A BACKWARD GLANCE AT EIGHTY
Recollections & Comment
CHARLES A. MURDOCK
Massachusetts 1841 Humboldt Bay 1855 San Francisco 1864
THIS BOOK IS GRATEFULLY DEDICATED TO THE FRIENDS WHO INSPIRED IT
I. NEW ENGLAND II. A HIDDEN HARBOR III. NINE YEARS NORTH IV. THE REAL BRET HARTE V. SAN FRANCISCO—THE SIXTIES VI. LATER SAN FRANCISCO VII. INCIDENTS IN PUBLIC SERVICE VIII. AN INVESTMENT IX. BY-PRODUCT X. CONCERNING PERSONS XI. OUTINGS XII. OCCASIONAL VERSE EPILOGUE
A CAMERA GLANCE AT EIGHTY HUMBOLDT BAY, WINSHIP MAP FRANCIS BRET HARTE (Saroney, 1874) THE CLAY-STREET OFFICE THE DAY AFTER THOMAS STARR KING (Original given Bret Harte) HORATIO STEBBINS, SAN FRANCISCO, 1864-1900 HORACE DAVIS, HARVARD IN 1836 OUTINGS: THE SIERRAS, HAWAII
In the autumn of 1920 the Board of Directors of the Pacific Coast Conference of Unitarian Churches took note of the approaching eightieth birthday of Mr. Charles A. Murdock, of San Francisco. Recalling Mr. Murdock's active service of all good causes, and more particularly his devotion to the cause of liberal religion through a period of more than half a century, the board decided to recognize the anniversary, which fell on January 26, 1921, by securing the publication of a volume of Mr. Murdock's essays. A committee was appointed to carry out the project, composed of Rev. H.E.B. Speight (chairman), Rev. C.S.S. Dutton, and Rev. Earl M. Wilbur.
The committee found a very ready response to its announcement of a subscription edition, and Mr. Murdock gave much time and thought to the preparation of material for the volume. "A Backward Glance at Eighty" is now issued with the knowledge that its appearance is eagerly awaited by all Mr. Murdock's friends and by a large number of others who welcome new light upon the life of an earlier generation of pioneers.
The publication of the book is an affectionate tribute to a good citizen, a staunch friend, a humble Christian gentleman, and a fearless servant of Truth—Charles A. Murdock.
In the beginning, the publication of this book is not the deliberate act of the octogenarian. Separate causes seem to have co-operated independently to produce the result. Several years ago, in a modest literary club, the late Henry Morse Stephens, in his passion for historical material, urged me from time to time to devote my essays to early experiences in the north of the state and in San Francisco. These papers were familiar to my friends, and as my eightieth birthday approached they asked that I add to them introductory and connecting chapters and publish a memorial volume. To satisfy me that it would find acceptance they secured advance orders to cover the expense.
Under these conditions I could not but accede to their request. I would subordinate an unimportant personal life. My purpose is to recall conditions and experiences that may prove of historical interest and to express some of the conclusions and convictions formed in an active and happy life.
I wish to express my gratitude to the members of the committee and to my friend, George Prescott Vance, for suggestions and assistance in preparation and publication.
My very early memories alternate between my grandfather's farm in Leominster, Massachusetts, and the Pemberton House in Boston. My father and mother, both born in Leominster, were schoolmates, and in due time they married. Father was at first a clerk in the country store, but at an early age became the tavern-keeper. I was born on January 26, 1841. Soon thereafter father took charge of the Pemberton House on Howard Street, which developed into Whig headquarters. Being the oldest grandson, I was welcome at the old homestead, and I was so well off under the united care of my aunts that I spent a fair part of my life in the country.
My father was a descendant of Robert Murdock (of Roxbury), who left Scotland in 1688, and whose descendants settled in Newton. My father's branch removed to Winchendon, home of tubs and pails. My grandfather (Abel) moved to Leominster and later settled in Worcester, where he died when I was a small boy. My father's mother was a Moore, also of Scotch ancestry. She died young, and on my father's side there was no family home to visit.
My mother's father was Deacon Charles Hills, descended from Joseph Hills, who came from England in 1634.
Nearly every New England town was devoted to some special industry, and Leominster was given to the manufacture of horn combs. The industry was established by a Hills ancestor, and when I was born four Hills brothers were co-operative comb-makers, carrying on the business in connection with small farming. The proprietors were the employees. If others were required, they could be readily secured at the going wages of one dollar a day.
My grandfather was the oldest of the brothers. When he married Betsy Buss his father set aside for him twenty acres of the home farm, and here he built the house in which he lived for forty years, raising a family of ten children.
I remember quite clearly my great-grandfather Silas Hills. He was old and querulous, and could certainly scold; but now that I know that he was born in 1760, and had nineteen brothers and sisters, I think of him with compassion and wonder. It connects me with the distant past to think I remember a man who was sixteen years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed. He died at ninety-five, which induces apprehension.
My grandfather's house faced the country road that ran north over the rolling hills among the stone-walled farms, and was about a mile from the common that marked the center of the town. It was white, of course, with green blinds. The garden in front was fragrant from Castilian roses, Sweet Williams, and pinks. There were lilacs and a barberry-bush. A spacious hall bisected the house. The south front room was sacred to funerals and weddings; we seldom entered it. Back of that was grandma's room. Stairs in the hall led to two sleeping-rooms above. The north front room was "the parlor," but seldom used. There on the center-table reposed Baxter's "Saints' Rest" and Young's "Night Thoughts." The fireplace flue so seldom held a fire that the swallows utilized the chimney for their nests. Back of this was the dining-room, in which we lived. It had a large brick oven and a serviceable fireplace. The kitchen was an ell, from which stretched woodshed, carriage-house, pigpen, smoking-house, etc. Currant and quince bushes, rhubarb, mulberry, maple, and butternut trees were scattered about. An apple orchard helped to increase the frugal income.
We raised corn and pumpkins, and hay for the horse and cows. The corn was gathered into the barn across the road, and a husking-bee gave occasion for mild merrymaking. As necessity arose the dried ears were shelled and the kernels taken to the mill, where an honest portion was taken for grist. The corn-meal bin was the source of supply for all demands for breakfast cereal. Hasty-pudding never palled. Small incomes sufficed. Our own bacon, pork, spare-rib, and souse, our own butter, eggs, and vegetables, with occasional poultry, made us little dependent on others. One of the great-uncles was a sportsman, and snared rabbits and pickerel, thus extending our bill of fare. Bread and pies came from the weekly baking, to say nothing of beans and codfish. Berries from the pasture and nuts from the woods were plentiful. For lights we were dependent on tallow candles or whale-oil, and soap was mostly home-made.
Life was simple but happy. The small boy had small duties. He must pick up chips, feed the hens, hunt eggs, sprout potatoes, and weed the garden. But he had fun the year round, varying with the seasons, but culminating with the winter, when severity was unheeded in the joy of coasting, skating, and sleighing in the daytime, and apples, chestnuts, and pop-corn in the long evenings.
I never tired of watching my grandfather and his brothers as they worked in their shops. The combs were not the simple instruments we now use to separate and arrange the hair, but ornamental structures that women wore at the back of the head to control their supposedly surplus locks. They were associated with Spanish beauties, and at their best estate were made of shell, but our combs were of horn and of great variety. In the better quality, shell was closely imitated, but some were frankly horn and ornamented by the application of aquafortis in patterns artistic or grotesque according to the taste and ability of the operator. The horns were sawed, split, boiled in oil, pressed flat, and then died out ready to be fashioned into the shape required for the special product. This was done in a separate little shop by Uncle Silas and Uncle Alvah. Uncle Emerson then rubbed and polished them in the literally one-horsepower factory, and grandfather bent and packed them for the market. The power was supplied by a patient horse, "Log Cabin" by name, denoting the date of his acquisition in the Harrison campaign. All day the faithful nag trod a horizontal wheel in the cellar, which gave way to his efforts and generated the power that was transmitted by belt to the simple machinery above.
Uncle Emerson generally sung psalm-tunes as he worked. Deacon Hills, as he was always called, was finisher, packer, and business manager. I was interested to notice that in doing up the dozen combs in a package he always happened to select the best one to tie on the outside as a sample. That was his nearest approach to dishonesty. He was a thoroughly good man, but burdened and grave. I do not know that I ever heard him laugh, and he seldom, if ever, smiled. He worked hard, was faithful to every duty, and no doubt loved his family; but soberness was inbred. He read the Cultivator, the Christian Register, and the almanac. After the manner of his time, he was kind and helpful; but life was hard and joyless. He was greatly respected and was honored by a period of service as representative in the General Court.
My grandmother was a gentle, patient soul, living for her family, wholly unselfish and incapable of complaint. She was placid and cheerful, courageous and trusting. I had four fine aunts, two of whom were then unmarried and devoted to the small boy. One was a veritable ray of sunshine; the other, gifted of mind and nearest my age, was most companionable. Only one son lived to manhood. He had gone from the home, but faithfully each year returned from the city to observe Thanksgiving, the great day of New England.
Holidays were somewhat infrequent. Fourth of July and muster, of course, were not forgotten, and while Christmas was almost unnoticed Thanksgiving we never failed to mark with all its social and religious significance. Almost everybody went to meeting, and the sermon, commonly reviewing the year, was regarded as an event. The home-coming of the absent family members and the reunion at a bountiful dinner became the universal custom. There were no distractions in the way of professional football or other games. The service, the family, and plenty of good things to eat engrossed the day. It was a time of rejoicing—and unlimited pie.
Sunday was strictly observed. Grandfather always blacked his boots before sundown of Saturday night, and on Sunday anything but going to meeting was regarded with suspicion, especially if it was associated with any form of enjoyment. In summer "Log Cabin" was hitched into the shafts of the chaise, and with gait slightly accelerated beyond the daily habit jogged to town and was deposited in the church shed during the service. At noon we rejoined him and ate our ginger-bread and cheese while he disposed of his luncheon of oats. Then we went back to Sunday-school, and he rested or fought flies. In winter he was decked with bells and hitched in the sleigh. Plenty of robes and a foot-stove, or at least a slab of heated soap-stone, provided for grandmother's comfort.
The church when it was formed was named "The First Congregational." When it became Unitarian, the word, in parentheses, was added. The Second Congregational was always called "The Orthodox." The church building was a fine example of early architecture. The steeple was high, the walls were white, the pews were square. On a tablet at the right of the pulpit the Ten Commandments were inscribed, and at the left the Beatitudes were found.
The first minister I remember was saintly Hiram Withington, who won my loyalty by his interest manifested by standing me up by the door-jamb and marking my growth from call to call. I remember Rufus P. Stebbins, the former minister, who married my father and mother and refused a fee because my father had always cut his hair in the barberless days of old. Amos A. Smith was later in succession. I loved him for his goodness. Sunday-school was always a matter of course, and was never dreaded.
I early enjoyed the Rollo books and later reveled in Mayne Reid. The haymow in the barn and a blessed knothole are associated with many happy hours.
Reading has dangers. I think one of the first books I ever read was a bound volume of Merry's Museum. There was a continued story recounting the adventures of one Dick Boldhero. It was illustrated with horrible woodcuts. One of them showed Dick bearing on a spirited charger the clasped form of the heroine, whom he had abducted. It impressed me deeply. I recognized no distinction of sex or attractiveness and lived in terror of suffering abduction. When I saw a stranger coming I would run into the shop and clasp my arms around some post until I felt the danger past. This must have been very early in my career. Indeed one of my aunts must have done the reading, leaving me to draw distress from the thrilling illustrations.
A very early trial was connected with a visit to a school. I was getting proud of my ability to spell small words. A primer-maker had attempted to help the association of letters with objects by placing them in juxtaposition, but through a mistake he led me to my undoing. I knew my letters and I knew some things. I plainly distinguished the letters P-A-N. Against them I was puzzled by a picture of a spoon, and with credulity, perhaps characteristic, I blurted out "P-a-n—spoon," whereat to my great discomfiture everybody laughed. I have never liked being laughed at from that day to this.
I am glad that I left New England early, but I am thankful that it was not before I realized the loveliness of the arbutus as it braved the snow and smiled at the returning sun, nor that I made forts or played morris in the snow at school.
I have passed on from my first impressions in the country perhaps unwarrantedly. It is hard to differentiate consistently. I may have mixed early memories with more mature realization. I did not live with my grandmother continuously. I went back and forth as convenience and others' desires prompted. I do not know what impressions of life in the Pemberton House came first. Very early I remember helping my busy little mother, who in the spring of the year uncorded all the bedsteads and made life miserable for the festive bedbugs by an application of whale oil from a capable feather applied to the inside of all holes through which the ropes ran. The re-cording of the beds was a tedious process requiring two persons, and I soon grew big enough to count as one. I remember also the little triangular tin candlesticks that we inserted at the base of each of the very small panes of the window when we illuminated the hotel on special nights. I distinctly recall the quivering of the full glasses of jelly on tapering disks that formed attractive table ornaments.
Daniel Webster was often the central figure at banquets in the Pemberton. General Sam Houston, Senator from Texas, was also entertained, for I remember that my father told me of an incident that occurred many years after, when he passed through San Antonio. As he strolled through the city he saw the Senator across the street, but, supposing that he would not be remembered, had no thought of speaking, whereupon Houston called out, "Young man, are you not going to speak to me!" My father replied that he had not supposed that he would be remembered. "Of course I remember meeting you at the Pemberton House in Boston."
I remember some of the boarders, regular and transient, distinguished and otherwise. There was a young grocery clerk who used to hold me in his lap and talk to me. He became one of the best of California's governors, Frederick F. Low, and was a close friend of Thomas Starr King. A wit on a San Francisco paper once published at Thanksgiving time "A Thanksgiving proclamation by our stuttering reporter—'Praise God from whom all blessings f-f-low.'" In my memory he is associated with Haymaker Square.
I well remember the famous circus clown of the period, Joe Pentland, very serious and proper when not professionally funny. A minstrel who made a great hit with "Jim Crow" once gave me a valuable lesson on table manners. One Barrett, state treasurer, was a boarder. He had a standing order: "Roast beef, rare and fat; gravy from the dish." Madame Biscaccianti, of the Italian opera, graced our table. So did the original Drew family.
The hotel adjoined the Howard Athenaeum, and I profited from peeping privileges to the extent of many pins. I recall some wonderful trained animals—Van Amberg's, I think. A lion descended from back-stage and crawled with stealth upon a sleeping traveler in the foreground. It was thrilling but harmless. There were also some Viennese dancers, who introduced, I believe, the Cracovienne. I remember a "Sissy Madigan," who seemed a wonder of beauty and charm.
There was great excitement when the Athenaeum caught on fire. I can see the trunks being dragged down the stairs to the damage of the banisters, and great confusion and dismay among our boarders. A small boy was hurried in his nightie across the street and kept till all danger had passed. A very early memory is the marching through the streets of soldiers bound for the Mexican War.
Off and on, I lived in Boston till 1849, when my father left for California and the family returned to Leominster.
My first school in Boston was in the basement of Park Street Church. Hermann Clarke, son of our minister, Rev. James Freeman Clarke, was a fellow pupil. Afterward I went to the Mayhew Grammar School, connected in my mind with a mild chastisement for imitating a trombone when a procession passed by. The only other punishment I recall was a spanking by my father for playing "hookey" and roaming in the public garden. I remember Sunday-school parades through certain public streets. But the great event was the joining of all the day schools in the great parade when Cochituate water was introduced into the city. It was a proud moment when the fountain in the frogpond on the Common threw on high the water prodigiously brought from far Cochituate.
Another Boston memory is the Boston Theater, where William Warren reigned. Cinderella and her pumpkin carriage are fresh in my mind. I also recall a waxwork representation of the Birth in the Manger. I still can see the heads of the cattle, the spreading horns, and the blessed Babe.
As I recall my early boyhood, many changes in customs seem suggested. There may be trundle-beds in these days, but I never see them. No fathers wear boots in this era, and bootjacks are as extinct as the dodo. I have kept a few letters written by my mother when I was away from her. They were written on a flat sheet, afterward folded and fastened by a wafer. Envelopes had not arrived; neither had postage-stamps. Sealing-wax was then in vogue and red tape for important documents. In all well-regulated dwellings there were whatnots in the corner with shells and waxworks and other objects of beauty or mild interest. The pictures did not move—they were fixed in the family album. The musical instruments most in evidence were jew's-harps and harmonicas. The Rollo books were well calculated to make a boy sleepy. The Franconia books were more attractive, and "The Green Mountain Boy" was thrilling. A small boy's wildest dissipation was rolling a hoop.
And now California casts her shadow. My father was an early victim. I remember his parting admonition, as he was a man of few words and seldom offered advice. "Be careful," he said, "of wronging others. Do not repeat anything you hear that reflects on another. It is a pretty good rule, when you cannot speak well of another, to say nothing at all." He must have said more, but that is all that I recall.
Father felt that in two years he would return with enough money to provide for our needs. In the meantime we could live at less expense and in greater safety in the country. We returned to the town we all loved, and the two years stretched to six. We three children went to school, my mother keeping house. In 1851 my grandfather died, and in 1853 my grandmother joined him.
During these Leominster days we greatly enjoyed a visit from my father's sister, Charlotte, with her husband, John Downes, an astronomer connected with Harvard University. They were charming people, bringing a new atmosphere from their Cambridge home. Uncle John tried to convince me that by dividing the heavens I might count the visible stars, but he did not succeed. He wrote me a fine, friendly letter on his returning home, in 1852, using a sheet of blue paper giving on the third page a view of the college buildings and a procession of the alumni as they left the church Sept. 6, 1836. In the letter he pronounced it a very good view. It is presented elsewhere, in connection with the picture of a friend who entered the university a few years later.
School life was pleasant and I suppose fairly profitable. Until I entered high school I attended the ungraded district school. It was on the edge of a wood, and a source of recess pleasure was making umbrageous homes of pine boughs. On the last day of school the school committee, the leading minister, the ablest lawyer, and the best-loved doctor were present to review and address us. We took much pride in the decoration. Wreaths of plaited leaves were twisted around the stovepipe; the top of the stove was banked with pond-lilies gathered from a pond in our woods. Medals were primitive. For a week I wore a pierced ninepence in evidence of my proficiency in mental arithmetic; then it passed to stronger hands.
According to present standards we indulged in precious little amusement. Entertainments were few. Once in a while a circus came to town, and there were organizations of musical attractions like The Hutchinson Family and The Swiss Bell Ringers. Ossian E. Dodge was a name with which to conjure, and a panorama was sometimes unrolled alternating with dissolving views. Seen in retrospect, they all seem tame and unalluring. The Lyceum was, the feature of strongest interest to the grownups. Lectures gave them a chance to see men of note like Wendell Phillips, Emerson, or William Lloyd Garrison. Even boys could enjoy poets of the size of John G. Saxe.
Well do I remember the distrust felt for abolitionists. I had an uncle who entertained Fred Douglass and was ready at any time to help a fugitive slave to Canada. He was considered dangerous. He was a shoemaker, and I remember how he would drop his work when no one was by and get up to pace the floor and rehearse a speech he probably never would make.
Occasionally our singing-school would give a concert, and once in a farmers' chorus I was costumed in a smock cut down from one of grandfather's. I carried a sickle and joined in "Through lanes with hedgerows, pearly." I kept up in the singing but let my attention wander as the farmers made their exit and did not notice that I was left till the other boys were almost off the stage. I then skipped after them, swinging my scythe in chagrin.
In the high school we gave an exhibition in which we enacted some Scotch scene. I think it had to do with Roderick Dhu. We were to be costumed, and I was bothered about kilts and things. Mr. Phillips, the principal, suggested that the stage be set with small evergreen trees. The picture of them in my mind's eye brought relief, and I impulsively exclaimed, "That will be good, because we will not have to wear pants," meaning, of course, the kilts. He had a sense of humor and was a tease. He pretended to take me literally, and raised a laugh as he said, "Why, Murdock!"
One bitterly cold night we went to Fitchburg, five miles away, to describe the various pictures given at a magic-lantern exhibition. My share was a few lines on a poor view of Scarborough Castle. At this distance it seems like a poor investment of energy.
I wonder if modern education has not made some progress in a generation. Here was a boy of fourteen who had never studied history or physics or physiology and was assigned nothing but Latin, algebra and grammar. I left at fourteen and a half to come to California, knowing little but what I had picked up accidentally.
A diary of my voyage, dating from June 4, 1855, vividly illustrates the character of the English inculcated by the school of the period. It refers to the "crowd assembled to witness our departure." It recounts all we saw, beginning with Washacum Pond, which we passed on our way to Worcester: "of considerable magnitude, ... and the small islands which dot its surface render it very beautiful." The buildings of New York impressed the little prig greatly. Trinity Church he pronounces "one of the most splendid edifices which I ever saw," and he waxes into "Opalian" eloquence over Barnum's American Museum, which was "illuminated from basement to attic."
We sailed on the "George Law," arriving at Aspinwall, the eastern terminal of the Panama Railroad, in ten days. Crossing the isthmus, with its wonders of tropical foliage and varied monkeys, gave a glimpse of a new world. We left Panama June 16th and arrived at San Francisco on the morning of the 30th.
Let the diary tell the tale of the beginning of life in California: "I arose about 4-1/2 this morning and went on deck. We were then in the Golden Gate, which is the entrance into San Francisco Bay. On each side of us was high land. On the left-hand side was a lighthouse, and the light was still burning. On my right hand was the outer telegraph building. When they see us they telegraph to another place, from which they telegraph all over San Francisco. When we were going in there was a strong ebb tide. We arrived at the wharf a little after five o'clock. The first thing which I did was to look for my father. Him I did not see."
Father had been detained in Humboldt by the burning of the connecting steamer, so we went to Wilson's Exchange in Sansome near Sacramento Street, and in the afternoon took the "Senator" for Sacramento, where my uncle and aunt lived.
The part of a day in San Francisco was used to the full in prospecting the strange city. We walked its streets and climbed its hills, much interested in all we saw. The line of people waiting for their mail up at Portsmouth Square was perhaps the most novel sight. A race up the bay, waiting for the tide at Benicia, sticking on the "Hog's Back" in the night, and the surprise of a flat, checkerboard city were the most impressive experiences of the trip to Sacramento.
A month or so on this compulsory visit passed very pleasantly. We found fresh delight in watching the Chinese and their habits. We had never seen a specimen before. A very pleasant picnic and celebration on the Fourth of July was another attractive novelty. Cheap John auctions and frequent fires afforded amusement and excitement, and we learned to drink muddy water without protest.
On the 15th the diary records: "Last night about 12 o'clock I woke, and who should I behold, standing by me, but my father! Is it possible that after a separation of nearly six years I have at last met my father? It is even so. This form above me is, indeed, my father's." The day's entry concludes: "I have really enjoyed myself today. I like the idea of a father very well."
We were compelled to await an upcoast steamer till August, when that adventurous craft, the steamer "McKim," now newly named the "Humboldt," resumed sea-voyages. The Pacific does not uniformly justify the name, but this time it completely succeeded. The ocean was as smooth as the deadest mill-pond—not a breath of wind or a ripple of the placid surface. Treacherous Humboldt Bar, sometimes a mountain of danger, did not even disclose its location. The tar from the ancient seams of the Humboldt's decks responded to the glowing sun until pacing the deck was impossible, but sea-sickness was no less so. We lazily steamed into the beautiful harbor, up past Eureka, her streets still occupied by stumps, and on to the ambitious pier stretching nearly two miles from Uniontown to deep water.
And now that the surroundings may be better understood, let me digress from the story of my boyhood and touch on the early romance of Humboldt Bay—its discovery and settlement.
A HIDDEN HARBOR
The northwesterly corner of California is a region apart. In its physical characteristics and in its history it has little in common with the rest of the state. With no glamour of Spanish occupancy, its romance is of quite another type. At the time of the discovery of gold in California the northwestern portion of the state was almost unknown territory. For seven hundred miles, from Fort Ross to the mouth of the Columbia, there stretched a practically uncharted coast. A few headlands were designated on the imperfect map and a few streams were poorly sketched in, but the great domain had simply been approached from the sea and its characteristics were mostly a matter of conjecture. So far as is known, not a white man lived in all California west of the Coast Range and north of Fort Ross.
Here is, generally speaking, a mountainous region heavily timbered along the coast, diversified with river valleys and rolling hills. A marked peculiarity is its sharp slope toward the northwest for its entire length. East of the Coast Range the Sacramento River flows due south, while to the west of the broken mountains all the streams flow northwesterly—more northerly than westerly. Eel River flows about 130 miles northerly and, say, forty miles westerly. The same course is taken by the Mattole, the Mad, and the Trinity rivers. The watershed of this corner to the northwest is extensive, including a good part of what are now Mendocino, Trinity, Siskiyou, Humboldt, and Del Norte counties. The drainage of the westerly slope of the mountain ranges north and west of Shasta reaches the Pacific with difficulty. The Klamath River flows southwest for 120 miles until it flanks the Siskiyous. It there meets the Trinity, which flows northwest. The combined rivers take the direction of the Trinity, but the name of the Klamath prevails. It enters the ocean about thirty miles south of the Oregon line. The whole region is extremely mountainous. The course of the river is tortuous, winding among the mountains.
The water-flow shows the general trend of the ranges; but most of the rivers have numerous forks, indicating transverse ridges. From an aeroplane the mountains of northern California would suggest an immense drove of sleeping razor-backed hogs nestling against one another to keep warm, most of their snouts pointed northwest.
Less than one-fourth of the land is tillable, and not more than a quarter of that is level. Yet it is a beautiful, interesting and valuable country, largely diversified, with valuable forests, fine mountain ranges, gently rolling hills, rich river bottoms, and, on the upper Trinity, gold-bearing bars.
Mendocino (in Humboldt County) was given its significant name about 1543. When Heceta and Bodega in 1775 were searching the coast for harbors, they anchored under the lee of the next northerly headland. After the pious manner of the time, having left San Blas on Trinity Sunday, they named their haven Trinidad. Their arrival was six days before the battle of Bunker Hill.
It is about forty-five miles from Cape Mendocino to Trinidad. The bold, mountainous hills, though they often reach the ocean, are somewhat depressed between these points. Halfway between them lies Humboldt Bay, a capacious harbor with a tidal area of twenty-eight miles. It is the best and almost the only harbor from San Francisco to Puget Sound. It is fourteen miles long, in shape like an elongated human ear. It eluded discovery with even greater success than San Francisco Bay, and the story of its final settlement is striking and romantic.
Neither Cabrillo nor Heceta nor Drake makes mention of it. In 1792 Vancouver followed the coast searchingly, but when he anchored in what he called the "nook" of Trinidad he was entirely ignorant of a near-by harbor. We must bear in mind that Spain had but the slightest acquaintance with the empire she claimed. The occasional visits of navigators did not extend her knowledge of the great domain. It is nevertheless surprising that in the long course of the passage of the galleons to and from the Philippines the bays of San Francisco and Humboldt should not have been found even by accident.
The nearest settlement was the Russian colony near Bodega, one hundred and seventy-five miles to the south. In 1811 Kuskoff found a river entering the ocean near the point. He called it Slavianski, but General Vallejo rescued us from that when he referred to it as Russian River. The land was bought from the Indians for a trifle. Madrid was applied to for a title, but the Spaniards declined to give it. The Russians held possession, however, and proceeded with cultivation. To better protect their claims, nineteen miles up the coast, they erected a stockade mounting twenty guns. They called the fort Kosstromitinoff, but the Spaniards referred to it as el fuerte de los Rusos, which was anglicized as Fort Russ, and, finally, as Fort Ross. The colony prospered for a while, but sealing "pinched out" and the territory occupied was too small to satisfy agricultural needs. In 1841 the Russians sold the whole possession to General Sutter for thirty thousand dollars and withdrew from California, returning to Alaska.
In 1827 a party of adventurers started north from Fort Ross for Oregon, following the coast. One Jedidiah Smith, a trapper, was the leader. It is said that Smith River, near the Oregon line, was named for him. Somewhere on the way all but four were reported killed by the Indians. They are supposed to have been the first white men to enter the Humboldt country.
Among the very early settlers in California was Pearson B. Redding, who lived on a ranch near Mount Shasta. In 1845, on a trapping expedition, he struck west through a divide in the Coast Range and discovered a good-sized, rapid river flowing to the west. From its direction and the habit of rivers to seek the sea, he concluded that it was likely to reach the Pacific at about the latitude of Trinidad, named seventy years before. He thereupon gave it the name of Trinity, and in due time left it running and returned to his home.
Three years passed, and gold was discovered by Marshall. Redding was interested and curious and visited the scene of Marshall's find. The American River and its bars reminded him of the Trinity, and when he returned to his home he organized a party to prospect it. Gold was found in moderate quantities, especially on the upper portions. The Trinity mines extended confidence and added to the excitement. Camps sprang up on every bar. The town of Weaverville took the lead, and still holds it. Quite a population followed and the matter of provisioning it became serious. The base of supplies was Sacramento, two hundred miles distant and over a range of mountains. To the coast it could not be more than seventy miles. If the Trinity entered a bay or was navigable, it would be a great saving and of tremendous advantage. The probability or possibility was alluring and was increasingly discussed.
In October, 1849, there were at Rich Bar forty miners short of provisions and ready for any adventure. The Indians reported that eight suns to the west was a large bay with fertile land and tall trees. A vision of a second San Francisco, a port for all northern California, urged them to try for it. Twenty-four men agreed to join the party, and the fifth of November was set for the start. Dr. Josiah Gregg was chosen leader and two Indians were engaged as guides. When the day arrived the rain was pouring and sixteen of the men and the two guides backed out, but the remaining eight were courageous (or foolhardy) and not to be thwarted. With a number of pack animals and eight days' supplies they started up the slippery mountainside. At the summit they encountered a snowstorm and camped for the night. In the morning they faced a western view that would have discouraged most men—a mass of mountains, rough-carved and snow-capped, with main ridges parallel on a northwesterly line. In every direction to the most distant horizon stretched these forbidding mountains. The distance to the ocean was uncertain, and their course to it meant surmounting ridge after ridge of the intervening mountains. They plunged down and on, crossed a swollen stream, and crawled up the eastern side of the next ridge. For six days this performance was repeated. Then they reached a large stream with an almost unsurmountable mountain to the west. They followed down the stream until they found it joined another of about equal size. They had discovered the far-flowing south fork of the Trinity. They managed to swim the united river and found a large Indian village, apparently giving the inhabitants their first view of white men. The natives all fled in fright, leaving their camps to the strange beings. The invaders helped themselves to the smoked salmon that was plentiful, leaving flour in exchange. At dusk about eighty of the fighting sex returned with renewed courage, and threateningly. It took diplomacy to postpone an attack till morning, when powder would be dry. They relied upon a display of magic power from their firearms that would impress superior numbers with the senselessness of hostilities. They did not sleep in great security, and early in the morning proceeded with the demonstration, upon which much depended.
When they set up a target and at sixty yards pierced a scrap of paper and the tree to which it was pinned the effect was satisfactory. The Indians were astonished at the feat, but equally impressed by the unaccountable noise from the explosion. They became very friendly, warned the wonder-workers of the danger to be encountered if they headed north, where Indians were many and fierce, and told them to keep due west.
The perilous journey was continued by the ascent of another mountainside. Provisions soon became very scarce, nothing but flour remaining, and little of that. On the 18th they went dinnerless to their cold blankets. Their animals had been without food for two days, but the next morning they found grass. A redwood forest was soon encountered, and new difficulties developed. The underbrush was dense and no trails were found. Fallen trees made progress very slow. Two miles a day was all they could accomplish. They painfully worked through the section of the marvelous redwood belt destined to astonish the world, reaching a small prairie, where they camped. The following day they devoted to hunting, luckily killing a number of deer. Here they remained several days, drying the venison in the meantime; but when, their strength recuperated, they resumed their journey, the meat was soon exhausted. Three days of fasting for man and beast followed. Two of the horses were left to their fate. Then another prairie yielded more venison and the meat of three bears. For three weeks they struggled on; life was sustained at times by bitter acorns alone.
At length the welcome sound of surf was heard, but three days passed before they reached the ocean. Three of the animals had died of starvation in the last stretch of the forest. The men had not eaten for two days, and devoted the first day on the beach to securing food. One shot a bald eagle; another found a raven devouring a cast-up fish, both of which he secured. All were stewed together, and a good night's sleep followed the questionable meal.
The party struck the coast near the headland that in 1775 had been named Trinidad, but not being aware of this fact they named it, for their leader, Gregg's Point.
After two days' feasting on mussels and dried salmon obtained from the Indians, they kept on south. Soon after crossing a small stream, now named Little River, they came to one by no means so little. Dr. Gregg insisted on getting out his instruments and ascertaining the latitude, but the others had no scientific interest and were in a hurry to go on. They hired Indians to row them across in canoes, and all except the doctor bundled in. Finding himself about to be left, he grabbed up his instruments and waded out into the stream to reach the canoe, which had no intention of leaving him. He got in, wet and very angry, nursing his wrath till shore was reached; then he treated his companions to some vigorous language. They responded in kind, and the altercation became so violent that the row gave the stream its name, Mad River.
They continued down the beach, camping when night overtook them. Wood, the chronicler of the expedition, [Footnote: "The Narrative of L.K. Wood," published many years after, and largely incorporated in Bledsoe's "History of the Indian Wars of Northern California," is the source of most of the incidents relating to Gregg's party embraced in this chapter.] and Buck went in different directions to find water. Wood returned first with a bucketful, brackish and poor. Buck soon after arrived with a supply that looked much better, but when Gregg sampled it he made a wry face and asked Buck where he found it. He replied that he dipped it out of a smooth lake about a half mile distant. It was good plain salt water; they had discovered the mythical bay—or supposed they had. They credulously named it Trinity, expecting to come to the river later. The next day they proceeded down the narrow sand strip that now bounds the west side of Humboldt Bay, but when they reached the harbor entrance from the ocean they were compelled to retrace their steps and try the east shore. The following day they headed the bay, camping at a beautiful plateau on the edge of the redwood belt, giving a fine view of a noble landlocked harbor and a rich stretch of bottom land reaching to Mad River. Here they found an abundant spring, and narrowly missed a good supper; for they shot a large elk, which, to their great disappointment, took to the brush. It was found dead the next morning, and its head, roasted in ashes, constituted a happy Christmas dinner—for December 25th had arrived, completing an even fifty days since the start from Rich Bar.
They proceeded leisurely down the east side of the bay, stopping the second day nearly opposite the entrance. It seemed a likely place for a townsite, and they honored the water-dipping discoverer by calling it Bucksport. Then they went on, crossing the little stream now named Elk River, and camping near what was subsequently called Humboldt Point. They were disappointed that no river of importance emptied into so fine a bay, but they realized the importance of such a harbor and the value of the soil and timber. They were, however, in no condition to settle, or even to tarry. Their health and strength were impaired, ammunition was practically exhausted, and there were no supplies. They would come back, but now they must reach civilization. It was midwinter and raining almost constantly. They had little idea of distance, but knew there were settlers to the south, and that they must reach them or starve. So they turned from the bay they had found to save their lives.
The third day they reached a large river flowing from the south, entering the ocean a few miles south of the bay. As they reached it they met two very old Indians loaded down with eels just taken from the river, which the Indians freely shared with the travelers. They were so impressed with them and more that followed that they bestowed on the magnificent river which with many branches drains one of the most majestic domains on earth the insignificant, almost sacrilegious name of Eel!
For two days they camped, consuming eels and discussing the future. A most unfortunate difference developed, dividing the little group of men who had suffered together so long. Gregg and three others favored following the ocean beach. The other four, headed by Wood, were of the opinion that the better course would be to follow up Eel River to its head, crossing the probably narrow divide and following down some stream headed either south or east. Neither party would yield and they parted company, each almost hopeless.
Wood and his companions soon found their plan beset with great difficulties. Spurs of the mountains came to the river's edge and cut off ascent. After five days they left the river and sought a mountain ridge. A heavy snowfall added to their discomfiture. They killed a small deer, and camped for five days, devouring it thankfully. Compelled by the snow, they returned to the river-bed, the skin of the deer their only food. One morning they met and shot at five grizzly bears, but none were killed. The next morning in a mountain gully eight ugly grizzlies faced them. In desperation they determined to attack. Wood and Wilson were to advance and fire. The others held themselves in reserve—one of them up a tree. At fifty feet each selected a bear and fired. Wilson killed his bear; Wood thought he had finished his. The beast fell, biting the earth and writhing in agony. Wilson sensibly climbed a tree and called upon Wood to do likewise. He started to first reload his rifle and the ball stuck. When the two shots were fired five of the bears started up the mountain, but one sat quietly on its haunches watching proceedings. As Wood struggled with his refractory bullet it started for him. He gained a small tree and climbed beyond reach. Unable to load, he used his rifle to beat back the beast as it tried to claw him. To his horror the bear he thought was killed rose to its feet and furiously charged the tree, breaking it down at once. Wood landed on his feet and ran down the mountain to a small buckeye, the bear after him. He managed to hook his arm around the tree, swinging his body clear. The wounded bear was carried by its momentum well down the mountain. Wood ran for another tree, the other bear close after him, snapping at his heels. Before he could climb out of reach he was grabbed by the ankle and pulled down. The wounded bear came jumping up the mountain and caught him by the shoulder. They pulled against each other as if to dismember him. His hip was dislocated and he suffered some painful flesh wounds.
His clothing was stripped from his body and he felt the end had come, but the bears seemed disinclined to seize his flesh. They were evidently suspicious of white meat. Finally one disappeared up the ravine, while the other sat down a hundred yards away, and keenly watched him. As long as he kept perfectly still the bear was quiet, but if he moved at all it rushed upon him.
Wilson came to his aid and both finally managed to climb trees beyond reach. The bear then sat down between the trees, watching both and growling threateningly if either moved. It finally tired of the game and to their great relief disappeared up the mountain. Wood, suffering acutely, was carried down to the camp, where they remained twelve days, subsisting on the bear Wilson had killed.
Wood grew worse instead of better, and the situation was grave. Little ammunition was left, they were practically without shoes or clothing, and certain death seemed to face them. Wood urged them to seek their own safety, saying they could leave him with the Indians, or put an end to his sufferings at any time. Failing to induce the Indians to take him, it was decided to try to bind him on his horse and take him along on the hard journey. He suffered torture, but it was a day at a time and he had great fortitude. After ten days of incredible suffering they reached the ranch of Mrs. Mark West, thirty miles from Sonoma. The date was February 17th, one hundred and four days from Rich Bar.
The four who started to follow the beach had experiences no less trying. They found it impossible to accomplish their purpose. Bold mountains came quite to the shore and blocked the way. They finally struck east for the Sacramento Valley. They were short of food and suffered unutterably. Dr. Gregg grew weaker day by day until he fell from his horse and died from starvation, speaking no word. The other three pushed on and managed to reach Sacramento a few days after the Wood party arrived at Sonoma.
While these adventurous miners were prosecuting the search for the mythical harbor, enterprising citizens of San Francisco renewed efforts to reach it from the ocean. In December, 1849, soon after Wood and his companions started from the Trinity River, the brig "Cameo" was dispatched north to search carefully for a port. She returned without success, but was again dispatched. On this trip she rediscovered Trinidad. Interest grew, and by March of 1850 not less than forty vessels were enlisted in the search.
My father, who left Boston early in 1849, going by Panama and the Chagres River, had been through three fires in San Francisco and was ready for any change. He joined with a number of acquaintances on one of these ventures, acting as secretary of the company. They purchased the "Paragon," a Gloucester fishing-boat of 125 tons burden, and early in March, under the command of Captain March, with forty-two men in the party, sailed north. They hugged the coast and kept a careful lookout for a harbor, but passed the present Humboldt Bay in rather calm weather and in the daytime without seeing it. The cause of what was then inexplicable is now quite plain. The entrance has the prevailing northwest slant. The view into the bay from the ocean is cut off by the overlapping south spit. A direct view reveals no entrance; you can not see in by looking back after having passed it. At sea the line of breakers seems continuous, the protruding point from the south connecting in surf line with that from the north. Moreover, the bay at the entrance is very narrow. The wooded hills are so near the entrance that there seems no room for a bay.
The "Paragon" soon found heavy weather and was driven far out to sea. Then for three days she was in front of a gale driving her in shore. She reached the coast nearly at the Oregon line and dropped anchor in the lee of a small island near Point St. George. In the night a gale sprang up, blowing fiercely in shore toward an apparently solid cliff. One after another the cables to her three anchors parted, and my father said it was with a feeling of relief that they heard the last one snap, the suspense giving way to what they believed to be the end of all. But there proved to be an unsuspected sandspit at the base of the cliff, and the "Paragon" at high tide plowed her way to a berth she never left. Her bones long marked the spot, and for many years the roadstead was known as Paragon Bay. No lives were lost and no property was saved. About twenty-five of the survivors returned to San Francisco on the "Cameo," but my father stayed by, and managed to reach Humboldt Bay soon after its discovery, settling in Uniontown in May, 1850.
The glory of the ocean discovery remained for the "Laura Virginia," a Baltimore craft, commanded by Lieutenant Douglass Ottinger, a revenue officer on leave of absence. She left soon after the "Paragon," and kept close in shore. Soon after leaving Cape Mendocino she reached the mouth of Eel River and came to anchor. The next day three other vessels anchored and the "General Morgan" sent a boat over the river bar. The "Laura Virginia" proceeded north and the captain soon saw the waters of a bay, but could see no entrance. He proceeded, anchoring first at Trinidad and then at where Crescent City was later located. There he found the "Cameo" at anchor and the "Paragon" on the beach. Remaining in the roadstead two days, he started back, and tracing a stream of fresh-looking water discovered the mouth of the Klamath. Arriving at Trinidad, he sent five men down by land to find out if there was an entrance to the bay he had seen. On their favorable report, Second Officer Buhne was instructed to take a ship's boat and sound the entrance before the vessel should attempt it. On April 9, 1850, he crossed the bar, finding four and a half fathoms. Buhne remained in the bay till the ship dropped down. On April 14th he went out and brought her in. After much discussion the bay and the city they proposed to locate were named Humboldt, after the distinguished naturalist and traveler, for whom a member of the company had great admiration.
Let us now return to L.K. Wood, whom we left at the Mark West home in the Sonoma Valley, recovering from the serious injuries incident to the bear encounter on Eel River. After about six weeks of recuperation, Wood pushed on to San Francisco and organized a party of thirty men to return to Humboldt and establish a settlement. They were twenty days on the journey, arriving at the shore of the bay on April 19th, five days after the entrance of the "Laura Virginia." They were amazed to see the vessel at anchor off Humboldt Point. They quietly drew back into the woods, and skirting the east side of the bay came out at the Bucksport site. Four men remained to hold it. The others pushed on to the head of the bay, where they had enjoyed their Christmas dinner. This they considered the best place for a town. For three days they were very busily engaged in posting notices, laying foundations for homes, and otherwise fortifying their claims. They named the new settlement Uniontown. About six years afterward it was changed to Arcata, the original Indian name for the spot. The change was made in consideration of the confusion occasioned by there being a Uniontown in El Dorado County.
And so the hidden harbor that had long inspired legend and tradition, and had been the source of great suffering and loss, was revealed. It was not fed by the Trinity or any other river. The mouth of the Trinity was not navigable; it did not boast a mouth—the Klamath just swallowed it. The Klamath's far-northern mouth was a poor affair, useless for commercial purposes. But a great empire had been opened and an enormously serviceable harbor had been added to California's assets. It aided mining and created immense lumber interests.
Strange as it may seem, Humboldt Bay was not discovered at this time. Some years ago a searcher of the archives of far-off St. Petersburg found unquestionable proof that the discovery was made in 1806, and not in 1849-50. Early in the nineteenth century the Russian-American Company was all-powerful and especially active in the fur trade. It engaged an American captain, Jonathan Winship, who commanded an American crew on the ship "Ocean." The outfit, accompanied by a hundred Aleut Indians, with fifty-two small boats, was sent from Alaska down the California coast in pursuit of seals. They anchored at Trinidad and spread out for the capture of sea-otter. Eighteen miles south they sighted a bay and finally found the obscure entrance. They entered with a boat and then followed with the ship, which anchored nearly opposite the location of Eureka. They found fifteen feet of water on the bar. From the large number of Indians living on its shores, they called it the Bay of the Indians. The entrance they named Resanof. Winship made a detailed sketch of the bay and its surroundings, locating the Indian villages and the small streams that enter the bay. It was sent to St. Petersburg and entered on a Russian map. The Spaniards seem never to have known anything of it, and the Americans evidently considered the incident of no importance.
Humboldt as a community developed slowly. For five years its real resources were neglected.
It was merely the shipping point from which the mines of the Trinity and Klamath rivers were supplied by mule trains. Gradually agriculture was developed, and from 1855 lumber was king. It is now a great domain. The county is a little less than three times the size of the state of Rhode Island, and its wealth of resources and its rugged and alluring beauty are still gaining in recognition.
Its unique glory is the world-famous redwood belt. For its entire length, one hundred and six miles of coast line, and of an average depth of eight miles, extends the marvelous grove. Originally it comprised 540,000 acres. For more than sixty years it has been mercilessly depleted, yet it is claimed that the supply will not be exhausted for two hundred years. There is nothing on the face of the earth to compare with this stand of superb timber. Trees reach two hundred and fifty feet in height, thirty feet in diameter, and a weight of 1,250,000 pounds. Through countless centuries these noble specimens have stood, majestic, serene, reserved for man's use and delight. In these later years fate has numbered their days, but let us firmly withstand their utter demolition. It is beyond conception that all these monuments to nature's power and beauty should be sacrificed. We must preserve accessible groves for the inspiration and joy of those who will take our places.
The coast highway following down one of the forks of the Eel River passes through the magnificent redwood belt and affords a wonderful view of these superb trees. Efforts are now being made to preserve the trees bordering the highway, that one of the most attractive features of California's scenic beauty may be preserved for all time. California has nothing more impressive to offer than these majestic trees, and they are an asset she cannot afford to lose.
NINE YEARS NORTH
Uniontown (now Arcata) had enjoyed the early lead among the Humboldt Bay towns. The first consideration had been the facility in supplying the mines on the Trinity and the Klamath. All goods were transported by pack-trains, and the trails over the mountains were nearer the head of the bay. But soon lumber became the leading industry, and the mills were at Eureka on deep water at the center of the bay, making that the natural shipping point. It grew rapidly, outstripping its rival, and also capturing the county-seat.
Arcata struggled valiantly, but it was useless. Her geographical position was against her. In an election she shamelessly stuffed the ballot box, but Eureka went to the legislature and won her point.
Arcata had the most beautiful location and its people were very ambitious. In fruitless effort to sustain its lead, the town had built a pier almost two miles in length to a slough navigable to ocean steamers. A single horse drew a flat car carrying passengers and freight. It was the nearest approach to a railroad in the state of California at the time of our arrival on that lovely morning in 1855.
We disembarked from the ancient craft and were soon leisurely pursuing our way toward the enterprising town at the other end of the track. It seemed that we were met by the entire population; for the arrival of the steamer with mail and passengers was the exciting event of the month. The station was near the southwest corner of the plaza, which we crossed diagonally to the post-office, housed in the building that had been my father's store until he sold out the year before, when he was elected to the Assembly. Murdock's Hall was in the second story, and a little way north stood a zinc house that was to be our home. It had been shipped first to San Francisco and then to Humboldt. Its plan and architecture were the acme of simplicity. There were three rooms tandem, each with a door in the exact middle, so that if all the doors were open a bullet would be unimpeded in passing through. To add to the social atmosphere, a front porch, open at both ends, extended across the whole front. A horseman could, and in fact often did, ride across it. My brother and I occupied a chamber over the post-office, and he became adept in going to sleep on the parlor sofa every night and later going to bed in the store without waking, dodging all obstructing objects and undressing while sound asleep.
We were quite comfortable in this joke of a house. But we had no pump; all the water we used I brought from a spring in the edge of the woods, the one found by the Gregg party on the night of Christmas, 1849. The first time I visited it and dipped my bucket in the sunken barrel that protected it I had a shock. Before leaving San Francisco, being a sentimental youth and knowing little of what Humboldt offered, I bought two pots of fragrant flowers—heliotrope and a musk-plant—bringing them on the steamer with no little difficulty. As I dipped into the barrel I noticed that it was surrounded by a solid mass of musk-plants growing wild. The misapprehension was at least no greater than that which prompted some full-grown man to ship a zinc house to the one spot in the world where the most readily splitting lumber was plentiful.
One of the sights shown to the newcomer was a two-story house built before the era of the sawmill. It was built of split lumber from a single redwood tree—and enough remained to fence the lot! Within a stone's throw from the musk-plant spring was a standing redwood, with its heart burned out, in which thirteen men had slept one night, just to boast of it. Later, in my time, a shingle-maker had occupied the tree all one winter, both as a residence and as a shop where he made shingles for the trade.
We had a very pleasant home and were comfortable and happy. We had a horse, cows, rabbits, and pigeons. Our garden furnished berries and vegetables in plenty. The Indians sold fish, and I provided at first rabbits and then ducks and geese. One delicious addition to our table was novel to us. As a part of the redwood's undergrowth was a tall bush that in its season yielded a luscious and enormous berry called the salmon-berry. It was much like a raspberry, generally salmon in color, very juicy and delicate, approximating an inch and a half in diameter. Armed with a long pole, a short section of a butt limb forming a sort of shepherd's crook, I would pull down the heavily laden branches and after a few moments in the edge of the woods would be provided with a dessert fit for any queen, and so appropriate for my mother.
California in those early days seemed wholly dependent on the foreign markets. Flour came from Chile, "Haxall" being the common brand; cheese from Holland and Switzerland; cordials, sardines, and prunes from France; ale and porter from England; olives from Spain; whiskey from Scotland. Boston supplied us with crackers, Philadelphia sent us boots, and New Orleans furnished us with sugar and molasses.
The stores that supplied the mines carried almost everything—provisions, clothing, dry goods, and certainly wet goods. At every store there was found an open barrel of whiskey, with a convenient glass sampler that would yield through the bunghole a fair-sized drink to test the quality. One day I went into a store where a clever Chinaman was employed. He had printed numerous placards announcing the stock. I noticed a fresh one that seemed incongruous. It read, "Codfish and Cologne Water." I said, "What's the idea?" He smilingly replied, "You see its place? I hang it over the whiskey-barrel. Some time man come to steal a drink. I no see him; he read sign, he laugh, I hear him, I see him."
There was no school in the town when we came. It troubled my mother that my brother and sister must be without lessons. Several other small children were deprived of opportunity. In the emergency we cleaned out a room in the store, formerly occupied by a county officer, and I organized a very primary school. I was almost fifteen, but the children were good and manageable. I did not have very many, and fortunately I was not called upon to teach very long. There came to town a clever man, Robert Desty. He wanted to teach. There was no school building, but he built one all by his own hands. He suggested that I give up my school and become a pupil of his. I was very glad to do it. He was a good and ingenious teacher. I enjoyed his lessons about six months, and then felt I must help my father. My stopping was the only graduation in my experience.
My father was an inveterate trader, and the year after our coming he joined with another venturer in buying the standing crop of wheat in Hoopa Valley, on the Trinity River. I went up to help in the harvesting, being charged with the weighing of the sacked grain. It was a fine experience for an innocent Yankee boy. We lived out of doors, following the threshers from farm to farm, eating under an oak tree and sleeping on the fragrant straw-piles. I was also the butt of about the wildest lot of jokers ever assembled. They were good-natured, but it was their concerted effort to see how much I could stand in the way of highly flavored stories at mealtime. It was fun for them, besides they felt it would be a service to knock out some of the Boston "sissiness." I do not doubt it was. They never quite drove me away from the table.
In the meantime I had a great good time. It was a very beautiful spot and all was new and strange. There were many Indians, and they were interesting. They lived in rancherias of puncheons along the river. Each group of dwellings had a musical name. One village was called Matiltin, another Savanalta. The children swam like so many ducks, and each village had its sweathouse from which every adult, to keep in health and condition, would plunge into the swiftly flowing river. They lived on salmon, fresh or dried, and on grass-seed cakes cooked on heated stones. They were handsome specimens physically and were good workers. The river was not bridged, but it was not deep and canoes were plenty. If none were seen on the side which you chanced to find yourself, you had only to call, "Wanus, matil!" (Come, boat!) and one would come. If in a hurry, "Holish!" would expedite the service.
The Indian language was fascinating and musical. "Iaquay" was the word of friendly greeting. "Aliquor" was Indian, "Waugee" was white man, "Chick" was the general word for money. When "Waugee-chick" was mentioned, it meant gold or silver; if "Aliquor-chick," reference was made to the spiral quill-like shells which served as their currency, their value increasing rapidly by the length. [Footnote: In the Hawaiian Islands short shells of this variety are strung for beads, but have little value.] There are frequent combined words. "Hutla" is night, "Wha" is the sun; "Hutla-wha" is the moon—the night-sun. If an Indian wishes to ask where you are going, he will say, "Ta hunt tow ingya?" "Teena scoia" is very good. "Skeena" is too small. "Semastolon" is a young woman; if she is considered beautiful, "Clane nuquum" describes her.
The Indians were very friendly and hospitable. If I wanted an account-book that was on the other side of the river, they would not bother for a canoe, but swim over with it, using-one hand and holding the book high in the air. I found they had settled habits and usages that seemed peculiar to them. If one of their number died, they did not like it referred to; they wished for no condolence. "Indian die, Indian no talk," was their expression.
It was a wonder to me that in a valley connected with civilization by only a trail there should be found McCormick's reapers and Pitt's threshers. Parts too large for a mule's pack had been cut in two and afterwards reunited. By some dint of ingenuity even a millstone had been hauled over the roadless mountains. The wheat we harvested was ground at the Hoopa mill and the flour was shipped to the Trinity and Klamath mines.
All the week we harvested vigorously, and on Sunday we devoted most of the day to visiting the watermelon patches and sampling the product. Of course, we spent a portion of the day in washing our few clothes, usually swimming and splashing in the river until they were dry.
The valley was long and narrow, with mountains on both sides so high that the day was materially shortened in the morning and at night. The tardy sun was ardent when he came, but disturbed us little. The nights were blissful—beds so soft and sweet and a canopy so beautiful! In the morning we awoke to the tender call of cooing doves, and very soon lined up for breakfast in the perfectly ventilated out-of-doors. Happy days they were! Wise and genial Captain Snyder, Sonnichsen, the patient cook, Jim Brock, happy tormentor—how clearly they revisit the glimpses of the moon!
Returning to Uniontown, I resumed my placid, busy life, helping in the garden, around the house, and in the post-office. My father was wise in his treatment. Boylike I would say, "Father, what shall I do?" He would answer, "Look around and find out. I'll not always be here to tell you." Thrown on my own resources, I had no trouble in finding enough to do, and I was sufficiently normal and indolent to be in no danger of finding too much.
The post-office is a harborer of secrets and romance. The postmaster and his assistants alone know "Who's Who." A character of a packer, tall, straight, and bearded, always called Joe the Marine, would steal in and call for comely letters addressed to James Ashhurst, Esq. Robert Desty was found to be Mons. Robert d'Esti Mauville. A blacksmith whose letters were commonly addressed to C.E. Bigelow was found entitled to one inscribed C.E.D.L.B. Bigelow. Asked what his full name was, he replied, "Charles Edward Decatur La Fitte Butterfield Bigelow." And, mind you, he was a blacksmith! His christening entitled him to it all, but he felt that all he could afford was what he commonly used.
Phonetics have a distinct value. Uncertain of spelling, one can fall back on remembered sound. I found a letter addressed to "Sanerzay." I had no difficulty in determining that San Jose was intended. Hard labor was suggested when someone wrote "Youchiyer." The letter found its resting-place in Ukiah.
Among my miscellaneous occupations was the pasturage of mules about to start on the return trip to the mines. We had a farm and logging-claim on the outskirts of town which afforded a good farewell bite of grass, and at night I would turn loose twenty to forty mules and their beloved bell-mare to feed and fight mosquitoes. Early the next morning I would saddle my charger and go and bring them to the packing corral. Never shall I forget a surprise given me one morning. I had a tall, awkward mare, and was loping over the field looking for my charges. An innocent little rabbit scuttled across Kate's path and she stopped in her tracks as her feet landed. I was gazing for the mule train and I did not stop. I sailed over her head, still grasping the bridle reins, which, attached to the bit, I also had to overleap, so that the next moment I found myself standing erect with the reins between my legs, holding on to a horse behind me still standing in her arrested tracks. Remounting, I soon found the frisky mules and started them toward misery. Driven into the corral where their freight had been divided into packs of from one hundred to one hundred and fifty pounds, they were one by one saddled, cinched, and packed. A small mule would seem to be unequal to carrying two side-packs, each consisting of three fifty-pound sacks of flour, and perhaps a case of boots for a top-pack. But protests of groans and grunts would be unavailing. Two swarthy Mexicans, by dint of cleverly thrown ropes and the "diamond hitch," would soon have in place all that the traffic would bear, and the small Indian boy on the mother of the train, bearing a tinkling bell, would lead them on their way to Salmon River or to Orleans Bar.
Another frequent duty was the preparation of the hall for some public function. It might be a dance, a political meeting, or some theatrical performance. Different treatment would be required, but all would include cleaning and lighting. At a dance it was floor-scrubbing, filling the camphene lamps, and making up beds for the babies to be later deposited by their dancing mothers. Very likely I would tend door and later join in the dance, which commonly continued until morning.
Politics interested me. In the Fremont campaign of 1856 my father was one of four Republicans in the county, and was by no means popular. He lived to see Humboldt County record a six hundred majority for the Republican ticket. Some of our local legislative candidates surprised and inspired me by their eloquence and unexpected knowledge and ability. It was good to find that men read and thought, even when they lived in the woods and had little encouragement.
Occasionally we had quite good theatrical performances. Very early I recall a thespian named Thoman, who was supported by a Julia Pelby. They vastly pleased an uncritical audience. I was doorkeeper, notwithstanding that Thoman doubted if I was "hefty" enough. "Little Lotta" Crabtree was charming. Her mother traveled with her. Between performances she played with her dolls. She danced gracefully and sang fascinatingly such songs as "I'm the covey what sings." Another prime favorite was Joe Murphy, Irish comedian and violinist, pleasing in both roles. I remember a singing comedian who bewailed his sad estate:
"For now I have nothing but rags to my back, My boots scarce cover my toes, While my pants are patched with an old flour-sack, To jibe with the rest of my clo'es."
The singing-school was pleasure-yielding, its greatest joy being incidental. When I could cut ahead of a chum taking a girl home and shamelessly trip him up with a stretched rope and get back to the drugstore and be curled up in the woodbox when he reached his final destination, I am afraid I took unholy joy.
Not long after coming we started a public library. Mother and I covered all the books, this being considered an economical necessity. Somewhat later Arcata formed a debating society that was really a helpful influence. It engaged quite a wide range of membership, and we discussed almost everything. Some of our members were fluent of speech from long participation in Methodist experience meetings. Others were self-trained even to pronunciation. One man of good mind, always said "hereditary." He had read French history and often referred to the Gridironists of France. I have an idea he was the original of the man whom Bret Harte made refer to the Greek hero as "old Ashheels." Our meetings were open, and among the visitors I recall a clerk of a commander in the Indian war. He afterwards became lieutenant-governor of the state, and later a senator from Nevada—John P. Jones.
An especial pleasure were the thoroughness and zest with which we celebrated the Fourth of July. The grown-ups did well in the daylight hours, when the procession, the oration, and the reading of the Declaration were in order; but with the shades of night the fireworks would have been inadequate but for the activity of the boys. The town was built around a handsome plaza, probably copied from Sonoma as an incident of the Wood sojourn. On the highest point in the center a fine flagstaff one hundred and twenty feet high was proudly crowned by a liberty-cap. This elevated plateau was the field of our display. On a spot not too near the flagstaff we planned for a spectacular center of flame. During the day we gathered material for an enormous bonfire. Huge casks formed the base and inflammable material of all kinds reached high in the air. At dark we fired the pile. But the chief interest was centered in hundreds of balls of twine, soaked in camphene, which we lighted and threw rapidly from hand to hand all over the plaza. We could not hold on to them long, but we didn't need to. They came flying from every direction and were caught from the ground and sent back before they had a chance to burn. The noise and excitement can be easily imagined. Blackened and weary boys kept it up till the bonfire was out and the balls had grown too small to pick up. Nothing interfered with our celebrations. When the Indians were "bad" we forsook the redwoods and built our speaker's stand and lunch tables and benches out in the open beyond firing distance.
Our garden was quite creditable. Vegetables were plentiful and my flower-beds, though formal, were pleasing. Stock-raising was very interesting. One year I had the satisfaction of breaking three heifers and raising their calves. My brother showed more enterprise, for he induced a plump young mother of the herd to allow him to ride her when he drove the rest to pasture.
Upon our arrival in Uniontown we found the only church was the Methodist. We at once attended, and I joined the Sunday-school. My teacher was a periodically reformed boatman. When he fell from grace he was taken in hand by the Sons of Temperance, which I had also joined. "Morning Star Division, No. 106," was never short of material to work on. My first editorial experience was on its spicy little written journal. I went through the chairs and became "Worthy Patriarch" while still a boy. The church was mostly served by first-termers, not especially inspiring. I recall one good man who seemed to have no other qualification for the office. He frankly admitted that he had worked in a mill and in a lumber-yard, and said he liked preaching "better than anything he'd ever been at." He was very sincere and honest. He had a uniform lead in prayer: "O Lord, we thank thee that it is as well with us as what it is." The sentiment was admirable, but somehow the manner grated. When the presiding elder came around we had a relief. He was wide-awake and witty. One night he read the passage of Scripture where they all began with one accord to make excuses. One said: "I have married a wife and cannot come." The elder, looking up, said, "Why didn't the pesky fool bring her with him?"
In the process of time the Presbyterians started a church, and I went there; swept out, trimmed the lamps, and sang in the choir. The preacher was an educated man, and out of the pulpit was kind and reasonable; but he persisted that "Good deeds were but as filthy rags." I didn't believe it and I didn't like it. The staid pastor had but little recreation, and I am afraid I was always glad that Ulrica Schumacher, the frisky sister of the gunsmith, almost always beat him at chess.
He was succeeded by a man I loved, and I wonder I did not join his church. We were good friends and used to go out trout-fishing together. He was a delightful man, but when he was in the pulpit he shrank and shriveled. The danger of Presbyterianism passed when he expressed his doubt whether it would be best for my mother to partake of communion, as she had all her life in the Unitarian church. She was willing, but waited his approval. My mother was the most saintly of women, absolutely unselfish and self-sacrificing, and it shocked me that any belief or lack of belief should exclude her from a Christian communion.
When my father, in one of his numerous trades, bought out the only tinshop and put me in charge he changed my life and endangered my disposition. The tinsmith left the county and I was left with the tools and the material, the only tinsmith in Humboldt County. How I struggled and bungled! I could make stovepipe by the mile, but it was a long time before I could double-seam a copper bottom onto a tin wash-boiler. I lived to construct quite a decent traveling oilcan for a Eureka sawmill, but such triumphs come through mental anguish and burned fingers. No doubt the experience extended my desultory education.
The taking over of the tinshop was doubly disappointing, since I really wanted to go into the office of the Northern Californian and become a printer and journalist. That job I turned over to Bret Harte, who was clever and cultivated, but had not yet "caught on." Leon Chevret, the French hotelkeeper, said of him to a lawyer of his acquaintance, "Bret Harte, he have the Napoleonic nose, the nose of genius; also, like many of you professional men, his debts trouble him very little."
There were many interesting characters among the residents of the town and county. At times there came to play the violin at our dances one Seth Kinman, a buckskin-clad hunter. He became nationally famous when he fashioned and presented elkhorn chairs to Buchanan and several succeeding Presidents. They were ingenious and beautiful, and he himself was most picturesque.
One of our originals was a shiftless and merry Iowan to whose name was added by courtesy the prefix "Dr." He had a small farm in the outskirts. Gates hung from a single hinge and nothing was kept in repair. He preferred to use his time in persuading nature to joke. A single cucumber grown into a glass bottle till it could not get out was worth more than a salable crop, and a single cock whose comb had grown around an inserted pullet breastbone, until he seemed the precursor of a new breed of horned roosters, was better than much poultry. He reached his highest fame in the cure of his afflicted wife. She languished in bed and he diagnosed her illness as resulting from the fact that she was "hidebound." His house he had never had time to complete. The rafters were unobstructed by ceiling, so she was favorably situated for treatment. He fixed a lasso under her arms, threw the end around a rafter, and proceeded to loosen her refractory hide.
One of our leading merchants was a deacon in the Methodist church and so enjoyed the patronage of his brother parishioners. One of them came in one day and asked the paying price of eggs. The deacon told him "sixty cents a dozen."
"What are sail-needles?"
"Five cents apiece."
The brother produced an egg and proposed a swap. It was smilingly accepted and the egg added to the pile of stock.
The brother lingered and finally drawled, "Deacon, it's customary, isn't it, to treat a buyer?"
"It is; what will you take?" laughingly replied the deacon.
"Sherry is nice."
The deacon poured out the sherry and handed it to his customer, who hesitated and timidly remarked that sherry was improved by a raw egg. The amused deacon turned around and took from the egg-pile the identical one he had received. As the brother broke it into his glass he noticed it had an extra yolk. After enjoying his drink, he handed back the empty glass and said: "Deacon, that egg had a double yolk; don't you think you ought to give me another sail-needle?"
When Thomas Starr King was electrifying the state in support of the Sanitary Commission (the Red Cross of the Civil War), Arcata caught the fever and in November, 1862, held a great meeting at the Presbyterian church. Our leading ministers and lawyers appealed with power and surprising subscriptions followed. Mr. Coddington, our wealthiest citizen, started the list with three hundred dollars and ten dollars a month during the war. Others followed, giving according to their ability. One man gave for himself, as well as for his wife and all his children. On taking his seat and speaking to his wife, he jumped up and added one dollar for the new baby that he had forgotten. When money gave out other belongings were sacrificed. One man gave twenty-five bushels of wheat, another ten cords of wood, another his saddle, another a gun. A notary gave twenty dollars in fees. A cattleman brought down the house when he said, "I have no money, but I will give a cow, and a calf a month as long as the war lasts." The following day it was my joy as secretary to auction off the merchandise. When all was forwarded to San Francisco we were told we had won first honors, averaging over twenty-five dollars for each voter in the town.
One interesting circumstance was the consignment to me of the first shipments of two novelties that afterward became very common. The discovery of coal-oil and the utilization of kerosene for lighting date back to about 1859. The first coal-oil lamps that came to Humboldt were sent to me for display and introduction. Likewise, about 1860, a Grover & Baker sewing-machine was sent up for me to exhibit. By way of showing its capabilities, I sewed the necessary number of yard-widths of the length of Murdock's Hall to make a new ceiling, of which it chanced to stand in need.
Humboldt County was an isolated community. Sea steamers were both infrequent and uncertain, with ten days or two weeks and more between arrivals. There were no roads to the interior, but there were trails, and they were often threatened by treacherous Indians. The Indians living near us on Mad River were peaceful, but the mountain Indians were dangerous, and we never knew when we were really safe. In Arcata we had one stone building, a store, and sometimes the frightened would resort to it at night. In times of peace, settlers lived on Mad River, on Redwood Creek, and on the Bald Hills, where they herded their cattle. One by one they were killed or driven in until there was not a white person living between the bay and Trinity River. Mail carriers were shot down, and the young men of Arcata were often called upon at night to nurse the wounded. We also organized a military company, and a night duty was drilling our men on the plaza or up past the gruesome graveyard. My command was never called out for service, but I had some fortunate escapes from being waylaid. I walked around the bay one morning; a few hours later a man was ambushed on the road.
On one occasion I narrowly escaped participation in warfare. In August, 1862, there had been outrages by daring Indian bands, killing unprotected men close to town. Once a few of us followed the tracks of a party and traced the marauders across Mad River and toward a small prairie known to our leader, Ousley the saddler. As we passed along a small road he caught the sign. A whiff of a shred of cotton cloth caught on a bush denoted a smoky native. A crushed fern, still moist, told him they had lately passed. At his direction we took to the woods and crawled quietly toward the near-by prairie. Our orders were to wait the signal. If the band we expected to find was not too large, we should be given the word to attack. If there were too many for us, we should back out and go to town for help. We soon heard them plainly as they made camp. We found about three times our number, and we retired very quietly and made for the nearest farmhouse that had a team.
In town many were anxious to volunteer. My mother did not want me to go, and I must confess I was in full accord with her point of view. I therefore served as commissary, collecting and preparing quantities of bread, bacon, and cheese for a breakfast and distributing a packed bag to each soldier. The attack at daylight resulted in one death to our command and a number to the Indians. It was followed up, and a few days later the band was almost annihilated. The plunder recovered proved them guilty of many late attacks. This was toward the end of the Indian war that had for so many years been disastrous to the community, and which in many of its aspects was deeply pathetic. Originally the Indian population was large. The coast Indians were spoken of as Diggers, and inferior in character. They were generally peaceful and friendly while the mountain dwellers were inclined to hostility. As a whole they did not represent a very high type of humanity, and all seemed to take to the vices rather than to the virtues of the white race, which was by no means represented at its best. A few unprincipled whites were always ready to stir up trouble and the Indians were treacherous and when antagonized they killed the innocent rather than the guilty, for they were cowards and took the fewest possible chances. I have known an Indian hater who seemed to think the only good Indian was a dead one go unmolested through an entire campaign, while a friendly old man was shot from behind while milking his cow. The town was near the edge of the woods and no one was secure. The fine character whom we greatly respected,—the debater of original pronunciation,—who had never wronged a human being of any race, was shot down from the woods quite near the plaza.
The regular army was useless in protection or punishment. Their regulations and methods did not fit. They made fine plans, but they failed to work. They would locate the enemy and detail detachments to move from various points to surround and capture the foe, but when they got there the bushes were bare. Finally battalions of mountaineers were organized among men who knew Indian ways and were their equals in cunning. They soon satisfied the hostiles that they would be better off on the reservations that were provided and the war was at an end.
It was to the credit of Humboldt County that in the final settlement of the contest the rights of the Indians were quite fairly considered and the reservations set aside for their residence were of valuable land well situated and fitted for the purpose. Hoopa Valley, on the Trinity, was purchased from its settlers and constituted a reservation protected by Fort Gaston and a garrison. It was my pleasure to revisit the scene of my boyhood experience and assist in the transfer largely conducted through the leadership of Austin Wiley, the editor and owner of the Humboldt Times. He was subsequently made Superintendent of Indian Affairs for the state of California, and as his clerk I helped in the administration. When I visited the Smith River reservation, to which the Bay Indians had been sent, I was hailed with joy as "Major's pappoose," whom they remembered of old. (My father was always called Major.)
Among the warm friendships formed at this time two stand out. Two boys of about my age were to achieve brilliant careers. Very early I became intimate with Alexander Brizard, a clerk in the store of F. Roskill, a Russian. He was my companion in the adventure of following the Indian marauders, and my associate in the church choir and the debating club. In 1863 he joined a fellow clerk in establishing a modest business concern, the firm being known as A. Brizard & Co.; the unnamed partner was James Alexander Campbell Van Rossum, a Hollander. They prospered amazingly. Van Rossum died early, Brizard became the leading merchant of northern California, and his sons still continue the chain of stores that grew from the small beginning. He was a strong, fine character.
The other boy, very near to me, was John J. DeHaven, who was first a printer, then a lawyer, then a State Senator, then a Congressman, and finally a U.S. District Judge. He was very able and distinguished himself in every place in life to which he advanced.
In 1861, when my father had become superintendent of a Nevada County gold mine, he left me to run the post-office, cut the timothy hay, and manage a logging-camp. It was wartime and I had a longing to enlist. One day I received a letter from him, and as I tore it open a startling sentence caught my eye, "Your commission will come by the next steamer." I caught my breath and south particulars. It informed me that Senator Sargent, his close friend, had secured for me the appointment of Register of the Land Office at Humboldt.
There had been a vacancy for some time, resulting from reduction in the pay from $3000 in gold to $500 in greenbacks, together with commissions, which were few. My father thought it would be good experience for me and advised my acceptance. And so at twenty-two I became a Federal officeholder. The commission from President Lincoln is the most treasured feature of the incident. I learned some valuable lessons. The honor was great and the position was responsible, but I soon felt constrained to resign, to accept a place as quartermaster's clerk, where I had more pay with more work. I was stationed at Fort Humboldt, where Grant spent a few uncomfortable months in 1854. It was an experience very different from any I had ever had. Army accounting is wholly unlike civilian, books being dispensed with and accounts of all kinds being made in quadruplicate. I shed quantities of red ink and made my monthly papers appear well. I had no responsibility and obeyed orders, but I could not be wholly comfortable when I covered in all the grain that every mule was entitled to when I had judicial knowledge that he had been turned out to grass. Nor could I believe that the full amount of cordwood allowed officers was consumed when fires were infrequent. I was only sure that it was paid for. Aside from these ethical informalities the life was socially agreeable, and there is glamour in the military. My period of service was not very long. My father had settled in San Francisco and the family had joined him. I was lonely, and when my friend, the new Superintendent of Indian Affairs, offered me employment I forsook Fort Humboldt and took up my residence in the city by the Golden Gate.
THE REAL BRET HARTE
Before taking up the events related to my residence in San Francisco I wish to give my testimony concerning Bret Harte, perhaps the most interesting character associated with my sojourn in Humboldt. It was before he was known to fame that I knew him; but I am able to correct some errors that have been made and I believe can contribute to a more just estimate of him as a literary artist and a man.
He has been misjudged as to character. He was a remarkable personality, who interpreted an era of unusual interest, vital and picturesque, with a result unparalleled in literary annals. When he died in England in 1902 the English papers paid him very high tribute. The London Spectator said of him: "No writer of the present day has struck so powerful and original a note as he has sounded." This is a very unusual acknowledgment from a source not given to the superlative, and fills us with wonder as to what manner of man and what sort of training had led to it.
Causes are not easily determined, but they exist and function. Accidents rarely if ever happen. Heredity and experience very largely account for results. What is their testimony in this particular case?
Francis Bret Harte was born in Albany, New York, February 25, 1836. His father was a highly educated instructor in Greek, of English-Jewish descent. His mother was an Ostrander, a cultivated and fine character of Dutch descent. His grandmother on his father's side was Catherine Brett. He had an elder brother and two younger sisters. The boys were voracious readers and began Shakespeare when six, adding Dickens at seven. Frank developed an early sense of humor, burlesquing the baldness of his primer and mimicking the recitations of some of his fellow pupils when he entered school. He was studious and very soon began to write. At eleven he sent a poem to a weekly paper and was a little proud when he showed it to the family in print. When they heartlessly pointed out its flaws he was less hilarious.
His father died when he was very young and he owed his training to his mother. He left school at thirteen and was first a lawyer's clerk and later found work in a counting-room. He was self-supporting at sixteen. In 1853 his mother married Colonel Andrew Williams, an early mayor of Oakland, and removed to California. The following year Bret and his younger sister, Margaret, followed her, arriving in Oakland in March, 1854.
He found the new home pleasant. The relations with his cultivated stepfather were congenial and cordial, but he suffered the fate of most untrained boys. He was fairly well educated, but he had no trade or profession. He was bright and quick, but remunerative employment was not readily found, and he did not relish a clerkship. For a time he was given a place in a drugstore. Some of his early experiences are embalmed in "How Reuben Allen Saw Life" and in "Bohemian Days." In the latter he says: "I had been there a week,—an idle week, spent in listless outlook for employment, a full week, in my eager absorption of the strange life around me and a photographic sensitiveness to certain scenes and incidents of those days, which stand out in my memory today as freshly as on the day they impressed me."
It was a satisfaction that he found some congenial work. He wrote for Putnam's and the Knickerbocker.
In 1856, when he was twenty, he went to Alamo, in the San Ramon Valley, as tutor in an interesting family. He found the experience agreeable and valuable.
A letter to his sister Margaret, written soon after his arrival, shows a delightful relation between them and warm affection on his part. It tells in a felicitous manner of the place, the people, and his experiences. He had been to a camp-meeting and was struck with the quaint, old-fashioned garb of the girls, seeming to make the ugly ones uglier and the pretty ones prettier. It was raining when he wrote and he felt depressed, but he sent his love in the form of a charming bit of verse wherein a tear was borne with the flowing water to testify to his tender regard for his "peerless sister." This letter, too personal for publication, his sister lately read to me, and it was a revelation of the matchless style so early acquired. In form it seemed perfect—not a superfluous or an ill-chosen word. Every sentence showed rhythm and balance, flowing easily and pleasantly from beginning to end, leaving an impression of beauty and harmony, and testifying to a kindly, gentle nature, with an admiring regard for his seventeen-year-old sister.