A CHRONICLE OF THE CALIFORNIA TRAIL AND EL DORADO
BY STEWART EDWARD WHITE
I. SPANISH DAYS II. THE AMERICAN OCCUPATION III. LAW—MILITARY AND CIVIL IV. GOLD V. ACROSS THE PLAINS VI. THE MORMONS VII. THE WAY BY PANAMA VIII. THE DIGGINGS IX. THE URBAN FORTY-NINER X. ORDEAL BY FIRE XI. THE VIGILANTES OF '51 XII. SAN FRANCISCO IN TRANSITION XIII. THE STORM GATHERS XIV. THE STORM BREAKS XV. THE VIGILANTES OF '56 XVI. THE TRIUMPH OF THE VIGILANTES BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE INDEX
The dominant people of California have been successively aborigines, conquistadores, monks, the dreamy, romantic, unenergetic peoples of Spain, the roaring melange of Forty-nine, and finally the modern citizens, who are so distinctive that they bid fair to become a subspecies of their own. This modern society has, in its evolution, something unique. To be sure, other countries also have passed through these same phases. But while the processes have consumed a leisurely five hundred years or so elsewhere, here they have been subjected to forced growth.
The tourist traveler is inclined to look upon the crumbling yet beautiful remains of the old missions, those venerable relics in a bustling modern land, as he looks upon the enduring remains of old Rome. Yet there are today many unconsidered New England farmhouses older than the oldest western mission, and there are men now living who witnessed the passing of Spanish California.
Though the existence of California had been known for centuries, and the dates of her first visitors are many hundreds of years old, nevertheless Spain attempted no actual occupation until she was forced to it by political necessity. Until that time she had little use for the country. After early investigations had exploded her dream of more treasure cities similar to those looted by Cortes and Pizarro, her interest promptly died.
But in the latter part of the eighteenth century Spain began to awake to the importance of action. Fortunately ready to her hand was a tried and tempered weapon. Just as the modern statesmen turn to commercial penetration, so Spain turned, as always, to religious occupation. She made use of the missionary spirit and she sent forth her expeditions ostensibly for the purpose of converting the heathen. The result was the so-called Sacred Expedition under the leadership of Junipero Serra and Portola. In the face of incredible hardships and discouragements, these devoted, if narrow and simple, men succeeded in establishing a string of missions from San Diego to Sonoma. The energy, self-sacrifice, and persistence of the members of this expedition furnish inspiring reading today and show clearly of what the Spanish character at its best is capable.
For the next thirty years after the founding of the first mission in 1769, the grasp of Spain on California was assured. Men who could do, suffer, and endure occupied the land. They made their mistakes in judgment and in methods, but the strong fiber of the pioneer was there. The original padres were almost without exception zealous, devoted to poverty, uplifted by a fanatic desire to further their cause. The original Spanish temporal leaders were in general able, energetic, courageous, and not afraid of work or fearful of disaster.
At the end of that period, however, things began to suffer a change. The time of pioneering came to an end, and the new age of material prosperity began. Evils of various sorts crept in. The pioneer priests were in some instances replaced by men who thought more of the flesh-pot than of the altar, and whose treatment of the Indians left very much to be desired. Squabbles arose between the civil and the religious powers. Envy of the missions' immense holdings undoubtedly had its influence. The final result of the struggle could not be avoided, and in the end the complete secularization of the missions took place, and with this inevitable change the real influence of these religious outposts came to an end.
Thus before the advent in California of the American as an American, and not as a traveler or a naturalized citizen, the mission had disappeared from the land, and the land was inhabited by a race calling itself the gente de razon, in presumed contradistinction to human beasts with no reasoning powers. Of this period the lay reader finds such conflicting accounts that he either is bewildered or else boldly indulges his prejudices. According to one school of writers—mainly those of modern fiction—California before the advent of the gringo was a sort of Arcadian paradise, populated by a people who were polite, generous, pleasure-loving, high-minded, chivalrous, aristocratic, and above all things romantic. Only with the coming of the loosely sordid, commercial, and despicable American did this Arcadia fade to the strains of dying and pathetic music. According to another school of writers—mainly authors of personal reminiscences at a time when growing antagonism was accentuating the difference in ideals—the "greaser" was a dirty, idle, shiftless, treacherous, tawdry vagabond, dwelling in a disgracefully primitive house, and backward in every aspect of civilization.
The truth, of course, lies somewhere between the two extremes, but its exact location is difficult though not impossible to determine. The influence of environment is sometimes strong, but human nature does not differ much from age to age. Racial characteristics remain approximately the same. The Californians were of several distinct classes. The upper class, which consisted of a very few families, generally included those who had held office, and whose pride led them to intermarry. Pure blood was exceedingly rare. Of even the best the majority had Indian blood; but the slightest mixture of Spanish was a sufficient claim to gentility. Outside of these "first families," the bulk of the population came from three sources: the original military adjuncts to the missions, those brought in as settlers, and convicts imported to support one side or another in the innumerable political squabbles. These diverse elements shared one sentiment only—an aversion to work. The feeling had grown up that in order to maintain the prestige of the soldier in the eyes of the natives it was highly improper that he should ever do any labor. The settlers, of whom there were few, had themselves been induced to immigrate by rather extravagant promises of an easy life. The convicts were only what was to be expected.
If limitations of space and subject permitted, it would be pleasant to portray the romantic life of those pastoral days. Arcadian conditions were then more nearly attained than perhaps at any other time in the world's history. The picturesque, easy, idle, pleasant, fiery, aristocratic life has been elsewhere so well depicted that it has taken on the quality of rosy legend. Nobody did any more work than it pleased him to do; everybody was well-fed and happy; the women were beautiful and chaste; the men were bold, fiery, spirited, gracefully idle; life was a succession of picturesque merrymakings, lovemakings, intrigues, visits, lavish hospitalities, harmless politics, and revolutions. To be sure, there were but few signs of progressive spirit. People traveled on horseback because roads did not exist. They wore silks and diamonds, lace and satin, but their houses were crude, and conveniences were simple or entirely lacking. Their very vehicles, with wooden axles and wheels made of the cross-section of a tree, were such as an East African savage would be ashamed of. But who cared? And since no one wished improvements, why worry about them?
Certainly, judged by the standards of a truly progressive race, the Spanish occupation had many shortcomings. Agriculture was so little known that at times the country nearly starved. Contemporary travelers mention this fact with wonder. "There is," says Ryan, "very little land under cultivation in the vicinity of Monterey. That which strikes the foreigner most is the utter neglect in which the soil is left and the indifference with which the most charming sites are regarded. In the hands of the English and Americans, Monterey would be a beautiful town adorned with gardens and orchards and surrounded with picturesque walks and drives. The natives are, unfortunately, too ignorant to appreciate and too indolent even to attempt such improvement." And Captain Charles Wilkes asserts that "notwithstanding the immense number of domestic animals in the country, the Californians were too lazy to make butter or cheese, and even milk was rare. If there was a little good soap and leather occasionally found, the people were too indolent to make them in any quantity. The earth was simply scratched a few inches by a mean and ill-contrived plow. When the ground had been turned up by repeated scratching, it was hoed down and the clods broken by dragging over it huge branches of trees. Threshing was performed by spreading the cut grain on a spot of hard ground, treading it with cattle, and after taking off the straw throwing the remainder up in the breeze, much was lost and what was saved was foul."
General shiftlessness and inertia extended also to those branches wherein the Californian was supposed to excel. Even in the matter of cattle and sheep, the stock was very inferior to that brought into the country by the Americans, and such a thing as crossing stock or improving the breed of either cattle or horses was never thought of. The cattle were long-horned, rough-skinned animals, and the beef was tough and coarse. The sheep, while of Spanish stock, were very far from being Spanish merino. Their wool was of the poorest quality, entirely unfit for exportation, and their meat was not a favorite food.
There were practically no manufactures on the whole coast. The inhabitants depended for all luxuries and necessities on foreign trade, and in exchange gave hide and tallow from the semi-wild cattle that roamed the hills. Even this trade was discouraged by heavy import duties which amounted at times to one hundred per cent of the value. Such conditions naturally led to extensive smuggling which was connived at by most officials, high and low, and even by the monks of the missions themselves.
Although the chief reason for Spanish occupancy was to hold the country, the provisions for defense were not only inadequate but careless. Thomes says, in Land and Sea, that the fort at Monterey was "armed with four long brass nine-pounders, the handsomest guns that I ever saw all covered with scroll work and figures. They were mounted on ruined and decayed carriages. Two of them were pointed toward the planet Venus, and the other two were depressed so that had they been loaded or fired the balls would have startled the people on the other side of the hemisphere." This condition was typical of those throughout the so-called armed forts of California.
The picture thus presented is unjustly shaded, of course, for Spanish California had its ideal, noble, and romantic side. In a final estimate no one could say where the balance would be struck; but our purpose is not to strike a final balance. We are here endeavoring to analyze the reasons why the task of the American conquerors was so easy, and to explain the facility with which the original population was thrust aside.
It is a sometimes rather annoying anomaly of human nature that the races and individuals about whom are woven the most indestructible mantles of romance are generally those who, from the standpoint of economic stability or solid moral quality, are the most variable. We staid and sober citizens are inclined to throw an aura of picturesqueness about such creatures as the Stuarts, the dissipated Virginian cavaliers, the happy-go-lucky barren artists of the Latin Quarter, the fiery touchiness of that so-called chivalry which was one of the least important features of Southern life, and so on. We staid and sober citizens generally object strenuously to living in actual contact with the unpunctuality, unreliability, unreasonableness, shiftlessness, and general irresponsibility that are the invariable concomitants of this picturesqueness. At a safe distance we prove less critical. We even go so far as to regard this unfamiliar life as a mental anodyne or antidote to the rigid responsibility of our own everyday existence. We use these historical accounts for moral relaxation, much as some financiers or statisticians are said to read cheap detective stories for complete mental relaxation.
But, the Californian's undoubtedly admirable qualities of generosity, kindheartedness (whenever narrow prejudice or very lofty pride was not touched), hospitality, and all the rest, proved, in the eyes of a practical people confronted with a large and practical job, of little value in view of his predominantly negative qualities. A man with all the time in the world rarely gets on with a man who has no time at all. The newcomer had his house to put in order; and it was a very big house. The American wanted to get things done at once; the Californian could see no especial reason for doing them at all. Even when his short-lived enthusiasm happened to be aroused, it was for action tomorrow rather than today.
For all his amiable qualities, the mainspring of the Californian's conduct was at bottom the impression he could make upon others. The magnificence of his apparel and his accoutrement indicated no feeling for luxury but rather a fondness for display. His pride and quick-tempered honor were rooted in a desire to stand well in the eyes of his equals, not in a desire to stand well with himself. In consequence he had not the builder's fundamental instinct. He made no effort to supply himself with anything that did not satisfy this amiable desire. The contradictions of his conduct, therefore, become comprehensible. We begin to see why he wore silks and satins and why he neglected what to us are necessities. We see why he could display such admirable carriage in rough-riding and lassoing grizzlies, and yet seemed to possess such feeble military efficiency. We comprehend his generous hospitality coupled with his often narrow and suspicious cruelty. In fact, all the contrasts of his character and action begin to be clear. His displacement was natural when confronted by a people who, whatever their serious faults, had wants and desires that came from within, who possessed the instinct to create and to hold the things that would gratify those desires, and who, in the final analysis, began to care for other men's opinions only after they had satisfied their own needs and desires.
THE AMERICAN OCCUPATION
From the earliest period Spain had discouraged foreign immigration into California. Her object was neither to attract settlers nor to develop the country, but to retain political control of it, and to make of it a possible asylum for her own people. Fifty years after the founding of the first mission at San Diego, California had only thirteen inhabitants of foreign birth. Most of these had become naturalized citizens, and so were in name Spanish. Of these but three were American!
Subsequent to 1822, however, the number of foreign residents rapidly increased. These people were mainly of substantial character, possessing a real interest in the country and an intention of permanent settlement. Most of them became naturalized, married Spanish women, acquired property, and became trusted citizens. In marked contrast to their neighbors, they invariably displayed the greatest energy and enterprise. They were generally liked by the natives, and such men as Hartnell, Richardson, David Spence, Nicholas Den, and many others, lived lives and left reputations to be envied.
Between 1830 and 1840, however, Americans of a different type began to present themselves. Southwest of the Missouri River the ancient town of Santa Fe attracted trappers and traders of all nations and from all parts of the great West. There they met to exchange their wares and to organize new expeditions into the remote territories. Some of them naturally found their way across the western mountains into California. One of the most notable was James Pattie, whose personal narrative is well worth reading. These men were bold, hardy, rough, energetic, with little patience for the refinements of life—in fact, diametrically opposed in character to the easy-going inhabitants of California. Contempt on the one side and distrust on the other were inevitable. The trappers and traders, together with the deserters from whalers and other ships, banded together in small communities of the rough type familiar to any observer of our frontier communities. They looked down upon and despised the "greasers," who in turn did everything in their power to harass them by political and other means.
At first isolated parties, such as those of Jedediah Smith, the Patties, and some others, had been imprisoned or banished eastward over the Rockies. The pressure of increasing numbers, combined with the rather idle carelessness into which all California-Spanish regulations seemed at length to fall, later nullified this drastic policy. Notorious among these men was one Isaac Graham, an American trapper, who had become weary of wandering and had settled near Natividad. There he established a small distillery, and in consequence drew about him all the rough and idle characters of the country. Some were trappers, some sailors; a few were Mexicans and renegade Indians. Over all of these Graham obtained an absolute control. They were most of them of a belligerent nature and expert shots, accustomed to taking care of themselves in the wilds. This little band, though it consisted of only thirty-nine members, was therefore considered formidable.
A rumor that these people were plotting an uprising for the purpose of overturning the government aroused Governor Alvarado to action. It is probable that the rumors in question were merely the reports of boastful drunken vaporings and would better have been ignored. However, at this time Alvarado, recently arisen to power through the usual revolutionary tactics, felt himself not entirely secure in his new position. He needed some distraction, and he therefore seized upon the rumor of Graham's uprising as a means of solidifying his influence—an expedient not unknown to modern rulers. He therefore ordered the prefect Castro to arrest the party. This was done by surprise. Graham and his companions were taken from their beds, placed upon a ship at Monterey, and exiled to San Blas, to be eventually delivered to the Mexican authorities. There they were held in prison for some months, but being at last released through the efforts of an American lawyer, most of them returned to California rather better off than before their arrest. It is typical of the vacillating Californian policy of the day that, on their return, Graham and his riflemen were at once made use of by one of the revolutionary parties as a reinforcement to their military power!
By 1840 the foreign population had by these rather desultory methods been increased to a few over four hundred souls. The majority could not be described as welcome guests. They had rarely come into the country with the deliberate intention of settling but rather as a traveler's chance. In November, 1841, however, two parties of quite a different character arrived. They were the first true immigrants into California, and their advent is significant as marking the beginning of the end of the old order. One of these parties entered by the Salt Lake Trail, and was the forerunner of the many pioneers over that great central route. The other came by Santa Fe, over the trail that had by now become so well marked that they hardly suffered even inconvenience on their journey. The first party arrived at Monte Diablo in the north, the other at San Gabriel Mission in the south. Many brought their families with them, and they came with the evident intention of settling in California.
The arrival of these two parties presented to the Mexican Government a problem that required immediate solution. Already in anticipation of such an event it had been provided that nobody who had not obtained a legal passport should be permitted to remain in the country; and that even old settlers, unless naturalized, should be required to depart unless they procured official permission to remain. Naturally none of the new arrivals had received notice of this law, and they were in consequence unprovided with the proper passports. Legally they should have been forced at once to turn about and return by the way they came. Actually it would have been inhuman, if not impossible, to have forced them at that season of the year to attempt the mountains. General Vallejo, always broad-minded in his policies, used discretion in the matter and provided those in his district with temporary permits to remain. He required only a bond signed by other Americans who had been longer in the country.
Alvarado and Vallejo at once notified the Mexican Government of the arrival of these strangers, and both expressed fear that other and larger parties would follow. These fears were very soon realized. Succeeding expeditions settled in the State with the evident intention of remaining. No serious effort was made by the California authorities to keep them out. From time to time, to be sure, formal objection was raised and regulations were passed. However, as a matter of plain practicability, it was manifestly impossible to prevent parties from starting across the plains, or to inform the people living in the Eastern States of the regulations adopted by California. It must be remembered that communication at that time was extraordinarily slow and broken. It would have been cruel and unwarranted to drive away those who had already arrived. And even were such a course to be contemplated, a garrison would have been necessary at every mountain pass on the East and North, and at every crossing of the Colorado River, as well as at every port along the coast. The government in California had not men sufficient to handle its own few antique guns in its few coastwise forts, let alone a surplus for the purpose just described. And to cap all, provided the garrisons had been available and could have been placed, it would have been physically impossible to have supplied them with provisions for even a single month.
Truth to tell, the newcomers of this last class were not personally objectionable to the Californians. The Spanish considered them no different from those of their own blood. Had it not been for an uneasiness lest the enterprise of the American settlers should in time overcome Californian interests, had it not been for repeated orders from Mexico itself, and had it not been for reports that ten thousand Mormons had recently left Illinois for California, it is doubtful if much attention would have been paid to the first immigrants.
Westward migration at this time was given an added impetus by the Oregon question. The status of Oregon had long been in doubt. Both England and the United States were inclined to claim priority of occupation. The boundary between Canada and the United States had not yet been decided upon between the two countries. Though they had agreed upon the compromise of joint occupation of the disputed land, this arrangement did not meet with public approval. The land-hungry took a particular interest in the question and joined their voices with those of men actuated by more patriotic motives. In public meetings which were held throughout the country this joint occupation convention was explained and discussed, and its abrogation was demanded. These meetings helped to form the patriotic desire. Senator Tappan once said that thirty thousand settlers with their thirty thousand rifles in the valley of the Columbia would quickly settle all questions of title to the country. This saying was adopted as the slogan for a campaign in the West. It had the same inspiring effect as the later famous "54-40 or fight." People were aroused as in the olden times they had been aroused to the crusades. It became a form of mental contagion to talk of, and finally to accomplish, the journey to the Northwest. Though no accurate records were kept, it is estimated that in 1843 over 800 people crossed to Willamette Valley. By 1845 this immigration had increased to fully 3000 within the year.
Because of these conditions the Oregon Trail had become a national highway. Starting at Independence, which is a suburb of the present Kansas City, it set out over the rolling prairie. At that time the wide plains were bright with wild flowers and teeming with game. Elk, antelope, wild turkeys, buffalo, deer, and a great variety of smaller creatures supplied sport and food in plenty. Wood and water were in every ravine; the abundant grass was sufficient to maintain the swarming hordes of wild animals and to give rich pasture to horses and oxen. The journey across these prairies, while long and hard, could rarely have been tedious. Tremendous thunderstorms succeeded the sultry heat of the West, an occasional cyclone added excitement; the cattle were apt to stampede senselessly; and, while the Indian had not yet developed the hostility that later made a journey across the plains so dangerous, nevertheless the possibilities of theft were always near enough at hand to keep the traveler alert and interested. Then there was the sandy country of the Platte River with its buffalo—buffalo by the hundreds of thousands, as far as the eye could reach—a marvelous sight: and beyond that again the Rockies, by way of Fort Laramie and South Pass.
Beyond Fort Hall the Oregon Trail and the trail for California divided. And at this point there began the terrible part of the journey—the arid, alkaline, thirsty desert, short of game, horrible in its monotony, deadly with its thirst. It is no wonder that, weakened by their sufferings in this inferno, so many of the immigrants looked upon the towering walls of the Sierras with a sinking of the heart.
While at first most of the influx of settlers was by way of Oregon, later the stories of the new country that made their way eastward induced travelers to go direct to California itself. The immigration, both from Oregon in the North and by the route over the Sierras, increased so rapidly that in 1845 there were probably about 700 Americans in the district. Those coming over the Sierras by the Carson Sink and Salt Lake trails arrived first of all at the fort built by Captain Sutter at the junction of the American and Sacramento rivers.
Captain Sutter was a man of Swiss parentage who had arrived in San Francisco in 1839 without much capital and with only the assets of considerable ability and great driving force. From the Governor he obtained grant of a large tract of land "somewhere in the interior" for the purposes of colonization. His colonists consisted of one German, four other white men, and eight Kanakas. The then Governor, Alvarado, thought this rather a small beginning, but advised him to take out naturalization papers and to select a location. Sutter set out on his somewhat vague quest with a four-oared boat and two small schooners, loaded with provisions, implements, ammunition, and three small cannon. Besides his original party he took an Indian boy and a dog, the latter proving by no means the least useful member of the company. He found at the junction of the American and Sacramento rivers the location that appealed to him, and there he established himself. His knack with the Indians soon enlisted their services. He seems to have been able to keep his agreements with them and at the same time to maintain rigid discipline and control.
Within an incredibly short time he had established a feudal barony at his fort. He owned eleven square leagues of land, four thousand two hundred cattle, two thousand horses, and about as many sheep. His trade in beaver skins was most profitable. He maintained a force of trappers who were always welcome at his fort, and whom he generously kept without cost to themselves. He taught the Indians blanket-weaving, hat-making, and other trades, and he even organized them into military companies. The fort which he built was enclosed on four sides and of imposing dimensions and convenience. It mounted twelve pieces of artillery, supported a regular garrison of forty in uniform, and contained within its walls a blacksmith shop, a distillery, a flour mill, a cannery, and space for other necessary industries. Outside the walls of the fort Captain Sutter raised wheat, oats, and barley in quantity, and even established an excellent fruit and vegetable garden.
Indeed, in every way Captain Sutter's environment and the results of his enterprises were in significant contrast to the inactivity and backwardness of his neighbors. He showed what an energetic man could accomplish with exactly the same human powers and material tools as had always been available to the Californians. Sutter himself was a rather short, thick-set man, exquisitely neat, of military bearing, carrying himself with what is called the true old-fashioned courtesy. He was a man of great generosity and of high spirit. His defect was an excess of ambition which in the end o'erleaped itself. There is no doubt that his first expectation was to found an independent state within the borders of California. His loyalty to the Americans was, however, never questioned, and the fact that his lands were gradually taken from him, and that he died finally in comparative poverty, is a striking comment on human injustice.
The important point for us at present is that Sutter's Fort happened to be exactly on the line of the overland immigration. For the trail-weary traveler it was the first stopping-place after crossing the high Sierras to the promised land. Sutter's natural generosity of character induced him always to treat these men with the greatest kindness. He made his profits from such as wished to get rid of their oxen and wagons in exchange for the commodities which he had to offer. But there is no doubt that the worthy captain displayed the utmost liberality in dealing with those whom poverty had overtaken. On several occasions he sent out expeditions at his personal cost to rescue parties caught in the mountains by early snows or other misfortunes along the road, Especially did he go to great expense in the matter of the ill-fated Donner party, who, it will be remembered, spent the winter near Truckee, and were reduced to cannibalism to avoid starvation.
[1: See The Passing of the Frontier, in "The Chronicles of America."]
Now Sutter had, of course, been naturalized in order to obtain his grant of land. He had also been appointed an official of the California-Mexican Government. Taking advantage of this fact, he was accustomed to issue permits or passports to the immigrants, permitting them to remain in the country. This gave the immigrants a certain limited standing, but, as they were not Mexican citizens, they were disqualified from holding land. Nevertheless Sutter used his good offices in showing desirable locations to the would-be settlers.
[2: It is to be remarked that, prior to the gold rush, American settlements did not take place in the Spanish South but in the unoccupied North. In 1845 Castro and Castillero made a tour through the Sacramento Valley and the northern regions to inquire about the new arrivals. Castro displayed no personal uneasiness at their presence and made no attempt or threat to deport them.]
As far as the Californians were concerned, there was little rivalry or interference between the immigrants and the natives. Their interests did not as yet conflict. Nevertheless the central Mexican Government continued its commands to prevent any and all immigration. It was rather well justified by its experience in Texas, where settlement had ended by final absorption. The local Californian authorities were thus thrust between the devil and the deep blue sea. They were constrained by the very positive and repeated orders from their home government to keep out all immigration and to eject those already on the ground. On the other hand, the means for doing so were entirely lacking, and the present situation did not seem to them alarming.
Thus matters drifted along until the Mexican War. For a considerable time before actual hostilities broke out, it was well known throughout the country that they were imminent. Every naval and military commander was perfectly aware that, sooner or later, war was inevitable. Many had received their instructions in case of that eventuality, and most of the others had individual plans to be put into execution at the earliest possible moment. Indeed, as early as 1842 Commodore Jones, being misinformed of a state of war, raced with what he supposed to be English war-vessels from South America, entered the port of Monterey hastily, captured the fort, and raised the American flag. The next day he discovered that not only was there no state of war, but that he had not even raced British ships! The flag was thereupon hauled down, the Mexican emblem substituted, appropriate apologies and salutes were rendered, and the incident was considered closed. The easy-going Californians accepted the apology promptly and cherished no rancor for the mistake.
In the meantime Thomas O. Larkin, a very substantial citizen of long standing in the country, had been appointed consul, and in addition received a sum of six dollars a day to act as secret agent. It was hoped that his great influence would avail to inspire the Californians with a desire for peaceful annexation to the United States. In case that policy failed, he was to use all means to separate them from Mexico, and so isolate them from their natural alliances. He was furthermore to persuade them that England, France, and Russia had sinister designs on their liberty. It was hoped that his good offices would slowly influence public opinion, and that, on the declaration of open war with Mexico, the United States flag could be hoisted in California not only without opposition but with the consent and approval of the inhabitants. This type of peaceful conquest had a very good chance of success. Larkin possessed the confidence of the better class of Californians and he did his duty faithfully.
Just at this moment a picturesque, gallant, ambitious, dashing, and rather unscrupulous character appeared inopportunely on the horizon. His name was John C. Fremont. He was the son of a French father and a Virginia mother. He was thirty-two years old, and was married to the daughter of Thomas H. Benton, United States Senator from Missouri and a man of great influence in the country. Possessed of an adventurous spirit, considerable initiative, and great persistence Fremont had already performed the feat of crossing the Sierra Nevadas by way of Carson River and Johnson Pass, and had also explored the Columbia River and various parts of the Northwest. Fremont now entered California by way of Walker Lake and the Truckee, and reached Sutter's Fort in 1845. He then turned southward to meet a division of his party under Joseph Walker.
His expedition was friendly in character, with the object of surveying a route westward to the Pacific, and then northward to Oregon. It supposedly possessed no military importance whatever. But his turning south to meet Walker instead of north, where ostensibly his duty called him, immediately aroused the suspicions of the Californians. Though ordered to leave the district, he refused compliance, and retired to a place called Gavilan Peak, where he erected fortifications and raised the United States flag. Probably Fremont's intentions were perfectly friendly and peaceful. He made, however, a serious blunder in withdrawing within fortifications. After various threats by the Californians but no performance in the way of attack, he withdrew and proceeded by slow marches to Sutter's Fort and thence towards the north. Near Klamath Lake he was overtaken by Lieutenant Gillespie, who delivered to him certain letters and papers. Fremont thereupon calmly turned south with the pick of his men.
In the meantime the Spanish sub-prefect, Guerrero, had sent word to Larkin that "a multitude of foreigners, having come into California and bought property, a right of naturalized foreigners only, he was under necessity of notifying the authorities in each town to inform such purchasers that the transactions were invalid, and that they themselves were subject to be expelled." This action at once caused widespread consternation among the settlers. They remembered the deportation of Graham and his party some years before, and were both alarmed and thoroughly convinced that defensive measures were necessary. Fremont's return at precisely this moment seemed to them very significant. He was a United States army officer at the head of a government expedition. When on his way to the North he had been overtaken by Gillespie, an officer of the United States Navy. Gillespie had delivered to him certain papers, whereupon he had immediately returned. There seemed no other interpretation of these facts than that the Government at Washington was prepared to uphold by force the American settlers in California.
This reasoning, logical as it seems, proves mistaken in the perspective of the years. Gillespie, it is true, delivered some letters to Fremont, but it is extremely unlikely they contained instructions having to do with interference in Californian affairs. Gillespie, at the same time that he brought these dispatches to Fremont, brought also instructions to Larkin creating the confidential agency above described, and these instructions specifically forbade interference with Californian affairs. It is unreasonable to suppose that contradictory dispatches were sent to one or another of these two men. Many years later Fremont admitted that the dispatch to Larkin was what had been communicated to him by Gillespie. His words are: "This officer [Gillespie] informed me also that he was directed by the Secretary of State to acquaint me with his instructions to the consular agent, Mr. Larkin." Reading Fremont's character, understanding his ambitions, interpreting his later lawless actions that resulted in his court-martial, realizing the recklessness of his spirit, and his instinct to take chances, one comes to the conclusion that it is more than likely that his move was a gamble on probabilities rather than a result of direct orders.
Be this as it may, the mere fact of Fremont's turning south decided the alarmed settlers, and led to the so-called "Bear Flag Revolution." A number of settlers decided that it would be expedient to capture Sonoma, where under Vallejo were nine cannon and some two hundred muskets. It was, in fact, a sort of military station. The capture proved to be a very simple matter. Thirty-two or thirty-three men appeared at dawn, before Vallejo's house, under Merritt and Semple. They entered the house suddenly, called upon Jacob Leese, Vallejo's son-in-law, to interpret, and demanded immediate surrender. Richman says "Leese was surprised at the 'rough looks' of the Americans. Semple he describes as 'six feet six inches tall, and about fifteen inches in diameter, dressed in greasy buckskin from neck to foot, and with a fox-skin cap.'" The prisoners were at once sent by these raiders to Fremont, who was at that time on the American River. He immediately disclaimed any part in the affair. However, instead of remaining entirely aloof, he gave further orders that Leese, who was still in attendance as interpreter, should be arrested, and also that the prisoners should be confined in Sutter's Fort. He thus definitely and officially entered the movement. Soon thereafter Fremont started south through Sonoma, collecting men as he went.
The following quotation from a contemporary writer is interesting and illuminating. "A vast cloud of dust appeared at first, and thence in long files emerged this wildest of wild parties. Fremont rode ahead, a spare active looking man, with such an eye! He was dressed in a blouse and leggings, and wore a felt hat. After him came five Delaware Indians who were his bodyguard. They had charge of two baggage-horses. The rest, many of them blacker than Indians, rode two and two, the rifle held by one hand across the pummel of the saddle. The dress of these men was principally a long loose coat of deerskin tied with thongs in front, trousers of the same. The saddles were of various fashions, though these and a large drove of horses and a brass field gun were things they had picked up in California."
Meantime, the Americans who had collected in Sonoma, under the lead of William B. Ide, raised the flag of revolution—"a standard of somewhat uncertain origin as regards the cotton cloth whereof it was made," writes Royce. On this, they painted with berry juice "something that they called a Bear." By this capture of Sonoma, and its subsequent endorsement by Fremont, Larkin's instructions—that is, to secure California by quiet diplomatic means—were absolutely nullified. A second result was that Englishmen in California were much encouraged to hope for English intervention and protection. The Vallejo circle had always been strongly favorable to the United States. The effect of this raid and capture by United States citizens, with a United States officer endorsing the action, may well be guessed.
Inquiries and protests were lodged by the California authorities with Sloat and Lieutenant Montgomery of the United States naval forces. Just what effect these protests would have had, and just the temperature of the hot water in which the dashing Fremont would have found himself, is a matter of surmise. He had gambled strongly—on his own responsibility or at least at the unofficial suggestion of Benton—on an early declaration of war with Mexico. Failing such a declaration, he would be in a precarious diplomatic position, and must by mere force of automatic discipline have been heavily punished. However the dice fell for him. War with Mexico was almost immediately an actual fact. Fremont's injection into the revolution had been timed at the happiest possible moment for him.
The Bear Flag Revolution took place on June 14,1846. On July 7 the American flag was hoisted over the post at Monterey by Commodore Sloat. Though he had knowledge from June 5 of a state of war, this knowledge, apparently, he had shared neither with his officers nor with the public, and he exhibited a want of initiative and vigor which is in striking contrast to Fremont's ambition and overzeal.
Shortly after this incident Commodore Sloat was allowed to return "by reason of ill health," as has been heretofore published in most histories. His undoubted recall gave room to Commodore Robert Stockton, to whom Sloat not only turned over the command of the naval forces, but whom he also directed to "assume command of the forces and operations on shore."
Stockton at once invited Fremont to enlist under his command, and the invitation was accepted. The entire forces moved south by sea and land for the purpose of subduing southern California. This end was temporarily accomplished with almost ridiculous ease. At this distance of time, allowing all obvious explanations of lack of training, meager equipment, and internal dissension, we find it a little difficult to understand why the Californians did not make a better stand. Most of the so-called battles were a sort of opera bouffe. Californians entrenched with cannon were driven contemptuously forth, without casualties, by a very few men. For example, a lieutenant and nine men were sufficient to hold Santa Barbara in subjection. Indeed, the conquest was too easy, for, lulled into false security, Stockton departed, leaving as he supposed sufficient men to hold the country. The Californians managed to get some coherence into their councils, attacked the Americans, and drove them forth from their garrisons.
Stockton and Fremont immediately started south. In the meantime an overland party under General Kearny had been dispatched from the East. His instructions were rather broad. He was to take in such small sections of the country as New Mexico and Arizona, leaving sufficient garrisons on his way to California. As a result, though his command at first numbered 1657 men, he arrived in the latter state with only about 100. From Warner's Ranch in the mountains he sent word to Stockton that he had arrived. Gillespie, whom the Commodore at once dispatched with thirty-nine men to meet and conduct him to San Diego, joined Kearny near San Luis Rey Mission.
A force of Californians, however, under command of one Andres Pico had been hovering about the hills watching the Americans. It was decided to attack this force. Twenty men were detailed under Captain Johnston for the purpose. At dawn on the morning of the 6th of December the Americans charged upon the Californian camp. The Californians promptly decamped after having delivered a volley which resulted in killing Johnston. The Americans at once pursued them hotly, became much scattered, and were turned upon by the fleeing enemy. The Americans were poorly mounted after their journey, their weapons were now empty, and they were unable to give mutual aid. The Spanish were armed with lances, pistols, and the deadly riata. Before the rearguard could come up, sixteen of the total American force were killed and nineteen badly wounded. This battle of San Pascual, as it was called, is interesting as being the only engagement in which the Californians got the upper hand. Whether their Parthian tactics were the result of a preconceived policy or were merely an expedient of the moment, it is impossible to say. The battle is also notable because the well-known scout, Kit Carson, took part in it.
The forces of Stockton and Kearny joined a few days later, and very soon a conflict of authority arose between the leaders. It was a childish affair throughout, and probably at bottom arose from Fremont's usual over-ambitious designs. To Kearny had undoubtedly been given, by the properly constituted authorities, the command of all the land operations. Stockton, however, claimed to hold supreme land command by instructions from Commodore Sloat already quoted. Through the internal evidence of Stockton's letters and proclamations, it seems he was a trifle inclined to be bombastic and high-flown, to usurp authority, and perhaps to consider himself and his operations of more importance than they actually were. However, he was an officer disciplined and trained to obedience, and his absurd contention is not in character. It may be significant that he had promised to appoint Fremont Governor of California, a promise that naturally could not be fulfilled if Kearny's authority were fully recognized.
Furthermore, at this moment Fremont was at the zenith of his career, and his influence in such matters was considerable. As Hittell says, "At this time and for some time afterwards, Fremont was represented as a sort of young lion. The several trips he had made across the continent, and the several able and interesting reports he had published over his name attracted great public attention. He was hardly ever mentioned except in a high-flown hyperbolical phrase. Benton was one of the most influential men of his day, and it soon became well understood that the surest way of reaching the father-in-law's favor was by furthering the son-in-law's prospects; everybody that wished to court Benton praised Fremont. Besides this political influence Benton exerted in Fremont's behalf, there was an almost equally strong social influence." It might be added that the nature of his public service had been such as to throw him on his own responsibility, and that he had always gambled with fortune, as in the Bear Flag Revolution already mentioned. His star had ever been in the ascendant. He was a spoiled child of fortune at this time, and bitterly and haughtily resented any check to his ambition. The mixture of his blood gave him that fine sense of the dramatic which so easily descends to posing. His actual accomplishment was without doubt great; but his own appreciation of that accomplishment was also undoubtedly great. He was one of those interesting characters whose activities are so near the line between great deeds and charlatanism that it is sometimes difficult to segregate the pose from the performance.
The end of this row for precedence did not come until after the so-called battles at the San Gabriel River and on the Mesa on January 8 and 9, 1847. The first of these conflicts is so typical that it is worth a paragraph of description.
The Californians were posted on the opposite bank of the river. They had about five hundred men, and two pieces of artillery well placed. The bank was elevated some forty feet above the stream and possibly four or six hundred back from the water. The American forces, all told, consisted of about five hundred men, but most of them were dismounted. The tactics were exceedingly simple. The Americans merely forded the river, dragged their guns across, put them in position, and calmly commenced a vigorous bombardment. After about an hour and a half of circling about and futile half-attacks, the Californians withdrew. The total American loss in this and the succeeding "battle," called that of the Mesa, was three killed and twelve wounded.
After this latter battle, the Californians broke completely and hurtled toward the North. Beyond Los Angeles, near San Fernando, they ran head-on into Fremont and his California battalion marching overland from the North. Fremont had just learned of Stockton's defeat of the Californians and, as usual, he seized the happy chance the gods had offered him. He made haste to assure the Californians through a messenger that they would do well to negotiate with him rather than with Stockton. To these suggestions the Californians yielded. Commissioners appointed by both sides then met at Cahuenga on January 13, and elaborated a treaty by which the Californians agreed to surrender their arms and not to serve again during the war, whereupon the victors allowed them to leave the country. Fremont at once proceeded to Los Angeles, where he reported to Kearny and Stockton what had happened.
In accordance with his foolish determination, Stockton still refused to acknowledge Kearny's direct authority. He appointed Fremont Governor of California, which was one mistake; and Fremont accepted, which was another. Undoubtedly the latter thought that his pretensions would be supported by personal influence in Washington. From former experience he had every reason to believe so. In this case, however, he reckoned beyond the resources of even his powerful father-in-law. Kearny, who seems to have been a direct old war-dog, resolved at once to test his authority. He ordered Fremont to muster the California battalion into the regular service, under his (Kearny's) command; or, if the men did not wish to do this, to discharge them. This order did not in the least please Fremont. He attempted to open negotiations, but Kearny was in no manner disposed to talk. He said curtly that he had given his orders, and merely wished to know whether or not they would be obeyed. To this, and from one army officer to another, there could be but one answer, and that was in the affirmative.
Colonel Mason opportunely arrived from Washington with instructions to Fremont either to join his regiment or to resume the explorations on which he had originally been sent to this country. Fremont was still pretending to be Governor, but with nothing to govern. His game was losing at Washington. He could not know this, however, and for some time continued to persist in his absurd claims to governorship. Finally he begged permission of Kearny to form an expedition against Mexico. But it was rather late in the day for the spoiled child to ask for favors, and the permission was refused. Upon his return to Washington under further orders, Fremont was court-martialed, and was found guilty of mutiny, disobedience, and misconduct. He was ordered dismissed from the service, but was pardoned by President Polk in view of his past services. He refused this pardon and resigned.
Fremont was a picturesque figure with a great deal of personal magnetism and dash. The halo of romance has been fitted to his head. There is no doubt that he was a good wilderness traveler, a keen lover of adventure, and a likable personality. He was, however, over-ambitious; he advertised himself altogether too well; and he presumed on the undoubtedly great personal influence he possessed. He has been nicknamed the Pathfinder, but a better title would be the Pathfollower. He found no paths that had not already been traversed by men before him. Unless the silly sentiment that persistently glorifies such despicable characters as the English Stuarts continues to surround this interesting character with fallacious romance, Fremont will undoubtedly take his place in history below men now more obscure but more solid than he was. His services and his ability were both great. If he, his friends, and historians had been content to rest his fame on actualities, his position would be high and honorable. The presumption of so much more than the man actually did or was has the unfortunate effect of minimizing his real accomplishment.
LAW—MILITARY AND CIVIL
The military conquest of California was now an accomplished fact. As long as hostilities should continue in Mexico, California must remain under a military government, and such control was at once inaugurated. The questions to be dealt with, as may well be imagined, were delicate in the extreme. In general the military Governors handled such questions with tact and efficiency. This ability was especially true in the case of Colonel Mason, who succeeded General Kearny. The understanding displayed by this man in holding back the over-eager Americans on one side, and in mollifying the sensitive Californians on the other, is worthy of all admiration.
The Mexican laws were, in lack of any others, supposed to be enforced. Under this system all trials, except of course those having to do with military affairs, took place before officials called alcades, who acknowledged no higher authority than the Governor himself, and enforced the laws as autocrats. The new military Governors took over the old system bodily and appointed new alcaldes where it seemed necessary. The new alcaldes neither knew nor cared anything about the old Mexican law and its provisions. This disregard cannot be wondered at, for even a cursory examination of the legal forms convinces one that they were meant more for the enormous leisure of the old times than for the necessities of the new. In the place of Mexican law each alcalde attempted to substitute his own sense of justice and what recollection of common-law principles he might be able to summon. These common-law principles were not technical in the modern sense of the word, nor were there any printed or written statutes containing them. In this case they were simply what could be recalled by non-technical men of the way in which business had been conducted and disputes had been arranged back in their old homes. But their main reliance was on their individual sense of justice. As Hittell points out, even well-read lawyers who happened to be made alcaldes soon came to pay little attention to technicalities and to seek the merit of cases without regard to rules or forms. All the administration of the law was in the hands of these alcaldes. Mason, who once made the experiment of appointing a special court at Sutter's Fort to try a man known as Growling Smith for the murder of Indians, afterwards declared that he would not do it again except in the most extraordinary emergency, as the precedent was bad.
As may well be imagined, this uniquely individualistic view of the law made interesting legal history. Many of the incumbents were of the rough diamond type. Stories innumerable are related of them. They had little regard for the external dignity of the court, but they strongly insisted on its discipline. Many of them sat with their feet on the desk, chewing tobacco, and whittling a stick. During a trial one of the counsel referred to his opponent as an "oscillating Tarquin." The judge roared out "A what?"
"An oscillating Tarquin, your honor."
The judge's chair came down with a thump.
"If this honorable court knows herself, and she thinks she do, that remark is an insult to this honorable court, and you are fined two ounces."
Expostulation was cut short.
"Silence, sir! This honorable court won't tolerate cussings and she never goes back on her decisions!"
And she didn't!
Nevertheless a sort of rough justice was generally accomplished. These men felt a responsibility. In addition they possessed a grim commonsense earned by actual experience.
There is an instance of a priest from Santa Clara, sued before the alcalde of San Jose for a breach of contract. His plea was that as a churchman he was not amenable to civil law. The American decided that, while he could not tell what peculiar privileges a clergyman enjoyed as a priest, it was quite evident that when he departed from his religious calling and entered into a secular bargain with a citizen he placed himself on the same footing as the citizen, and should be required like anybody else to comply with his agreement. This principle, which was good sense, has since become good law.
The alcalde refused to be bound by trivial concerns. A Mexican was accused of stealing a pair of leggings. He was convicted and fined three ounces for stealing, while the prosecuting witness was also fined one ounce for bothering the court with such a complaint. On another occasion the defendant, on being fined, was found to be totally insolvent. The alcalde thereupon ordered the plaintiff to pay the fine and costs for the reason that the court could not be expected to sit without remuneration. Though this naive system worked out well enough in the new and primitive community, nevertheless thinking men realized that it could be for a short time only.
As long as the war with Mexico continued, naturally California was under military Governors, but on the declaration of peace military government automatically ceased. Unfortunately, owing to strong controversies as to slavery or non-slavery, Congress passed no law organizing California as a territory; and the status of the newly-acquired possession was far from clear. The people held that, in the absence of congressional action, they had the right to provide for their own government. On the other hand, General Riley contended that the laws of California obtained until supplanted by act of Congress. He was under instructions as Governor to enforce this view, which was, indeed, sustained by judicial precedents. But for precedents the inhabitants cared little. They resolved to call a constitutional convention. After considerable negotiation and thought, Governor Riley resolved to accede to the wishes of the people. An election of delegates was called and the constitutional convention met at Monterey, September 1, 1849.
Parenthetically it is to be noticed that this event took place a considerable time after the first discovery of gold. It can in no sense be considered as a sequel to that fact. The numbers from the gold rush came in later. The constitutional convention was composed mainly of men who had previous interests in the country. They were representative of the time and place. The oldest delegate was fifty-three years and the youngest twenty-five years old. Fourteen were lawyers, fourteen were farmers, nine were merchants, five were soldiers, two were printers, one was a doctor, and one described himself as "a gentleman of elegant leisure."
The deliberations of this body are very interesting reading. Such a subject is usually dry in the extreme; but here we have men assembled from all over the world trying to piece together a form of government from the experiences of the different communities from which they originally came. Many Spanish Californians were represented on the floor. The different points brought up and discussed, in addition to those finally incorporated in the constitution, are both a valuable measure of the degree of intelligence at that time, and an indication of what men considered important in the problems of the day. The constitution itself was one of the best of the thirty-one state constitutions that then existed. Though almost every provision in it was copied from some other instrument, the choice was good. A provision prohibiting slavery was carried by a unanimous vote. When the convention adjourned, the new commonwealth was equipped with all the necessary machinery for regular government.
[3: The constitution was ratified by popular vote, November 13, 1849; and the machinery of state government was at once set in motion, though the State was not admitted into the Union until September 9. 1850.]
It is customary to say that the discovery of gold made the State of California. As a matter of fact, it introduced into the history of California a new solvent, but it was in no sense a determining factor in either the acquisition or the assuring of the American hold. It must not be forgotten that a rising tide of American immigration had already set in. By 1845 the white population had increased to about eight thousand. At the close of hostilities it was estimated that the white population had increased to somewhere between twelve and fifteen thousand. Moreover this immigration, though established and constantly growing, was by no means topheavy. There was plenty of room in the north for the Americans, and they were settling there peaceably. Those who went south generally bought their land in due form. They and the Californians were getting on much better than is usual with conquering and conquered peoples.
But the discovery of gold upset all this orderly development. It wiped out the usual evolution. It not only swept aside at once the antiquated Mexican laws, but it submerged for the time being the first stirrings of the commonwealth toward due convention and legislation after the American pattern. It produced an interim wherein the only law was that evolved from men's consciences and the Anglo-Saxon instinct for order. It brought to shores remote from their native lands a cosmopolitan crew whose only thought was a fixed determination to undertake no new responsibilities. Each man was living for himself. He intended to get his own and to protect his own, and he cared very little for the difficulties of his neighbors. In other words, the discovery of gold offered California as the blank of a mint to receive the impress of a brand new civilization. And furthermore it gave to these men and, through them, to the world an impressive lesson that social responsibility can be evaded for a time, to be sure, but only for a time; and that at the last it must be taken up and the arrears must be paid.
The discovery of gold—made, as everyone knows, by James Marshall, a foreman of Sutter's, engaged in building a sawmill for the Captain—came at a psychological time.The Mexican War was just over and the adventurous spirits, unwilling to settle down, were looking for new excitement. Furthermore, the hard times of the Forties had blanketed the East with mortgages. Many sober communities were ready, deliberately and without excitement, to send their young men westward in the hope of finding a way out of their financial difficulties. The Oregon question, as has been already indicated, had aroused patriotism to such an extent that westward migration had become a sort of mental contagion.
[4: January 24, 1848, is the date usually given.]
It took some time for the first discoveries to leak out, and to be believed after they had gained currency. Even in California itself interest was rather tepid at first. Gold had been found in small quantities many years before, and only the actual sight of the metal in considerable weight could rouse men's imaginations to the blazing point.
Among the most enthusiastic protagonists was one Sam Brannan, who often appeared afterwards in the pages of Californian history. Brannan was a Mormon who had set out from New York with two hundred and fifty Mormons to try out the land of California as a possible refuge for the persecuted sect. That the westward migration of Mormons stopped at Salt Lake may well be due to the fact that on entering San Francisco Bay, Brannan found himself just too late. The American flag was already floating over the Presidio. Eye-witnesses say that Brannan dashed his hat to the deck, exclaiming, "There is that damned rag again." However, he proved an adaptable creature, for he and his Mormons landed nevertheless, and took up the industries of the country.
Brannan collected the usual tithes from these men, with the ostensible purpose of sending them on to the Church at Salt Lake. This, however, he consistently failed to do. One of the Mormons, on asking Sutter how long they should be expected to pay these tithes, received the answer, "As long as you are fools enough to do so." But they did not remain fools very much longer, and Brannan found himself deprived of this source of revenue. On being dunned by Brigham Young for the tithes already collected, Brannan blandly resigned from the Church, still retaining the assets. With this auspicious beginning, aided by a burly, engaging personality, a coarse, direct manner that appealed to men, and an instinct for the limelight, he went far. Though there were a great many admirable traits in his character, people were forced to like him in spite of rather than because of them. His enthusiasm for any public agitation was always on tap.
In the present instance he rode down from Sutter's Fort, where he then had a store, bringing with him gold-dust and nuggets from the new placers. "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" shouted Brannan, as he strode down the street, swinging his hat in one hand and holding aloft the bottle of gold-dust in the other. This he displayed to the crowd that immediately gathered. With such a start, this new interest brought about a stampede that nearly depopulated the city.
The fever spread. People scrambled to the mines from all parts of the State. Practically every able-bodied man in the community, except the Spanish Californians, who as usual did not join this new enterprise with any unanimity, took at least a try at the diggings. Not only did they desert almost every sort of industry, but soldiers left the ranks and sailors the ships, so that often a ship was left in sole charge of its captain. All of American and foreign California moved to the foothills.
Then ensued the brief period so affectionately described in all literalness as the Arcadian Age. Men drank and gambled and enjoyed themselves in the rough manner of mining camps; but they were hardly ever drunken and in no instance dishonest. In all literalness the miners kept their gold-dust in tin cans and similar receptacles, on shelves, unguarded in tents or open cabins. Even quarrels and disorder were practically unknown. The communities were individualistic in the extreme, and yet, with the Anglo-Saxon love of order, they adopted rules and regulations and simple forms of government that proved entirely adequate to their needs. When the "good old days" are mentioned with the lingering regret associated with that phrase, the reference is to this brief period that came between the actual discovery and appreciation of gold and the influx from abroad that came in the following years.
This condition was principally due to the class of men concerned. The earliest miners were a very different lot from the majority of those who arrived in the next few years. They were mostly the original population, who had come out either as pioneers or in the government service. They included the discharged soldiers of Stevenson's regiment of New York Volunteers, who had been detailed for the war but who had arrived a little late, the so-called Mormon Battalion, Sam Brannan's immigrants, and those who had come as settlers since 1842. They were a rough lot with both the virtues and the defects of the pioneer. Nevertheless among their most marked characteristics were their honesty and their kindness. Hittell gives an incident that illustrates the latter trait very well. "It was a little camp, the name of which is not given and perhaps is not important. The day was a hot one when a youth of sixteen came limping along, footsore, weary, hungry, and penniless. There were at least thirty robust miners at work in the ravine and it may well be believed they were cheerful, probably now and then joining in a chorus or laughing at a joke. The lad as he saw and heard them sat down upon the bank, his face telling the sad story of his misfortunes. Though he said nothing he was not unobserved. At length one of the miners, a stalwart fellow, pointing up to the poor fellow on the bank, exclaimed to his companions, 'Boys, I'll work an hour for that chap if you will.' All answered in the affirmative and picks and shovels were plied with even more activity than before. At the end of an hour a hundred dollars' worth of gold-dust was poured into his handkerchief. As this was done the miners who had crowded around the grateful boy made out a list of tools and said to him: 'You go now and buy these tools and come back. We'll have a good claim staked out for you; then you've got to paddle for yourself.'"
Another reason for this distinguished honesty was the extent and incredible richness of the diggings, combined with the firm belief that this richness would last forever and possibly increase. The first gold was often found actually at the roots of bushes, or could be picked out from the veins in the rocks by the aid of an ordinary hunting-knife. Such pockets were, to be sure, by no means numerous; but the miners did not know that. To them it seemed extremely possible that gold in such quantities was to be found almost anywhere for the mere seeking. Authenticated instances are known of men getting ten, fifteen, twenty, and thirty thousand dollars within a week or ten days, without particularly hard work. Gold was so abundant it was much easier to dig it than to steal it, considering the risks attendant on the latter course. A story is told of a miner, while paying for something, dropping a small lump of gold worth perhaps two or three dollars. A bystander picked it up and offered it to him. The miner, without taking it, looked at the man with amazement, exclaiming: "Well, stranger, you are a curiosity. I guess you haven't been in the diggings long. You had better keep that lump for a sample."
These were the days of the red-shirted miner, of romance, of Arcadian simplicity, of clean, honest working under blue skies and beneath the warm California sun, of immense fortunes made quickly, of faithful "pardners," and all the rest. This life was so complete in all its elements that, as we look back upon it, we unconsciously give it a longer period than it actually occupied. It seems to be an epoch, as indeed it was; but it was an epoch of less than a single year, and it ended when the immigration from the world at large began.
The first news of the gold discovery filtered to the east in a roundabout fashion through vessels from the Sandwich Islands. A Baltimore paper published a short item. Everybody laughed at the rumor, for people were already beginning to discount California stories. But they remembered it. Romance, as ever, increases with the square of the distance; and this was a remote land. But soon there came an official letter written by Governor Mason to the War Department wherein he said that in his opinion, "There is more gold in the country drained by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers than would pay the cost of the late war with Mexico a hundred times over." The public immediately was alert. And then, strangely enough, to give direction to the restless spirit seething beneath the surface of society, came a silly popular song. As has happened many times before and since, a great movement was set to the lilt of a commonplace melody. Minstrels started it; the public caught it up. Soon in every quarter of the world were heard the strains of Oh, Susannah! or rather the modification of it made to fit this case:
"I'll scrape the mountains clean, old girl, I'll drain the rivers dry. I'm off for California, Susannah, don't you cry. Oh, Susannah, don't you cry for me, I'm off to California with my wash bowl on my knee!"
The public mind already prepared for excitement by the stirring events of the past few years, but now falling into the doldrums of both monotonous and hard times, responded eagerly. Every man with a drop of red blood in his veins wanted to go to California. But the journey was a long one, and it cost a great deal of money, and there were such things as ties of family or business impossible to shake off. However, those who saw no immediate prospect of going often joined the curious clubs formed for the purpose of getting at least one or more of their members to the El Dorado. These clubs met once in so often, talked over details, worked upon each other's excitement even occasionally and officially sent some one of their members to the point of running amuck. Then he usually broke off all responsibilities and rushed headlong to the gold coast.
The most absurd ideas obtained currency. Stories did not lose in travel. A work entitled Three Weeks in the Gold Mines, written by a mendacious individual who signed himself H.I. Simpson, had a wide vogue. It is doubtful if the author had ever been ten miles from New York; but he wrote a marvelous and at the time convincing tale. According to his account, Simpson had only three weeks for a tour of the gold-fields, and considered ten days of the period was all he could spare the unimportant job of picking up gold. In the ten days, however, with no other implements than a pocket-knife, he accumulated fifty thousand dollars. The rest of the time he really preferred to travel about viewing the country! He condescended, however, to pick up incidental nuggets that happened to lie under his very footstep. Said one man to his friend: "I believe I'll go. I know most of this talk is wildly exaggerated, but I am sensible enough to discount all that sort of thing and to disbelieve absurd stories. I shan't go with the slightest notion of finding the thing true, but will be satisfied if I do reasonably well. In fact, if I don't pick up more than a hatful of gold a day I shall be perfectly satisfied."
Men's minds were full of strange positive knowledge, not only as to the extent of the goldmines, but also as to theory and practice of the actual mining. Contemporary writers tell us of the hundreds and hundreds of different strange machines invented for washing out the gold and actually carried around the Horn or over the Isthmus of Panama to San Francisco. They were of all types, from little pocket-sized affairs up to huge arrangements with windmill arms and wings. Their destination was inevitably the beach below the San Francisco settlement, where, half buried in the sand, torn by the trade winds, and looted for whatever of value might inhere in the metal parts, they rusted and disintegrated, a pathetic and grisly reminder of the futile greed of men.
Nor was this excitement confined to the eastern United States. In France itself lotteries were held, called, I believe, the Lotteries of the Golden Ingot. The holders of the winning tickets were given a trip to the gold-fields. A considerable number of French came over in that manner, so that life in California was then, as now, considerably leavened by Gallicism. Their ignorance of English together with their national clannishness caused them to stick together in communities. They soon became known as Keskydees. Very few people knew why. It was merely the frontiersmen's understanding of the invariable French phrase "Qu'est-ce qu'il dit?" In Great Britain, Norway, to a certain extent in Germany, South America, and even distant Australia, the adventurous and impecunious were pricking up their ears and laying their plans.
There were offered three distinct channels for this immigration. The first of these was by sailing around Cape Horn. This was a slow but fairly comfortable and reasonably safe route. It was never subject to the extreme overcrowding of the Isthmus route, and it may be dismissed in this paragraph. The second was by the overland route, of which there were several trails. The third was by the Isthmus of Panama. Each of these two is worth a chapter, and we shall take up the overland migration first.
ACROSS THE PLAINS
The overland migration attracted the more hardy and experienced pioneers, and also those whose assets lay in cattle and farm equipment rather than in money. The majority came from the more western parts of the then United States, and therefore comprised men who had already some experience in pioneering. As far as the Mississippi or even Kansas these parties generally traveled separately or in small groups from a single locality. Before starting over the great plains, however, it became necessary to combine into larger bands for mutual aid and protection. Such recognized meeting-points were therefore generally in a state of congestion. Thousands of people with their equipment and animals were crowded together in some river-bottom awaiting the propitious moment for setting forth.
The journey ordinarily required about five months, provided nothing untoward happened in the way of delay. A start in the spring therefore allowed the traveler to surmount the Sierra Nevada mountains before the first heavy snowfalls. One of the inevitable anxieties was whether or not this crossing could be safely accomplished. At first the migration was thoroughly orderly and successful. As the stories from California became more glowing, and as the fever for gold mounted higher, the pace accelerated.
A book by a man named Harlan, written in the County Farm to which his old age had brought him, gives a most interesting picture of the times. His party consisted of fourteen persons, one of whom, Harlan's grandmother, was then ninety years old and blind! There were also two very small children. At Indian Creek in Kansas they caught up with the main body of immigrants and soon made up their train. He says: "We proceeded very happily until we reached the South Platte. Every night we young folks had a dance on the green prairie." Game abounded, the party was in good spirits and underwent no especial hardships, and the Indian troubles furnished only sufficient excitement to keep the men interested and alert. After leaving Salt Lake, however, the passage across the desert suddenly loomed up as a terrifying thing. "We started on our passage over this desert in the early morning, trailed all next day and all night, and on the morning of the third day our guide told us that water was still twenty-five miles away. William Harlan here lost his seven yoke of oxen. The man who was in charge of them went to sleep, and the cattle turned back and recrossed the desert or perhaps died there.... Next day I started early and drove till dusk, as I wished to tire the cattle so that they would lie down and give me a chance to sleep. They would rest for two or three hours and then try to go back home to their former range." The party won through, however, and descended into the smiling valleys of California, ninety-year-old lady and all.
These parties which were hastily got together for the mere purpose of progress soon found that they must have some sort of government to make the trip successful. A leader was generally elected to whom implicit obedience was supposed to be accorded. Among independent and hot-headed men quarrels were not infrequent. A rough sort of justice was, however, invoked by vote of the majority. Though a "split of blankets" was not unknown, usually the party went through under one leadership. Fortunate were those who possessed experienced men as leaders, or who in hiring the services of one of the numerous plains guides obtained one of genuine experience. Inexperience and graft were as fatal then as now. It can well be imagined what disaster could descend upon a camping party in a wilderness such as the Old West, amidst the enemies which that wilderness supported. It is bad enough today when inexperienced people go to camp by a lake near a farm-house. Moreover, at that time everybody was in a hurry, and many suspected that the other man was trying to obtain an advantage.
Hittell tells of one ingenious citizen who, in trying to keep ahead of his fellow immigrants as he hurried along, had the bright idea of setting on fire and destroying the dry grass in order to retard the progress of the parties behind. Grass was scarce enough in the best circumstances, and the burning struck those following with starvation. He did not get very far, however, before he was caught by a posse who mounted their best horses for pursuit. They shot him from his saddle and turned back. This attempt at monopoly was thus nipped in the bud.
Probably there would have been more of this sort of thing had it not been for the constant menace of the Indians. The Indian attack on the immigrant train has become so familiar through Wild West shows and so-called literature that it is useless to redescribe it here. Generally the object was merely the theft of horses, but occasionally a genuine attack, followed in case of success by massacre, took place. An experience of this sort did a great deal of good in holding together not only the parties attacked, but also those who afterwards heard of the attempt.
There was, however, another side to the shield, a very encouraging and cheerful side. For example, some good-hearted philanthropist established a kind of reading-room and post-office in the desert near the headwaters of the Humboldt River. He placed it in a natural circular wall of rock by the road, shaded by a lone tree. The original founder left a lot of newspapers on a stone seat inside the wall with a written notice to "Read and leave them for others."
Many trains, well equipped, well formed, well led, went through without trouble—indeed, with real pleasure. Nevertheless the overwhelming testimony is on the other side. Probably this was due in large part to the irritability that always seizes the mind of the tenderfoot when he is confronted by wilderness conditions. A man who is a perfectly normal and agreeable citizen in his own environment becomes a suspicious half-lunatic when placed in circumstances uncomfortable and unaccustomed. It often happened that people were obliged to throw things away in order to lighten their loads. When this necessity occurred, they generally seemed to take an extraordinary delight in destroying their property rather than in leaving it for anybody else who might come along. Hittell tells us that sugar was often ruined by having turpentine poured over it, and flour was mixed with salt and dirt; wagons were burned; clothes were torn into shreds and tatters. All of this destruction was senseless and useless, and was probably only a blind and instinctive reaction against hardships.
Those hardships were considerable. It is estimated that during the height of the overland migration in the spring of 1849 no less than fifty thousand people started out. The wagon trains followed almost on one another's heels, so hot was the pace. Not only did the travelers wish to get to the Sierras before the snows blocked the passes, not only were they eager to enter the gold mines, but they were pursued by the specter of cholera in the concentration camps along the Mississippi Valley. This scourge devastated these gatherings. It followed the men across the plains like some deadly wild beast, and was shaken off only when the high clear climate of desert altitude was eventually reached.