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Peter and the momentous letter

Peter Britt was heartbroken. Amalia, his lovely “Madonna,” the neighbor girl he had loved and painted in countless portraits since they were children, was officially engaged to someone else.

Her father had refused to let him marry her.

He couldn’t bear to suffer this pain. It was 1852, and there was free land in Oregon. Gold had just been discovered, and Peter was leaving.

He packed his wagon with a Colt pistol, a double-barreled rifle-shotgun, food and other supplies, and 300 pounds of photography equipment. He and three other men set out alone for Oregon Country.

For six months the companions continued on — over the Continental Divide to Fort Bridger in Wyoming, then to Fort Hall, Idaho, and finally arriving at Oregon City in October 1852. The men divided the wagon into two carts and split up.

Peter headed south with a yoke of oxen pulling a two-wheel cart loaded with supplies and his photo equipment. Other than a mule, the clothes on his back and five dollars in his pocket, it was everything he owned.

Coming around Blackwell Hill in Southern Oregon, Peter stopped in disbelief. The pointed peak of Mount McLoughlin sparkled with white snow. There was a valley surrounded by grassy hills and tall mountains covered in green pines. This looked like Obstalden, the Swiss village where he had been born. The wandering 33-year-old bachelor had finally found a home.

Peter camped on a brushy hill that looked down on the shanties and tents that made up the mining camp of Table Rock City, now Jacksonville. Over the next few days, he built a dugout cabin home where he opened a makeshift photo studio.

Word spread quickly that a photographer was in town. Miners posed proudly in their work clothes, holding picks, rifles, pistols — anything to impress the folks back home.

Within a month of his arrival, it began to snow, and a devastating winter began. The valley was isolated for weeks. Food supplies dwindled, and without springtime sun, there was no hope. Peter, in his typical frugal fashion, carefully managed his food until supply lines to the outside world finally opened.

When the snows thawed in the spring of 1853, Peter began to dream of the “easy” prospecting money his customers kept talking about. He closed the studio and with some other greenhorn miners took a claim on Ashland Creek. After a week of wading in frigid water and rocking a sluice box morning ’til night, Peter settled up with his partners. His share was 75¢ and his prospecting days were over.

Peter had what they called in the old days hustle, always trying to find new ways to make a buck. His photography, mining investments and packing business made Peter a wealthy man. He came to town with just $5, but by 1857 his property holdings alone were worth in today’s money nearly $100,000.

He built a white frame house and studio. The second house evolved into one even larger and fancier — and then, an unexpected change.

A momentous letter came from Illinois in 1861. Amalia, his sweetheart of long ago, was suddenly a widow with a 7-year-old son. Peter asked her to come to Oregon and marry him.

Mother and child came around the Horn of South America to Jacksonville, and on Aug. 11, 1861, Amalia and a love-struck Peter were married.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.