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Death Valley in '49
Having followed the various little parties into which the great train had resolved itself when it began to feel the pressure of suffering and trouble which came with contact with the desert, followed them in their various ways till they came through to the Pacific Slope, the travels and experiences of the Author are again resumed.
It will be remembered that he had rested at Los Angeles, working for Mr. Brier who had temporarily turned boarding house keeper, and finally made arrangements with some drovers to assist in taking a small stock of horses north to the mines. His story is thus continued:--
We followed the wagon road which the companies that had gone on before had made, and got along very well. At night I acted independently--staked out my mule and ate my meal of dried meat and crackers--then joined the others around a large fire, and all seemed to enjoy the company. After a few days the two men who owned the horses proposed to me to let my mule carry the provisions, and they wanted me to ride one of their horses that was not carrying a pack, as they said it would keep it more gentle to ride it.
To please the old gentleman from Sacramento I agreed to the proposition, for I thought perhaps by being accommodating I could get along more pleasantly.
Thus we traveled on, over rolling hills covered with grass and wild flowers, and I was much pleased with all that I could see. For the first two days we did not pass a house, which shows how thinly settled the country was. Cattle were often seen, and sometimes horses, but people were very scarce. In time we went down a long, steep hill, then across a wide valley that supported a rank growth of vegetation, and came to a Mission called San Buena Ventura (good luck.) Here the men seemed scarce, but Indians and dogs plenty. The houses were of the same sort as at Los Angeles, except the church, all made of dried mud, and never more than one story high.
As we journeyed along we came to the sea shore, the grandest sight in the world to me, for I had never before seen the ocean. What a wide piece of water it was! Far out I could see small waves coming toward the shore, and the nearer they came the faster they seemed to rush and at last turned into great rollers and breakers which dashed upon the rocks or washed far up the sandy shore with a force that made the ground tremble. There was no wind and I could not see what it could be that so strangely agitated the water. Here the waves kept coming, one after another, with as much regularity as the slow strokes of a clock. This was the first puzzle the great sea propounded to me, and there under the clear blue sky and soft air I studied over the ceaseless, restless motion and the great power that was always beating on the shore. I tasted the water and found it exceedingly salt, and I did not see how anything could live in it and not become in the condition of pickled pork or fish. Where was the salt to make this mighty brine pond, and why did it keep so when the great rivers kept pouring in their torrents of fresh waters? I did not understand, and these are some of the thoughts that came to the boy who had been raised upon the prairie, and to whom the great ocean was indeed an unknown sea.
We followed along the road and in time came to another village and Mission called Santa Barbara. The village was near the shore, and the church farther back upon an elevated piece of ground near the foot of the mountain, overlooking the town and sea and much of the country to the south, west and east. The mountain was high and rough, and a point ran out into the sea making a sort of harbor. This town was built much as the others had been except perhaps the Mission which seemed better. The roofs were as flat as the floors and were covered with a sort of tar which made them water-proof. The material of the houses was sun-dried bricks, two feet long by one foot wide and four to six inches thick. There was no lime in the mortar of this mason work, and the openings in the walls had iron bars across them instead of sash and glass. Dried hides were spread upon the floors, and there was a large earthen jar for water, but not a table, bedstead or chair could be seen in the rooms we saw. A man came along, rode right in at the door, turned around and rode out again. The floor was so hard that the horse's feet made no impression on it. Very few men, quite a number of Indians, more women, and a still larger quantity of dogs made up the inhabitants.
Leaving here the road led back from the sea shore and over quite a level table land, covered with a big growth of grass and some timber, and then down to the sandy shore again where the mountain comes so close that we were crowded down to the very water's edge. Here the never-tiring waves were still following each other to the shore and dashing themselves to pieces with such a noise that I felt awed to silence. What a strange difference in two parts of the earth so little distance from each other! Here was a waste of waters, there was a waste of sands that may some time have been the bottom of just such a dashing, rolling sea as this. And here, between the two, was a fertile region covered with trees, grass and flowers, and watered with brooks of fresh, sweet water. Paradise and Desolation! They surely were not far apart. Here I saw some of the queer things that wash on shore, for we camped close to the beach.
It was a circumstance of great interest to me to see the sun slowly go down into the great ocean. Slowly and steadily it went, getting redder and redder as it went down, then it just touched the distant water and the waves dashed over more and more of its face till all was covered. Were it not for the strong, bright rays that still shot up across the sky one might think it was drowned forever, but in the morning it came up over the mountain top, having apparently made half the circuit of the globe.
Soon after this the road left the shore and turned into the mountains. Another Mission was on this road, Santa Ynez, situated in a beautiful place but apparently in decay, for the men had gone to the mines, leaving the Indians, women, and dogs as in other places. San Luis Obispo was another Mission similarly inhabited, but the surroundings did not seem so pleasant as those we had seen before, although it bore signs that considerable had been done. From here our road bore still more north and we had a long mountain to work over, very rocky, and in some places barren.
San Miguel was a Mission situated on the bank of a dry stream that evidently had seen plenty of water earlier in the season. The surrounding country was covered with scattering timber. Soledad was another place where there were some improvements, located on a small river, but nearly deserted like the other places. Prospects at the gold mines were so favorable that every man felt an irresistible desire to enrich himself, and so they left their families at the Missions and in the towns and rushed off to the mines. Nearly all of them expected to return by winter.
I think I must stop right here and tell about the California carriages of which I had seen several at Los Angeles and at the Missions along our road. The first time I saw one it was a great curiosity, I assure you. The wheels were cut off the end of a sycamore log a little over two feet in diameter and each section about a foot long. The axle was a piece of wood eight inches square with a tongue fastened to it long enough to be used with a yoke of oxen, and the ends of the axle were roughly rounded, leaving something of a shoulder. The wheels were retained in place by a big lynch-pin. On the axle and tongue was a strong frame of square hewed timbers answering for bed pieces, and the bottom was of raw-hide tightly stretched, which covered the whole frame. Tall stakes at each corner of the frame held up an awning in hot weather. The yoke was fastened to the horns of the oxen by strong, narrow strips of raw-hide, and the tongue was fastened to the yoke in the same way. The driver was generally an Indian, armed with a small pole six or eight feet long, who marched on before, the oxen following after. I saw many a wagon like this, the platform well filled up with women and children, and a pack of dogs following along behind, slowly rolling over the country, and this is the way they traveled when they went visiting friends who lived a few miles in the country. Sometimes the wheels gave perfectly agonizing shrieks as they revolved, and when they made so much noise that their strong Spanish nerves could stand it no longer, if there was any green grass to be found the drivers would crowd in a quantity around the axle, and there was generally room for a good lot of it, to answer for a lubricator.
We passed on from Soledad and shortly rose into the table land we had seen for some time before us. From here we could look north for a long way with no hill or mountain in sight; but our road led along on the east side of this treeless plain, so thickly covered with grass that we recalled some of the old tales of the grassy plains. We passed a landholder's house on the road, then crossed a range of low mountains and came to the Mission of San Juan (St. John) situated near the foot-hills, overlooking a level, rich appearing extent of valley land with a big vegetable growth all over it; in some places wild mustard which stood thickly and was from four to ten feet high. I thought what a splendid place it would be for the Yankees who are fond of greens.
This was the first place since we left Los Angeles where we could buy any kind of breadstuff, and we were here enabled to get a change of diet, including greens. This seemed to be one end or side of another valley, and as we went along it seemed to widen away to the east; but our course was to the north, and we followed the road. The architecture of all the buildings except the churches was all the same, being built of the sun dried adobes or bricks made by mixing up a clay mud with tough grass and letting it get dry and hard. We saw the same kind of roof material as before, a sort of mineral tar which I supposed they must find somewhere about.
I could imagine why the houses were built in this way, for when the Jesuit missionaries first came in they found the country occupied by Indians who used their arrows to good effect, as they were jealous of all outside occupation. The early settlers evidently made the walls of their dwellings thick and strong enough to resist all kinds of weapons used by Indians. They could not set fire to them for they were fire proof and arrow proof, and the hostile Indian could dance on the roof without being able to get in or do any injury. Thus the poor Indian was fairly beat and eventually became a better Indian.
The Indians of what is now Nevada and Arizona used to come over into these rich valleys and clandestinely capture a band of a hundred or more head of cattle or horses and make their escape. They were often followed by the herders, but if they did not overtake the thieves before they got into the deep caņons of the mountains, they would usually turn back and let them go rather than be led into ambush in some strange narrow place where escape would be impossible and they might be filled with arrows. No doubt the trail we had followed across the plains, where there were so many horses' bones, was one of these trails along which the thieving Indians took their booty which died upon the trip.
Our road from here was near the foot-hills on the west side of a level, grassy, thinly timbered valley, and as we advanced we noticed that the timber grew more plentiful and the trees larger, without much underbrush. We also noticed that the vegetation was ranker and no doubt the soil was very rich. We then came to a point where the mountain reaches out almost across the valley to meet the mountain on the east side. Here we found a gravelly creek with but little water, but as soon as we passed this point we saw the valley suddenly widening out, and beautiful groves of live oak trees scattered all around. The vegetation here was very rank, the mustard ten feet high in places, making it difficult to see out of the road. This was perhaps the strongest contrast to the arid desert that we had seen.
As we went on down the valley the hills seemed to stand farther and farther back as if to make more room for those who would soon settle in this fertile place, and we soon came in sight of the village or pueblo of San Jose (St. Joseph) where we camped. Here we learned that the two owners of the horses intended to go to San Francisco instead of Sacramento, and as we considered the former place a very poor one for a penniless person to go we concluded to break up the company camp and each do the best he could for himself, for our objective point was the gold mines, and the sooner we reached them the better.
The drovers who had been anxious to have us go with them and help them now began to talk about a settlement with us, as if they had done us great favors, and called on the other fellows to help pay for their board upon the way. When they came to me they said my share would be an ounce. This struck me hard, but they said I had ridden their horse all the way and the charge was very low. I told them I had furnished the most of the provisions I had eaten, and my mule had packed a good load all the way, which I considered worth as much as the use of the horse. But they refused to allow me anything for the use of the mule and became very urgent in their demand for money.
These men were evidently of the tribe of Skinflint, who had no souls, or they would not have attempted to rob an almost penniless emigrant in this way of the last few dollars he had, and all the hope he had of reaching the mines. I did not desire to give up to such narrow principles as this and hesitated, but they were bound to have the money or make a quarrel, and talked pretty loud of the way they collected debts in Sacramento, so that to avoid trouble and get out of the clutches of such mean scoundrels as these I counted out sixteen dollars, almost every cent I had, and reluctantly gave them to my enemy. I immediately mounted my mule, and without stopping to say goodbye rode off. I may have quoted a part of the speech Capt Hunt made when the party wanted to leave the trail and take the cut-off, especially that part where he alluded to their going to h--l. I very much fear the little piety my mother taught me was badly strained on that occasion, and I thought of a good many swear words if I did not say them, which I suppose is about as bad. I could see how cunningly they had managed to get me to ride their horse that it might serve as the foundation for a claim on me for about all the money I had in the world.
I hitched my mule in the edge of the town and went in to look at the place. The houses were situated very much as in other places we had come through--scattered around over much ground and built low, but had a different style of roof, a peaked or sloping one, and covered with half round tile two feet or more long and an inch thick. One course of these would be laid with the hollow side up, and then a course with the hollow side down, covering the joints of the lower course. This allowed the air to circulate freely and was proof against rain. I saw no flat roofs such as I had seen down along the coast. I saw one gambling house and about all the men in town were gathered there, and some women, too. This was the busiest place in town and situated near the plaza. This was the largest town I had yet been in. There seemed to be plenty of women and lots of dogs, but the men were as scarce as they had been in any of the towns--gone to the gold mines to make a stake. I took in the sights pretty well, and there were a great many new things for me to see, and when pretty well satisfied concluded I would go back to my mule and camp in some place just out of town for the night.
Before I reached my animal whom should I meet but my old traveling companion John Rogers whom I thought to be a hundred miles away by this time. We shook hands heartily and he told me that Bennett, Moody and Skinner were camped not far off, and he was still with them. He wore a pair of blue overalls, a blue woolen shirt and the same little narrow rimmed hat he had worn so long. I observed, too, that he was barefoot, and told him I had a dollar or two which he could take and get some shoes. He said it was no use for there was not a pair of shoes in the town to buy, and he had not found any material of which he could make himself a pair of moccasins. I told him how I had been swindled coming up, and he was about as angry as I had been. I think if I had known that my friend John Rogers had been so near I should have bidden the rascals an unceremonious good-bye and we would have been able to hold our own on a claim for the services of myself and mule.
We went up to the place where our people were camped, perhaps a mile above town on the bank of a river, nearly dry, but where plenty of wood, water and grass were at hand; such a place as we had looked for in vain for many a weary day upon the desert. This was as far above Death Valley as a king above a pauper, and we hoped never to see such a country again.
In camp we talked about moving on to the mines. Rogers said he was going to start next day, and in answer to exclamations of surprise that he should start off alone, he said that some fellows camped a little way down the river were going to start and he had made arrangements to go with them, as the Bennett party would not go yet for a week. In the morning he shook hands and bade us good-bye and good luck, and started off down the river bank, lost to us, as it proved, for many years.
The next day as we were all sitting on the ground I felt a sort of moving of the earth under me and heard a rumbling sound that seemed very queer. It seemed there was a motion also to the trees around us. We all started and looked a little frightened, and Skinner said he believed it was an earthquake, for he said he could see the motion in a sort of wave. It was gone in half a minute. Moody said:--"How do you like California now?" I said I thought this part of it was a pretty good place for there was plenty of wood, water and grass, and that was better than we had seen in some places.
He then went on to say that he had heard Mr. Bennett's story of their sufferings and narrow escape from death, and it was the most wonderful story he had ever heard. He said the idea of Mrs. Bennett walking over such a country for twenty-two days was almost beyond belief, for he would not have thought her able to walk one-third the distance. He never knew before how much women could do when they were called to do it, and they proved in emergencies to be as tough as any body. He said if he ever got back home he should move to give them all the rights and privileges of men for sure.
One day I mounted my mule for a ride to the eastern foothills, and sat down on a little incline and overlooked the valley, a beautiful landscape, while my mule cropped the rich grasses in a circle described by the rope which confined him. I was always a great admirer of nature, and as I sat there alone I could see miles on miles of mammoth mustard waving in the strong breeze which came down over the San Francisco Bay just visible to the northward, and on the mountain summits to the west could see tall timber reaching up into the deep blue of the sky. It was a real contented comfort to be thus in the midst of luxuriance and beauty, and I enjoyed it, coming as it did at the end of the long and dreary road I had been traveling for the past twelve months. Up the Platte; across the Rockies; down the Green River caņons in my canoe; across the mountains to Salt Lake; out over the "Rim of the Basin," and across the desert, guided only by the fact that we knew the Pacific Ocean was to the west of us, and choosing our road as best we could in view of the lofty, snow-clad, impassible mountains; seeing thirteen of our comrades lie down never to rise again, and, when hope and strength were almost gone, to suddenly come out into a fertile region on the seventh of March, 1850. How I wished the fellows who slept in Death Valley could have seen this view. The change from all that barrenness and desolation to this beautiful, fertile country, covered with wild flowers and luxuriant live oaks, was as strong a contrast as one could imagine a sudden coming from purgatory to paradise in the space of a single hour.
I waked up from my dreamy thoughts, mounted my mule and rode to camp. As I rode along the nimble ground squirrel, with his keen black eye, would climb to the top of the high mustard stalks to get a better view and, suspicious of an enemy within his almost undisputed territory, disappear in a wink to his safe underground fortress. Fat cattle and horses would appear before me a moment, and then, with a wild look and high heads, dash through the tall mustard out of sight.
Next day my trip was toward the western hills, and before I came to them was confronted with an extensive stretch of chaparral brush, absolutely impenetrable, which I must go around or stop my progress in this direction. These thickets were a regular paradise for grizzly bears, for within the protection of this matted and thorny growth he is as safe as is the soldier in the rocky fort of Gibraltar. I soon found a way around the brush and rose high enough so that a backward look over the valley was charming, quite as much so as the eastern side. I wandered over the grassy hills covered with great scattering oaks, and came to a grove of mammoth trees, six feet or more in diameter, with tops reaching two hundred or three hundred feet toward the blue sky. They seemed to me to be a kind of cedar, and were far larger and taller than any trees I had ever seen in the forests of Vermont, Michigan or Wisconsin, and in my long journey from the East the route had been principally through a country devoid of good timber. A stranger in a strange land, everything was new and wonderful. After satisfying my inquiring mind I returned to camp again, and soon learned that my newly discovered trees were the famous redwoods, so greatly prized for their valuable qualities.
Taking the most direct course to camp I came, when within two or three miles of San Jose, to a large extent of willows so thick, and so thickly woven together with wild blackberry vines, wild roses and other thorny plants, that it appeared at first as if I never could get through. But I found a winding trail made by the cattle through the bushes and mustard, and this I followed, being nearly scared occasionally by some wild steers as they rushed off through the thickets. I got through safely, though it would have been difficult to escape a wild, enraged steer, or a grizzly had I met him face to face even with a rifle in hand. I could see nowhere but by looking straight up, for the willows were in places fifty feet high and a foot in diameter. The willows where I came from were mere bushes, and these astonished me. This bit of brush is still locally known as "The Willows," but the trees are all gone, and the ground thickly covered with orchards and fine residences, the land selling at from one thousand to two thousand dollars per acre.
The sun rose without a cloud, and a little later the sea breeze from the bay blew gently over the valley, making the climate perfectly delightful in its temperate coolness, a true paradise on earth it seemed to me, if I was able to judge or set a value upon so beautiful a spot; and surely I had seen all sorts, good and poor, desert and valley, mountain and plain.
But I was poor in purse, and resolved I would seek first the gold mines and secure gold enough to buy a piece of this valley afterward.
When I had seen what was to be seen about San Jose I had a talk with my friends and found that Mr. Bennett favored going on to the mines at once and that Moody and Skinner thought they would remain a little while at least.
I went along in company with Bennett, and when we got a little way from San Jose, on the road to the Mission, the road seemed walled in on both sides with growing mustard ten or twelve feet high and all in blossom. How so much mustard could grow, and grow so large, I could not understand. I had seen a few plants in the gardens or fields which people used for greens, and here seemed to be enough to feed the nation, if they liked mustard greens.
The second day out we passed the big church at Mission San Jose and soon left the valley and turned into the mountains and when part way over we came to a stream which we followed up and came out into Livermore valley, where we found a road to follow. Houses were scarce, and we camped a mile or so before we got to the Livermore ranch buildings. There was very little sign of life about the place, and we soon went out of the valley and into the mountains again.
The first sign of settlement we saw when part way through the mountains was a stone corral, but no house or other improvements. The next place was a small house made of willow poles set in the ground and plastered over with mud. This rejoiced in the name of "Mountain House." This wayside inn looked like a horse thief's glory; only one or two men, a quarter of an elk hanging on a pole, and no accommodations for man or beast. There was very little water, nothing to sell as well as nothing wanted. On the summits of the mountains as we passed through we saw, standing like guards, many large buck elks.
It was now fifteen miles to the San Joaquin river, and a level plain lay before us. When our road turned into the river bottom we found the water too deep to get through safely, so we concluded to go on and try to find some place where we could cross. On our way droves of antelopes could be seen frolicking over the broad plains, while in the distance were herds of elk winding their way from the mountains towards the river for water. When far away their horns were the first things visible, and they much resembled the dry tops of dead pine trees, but a nearer view showed them to us as the proud monarchs of the plain.
When we came up opposite the mouth of the Merced river we concluded to try again to cross. The river here, as below, was out of its banks, and the overflowed part was quite wide which we had to pass through before we could reach the river proper.
I waded in ahead of the team and sounded the depth of the river so as not to get in too deep water, and avoid if possible such accidents as might otherwise occur. Sometimes the water was up to the wagon bed and it looked a little doubtful of our getting through in safety, but we made it at last.
We found a narrow strip of dry land along the river bank. A town was on the east side of the San Joaquin. river, just below where the Merced river came in. I think this place was called Merced City. This so-called city contained but one residence, a tent occupied by the ferryman. We crossed the sluggish stream and for the privilege paid the ferryman, ten dollars for toll. The road was not much used and the ferry business seemed lonesome.
Here we camped for the night. The mosquitoes soon found us, and they were all very hungry and had good teeth. They annoyed me so that I moved my lodgings to the ferryboat, but here they quickly found me and troubled me all night. These insects were the first I had seen since I left the lower Platte river, and I thought them as bad as on the Mississippi.
From here the road led up the Merced river near the bottom, and as we came near groves of willows, big, stately elk would start out and trot off proudly into the open plains to avoid danger. These proud, big-horned monarchs of the plains could be seen in bunches scattered over the broad meadows, as well as an equal amount of antelope. They all seemed to fear us, which was wise on their part, and kept out of rifle shot. As were not starving as we were once, I did not follow them out on the open plain, for I thought I could get meat when we were more in need.
We followed up the river bottom and saw not a single house until we reached the road leading from Stockton to the Mariposa mines, where we found a ferry and a small store. Here we learned that some men were mining a few miles up the river, so we drove on until we found a little work being done in a dry gulch near the river bank. We made our camp at this spot and had plenty of wood, water and grass. We found there was something to be learned in the art of gold mining. We had no tools nor money, and had never seen a speck of native gold and did not know how to separate it from the dirt nor where to search for it. We were poor, ignorant emigrants. There were two or three men camped here. One of them was more social than the rest and we soon got acquainted. His name was Williams, from Missouri. He came down to the river with a pan of dirt, and seeing me in my ignorance trying to wash some as well, he took the pan from me and very kindly showed me how to work so as to let the dirt go and save the gold. When he had the pan finished a few small, bright scales remained. These to me were curious little follows and I examined them closely and concluded there was a vast difference between gold and lead mining. Williams became more friendly and we told him something about our journey across the plains, and he seemed to think that we deserved a good claim. He went to a dry gulch where a Spaniard was working and told him that all of California, now that the war was over, belonged to Americans and he must leave. Williams had his gun in his hand and war might follow, so Mr. Spaniard left and his claim was presented to Bennett and myself.
Williams had been twice to Santa Fe from Missouri and had learned the Spanish language and could swear at them by note if necessary. We now began work almost without tools, but our ground we had to work was quite shallow and Williams helped us out by loaning us some of his tools at times. We soon succeeded in scratching together some of the yellow stuff and I went down to the store and bought a pan for five dollars, a shovel for ten dollars, and a poor pick cost me ten dollars more. This took about two ounces of my money.
We now worked harder than ever for about three weeks, but we could not save much and pay such high prices as were charged. Our gulch claim was soon worked out, and as the river had fallen some we tried the bar, but we could only make four or five dollars a day, and the gold was very fine and hard to save. We bought a hind quarter of an elk and hung it up in a tree and it kept fresh till all of it was eaten.
Some others came and took up claims on the bar, and as the prospects were not as good as was wished, three of us concluded to go and try to find a better place. The next day was Sunday and all lay in bed late. Before I rose I felt something crawling on my breast, and when I looked I found it to be an insect, slow in motion, resembling a louse, but larger. He was a new emigrant to me and I wondered what he was. I now took off my pants and found many of his kind in the seams. I murdered all I could find, and when I got up I told Williams what I had found. He said they hurt nobody and were called _piojos_, more commonly known as body lice.
We started on our prospecting tour and went northeast to a place now called Big Oak Flat. This was at the head of a small stream and there were several small gulches that emptied into it that paid well. This flat was all taken up and a ditch was cut through to drain it. A ship load of gold was expected to be found when it was worked. A small town of tents had been pitched on both sides of the flat. One side was occupied by gamblers, and many games were constantly carried on and were well patronized. On the opposite side of the flat were many small tents, and around on the hillside some mules and jacks were feeding. One of the little long-eared donkeys came down among the tents and went in one and commenced eating flour from the sack. The owner of the flour ran to the tent, took his shot gun and fired a load of buck-shot into the donkey's hams. The animal reeled and seemed shot fatally. I now looked for a battle to commence, but the parties were more reasonable. The price of the animal was fully paid, and no blood shed as I expected there surely would be.
We now prospected further east, but nothing good enough was found. The place we looked over was where the town of Garota now stands. We concluded to go back, have a council, and go somewhere else. On our way back we stopped to get dinner. While I was around the fire, barefooted, I felt something crawl up my instep, and it proved to be another of those _piojos_ of Williams'. I now thought these torments must be all over this country.
Gold dust was used to transact all business; all the coin was in the hands of the gentlemen gamblers. Most miners found it necessary to have a small pair of scales in the breast pocket to weigh the dust so as not to have to trust some one who carried lead weights and often got more than his just dues. Gold dust was valued at sixteen dollars an ounce.
We now thought it would be best for two of us to take our mules and go down in the small hills and try to get some elk meat to take with us, as our route would be mostly through the unsettled part of the country, and no provisions could likely be procured, so Mr. Bradford of New Orleans and myself took our mules and went down where the hills were low and the game plenty. We camped in a low ravine, staked out our mules and staid all night without a fire, believing that when we woke in the early morning some of the many herd of elk then in sight would be near us at daylight, and we could easily kill all we wanted without leaving camp; but we were disappointed. Hundreds of the big-horned fellows were in sight, but none in rifle shot, and there was no chance for us to get any nearer to them. We got near a couple of antelope and Mr. Bradford, who was a brag shot and had the best gun, proposed to kill them as we stood. The larger of the two was on his side and much nearer than the smaller one, but we fired together just as we stood. Bradford's antelope ran off unhurt: mine fell dead in its tracks. Bradford bragged no more about his fine gun and superior marksmanship.
We went back to camp with the little we had killed and soon got ready to start north. Bennett was to go with his team to Sacramento and wait there until he heard from us.
Four of us, mounted on mules, now started on our journey along the foothills without a road. We struck the Tuolumne river at a ferry. The stream was high and rapid and could not be forded, so we had to patronize the ferryman, and give him half an ounce apiece. We thought such charges on poor and almost penniless emigrants were unjust.
The point we were seeking to reach was a new discovery called Gold Lake on Feather River, where many rich gulches that emptied into it had been worked, and the lake was believed to have at least a ship load of gold in it. It was located high in the mountains and could be easily drained and a fortune soon obtained if we got there in time and said nothing to anyone we might meet on the road. We might succeed in getting a claim before they were all taken up. We followed along the foothills without a road, and when we came to the Stanislaus River we had to patronize a ferry and pay half an ounce each again. We thought their scale weights were rather heavy and their ferrymen well paid.
We continued along the foothills without any trail until we struck the road from Sacramento to Hangtown. This sounded like a bad name for a good village, but we found it was fittingly named after some ugly devils who were hanged there. The first house that we came to on this road was the Mormon Tavern. Here were some men playing cards for money, and two boys, twelve or fourteen years old, playing poker for the same and trying in every way to ape the older gamblers and bet their money as freely and swear as loud as the old sports. All I saw was new and strange to me and became indelibly fixed on my mind. I had never before seen such wicked boys, and the men paid no attention to these fast American boys. I began to wonder if all the people in California were like these, bad and wicked.
Here we learned that Gold Lake was not as rich as reported, so we concluded to take the road and go to Coloma, the place where gold was first found on the American River.
We camped at Coloma all night. Mr. Bradford got his mule shod and paid sixteen dollars, or in the mining phrase, an ounce of gold dust. I visited the small town and found that the only lively business place in it was a large gambling house, and I saw money (gold dust) liberally used--sometimes hundreds of dollars bet on a single card. When a few hundred or thousand were lost more would be brought on. The purse would be set in the center of the table and the owners would take perhaps twenty silver dollars or checks, and when they were lost the deposited purse would be handed to the barkeeper, the amount weighed out and the purse returned. When the purse was empty a friend of the better would bring another, and so the game went on almost in silence. The game called Monte seemed to be the favorite. How long these sacks of gold lasted or who eventually got the whole I never knew. This was a new country with new people, and many seemed to be engaged in a business that was new, strange and hazardous. The final result of all this was what puzzled me.
We now followed the road up the mountain to Georgetown. Here was a small village on the summit of the ridge and it seemed to be in a prosperous mining section. After some inquiry about a good place to work we concluded to go down a couple of miles northeast of town on Caņon creek and go to work if vacant ground could be found. There was a piece of creek bottom here that had not been much worked. Georgia Flat above had been worked and paid well, and the Illinois and Oregon caņons that emptied into the bottom here were rich, so we concluded to locate in the bottom. Claims here in the flat were only fifteen feet square. I located one and my notice told others that I would go to work on it as soon my partner came from Sacramento. I sent my partner, Mr. Bennett a note telling him to come up.
While waiting for Mr. Bennett I took my pan and butcher knife and went into a dry gulch out of sight of the other campers and began work. As the ground was mostly bare bed rock by scratching around I succeeded in getting three or four pans of dirt a day. The few days I had to wait for Bennett I made eight dollars a day until my claim was worked out.
I then went to Georgetown to meet Bennett and family, and soon after my arrival they came well and safe. All of them, even to the faithful camp dog, Cuff, were glad to see me. Old Cuff followed me all around town, but when we got ready to start for camp the dog was gone and could not be found. Some one had hidden him away knowing he could not be gotten any other way, for six ounces would not have bought him. We had raised him in Wisconsin, made him a good deer dog, and with us he had crossed the dry and sandy deserts. He had been a great protection to Bennett's children on the plains, and company for us all.
We now located claims on the creek bottom. The channel of the creek was claimed by Holman of Alabama and the Helms brothers of Missouri. They had turned the stream into a ditch in order to work the bed of the stream, believing that their claims had all the gold in them. Our claims joined theirs.
Mr. W.M. Stockton, who left his family in Los Angeles, came with Mr. Bennett and went to work with us. As everything here was very high we concluded to let Mr. Stockton take the team and go to Sacramento for provisions for our own use. Flour and meat were each fifty cents a pound, potatoes twenty-five cents a pound and onions one dollar and twenty-five cents each. Onions and potatoes eaten raw were considered very necessary to prevent and cure scurvy, which was quite a common complaint. Whiskey, if not watered, cost one dollar a drink.
Our claims were about ten feet deep. The bottom was wet and a pump needed, so we went to a whip saw-mill and got four narrow strips one by three and one by five and twelve feet long, paying for them by weight, the price being twelve cents a pound. Out of these strips we made a good pump by fixing a valve at the end and nailing a piece of green rawhide on a pole, which answered for a plunger, and with the pump set at forty-five degrees it worked easily and well. One man could easily keep the water out and we made fair wages.
In the creek bottom Mr. Bush of Missouri had a saloon. The building was made mainly of brush, with a split piece for a counter, and another one for a shelf for his whiskey keg, a box of cigars, a few decks of cards and half a dozen glasses, which made up the entire stock of trade for the shop. In front was a table made of two puncheons with a blanket thrown over all, and a few rough seats around. There was no roof except the brush, and through the dry season none was needed except for shade.
There was also at this place five brothers by the name of Helms, also from Missouri. Their names were Jim, Davenport, Wade, Chet and Daunt. These men, with Mr. Holman, owned the bed of the stream, and their ground proved to be quite wet and disagreeable to work. Mr. Holman could not well stand to work in the cold water, so he asked the privilege of putting in a hired man in his place, which was agreed to. He then took up a claim for himself outside of the other claims, and this proved to be on higher bed rock and dry, and paid even better than the low claims where the Helms brothers were at work. This was not what the Helms boys considered exactly fair, as Holman seemed to be getting rich the fastest, and as there was no law to govern them they held a free country court of their own, and decided the case to suit themselves; so they ordered Holman to come back and do his own work. No fault was found with the hired man but what he did his work well enough, but they were jealous and would not be bound by their agreement.
But this decision did not satisfy all parties, and it was agreed to submit the case to three men, and I was chosen one of them. We held Court on the ground and heard both sides of the story, after which we retired to the shade of a bunch of willows to hold council over the matter with the result that we soon came to a decision in favor of Mr. Holman. About this time one of the Helms boys began to quarrel with Holman and grew terribly mad, swearing all kinds of vengeance, and making the caņon ring with the loudest kind of Missouri oaths. Finally he picked up a rock to kill Holman, but the latter was quick with his pistol, a single shot duelling piece, and as they were not more than ten feet apart Helms would have had a hole in him large enough for daylight to shine through if the pistol had not missed fire. We stopped the quarrel and made known our decision, whereupon Helms went off muttering vengeance.
We now went back to our work again at our claims, mine being between Helms' cabin and the saloon. Holman stopped to talk a little while on my claim, while I was down below at work, and soon Helms came back again in a terrible rage, stopping on the opposite side of the hole from Holman, swearing long and loud, and flourishing a big pistol with which he threatened to blow Holman into purgatory. He was so much enraged that he fairly frothed at the mouth like a rabid dog. The men were about twenty feet apart, and I at the bottom of the hole ten feet below, but exactly between them. It seemed to me that I was in some little danger for Helms had his big pistol at full cock, and as it pointed at me quite as often as it did at anybody, I expect I dodged around a little to keep out of range. Helms was terribly nervous, and trembled as he cursed, but Holman was cool and drew his weapon deliberately, daring Helms to raise his hand or he would kill him on the instant. Helms now began to back off, but carefully kept his eye on Holman and continued his abuse as he went on to the saloon to get something to replenish his courage. Holman, during the whole affair, talked very calmly and put considerable emphasis into his words when he dared Helms to make a hostile motion. He was a true Alabamian and could be neither scared nor driven. He soon sold out, however, and went to a more congenial camp for he said these people were cowardly enough to waylay and kill him unawares.
Soon after this unpleasantness a man and wife who lived in Georgetown came into notice, and while the man made some money mining his wife did a good stroke of business washing for the boys who paid her a dollar a shirt as laundry fees. As she began to make considerable money the bigger, if not better, half of this couple began to feel quite rich and went off on a drunk, and when his own money was spent he went to his wife for more, but she refused him, and he, in his drunken rage, picked up a gun near by and shot her dead.
All of a sudden the Helms boys and others gathered at the saloon, took drinks all around, and did a good deal of swearing, which was the biggest portion of the proceedings of the meeting; and then they all started off toward town, swearing and yelling as they struggled up the steep mountain side--a pack of reckless, back-woods Missourians who seemed to smell something bloody.
It was near night when they all came back and gathered around the saloon again. They were all in unusual good humor as they related the adventures of the afternoon, and bragged of their bravery and skill in performing the little job they had just completed, which consisted in taking the murderer out to the first convenient oak tree, and with the assistance of some sailors in handling the ropes, hoisting the fellow from the ground with a noose around his neck, and to the "Heave, yo heave" of the sailor boys, pulling the rope that had been passed over an elevated limb. They watched the suspended body till the last spark of life went out, and then went back to town leaving the corpse hanging for somebody else to cut down and bury. They whooped and yelled at the top of their voices as they came down along the mountain trail, and at the saloon they related to the crowd that had gathered there how they had helped to hang the ---- who had killed his wife. They said justice must be done if there was no law, and that no man could kill a woman and live in California. They imagined they were very important individuals, and veritable lords of Creation.
These miners, many of them, were inveterate gamblers and played every night till near day-light, with no roof over them, and their only clothes a woolen shirt and overalls which must have been a little scanty in the cool nights which settled down over the mountain camp; but they bore it all in their great desire for card playing.
Near by there were three men who worked and slept together, every night dividing the dust which each put into a purse at the head of his bed. One day the news came to the saloon that one of the purses had been stolen. The Helms boys talked it over and concluded that as one of the men had gone to town, he might know something about the lost dust; so they went to town and there, after a little search, found their man in a gambling house. After a little while they invited him to return to camp with them, and all started together down the mountain; but when about half way down they halted suddenly under an oak tree and accused their man of knowing where his partner's money was. This he strongly denied, and was very positive in his denial till he felt the surprise of a rope around his neck, with the end over a limb, and beginning to haul pretty taut in a direction that would soon elevate his body from the ground, when he weakened at their earnestness and asked them to hold on a minute. As the rope slackened he owned up he had the dust and would give it up if they would not send the news to his folks in Missouri. This was agreed to and the thief was advised to leave at once for some distant camp, or they might yet expose him. He was not seen afterward.
The boys bragged a good deal of their detective ability after this, and said that a little hanging would make a ---- thief tell the truth even if it did not make an honest man of him, and that a thief would be lucky if he got through with them and saved his life. Their law was "Hanging for stealing."
The Helms brothers were said to be from western Missouri, and in early days were somewhat of the border ruffian order, and of course preferred to live on the frontier rather than in any well regulated society. As the country became settled and improved around them they moved on. A school house was an indication that the country was getting too far advanced for them.
They crossed the plains in 1849 and began mining operations near Georgetown in Placer county. It was well known that they were foremost in all gambling, and in taking a hand in any excitement that came up, and as a better class of miners came in they moved on, keeping ahead with the prospectors, and just out of reach of law and order. If anyone else committed a crime they were always quite eager to be on the vigilance committee, and were remarkably happy when punishing a wrong-doer. When any of their number was suspected it was generally the case that they moved quickly on and so escaped. It was reported, however, that one of their number was in the hands of the vigilance committee and hanged in Montana.
After a time, it is said, they went down to southern California and settled on the border of the Colorado desert, about seventy-five miles east of San Diego, in a mountainous and desert region. Here they found a small tribe of Indians, and by each marrying a squaw they secured rights equal to any of them in the occupation of the land. This was considered pretty sharp practice, but it suited them and they became big chiefs and midecine men, and numerous dusky descendants grew up around them.
It is said that their property consists of extensive pasture lands on which they raise cattle, and that they always go well armed with pistol, rifle and riata. It is said that some of the Indians undertook to claim that the Helms brothers were intruders, but that in some mysterious way accidents happened to most of them and they were left without any serious opposition.
They are very hospitable and entertaining to people who visit them, provided they do not know too much about the men or their former deeds or history. In this case ignorance is bliss and it is folly, if not dangerous, to be too wise. They have made no improvements, but live in about the same style as the Indians and about on a level with them morally and intellectually.
There may be those who know them well, but the writer only knows them by hearsay and introduces them as a certain type of character found in the early days.
As I was now about barefoot I went to town to look for boots or shoes. There were no shoes, and a pair of the cheapest boots I found hanging at the door were priced to me at two ounces. This seemed a wonderful sum for a pair of coarse cow-hide boots that would sell in the state for two dollars and fifty cents; but I had to buy them at the price or go barefoot.
While rambling around town I went into a round tent used as a gambling saloon. The occupants were mostly men, and one or two nice appearing ladies, but perhaps of doubtful reputation. The men were of all classes--lawyer, doctors, preachers and such others as wanted to make money without work. The miners, especially sailors, were eager to try to beat the games. While I was here the table was only occupied by a sailor lying upon it and covered with a green blanket. All at once the fellow noticed a large _piojo_ walking slowly across the table, and drawing his sheath knife made a desperate stab at him, saying "You kind of a deck hand can't play at this game."
Our claims, by this time were nearly worked out, and I thought that I had upward of two thousand dollars in gold, and the pile looked pretty big to me. It seemed to me that these mines were very shallow and would soon be worked out, at least in a year or two. I could not see that the land would be good for much for farming when no irrigation could be easily got, and the Spanish people seemed to own all the best land as well as the water; so that a poor fellow like myself would never get rich at farming here.
Seeing the matter in this light I thought it would be best to take my money and go back to Wisconsin where government land was good and plenty, and with even my little pile I could soon be master of a good farm in a healthy country, and I would there be rich enough. Thus reasoning I decided to return to Wisconsin, for I could not see how a man could ever be a successful farmer in a country where there were only two seasons, one wet and the other long and dry.
I went out and hunted up my mule which I had turned out to pasture for herself, and found her entirely alone. After a little coaxing I caught her and brought her with me to camp, where I offered her for sale. She was sleek and fat and looked so well that Helms said that if I could beat him shooting he would buy both mule and gun; so three or four of us tried our skill. My opponents boasted a good deal of their superior marksmanship, but on the trial, which began at short range, I beat them all pretty badly. Helms was as good as his word and offered me twelve ounces for my gun and mule, which I took. I thought a great deal of my fat little one-eyed mule, and I thought then, as I think now, how well she did her part on the fearful road to and from Death Valley.
Helms was now going to the valley to have a winter's hunt, for here the snow would fall four feet deep and no mining work could be done till spring, when he would return and work his claim again.
I now had all in my pocket, and when I got ready to go Mrs. Bennett was much affected at knowing that I would now leave them, perhaps never to return to them again. She clasped me in her arms, embraced me as she would her own son, and said "Good luck to you--God bless you, for I know that you saved all our lives. I don't suppose you will ever come back, but we may come back to Wisconsin sometime and we will try to find a better road than the one we came over. Give my best regards to all who inquire after us." She shook my hand again and again with earnest pressure, and cried and sobbed bitterly. As I climbed the mountain she stood and watched me so long as I was in sight, and with her handkerchief waved a final adieu. I was myself much affected at this parting, for with Mr. and Mrs. Bennett had been really a home to me; she had been to me as a mother, and it was like leaving a home fireside to go away from them. I was now starting out among strangers, and those I should meet might be the same good friends as those whom I had left behind. Mr. Bennett and I had for many years been hunting companions; I had lived at his house in the East, and we never disagreed but had always been good friends. I had now a traveling companion whose home was in Iowa Co., Wis., where I had lived for several years, and we went along together by way of Greenwood where there was a small mining town built of tents, many of which were used as gambling places. These places were occupied by gentlemen, some of whom wore white shirts to distinguish them, I presume, from the common herd of miners from whom they won their dust.
We crossed the American River at Salmon Falls, and walked thence on to Sacramento City, which was the largest town we had seen on the coast. The houses were all small wooden ones, but business seemed to be brisk, and whiskey shops and gambling houses plenty. One game played with three cards, called three card Monte, was played openly on the streets, with goods boxes for tables. Every one who came along was urged to bet by the dealer who would lay out his cards face up so all could see them, then turn them over and shuffle them and say "I'll bet six ounces that no one can put his finger on the queen." I watched this a while and saw that the dealer won much oftener than he lost, and it seemed to be a simple and easy way to make a living when money was plenty.
We strolled around town looking at the sights, and the different business places, the most lively of which had plenty of music inside, lots of tables with plenty of money on them, and many questionable lady occupants. These business places were liberally patronized and every department flourishing, especially the bar. Oaths and vulgar language were the favorite style of speech, and very many of the people had all the whiskey down them that they could conveniently carry.
We got through the town safely and at the river we found a steamboat bound for San Francisco and the fare was two ounces. The runners were calling loudly for passengers, and we were told we could never make the trip any cheaper for they had received a telegram from below saying that no boat would come up again for two days. I said to him "I can't see your telegram. Where is it?" At this he turned and left us. He had thought, no doubt, that miners were green enough to believe anything. In the course of an hour the smoke of a steamer was seen down the river, and this beat out the runners who now offered passage for half an ounce.
At this time there was no telegraph and the delay was a lucky one for us. We took passage and went to San Francisco that night, where we put up at a cheap tavern near where the Custom House now stands.
Here we learned that we would have to wait two days before a ship would sail for Panama, and during this time we surveyed the town from the hill-tops and walked all over the principal streets. It was really a small, poorly built, dirty looking place, with few wharves, poor, cheap hotels, and very rough inhabitants. There were lots of gambling houses full of tables holding money, and the rooms filled with pretty rough looking people, except the card dealers, most of whom wore white shirts, and a few sported plug hats. There was also a "right smart sprinkling" of ladies present who were well dressed and adorned with rich jewelry, and their position seemed to be that of paying teller at the gambling tables.
The buildings seemed to be rather cheap, although material was very expensive, as well as labor, mechanics of all sorts getting as much as ten or twelve dollars per day for work. Coin seemed to be scarce, and a great deal of the money needed on the gambling tables was represented by iron washers, each of which represented an ounce of gold.
I noticed some places in the streets where it was muddy and a narrow walk had been made out of boxes of tobacco, and sometimes even bacon was used for the same purpose. Transportation from the city to the mines was very slow and made by schooner. Ship loads of merchandise had arrived and been unloaded, and the sailors having run away to the mines, everything except whiskey and cards was neglected. Whiskey sold at this place for fifty cents a drink.
A man at the tavern where we stopped tried hard to sell me a fifty-vara lot there in the edge of the mud (near where the Custom House now stands) for six hundred dollars. I thought this a pretty high price and besides such a lot was no use to me, for I had never lived in town and could not so easily see the uses to which such property could be put. It seemed very doubtful to me that this place would ever be much larger or amount to much, for it evidently depended on the mines for a support, and these were so shallow that it looked as if they would be worked out in a short time and the country and town both be deserted. And I was not alone in thinking that the country would soon be deserted, for accustomed as we all had been to a showery summer, these dry seasons would seem entirely to prevent extensive farming. Some cursed the country and said they were on their way to "good old Missouri, God's own country." Hearing so much I concluded it would be wise not to invest, but to get me back to Wisconsin again.
The steamer we took passage in was the Northerner, advertised to sail on the twenty-ninth day of November, 1850. The cabin room was all engaged, and they charged us nine ounces for steerage passage; but I did not care as much about their good rooms and clean sheets as I would have done at one time, for I had been a long time without either and did not care to pay the difference. When we were at the ship's office we had to take our turns to get tickets. One man weighed out the dust, and another filled out certificates. When the callers began to get a little scarce I looked under the counter where I saw a whole panful of dust to which they added mine to make the pile a little higher. They gave out no berths with these tickets, but such little things as that did not trouble us in the least. It was far better fare than we used to have in and about Death Valley, and we thought we could live through anything that promised better than the desert.
The passenger list footed up four hundred and forty, and when all got on board, at about ten o'clock in the morning, there was hardly room for all to stand up comfortably. It seemed to me to be a very much over-crowded boat in which to put to sea, but we floated out into the current, with all the faces toward the shore, and hats and handkerchiefs waving goodbye to those who had come down to see the home-goers safely off.
As we passed out through the wonderful Golden Gate and the out going current met the solid sea, each seemed wrestling for the mastery, and the waves beat and dashed themselves into foam all around us, while the spray came over the bows quite lively, frightening some who did not expect such treatment. When we had passed this scene of watery commotion and got out into the deeper water, the sea smoothed down a great deal; but sea-sickness began to claim its victims, at first a few, then more and more, till the greater part were quite badly affected. I had a touch of it myself, but managed to keep my feet by bracing out pretty wide, and hugging everything I could get hold of that seemed to offer a steady support, and I did not lie down until after I had thrown my breakfast overboard.
By the time dark came nearly every one was on his back, mostly on deck, and no one asleep. All were retching and moaning bitterly. Some who had a few hours before cursed California now cursed the sea, and declared that if they could induce the Captain to turn about and put them back on shore again, they would rather creep on their hands and knees clear back to old Missouri over rocks and sand, than to ride any further on such a miserable old boat as this one was.
Next morning the decks looked pretty filthy, and about all the food the passengers had eaten was now spread about the decks in a half digested condition. Most of the passengers were very sick. With the early daylight the sailors coupled the hose to the big steam pump, and began the work of washing and scrubbing off the decks, and though many begged hard to be left alone as they were, with all the filth, a good flood of salt water was the only answer they received to their pleading, and they were compelled to move, for the sailors said they could not change their orders without the Captain, and he would not be out of bed till ten o'clock or later. So the cursing and swearing went for naught, and the decks were clean again. There were no deaths to report, but there were very few to do duty at the tables in eating the food prepared for them. After a few days the tables filled up again, and now it took them so long to eat that there had to be an order for only two meals a day or there would not have been a chance for all to get something. They were terribly hungry now, and every one seemed to try his best to take in provisions enough to last him for at least twelve hours.
As the fellows began to get their sea legs on, they began to talk as if they were still in California, and could easily manage any little boat like this, and could run things as they did when they crossed the plains, where no sheriff, court or judge had anything to say about matters, and all law was left behind. They began to act as if they were lords over all they could see, and as many of them were from the Southern states, they seemed to take an especial pride in boasting of how they did as they pleased, about like the Helms brothers. They talked as if they could run the world, or the universe even, themselves without assistance.
One morning at breakfast, when the table was full and the waiters scarce, some of these fellows swore and talked pretty rough, and as a waiter was passing a blue-blood from New Orleans rose in his seat and called for sugar, holding the empty bowl in his hand, but the waiter passed on and paid no attention, and when a mulatto waiter came along behind him the angry man damned him the worst he could, ordering him to bring a bowl of sugar, quick. This waiter did not stop and the Louisiana man threw the bowl at the waiter's head, but missed it, and the bowl went crashing against the side of the ship. I expected surely the Captain and his men would come and put the unruly fellow in irons, and there might be a fight or a riot, so I cut my meal short and went on deck about as soon as I could do so, thinking that would be a safer place. But the Captain seemed to know about how to manage such fellows, and never left his stateroom, which I think was a wise move. The darky did not make his appearance at table afterwards, and the man who threw the bowl said that colored folks had to mind a gentleman when he spoke to them, or fare worse.
The Captain now got out his passenger list, and we all had to pass through a narrow space near the wheel-house and every one answer to his name and show his ticket. This made work for about one day. Some stowaways were found and put down into the hole to heave coal. One day the Captain and mate were out taking an observation on the sun when a young Missourian stepped up to see what was being done, and said to the Captain:--"Captain, don't you think I could learn how to do that kind of business?" The Captain took the young man's hand and looked at his nails which were very rough and dirty and said:--"No my lad; boys with such finger nails can't learn navigation." This made a big laugh at the brave lubber's expense.
Many of the sea-sick ones did not get up so soon, and some died of that, or something else, and their bodies were sewed up in blankets with a bushel of coal at their feet to sink them, and thrown overboard. The bodies were laid out on a plank at the ship's side, the Captain would read a very brief service, and the sailors would, at the appropriate time, raise the end of the plank so that the body slid off and went down out of sight in a moment.
In due time we went into the harbor of Acapulco for water and coal. Here nearly every one went on shore, and as there was no wharf for the vessel to lie to, the native canoes had many passengers at a dollar apiece for passage money. Out back of town there was a small stream of clear water which was warm and nice to bathe in, and some places three or four feet deep, so that a great many stripped off for a good wash which was said to be very healthful in this climate. Many native women were on hand with soap and towels ready to give any one a good scrubbing for _dos reales_, (twenty-five cents) and those who employed them said they did a good, satisfactory job.
As I returned to town the streets seemed to be deserted, and I saw one man come out on an adjoining street, and after running a few steps, fall down on his face. Hearing the report of a gun at the same time, I hurried on to get out of danger, but I afterward learned that the man was a travelling gambler who had come across the country from Mexico, and that he was killed as he fell. No one seemed to care for him.
Near the beach were some large trees, and under them dancing was going on to the music of the guitar. There were plenty of pretty Spanish girls for partners, and these and our boys made up an interesting party. The girls did not seem at all bashful or afraid of the boys, and though they could not talk together very much they got along with the sign language, and the ladies seemed very fond of the _Americanos_.
There was a fort here, a regular moss-backed old concern, and the soldiers were bare footed and did not need much clothing.
The cattle that were taken on board here were made to swim out to the ship, and then, with a rope around their horns, hoisted on deck, a distance of perhaps forty feet above the water. The maddened brutes were put into a secure stall ready for the ship's butcher. The small boys came around the ship in canoes, and begged the passengers to throw them out a dime, and when the coin struck the water they would dive for it, never losing a single one. One man dropped a bright bullet and the boy who dove for it was so enraged that he called him a d----d Gringo (Englishman.) None of these boys wore any clothes.
This town, like all Spanish towns, was composed of one-story houses, with dry mud, fire-proof walls. The country around looked very mountainous and barren, and comfortably warm.
After two days we were called on board, and soon set sail for sea again; and now, as we approached the equator, it became uncomfortably warm and an awning was put over the upper deck. All heavy clothing was laid aside, and anyone who had any amount of money on his person was unable to conceal it; but no one seemed to have any fear of theft, for a thief could not conceal anything he should steal, and no one reported anything lost. There was occasionally a dead body to be consigned to a watery grave.
A few days out from here and we were again mustered as before to show our tickets, which were carefully examined.
It seemed strange to me that the water was the poorest fare we had. It was sickish tasting stuff, and so warm it would do very well for dish-water.
There were many interesting things to see. Sometimes it would be spouting whales; sometimes great black masses rolling on the water, looking like a ship bottom upward, which some said were black-fish. Some fish seemed to be at play, and would jump ten feet or more out of the water. The flying fish would skim over the waves as the ship's wheels seemed to frighten them; and we went through a hundred acres of porpoises, all going the same way. The ship plowed right through them, but none seemed to get hurt by the wheels. Perhaps they were emigrants like ourselves in search of a better place.
It now became terribly hot, and the sun was nearly overhead at noon. Sometimes a shark could be seen along-side, and though he seemed to make no effort, easily kept up with the moving ship. Occasionally we saw a sea snake navigating the ocean all by himself. I did not understand how these fellows went to sea and lived so far from land. The flying fish seemed to be more plentiful as we went along, and would leave the water and scud along before us.
We had evening concerts on the forecastle, managed by the sailors. Their songs were not sacred songs by any means, and many of them hardly fit to be heard by delicate ears. We again had to run the gauntlet of the narrow passage and have our tickets looked over, and this time a new stowaway was found, and he straightway made application for a job. "Go below, sir" was all the Captain said. Several died and had their sea burial, and some who had been so sick all the way as not to get out of bed, proved tough enough to stand the climate pretty well.
As we were nearing Panama the doctor posted a notice to the mast cautioning us against eating much fruit while on shore, as it was very dangerous when eaten to excess. We anchored some little distance from the shore and had to land in small boats managed by the natives. I went in one, and when the boat grounded at the beach the boatman took me on his back and set me on shore, demanding two dollars for the job, which I paid, and he served the whole crowd in the same way. The water here was blood warm, and they told me the tide ran very high.
This was a strange old town to me, walled in on all sides, a small plaza in the center with a Catholic church on one side, and the other houses were mostly two story. On the side next to the beach was a high, thick wall which contained cells that were used for a jail, and on top were some dismounted cannon, long and old fashioned.
The soldiers were poor, lazy fellows, barefooted, and had very poor looking guns. Going out and in all had to pass through a large gateway, but they asked no questions. The streets were very narrow and dirty and the sleeping rooms in the second story of the houses seemed to be inhabited by cats. For bed clothes was needed only a single sheet. On the roofs all around sat turkey buzzards, and anything that fell in the streets that was possible for them to eat, was gobbled up very quickly. They were as tame as chickens, and walked around as fearless and lordly as tame turkeys. In consideration of their cleaning up the streets without pay, they were protected by law. One of the passengers could not resist the temptation to shoot one, and a small squad of soldiers were soon after him, and came into a room where there were fifty of us, but could not find their man. He would have been sent to jail if he had been caught. We had to pay one dollar a night for beds in these rooms, and they counted money at the rate of eight dimes to the dollar.
The old town of Panama lies a little south in the edge of the sea, and was destroyed by an earthquake long ago I was told. To me, raised in the north, everything was very new and strange in way of living, style of building and kind of produce. There were donkeys, parrots and all kinds of monkeys in plenty. Most of the women were of very dark complexion, and not dressed very stylishly, while the younger population did not have even a fig leaf, or anything to take its place. The adults dressed very economically, for the days are summer days all the year round, and the clothing is scanty and cheap for either sex.
The cattle were small, pale red creatures, and not inclined to be very fat, and the birds mostly of the parrot kind. The market plaza is outside the walls, and a small stream runs through it, with the banks pretty thickly occupied by washerwomen. All the washing was done without the aid of a fire.
On the plaza there were plenty of donkeys loaded with truck of all sorts, from wood, green grass, cocoa-nuts and sugar-cane to parrots, monkeys and all kinds of tropical fruits. Outside the walls the houses were made of stakes interwoven with palm leaves, and everything was green as well as the grass and trees. Very little of the ground seemed to be cultivated, and the people were lazy and idle, for they could live so easily on the wild products of the country. A white man here would soon sweat out all his ambition and enterprise, and would be almost certain to catch the Panama yellow fever. The common class of the people here, I should say, were Spanish and negro mixed, and they seem to get along pretty well; but the country is not suitable for white people. It seems to have been made on purpose for donkeys, parrots and long-heeled negroes.
The cabin passengers engaged all the horses and mules the country afforded on which to ride across the Chagres River, so it fell to the lot of myself and companion to transfer ourselves on foot, which was pretty hard work in the hot and sultry weather. My gold dust began to grow pretty heavy as I went along, and though I had only about two thousand dollars, weighing about ten pounds, it seemed to me that it weighed fifty pounds by the way that it bore down upon my shoulders and wore sore places on them. It really was burdensome. I had worn it on my person night and day ever since leaving the mines, and I had some little fear of being robbed when off the ship.
Our road had been some day paved with cobble stones. At the outskirts of the town we met a native coming in with a big green lizard, about two feet long, which he was hauling and driving along with a string around its neck. I wondered if this was not a Panama butcher bringing in a fresh supply of meat.
When we reached the hills on our way from Panama, the paved road ended and we had only a mule trail to follow. The whole country was so densely timbered that no man could go very far without a cleared road. In some places we passed over hills of solid rock, but it was of a soft nature so that the trail was worn down very deep, and we had to take the same regular steps that the mules did, for their tracks were worn down a foot or more. On the road we would occasionally meet a native with a heavy pack on his back, a long staff in each hand, and a solid half-length sword by his side. He, like the burro, grunted every step he took. They seemed to carry unreasonably heavy loads on their backs, such as boxes and trunks, but there was no other way of getting either freight or baggage across the isthmus at that time.
It looked to me as if this trail might be just such a one as one would expect robbers to frequent, for it would of course be expected that Californians would carry considerable money with them, and we might reasonably look out for this sort of gentry at any turn of the trail. We were generally without weapons, and we should have to deliver on demand, and if any one was killed the body could easily be concealed in the thick brush on either side of the trail, and no special search for anyone missing would occur.
About noon one day we came to a native hut, and saw growing on a tree near by something that looked like oranges, and we made very straight tracks with the idea of picking some and having a feast, but some of the people in the shanty called out to us and made motions for us not to pick them for they were no good; so we missed our treat of oranges and contented ourselves with a big drink of water and walked on.
After a little more travel we came to another shanty made of poles and palm leaves, occupied by an American. He was a tall, raw-boned, cadaverous looking way-side renegade who looked as if the blood had all been pumped out of his veins, and he claimed to be sick. He said he was one of the Texas royal sons. We applied for some dinner and he lazily told us there were flour, tea and bacon and that we could help ourselves. I wet up some flour and baked some cakes, made some poor tea, and fried some bacon. We all got a sort of dinner out of his pantry stuff, and left him a dollar apiece for the accommodation. As we walked on my companion gave out and could carry his bundle no longer, so I took it, along with my own, and we got on as fast as we could, but darkness came on us before we reached the Chagres River and we had to stay all night at a native hut. We had some supper consisting of some very poor coffee, crackers, and a couple of eggs apiece, and had to sleep out under a tree where we knew we might find lizards, snakes, and other poisonous reptiles, and perhaps a thieving monkey might pick our pockets while we slept.
Before it was entirely dark many who rode horses came along, many of them ladies, and following the custom of the country, they all rode astride. Among this crowd was one middle-aged and somewhat corpulent old fellow, by profession a sea-captain, who put on many airs. The old fellow put on his cool white coat--in fact, a white suit throughout--and in this tropical climate he looked very comfortable, indeed, thus attired. He filled his breast pocket with fine cigars, and put in the other pocket a flask with some medicine in it which was good for snake bites, and also tending to produce courage in case the man, not used to horse-back riding, should find his natural spirits failing. The rest of his luggage was placed on pack animals, and in fact the only way luggage was carried in those days was either on the backs of donkeys or men.
All was ready for a start, and the captain in his snow-white suit was mounted on a mule so small that his feet nearly touched the ground. The little animal had a mind of his own, and at first did not seem inclined to start out readily, but after a bit concluded to follow his fellow animals, and all went well.
The rider was much amused at what he saw; sometimes a very lively monkey, sometimes a flock: of paroquets or a high-colored lizard--and so he rode along with a very happy air, holding his head up, and smoking a fragrant Havana with much grace. The road was rough and rocky, with a mud-hole now and then of rather uncertain depth. At every one of these mud-holes the Captain's mule would stop, put down his head, blow his nose and look wise, and then carefully sound the miniature sea with his fore-feet, being altogether too cautious to suit his rider who had never been accustomed to a craft that was afraid of water.
At one of these performances the mule evidently concluded the sea before him was not safe, for when the captain tried to persuade him to cross his persuasions had no effect. Then he coaxed him with voice gentle, soft and low, with the result that the little animal took a few very short steps and then came to anchor again. Then the captain began to get slightly roiled in temper, and the voice was not so gentle, sweet and low, but it had no greater effect upon his craft. He began to get anxious, for the others had gone on, and he thought perhaps he might be left.
Now, this sea-faring man had armed his heels with the large Spanish spurs so common in the country, and bringing them in contact with the force due to considerable impatience, Mr. Mule was quite suddenly and painfully aware of the result. This was harsher treatment than he could peaceably submit to, and at the second application of the spurs a pair of small hoofs were very high in the air and the captain very low on his back in the mud and water, having been blown from the hurricane deck of his craft in a very sudden and lively style. The philosophical mule stood very still and looked on while the white coat and pantaloons were changing to a dirty brown, and watched the captain as he waded out, to the accompaniment of some very vigorous swear words.
Both the man and beast looked very doubtful of each other's future actions, but the man shook the water off and bestowed some lively kicks on his muleship which made him bounce into and through the mud-hole, and the captain, still holding the bridle, followed after. Once across the pool the captain set his marine eye on the only craft that had been too much for his navigation and said "Vengeance should be mine," and in this doubtful state of mind he cautiously mounted his beast again and fully resolved to stick to the deck, hereafter, at all hazards, he hurried on and soon overtook the train again, looking quite like a half drowned rooster. The others laughed at him and told him they could find better water a little way ahead, at the river, and they would see him safely in. The captain was over his pet, and made as much fun as any of them, declaring that he could not navigate such a bloody craft as that in such limited sea room, for it was dangerous even when there was no gale to speak of.
The ladies did not blush at the new and convenient costumes which they saw in this country, and laughed a good deal over the way of traveling they had to adopt. Any who were sick were carried in a kind of chair strapped to the back of a native. Passengers were strung along the road for miles, going and coming. We would occasionally sit down awhile and let the sweat run off while a party of them passed us. Some were mounted on horses, some on mules, and some on donkeys, and they had to pay twelve dollars for the use of an animal for the trip.
Our night at this wayside deadfall was not much better than some of the nights about Death Valley, but as I was used to low fare, I did not complain as some did. This seemed a wonderful country to a northern raised boy. The trail was lined on both sides with all kinds of palms and various other kinds of trees and shrubs, and they were woven together in a compact mass with trailing and running vines. The trees were not tall, and the bark was as smooth as a young hickory. The roots would start out of the tree three feet above the ground and stand out at an angle, and looked like big planks placed edgewise.
It seemed as if there were too many plants for the ground to support, and so they grew on the big limbs of the trees all around, the same as the mistletoe on the oak, only there were ever so many different kinds.
The weather was very clear, and the sun so hot that many of the travelers began to wilt and sit down by the roadside to rest. Many walked along very slowly and wore long faces. The road from Panama to Crucez, on the Chagres River, was eighteen miles long, and all were glad when they were on the last end of it. The climate here seems to take all the starch and energy out of a man's body, and in this condition he must be very cautious or some disease will overtake him and he will be left to die without burial for his body if he has no personal friends with him.
We started on the next morning, and on our way stepped over a large ship anchor that lay across the trail. I suppose the natives had undertaken to pack it across the isthmus and found it too heavy for them. Perhaps it was for Capt. Kidd, the great pirate, for it is said that he often visited Panama in the course of his cruising about in search of treasures.
Passing along a sandy place in the trail, a snake crossed and left his track, big as a stovepipe it seemed to be, and after this we kept a sharp watch for big snakes that might be in waiting to waylay us for game.
There were plenty of monkeys and parrots climbing and chattering around in the trees. The forest is here so dense that the wind never blows, and consequently it never gets cool. The sun, ever since we got down near the equator, was nearly overhead, and the moon seemed to be even north of us.
When we reached the Chagres River we hired a boat of an Irishman for the trip down. I wondered if there was a place on earth so desolate that the "Paddy" would not find it. The boat for the journey cost two hundred dollars, and would hold passengers enough so that it would cost us ten dollars each, at any rate, and perhaps a little more. Two natives had charge of the boat and did the navigating. There were two ladies among the passengers, and when the two natives, who I suppose were the captain and mate of the craft, came on board, clad very coolly in Panama hats, the ladies looked at them a little out of the corners of their eyes and made the best of it. Our two navigators took the oars and pulled slowly down the stream.
Nothing but water and evergreen trees could we see, for the shore on either hand was completely hidden by the dense growth that hung over and touched the water. On a mud bar that we passed a huge alligator lay, taking a sun bath, and though many shots were fired at him he moved away very leisurely. No one could get on shore without first clearing a road through the thick brushes and vines along the bank. On the way one of our boatmen lost his hat, his only garment, into the river, and overboard he went, like a dog, and soon had it and climbed on board again. I wondered why some of the big alligators did not make a snap at him.
The water in the run looked very roily and dirty, and no doubt had fever in it. The only animals we saw were monkeys and alligators, and there were parrots in the trees. The farther we went down the stream the wider it became, and the current slacker so that we moved more slowly with the same amount of rowing. At a place called Dos Hermanos (two brothers) we could see a little cleared spot near the bank, which seemed to be three or four feet above the water. There were no mountains nor hills in sight, and the whole country seemed to be an extensive swamp. It was near night that we came to a small native village of palm huts, and here our boatmen landed and hid themselves, and not being able to find them we were compelled to stay all night, for we dare not go on alone. The place looked like a regular robbers' roost, and being forced to sleep outside the huts, we considered it safest to sleep with one eye open. We would have gone on with the boat only that we were afraid the river might have more than one outlet, and if we should take the wrong one we might be too late for the steamer, which even now we were afraid would not wait for us, and getting left would be a very serious matter in this country.
We had very little to eat, and all we could buy was sugar cane, bananas, monkeys and parrots. We kept a sharp eye out for robbers, keeping together as much as we could, for we knew that all returning Californians would be suspected of having money. Most all of them were ready for war except myself who had no weapon of any kind. All of these people had a bad name, and every one of them carried a long bladed knife called a Macheta, with which they could kill a man at a single blow. But with all our fears we got through the night safely, and in the morning found our boatmen who had hidden away. We waited not for breakfast, but sailed away as soon as we could, and reached Chagres, near the mouth of the river, before night.
The river banks here are not more than three feet high, and farther back the land fell off again into a wet swamp of timber and dense vegetable growth. The town was small and poorly built, on the immediate bank, and the houses were little brush and palm affairs except the boarding house which was "T" shaped, the front two stories high, with a long dining room running back, having holes for windows, but no glass in them.
Before the bell rung for meals a long string of hungry men would form in line, and at the first tap would make a rush for the table like a flock of sheep. After all were seated a waiter came around and collected a dollar from each one, and we thought this paid pretty well for the very poor grub they served afterwards.
No ship had as yet been in sight to take us away from this lowest, dirtiest, most unhealthful place on earth, and the prospect of remaining here had nothing very charming about it. The river was full of alligators, so the bathing was dangerous, and the whole country was about fit for its inhabitants, which were snakes, alligators, monkeys, parrots and lazy negroes. It could not have been more filthy if the dregs of the whole earth had been dumped here, and cholera and yellow fever were easy for a decent man to catch.
My companion and I went out on the beach a mile or two to get the salt water breeze, and leave the stinking malaria for those who chose to stay in the hot, suffocating village, and here we would stay until nearly night. Across a small neck of water was what was called a fort. It could hardly be seen it was so covered with moss and vines, but near the top could be seen something that looked like old walls. There was no sign of life about it, and I should judge it was built at some very early day. Surely there was nothing here to protect, for the whole country did not seem able to support even a few barefooted soldiers.
Some men who wandered along up the river bank, following a path, said they had seen some dead human bodies thrown into the swamp and left, probably because it was easier than putting them under ground. For a bedroom I hired a little platform which a store keeper had placed before his store, where I slept, and paid a dollar for the privilege. Some one walked around near me all night, and I dared not close more than one eye at a time for fear of losing a little bag of gold dust. This little bag of gold was getting to be a great burden to me in this sickly climate, and the vigilant guard I had to keep over so small a treasure was very tiresome.
The second night no steamer came, but on the third morning the steamer was riding at anchor three or four miles out, and soon after a ship came in from the Atlantic end of the Nicaragua route with one thousand passengers, there being no steamer there for them to take a passage home on, and so they had to come here for a start. This filled the little town to overflowing, but as the ship that had arrived was the Georga, one of the largest afloat, all could go if they only could endure the fare.
We now had to go in small boats from the shore to the ship, and the trip cost two dollars and a half. I waited till I had seen some of the boats make a trip or two, and then choosing one that had a sober skipper, I made the venture. It was said that one drunken boatman allowed his boat to drift into some breakers and all were lost.
I tell you I was over anxious to get out of this country, for I well knew that if I stayed very long I should stay forever, for one like myself raised in a healthful climate, could not remain long without taking some of the fatal diseases the country was full of.
We made the trip to the vessel safely, and as our boat lay under the ship's quarter, the men holding the ropes, I looked up, and when I saw the swinging rope ladder on which I was expected to climb up to the ship's deck, it seemed a pretty dangerous job; but I mustered up courage and made the attempt. The sea was pretty rough out here for the small boats, and the ship rolled some, so that when persons tried to get hold of the ladder they were thrown down and sometimes hurt a little. A man held on to the lower end of the ladder so that the one who was climbing might not get banged against the side of the ship and have his breath knocked out of him, I mounted the ladder safely and climbed away like a monkey, reaching the deck all right. Ladies and weak people were hauled up in a sort of chair with a block and rope.
It took the most of two days to get the people on board, and when they were counted up there were one thousand four hundred and forty, all told. This steamer had a very long upper deck and a comparatively short keel, and rolled very badly; and as for me, I had swallowed so much of the deadly malaria of the isthmus that I soon got very seasick, and the first day or two were very unpleasant. I went to the bar and paid two bits for a glass of wine to help my appetite, but it staid with me no longer than time enough to reach the ship's side. When night came the decks were covered with sleepy men, and if the weather had been rough and all sick, as was the case when we left San Francisco, we should have had more filthy decks than we had even on that occasion.
Approaching the harbor at Havana, Cuba, we seemed to be going head foremost against a wall of solid rock, but when within speaking distance an officer came in sight on the fort right before us, and shouted through his speaking trumpet, saying:--"Why don't you salute us?" Our officer said, "You know us well enough without." Our ship had a small cannon on the forecastle, but did not choose to use it, and I suppose the Cuban officer felt slighted. We now turned short to the right and entered the beautiful harbor, which is perfectly landlocked and as still as a pond. The city is all on the right side of the bay and our coal yard was on the left at a short wharf at which we landed.
A lot of armed soldiers were placed a short distance back on the high ground and no one was allowed to go beyond them. We now had a port officer on board who had entire charge of the ship, and if anyone wanted to go to the city, across the bay two or three miles, he had to pay a dollar for a pass. This pass business made the blue bloods terribly angry, and they swore long and loud, and the longer they talked the madder they got, and more bitter in their feelings, so that they were ready to fight (not with sugar-bowls this time.)
The weather here was very warm and the heat powerful, and as these fellows saw there was only one course to be pursued if they wanted to get on shore, they slowly took passes good for all day and paid their dollar for them, and also another dollar each to the canoe men to take them to the city. Myself and companion also took passes and went over.
Arriving at the city we walked a short distance and came to the plaza, which is not a very large one. Here was a single grave nicely fenced in, and across the plaza were some large two-story houses in front of which was stationed a squad of cavalry standing as motionless as if every man of them was a marble statue. We kept on the opposite side of the street, and chancing to meet a man whom we rightly supposed to be an Englishman, we inquired about the grave on the plaza and were informed that it was that of Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of America.
Just then we noticed the cavalry moving up the street at a slow gallop, and so formed that a close carriage was in the center of the squad. As they rushed by and we gazed at them with purely American curiousity, our new English friend raised our hats for us and held them till the cavalcade had passed, merely remarking that the Governor General was within the carriage. We spoke perhaps a bit unpleasantly when we asked him why he was so ungentlemanly in his treatment of us as to remove our hats, but he said:--"My friends, if I had not taken off your hats for you as a friend, some of those other fellows would have knocked them off, so I did for you an act of greatest kindness, for every one removes his hat when the Governor General passes." He also informed us that the special occasion for this rather pompous parade was the execution of some criminals at a park or prison not far away, and that this was done by beheading them.
Our friend proposed that we also walk out in that direction, and we went with him to the edge of the city, but when he turned into a by path that did not seem much frequented, we declined to follow farther, and turned back along the open road. The path looked to us a sort of robber's route, and not exactly safe for unarmed men like us in a strange country.
The man followed us back and took us into a large, airy saloon, in the center of which a big fountain was playing, and the great basin in which the water fell was filled with beautiful fish. Our friend called for an iced drink for each of us, and as we sat at the table we tasted it and found it rather intoxicating. For this they charged us one dollar each, but we noticed that our friend paid nothing, and we set him down as a sort of capper, after the style we had seen at the gold mines. We sat a few minutes and then so coolly bade our friend good-bye that he had not the face to follow us further, and continued our walk about the streets which seemed to us very narrow, and the houses generally two stories high.
A chaise passed us, containing two young ladies with complexions white and fair, and eyes and hair black, in striking contrast. The carriage was drawn by two horses tandem, the horse in the shafts being mounted by a big negro of very dignified appearance, dressed in livery and having top boots that came to his knees. This was the only vehicle of the kind we saw on the streets.
We did not dare to go very far alone, for with our ignorance of the Spanish language we might go astray and not get back to the ship within the lifetime of our passes, and not knowing how much trouble that might cause us, we were naturally a little timid; so we took a boat back to the ship, and when on board again we felt safe. We had only about four dollars cash left.
A big gang of darkies were coaling the ship. Each one carried a large tub full of coal upon his head and poured it down into the ship's hold. All the clothes these fellows wore was a strip of cloth about their middle. When they were let off for dinner they skimmed off all they could get from the ship's slop barrel which stood on the wharf alongside, to help out their very scanty food. The overseer stood by them all the time with a big whip and made them hurry up as fast as possible, talking Spanish pretty vigorously, and though we could not understand, we made up our minds that a good part of it was swearing.
The next morning the steamship Prometheus came in and tied up near us, and soon word was brought that she would take the New Orleans passengers on board and sail immediately for that port. It now occurred to me that I could get nearer home by going up the Mississippi River than by way of New York, so I went on board the Prometheus, and we soon sailed out of the harbor, passing under the gate of the fortress called, I think, San Juan de Ulloa.
Nothing special occurred during our passage till we were near the mouth of the Mississippi River, when, in the absence of a pilot boat or tug, our Captain thought he would try to get in alone, and as a consequence we were soon fast in the mud. The Captain now made all the passengers go aft, and worked the engine hard but could not move her at all. The tide was now low, and there was a prospect that we should have to wait full six hours to get away. We worked on, however, and after a few hours a tug came to our assistance and pulled us out of the mud and towed us into the right channel, up which we steamed on our way to New Orleans, one-hundred-twenty miles away.
The country on both sides of us was an immense marsh--no hills in sight, no timber, nothing but the same level marsh or prairie. When we were nearer the Crescent City some houses came in sight; then we passed General Jackson's battle-field, and in due time reached the city.
On board this ship I became acquainted with Dick Evans who lived in the same county that I used to in Wisconsin, near Mineral Point, so the three of us now concluded to travel together.
New Orleans seemed to be a very large city. Near the levee a large government building was in course of construction for a Custom House. It was all of stone, and the walls were up about two stories. We put up at a private boarding house, and the first business was to try and sell our gold dust. So we went to the mint and were told we would have to wait ten days to run it through the mill, and we did not like to wait so long. We were shown all through the mint and saw all the wonders of coin making. Every thing seemed perfect here. Beautiful machinery was in operation making all sizes of gold coins, from a twenty dollar piece down. Strips of gold bands about six feet long and of the proper thickness for twenty dollar pieces are run through a machine which cuts out the pieces, and when these are cut they can stamp out the pieces as fast as one can count.
This was the most ingenious work I ever saw, and very wonderful and astonishing to a backwoodsman like myself, for I supposed that money was run in moulds like bullets.
As we could not wait we went to a bank and sold our dust, getting only sixteen dollars per ounce, the same price they paid in California. We now took the cars and rode out to Lake Ponchartrain--most of the way over a trestle work. We found a wharf and warehouse at the lake, and a steamer lay there all ready to go across to the other side. The country all about looked low, with no hills in sight.
When we returned to the city we looked all about, and in the course of our travels came to a slave market. Here there were all sorts of black folks for sale; big and little, old and young and all sorts. They all seemed good-natured, and were clean, and seemed to think they were worth a good deal of money. Looking at them a few minutes sent my mind back to St. Joseph, Missouri, where I saw a black sold at auction. From my standpoint of education I did not approve of this way of trading in colored people.
We continued our stroll about the city, coming to a cemetery, where I looked into a newly dug grave to find it half full of water. On one side were many brick vaults above ground. The ground here is very low and wet, and seemed to be all swamp. The drainage was in surface gutters, and in them the water stood nearly still. It seemed to me such water must have yellow fever in it.
For a long way along the levee the steamboats lay thick and close together, unloading cotton, hemp, sugar, hoop poles, bacon and other products, mostly the product of negro labor.
Here our friend Evans was taken sick, and as he got no better after a day or two, we called a doctor to examine him. He pronounced it a mild case of yellow fever. His skin was yellow in places, and he looked very badly. The doctor advised us to go on up the river, saying it was very dangerous staying here with him. Evans gave me most of his money and all of his gold specimens to take to his wife, and when he got well he would follow us. We bade him good-bye, and with many wishes for his speedy recovery, we took passage on a steamer for St. Louis. This steamer, the Atlantic, proved to be a real floating palace in all respects. The table was supplied with everything the country afforded, and polite and well-dressed darkies were numerous as table waiters. This was the most pleasant trip I had ever taken, and I could not help comparing the luxuriance of my coming home to the hardships of the outward journey across the plains, and our starvation fare.
Our boat was rather large for the stage of water this time of year, and we proceeded rather slowly, but I cared little for speed as bed and board were extra good, and a first cabin passage in the company of friends, many of whom were going to the same part of Wisconsin as myself, was not a tedious affair by any means.
At night gambling was carried on very extensively, and money changed hands freely as the result of sundry games of poker, which was the popular game.
We reached St. Louis in time, and here was the end of our boat's run. The river had some ice floating on its surface, and this plainly told us that we were likely to meet more ice and colder weather as we went north. We concluded to take the Illinois River boat from here to Peoria, and paid our passage and stepped on board. We were no more than half way through this trip when the ice began to form on the surface of the water, and soon became so thick and strong that the boat finally came to a perfect standstill, frozen in solid.
We now engaged a farm wagon to take us to Peoria, from which place we took regular stages for Galena. Our driver was inclined to be very merciful to his horses, so we were two days in reaching that town, but perhaps it was best, for the roads were icy and slippery, and the weather of the real winter sort. From here we hired a team to take four of us to Plattville, and then an eighteen-mile walk brought me to Mineral Point, the place from which I started with my Winnebago pony in 1849. I had now finished my circle and brought both ends of the long belt together.
I now went to a drug store and weighed Mr. Evans' specimens, wrapping each in a separate piece of paper, with the value marked on each, and took them to his wife, to whom I told the news about her husband. In two week's time he came home sound and well.
I was quite disappointed in regard to the looks and business appearance of the country. It looked thinly settled, people scarce, and business dull. I could not get a day's work to do, and I could not go much farther on foot, for the snow was eight or ten inches deep, and I was still several hundred miles from my parents in Michigan. So my journey farther east was delayed until spring. The hunting season was over, and when I came into Mineral Point without a gun, and wore good clothes, making a better appearance than I used to, they seemed to think I must be rich and showed me marked attention, and made many inquiries about their neighbors who started for California about the same time I did. The young ladies smiled pleasantly when near me, and put on their best white aprons, looking very tidy and bright, far superior to any of the ladies I had seen in my crooked route from San Francisco through Acapulco, Panama, the West Indies and along the Mississippi.
After a few days in town I went out into the neighborhood where I used to live and stopped with Mr. E.A. Hall, who used to be a neighbor of Mr. Bennett, as he had invited me to stay with himself and wife, who were the only occupants of a good house, and all was pleasant. But notwithstanding all the comfort in which I was placed, I grew lonesome, for the enforced idleness, on account of the stormy weather, was a new feature in my life, and grew terribly monotonous.
After some delay I concluded to write to my parents in Michigan and give them a long letter with something of a history of my travels, and to refresh my memory I got out my memorandum I had kept through all my journey.
As my letter was liable to be quite lengthy I bought a quantity of foolscap paper and begun. I took my diary as my guide, and filled out the ideas suggested in it so they would understand them. I soon ran through with my paper and bought more, and kept on writing. The weather was cold and stormy, and I found it the best occupation I could have to prevent my being lonesome; so I worked away, day after day, for about a month, and I was really quite tired of this sort of work before I had all the facts recorded which I found noted down in my diary. My notes began in March, 1849, in Wisconsin, and ended in February, 1852, on my return to Mineral Point. I found, as the result of my elaboration, over three hundred pages of closely written foolscap paper, and I felt very much relieved when it was done. By the aid of my notes I could very easily remember everything that had taken place during my absence, and it was recorded in regular form, with day and date, not an incident of any importance left out, and every word as true as gospel. I had neither exaggerated nor detracted from any event so far as I could recollect.
I now loaned Mr. Hall, with whom I lived, six hundred dollars to enable him to cross the plains to California and try to make his fortune. To secure this I took a mortgage on his eighty-acre farm, and he set out to make the journey. I had another eighty acres of land near here which I bought at government price before going to California, but I could not now sell it for what it cost me. When I went away I had left my chest and contents with my friend Samuel Zollinger, and he had kept it safely, so I now made him my lawful agent. I placed my narrative and some other papers in the chest and gave the key into his charge, while I went north, across the Wisconsin River, to visit my old hunting and trapping friend, Robert McCloud. Here I made a very pleasant visit of perhaps a week, and the common prospects of the country were freely talked over. It seemed to us as if the good times were still far off; every day was like Sunday so far as anything going on; no money in circulation, many places abandoned, and, like myself, many had gone to California to seek gold instead of lead. (The mines at Mineral Point are mostly of lead, with some copper.)
Looking at matters in this light it did not need a great deal of McCloud's persuasion to induce me to go back with him to California, all the more so as my little pile seemed to look smaller every day, while three or four years ago it would have seemed quite large. Deciding to go, I wrote to Mr. Zollinger to send the account I had written to my parents in Michigan, reading it first himself, and admonishing him not to lend it. I also wrote to my parents telling them what they might look for in the mails, and cautioning them never to have it printed, for the writing was so ungrammatical and the spelling so incorrect that it would be no credit to me.
I afterward learned that in time they received the bundle of paper and read it through and through, and circulated it around the neighborhood till it was badly worn, and laid it away for future perusal when their minds should incline that way. But the farm house soon after took fire and burned, my labor going up in smoke.
When the news of this reached me I resolved to try to forget all the trials, troubles and hardships I had gone through, and which I had almost lived over again as I wrote them down, and I said to myself that I would not talk about them more than I could help, the sooner to have them vanish, and never write them down again, but a few years ago an accident befell me so that I could not work, and I back-slid from my determination when I was persuaded so earnestly by many friends to write the account which appeared a few years ago in the Santa Clara Valley now the Pacific Tree and Vine, edited by H.A. Brainard, at San Jose, California. The diary was lost, and from memory alone the facts have been rehearsed, and it is but fair to tell the reader that the hardest and worst of it has never been told nor will it ever be.
Death Valley in '49 - Table of Contents - Chapter 15 - Previous < > Next
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