsom, Esqr, Iowa City, Iowa Territory.

Read more about “stamp-less” mail and how postage rates were determined.

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.

Now, let’s look at Letter #2:

(C-0023) Stamp-less postal letter, dated July 7th, 1844From Winthop Folsom of Dorchester New Hampshire, addressed to Gilman Folsom, Esqr, Iowa City, Iowa Territory. The cover is also inscribed: “The postmaster will please forward immediately ( if G.F. is not in the city) to Pleasant Arthur and obliege (oblige) W. Folsom”

Here is a transcription of Winthrop’s letter to his son, Gilman, in Iowa City:

Dorchester, July 7th 1844
Gilman – Your letter of March 18th was duly rec’d – I neglected to write immediately on the receipt of that, because I sent you a letter just before containing a draft for (Chase?). We rec’d one paper (newspaper) from you since, dated the first of April and that is all – If you are alive and see this you may judge what our feelings have been for the last two months. I have neglected writing from week to week in hopes each mail would bring us some thing from you. If you are alive we wish an explanation immediately. If not we wish to know the worst of it from your wife or from the first who open this letter. And obliege (oblige)
yours Ole Winthrop Folsom
we are all well

Who is Gilman 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 as well.

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 – we tell more of that story here…

Here’s an interesting biographical account on Gilman Folsom, taken from the Annals of Iowa…

In July of 2021, this very rare May 31, 1850 postal cover came up for sale on Ebay. Because it contains not one, but two U.S. #1 B. Franklin postage stamps, the letter/cover is worth well over $1000. Too rich for my blood, but I took pictures of it because the letter was sent from a lawyer in New York City attaching a draft for $100 to Gilman Folsom in Iowa City – payment for legal work GF did on behalf of a deceased individual. Our Iowa City lawyer was one busy dude, working with big-city lawyers from his little office in Iowa!

So, who is Winthrop Folsom, father of Gilman, author of our letter?

We have very little information about Winthrop and his wife, Mary. We do know they eventually moved to Iowa City and are buried in Oakland Cemetery.
Winthrop Folsom – born January 17, 1794 in Epping, New Hampshire; married Mary (Noyes) Folsom (1799-1872) in 1816, moved to Iowa City, and died September 18, 1856 (age 62).

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

Gilman Folsom, Find-A-Grave website

Pleasant Arthur, Find-A-Grave website

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