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The Correspondence of James Eads and Martha Dillon Eads

Eads lettersJames Buchanan Eads probably first noticed his future wife Martha Dillon at her father's home during 1844. By this time 24-year-old James was already known as Captain Eads. He commanded one salvage boat and was beginning to establish a profitable business retrieving sunken cargo from the Mississippi River. The smart and beautiful 23-year-old Martha turned his head. The couple married just over a year later, in October 1845. For much of their marriage they lived apart. Martha moved in with James' parents in a small cottage in Le Claire, Iowa. Meanwhile, James lived in St. Louis, where he tried to establish himself in business. During those years of separation, the couple exchanged about 200 letters.

1845

June 24 - After several months of courtship, James Eads asks Martha Dillon to marry him. She refuses to do so without her father's consent. James is rebuffed by Colonel Patrick Dillon, a prominent citizen of Missouri, who thinks his daughter can do better. Infuriated, James describes the encounter.

 

July 5 - Martha acknowledges that her father's response to his marriage proposal must have wounded "to the quick." She asks James to be patient while she tries to change her father's mind.

 

August 12 - In the months before their wedding, James goes on a bachelor tour of the East Coast, visiting Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston. He describes his tour in great detail to Martha. In D.C., he finds himself completely fascinated by the Patent Office.

 

August 22 - From a hotel room in Philadelphia, James ponders upon his approaching marriage and worries about the "heavy responsibility" he is about to assume. He fears he won't make the best husband.

 

September 2 - After weeks on the road, James tells Martha he misses her desperately.

 

September 11 - After waiting several weeks for her father to change his mind about James, Martha writes to Colonel Dillon informing him of her determination to marry the man of her choice. She tells James about the letter.

 

1846

April 9 - In October 1845, the couple marries, apparently without Martha's father's consent. James travels east a few months later to buy the materials he needs to set up his glass works. During his trip he has a nightmare. It has perhaps been a recurring dream ever since he survived a steamboat disaster as a 13-year-old boy, on a vessel that was suddenly engulfed in flames as it approached the St. Louis docks.

 

1847

April 23 - In August 1846, Martha gives birth to Eliza Ann, the couple's first child. With a small baby to care for, Martha misses James more than ever. Halfway through the letter Martha writes she knows that "tho' so deeply immersed in business" he will want tidings of wife and child.

 

May 30 - In the spring of 1847, James' letters are full of detail about work at the glass factory, which seems to be going well. But the business keeps him from Martha, who is incredibly lonely. In response to his wife's request that he come to visit her, James writes that he can't tear himself away from his work.

 

July 8 - As the summer proceeds, the prospects for the glass factory deteriorate. Martha is increasingly worried about their financial situation.

 

July 22 - For the next several weeks James updates Martha regularly on his financial situation. Overall he is optimistic about the business. Perhaps he was concealing the truth from his worried wife.

 

1848

July 30 - There is a seven month gap in the correspondence between the summer of 1847 and the spring of 1848. If the couple wrote during this period none of their letters survived. When James writes again, he has resumed his work as a salvager. Apparently pressured by huge debts, he works around the clock. Even though his wife is heavily pregnant, he is away for long periods at a time.

 

August 2 - Two days later, Martha still hasn't given birth. Feeling abandoned and very much afraid of labor, Martha urges James to come home. He doesn't receive the letter until after the baby, James Jr., is born.

 

September 1 - Eads writes three long pages of self-reproach for not being with Martha when she needs him. The letter is written over several days as he journeys home.

 

1849

September 13 - On June 15, 1849, baby James dies. Martha is devastated and desperate for James to spend more time with her.

 

December 9 - In November 1849, Eads raises the wreck of the "St. Paul," from below St. Louis, in less than four days, delivering her to the docks and collecting $4,000 for the job. Since returning to his diving bell and the salvage business he estimates having made a profit of $8,000. This is a lot of money at a time when the average working man's annual wage is about $500. Martha writes back to congratulate him.

 

December 16 - In the spring of 1849, disaster strikes St. Louis. The steamer "White Cloud" catches fire at the city wharf. Flames soon engulf the downtown. "There is no telling how many lives are lost," an eyewitness reports, "some burnt, some drowned, and some blown to pieces with powder." Fifteen blocks are destroyed along with twenty-three steamers. Eads is able to profit from the tragedy. Hired by the city to salvage the wrecks, he is overwhelmed with work. His new success endears him to his father-in-law.

 

1852

Aug. 14 - In 1852, Eads' mother grew ill and after several months she died. Martha was exhausted with the task of running the household, looking after her ailing mother-in-law and caring for her own children. Eads urged his fatigued wife to rest at the water cure in Brattleboro, Vermont.

 

October - Martha dies of cholera on the way home from Brattleboro. She is just 31 years old. Six days before her death, Martha writes to James, hoping to see him shortly. She signs off:



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