The steamer we took passage in was the Northerner, advertised to sail on the twenty-ninth day of November, 1850. The cabin room was all engaged, and they charged us nine ounces for steerage passage; but I did not care as much about their good rooms and clean sheets as I would have done at one time, for I had been a long time without either and did not care to pay the difference. When we were at the ship’s office we had to take our turns to get tickets. One man weighed out the dust, and another filled out certificates. When the callers began to get a little scarce I looked under the counter where I saw a whole panful of dust to which they added mine to make the pile a little higher. They gave out no berths with these tickets, but such little things as that did not trouble us in the least. It was far better fare than we used to have in and about Death Valley, and we thought we could live through anything that promised better than the desert.
The passenger list footed up four hundred and forty, and when all got on board, at about ten o’clock in the morning, there was hardly room for all to stand up comfortably. It seemed to me to be a very much over-crowded boat in which to put to sea, but we floated out into the current, with all the faces toward the shore, and hats and handkerchiefs waving goodbye to those who had come down to see the home-goers safely off.
As we passed out through the wonderful Golden Gate and the out going current met the solid sea, each seemed wrestling for the mastery, and the waves beat and dashed themselves into foam all around us, while the spray came over the bows quite lively, frightening some who did not expect such treatment. When we had passed this scene of watery commotion and got out into the deeper water, the sea smoothed down a great deal; but sea-sickness began to claim its victims, at first a few, then more and more, till the greater part were quite badly affected. I had a touch of it myself, but managed to keep my feet by bracing out pretty wide, and hugging everything I could get hold of that seemed to offer a steady support, and I did not lie down until after I had thrown my breakfast overboard.
By the time dark came nearly every one was on his back, mostly on deck, and no one asleep. All were retching and moaning bitterly. Some who had a few hours before cursed California now cursed the sea, and declared that if they could induce the Captain to turn about and put them back on shore again, they would rather creep on their hands and knees clear back to old Missouri over rocks and sand, than to ride any further on such a miserable old boat as this one was.
Next morning the decks looked pretty filthy, and about all the food the passengers had eaten was now spread about the decks in a half digested condition. Most of the passengers were very sick. With the early daylight the sailors coupled the hose to the big steam pump, and began the work of washing and scrubbing off the decks, and though many begged hard to be left alone as they were, with all the filth, a good flood of salt water was the only answer they received to their pleading, and they were compelled to move, for the sailors said they could not change their orders without the Captain, and he would not be out of bed till ten o’clock or later. So the cursing and swearing went for naught, and the decks were clean again. There were no deaths to report, but there were very few to do duty at the tables in eating the food prepared for them. After a few days the tables filled up again, and now it took them so long to eat that there had to be an order for only two meals a day or there would not have been a chance for all to get something. They were terribly hungry now, and every one seemed to try his best to take in provisions enough to last him for at least twelve hours.
As the fellows began to get their sea legs on, they began to talk as if they were still in California, and could easily manage any little boat like this, and could run things as they did when they crossed the plains, where no sheriff, court or judge had anything to say about matters, and all law was left behind. They began to act as if they were lords over all they could see, and as many of them were from the Southern states, they seemed to take an especial pride in boasting of how they did as they pleased, about like the Helms brothers. They talked as if they could run the world, or the universe even, themselves without assistance.
One morning at breakfast, when the table was full and the waiters scarce, some of these fellows swore and talked pretty rough, and as a waiter was passing a blue-blood from New Orleans rose in his seat and called for sugar, holding the empty bowl in his hand, but the waiter passed on and paid no attention, and when a mulatto waiter came along behind him the angry man damned him the worst he could, ordering him to bring a bowl of sugar, quick. This waiter did not stop and the Louisiana man threw the bowl at the waiter’s head, but missed it, and the bowl went crashing against the side of the ship. I expected surely the Captain and his men would come and put the unruly fellow in irons, and there might be a fight or a riot, so I cut my meal short and went on deck about as soon as I could do so, thinking that would be a safer place. But the Captain seemed to know about how to manage such fellows, and never left his stateroom, which I think was a wise move. The darky did not make his appearance at table afterwards, and the man who threw the bowl said that colored folks had to mind a gentleman when he spoke to them, or fare worse.
The Captain now got out his passenger list, and we all had to pass through a narrow space near the wheel-house and every one answer to his name and show his ticket. This made work for about one day. Some stowaways were found and put down into the hole to heave coal. One day the Captain and mate were out taking an observation on the sun when a young Missourian stepped up to see what was being done, and said to the Captain:–“Captain, don’t you think I could learn how to do that kind of business?” The Captain took the young man’s hand and looked at his nails which were very rough and dirty and said:–“No my lad; boys with such finger nails can’t learn navigation.” This made a big laugh at the brave lubber’s expense.
Many of the sea-sick ones did not get up so soon, and some died of that, or something else, and their bodies were sewed up in blankets with a bushel of coal at their feet to sink them, and thrown overboard. The bodies were laid out on a plank at the ship’s side, the Captain would read a very brief service, and the sailors would, at the appropriate time, raise the end of the plank so that the body slid off and went down out of sight in a moment.
In due time we went into the harbor of Acapulco for water and coal. Here nearly every one went on shore, and as there was no wharf for the vessel to lie to, the native canoes had many passengers at a dollar apiece for passage money. Out back of town there was a small stream of clear water which was warm and nice to bathe in, and some places three or four feet deep, so that a great many stripped off for a good wash which was said to be very healthful in this climate. Many native women were on hand with soap and towels ready to give any one a good scrubbing for dos reales, (twenty-five cents) and those who employed them said they did a good, satisfactory job.
As I returned to town the streets seemed to be deserted, and I saw one man come out on an adjoining street, and after running a few steps, fall down on his face. Hearing the report of a gun at the same time, I hurried on to get out of danger, but I afterward learned that the man was a travelling gambler who had come across the country from Mexico, and that he was killed as he fell. No one seemed to care for him.
Near the beach were some large trees, and under them dancing was going on to the music of the guitar. There were plenty of pretty Spanish girls for partners, and these and our boys made up an interesting party. The girls did not seem at all bashful or afraid of the boys, and though they could not talk together very much they got along with the sign language, and the ladies seemed very fond of the Americanos.
There was a fort here, a regular moss-backed old concern, and the soldiers were bare footed and did not need much clothing.
The cattle that were taken on board here were made to swim out to the ship, and then, with a rope around their horns, hoisted on deck, a distance of perhaps forty feet above the water. The maddened brutes were put into a secure stall ready for the ship’s butcher. The small boys came around the ship in canoes, and begged the passengers to throw them out a dime, and when the coin struck the water they would dive for it, never losing a single one. One man dropped a bright bullet and the boy who dove for it was so enraged that he called him a d—-d Gringo (Englishman.) None of these boys wore any clothes.
This town, like all Spanish towns, was composed of one-story houses, with dry mud, fire-proof walls. The country around looked very mountainous and barren, and comfortably warm.
After two days we were called on board, and soon set sail for sea again; and now, as we approached the equator, it became uncomfortably warm and an awning was put over the upper deck. All heavy clothing was laid aside, and anyone who had any amount of money on his person was unable to conceal it; but no one seemed to have any fear of theft, for a thief could not conceal anything he should steal, and no one reported anything lost. There was occasionally a dead body to be consigned to a watery grave.
A few days out from here and we were again mustered as before to show our tickets, which were carefully examined.
It seemed strange to me that the water was the poorest fare we had. It was sickish tasting stuff, and so warm it would do very well for dish-water.
There were many interesting things to see. Sometimes it would be spouting whales; sometimes great black masses rolling on the water, looking like a ship bottom upward, which some said were black-fish. Some fish seemed to be at play, and would jump ten feet or more out of the water. The flying fish would skim over the waves as the ship’s wheels seemed to frighten them; and we went through a hundred acres of porpoises, all going the same way. The ship plowed right through them, but none seemed to get hurt by the wheels. Perhaps they were emigrants like ourselves in search of a better place.
It now became terribly hot, and the sun was nearly overhead at noon. Sometimes a shark could be seen along-side, and though he seemed to make no effort, easily kept up with the moving ship. Occasionally we saw a sea snake navigating the ocean all by himself. I did not understand how these fellows went to sea and lived so far from land. The flying fish seemed to be more plentiful as we went along, and would leave the water and scud along before us.
We had evening concerts on the forecastle, managed by the sailors. Their songs were not sacred songs by any means, and many of them hardly fit to be heard by delicate ears. We again had to run the gauntlet of the narrow passage and have our tickets looked over, and this time a new stowaway was found, and he straightway made application for a job. “Go below, sir” was all the Captain said. Several died and had their sea burial, and some who had been so sick all the way as not to get out of bed, proved tough enough to stand the climate pretty well.
As we were nearing Panama the doctor posted a notice to the mast cautioning us against eating much fruit while on shore, as it was very dangerous when eaten to excess. We anchored some little distance from the shore and had to land in small boats managed by the natives. I went in one, and when the boat grounded at the beach the boatman took me on his back and set me on shore, demanding two dollars for the job, which I paid, and he served the whole crowd in the same way. The water here was blood warm, and they told me the tide ran very high.
This was a strange old town to me, walled in on all sides, a small plaza in the center with a Catholic church on one side, and the other houses were mostly two story. On the side next to the beach was a high, thick wall which contained cells that were used for a jail, and on top were some dismounted cannon, long and old fashioned.
The soldiers were poor, lazy fellows, barefooted, and had very poor looking guns. Going out and in all had to pass through a large gateway, but they asked no questions. The streets were very narrow and dirty and the sleeping rooms in the second story of the houses seemed to be inhabited by cats. For bed clothes was needed only a single sheet. On the roofs all around sat turkey buzzards, and anything that fell in the streets that was possible for them to eat, was gobbled up very quickly. They were as tame as chickens, and walked around as fearless and lordly as tame turkeys. In consideration of their cleaning up the streets without pay, they were protected by law. One of the passengers could not resist the temptation to shoot one, and a small squad of soldiers were soon after him, and came into a room where there were fifty of us, but could not find their man. He would have been sent to jail if he had been caught. We had to pay one dollar a night for beds in these rooms, and they counted money at the rate of eight dimes to the dollar.
The old town of Panama lies a little south in the edge of the sea, and was destroyed by an earthquake long ago I was told. To me, raised in the north, everything was very new and strange in way of living, style of building and kind of produce. There were donkeys, parrots and all kinds of monkeys in plenty. Most of the women were of very dark complexion, and not dressed very stylishly, while the younger population did not have even a fig leaf, or anything to take its place. The adults dressed very economically, for the days are summer days all the year round, and the clothing is scanty and cheap for either sex.
The cattle were small, pale red creatures, and not inclined to be very fat, and the birds mostly of the parrot kind. The market plaza is outside the walls, and a small stream runs through it, with the banks pretty thickly occupied by washerwomen. All the washing was done without the aid of a fire.
On the plaza there were plenty of donkeys loaded with truck of all sorts, from wood, green grass, cocoa-nuts and sugar-cane to parrots, monkeys and all kinds of tropical fruits. Outside the walls the houses were made of stakes interwoven with palm leaves, and everything was green as well as the grass and trees. Very little of the ground seemed to be cultivated, and the people were lazy and idle, for they could live so easily on the wild products of the country. A white man here would soon sweat out all his ambition and enterprise, and would be almost certain to catch the Panama yellow fever. The common class of the people here, I should say, were Spanish and negro mixed, and they seem to get along pretty well; but the country is not suitable for white people. It seems to have been made on purpose for donkeys, parrots and long-heeled negroes.
The cabin passengers engaged all the horses and mules the country afforded on which to ride across the Chagres River, so it fell to the lot of myself and companion to transfer ourselves on foot, which was pretty hard work in the hot and sultry weather. My gold dust began to grow pretty heavy as I went along, and though I had only about two thousand dollars, weighing about ten pounds, it seemed to me that it weighed fifty pounds by the way that it bore down upon my shoulders and wore sore places on them. It really was burdensome. I had worn it on my person night and day ever since leaving the mines, and I had some little fear of being robbed when off the ship.
Our road had been some day paved with cobble stones. At the outskirts of the town we met a native coming in with a big green lizard, about two feet long, which he was hauling and driving along with a string around its neck. I wondered if this was not a Panama butcher bringing in a fresh supply of meat.
When we reached the hills on our way from Panama, the paved road ended and we had only a mule trail to follow. The whole country was so densely timbered that no man could go very far without a cleared road. In some places we passed over hills of solid rock, but it was of a soft nature so that the trail was worn down very deep, and we had to take the same regular steps that the mules did, for their tracks were worn down a foot or more. On the road we would occasionally meet a native with a heavy pack on his back, a long staff in each hand, and a solid half-length sword by his side. He, like the burro, grunted every step he took. They seemed to carry unreasonably heavy loads on their backs, such as boxes and trunks, but there was no other way of getting either freight or baggage across the isthmus at that time.
It looked to me as if this trail might be just such a one as one would expect robbers to frequent, for it would of course be expected that Californians would carry considerable money with them, and we might reasonably look out for this sort of gentry at any turn of the trail. We were generally without weapons, and we should have to deliver on demand, and if any one was killed the body could easily be concealed in the thick brush on either side of the trail, and no special search for anyone missing would occur.
About noon one day we came to a native hut, and saw growing on a tree near by something that looked like oranges, and we made very straight tracks with the idea of picking some and having a feast, but some of the people in the shanty called out to us and made motions for us not to pick them for they were no good; so we missed our treat of oranges and contented ourselves with a big drink of water and walked on.
After a little more travel we came to another shanty made of poles and palm leaves, occupied by an American. He was a tall, raw-boned, cadaverous looking way-side renegade who looked as if the blood had all been pumped out of his veins, and he claimed to be sick. He said he was one of the Texas royal sons. We applied for some dinner and he lazily told us there were flour, tea and bacon and that we could help ourselves. I wet up some flour and baked some cakes, made some poor tea, and fried some bacon. We all got a sort of dinner out of his pantry stuff, and left him a dollar apiece for the accommodation. As we walked on my companion gave out and could carry his bundle no longer, so I took it, along with my own, and we got on as fast as we could, but darkness came on us before we reached the Chagres River and we had to stay all night at a native hut. We had some supper consisting of some very poor coffee, crackers, and a couple of eggs apiece, and had to sleep out under a tree where we knew we might find lizards, snakes, and other poisonous reptiles, and perhaps a thieving monkey might pick our pockets while we slept.
Before it was entirely dark many who rode horses came along, many of them ladies, and following the custom of the country, they all rode astride. Among this crowd was one middle-aged and somewhat corpulent old fellow, by profession a sea-captain, who put on many airs. The old fellow put on his cool white coat–in fact, a white suit throughout–and in this tropical climate he looked very comfortable, indeed, thus attired. He filled his breast pocket with fine cigars, and put in the other pocket a flask with some medicine in it which was good for snake bites, and also tending to produce courage in case the man, not used to horse-back riding, should find his natural spirits failing. The rest of his luggage was placed on pack animals, and in fact the only way luggage was carried in those days was either on the backs of donkeys or men.
All was ready for a start, and the captain in his snow-white suit was mounted on a mule so small that his feet nearly touched the ground. The little animal had a mind of his own, and at first did not seem inclined to start out readily, but after a bit concluded to follow his fellow animals, and all went well.
The rider was much amused at what he saw; sometimes a very lively monkey, sometimes a flock: of paroquets or a high-colored lizard–and so he rode along with a very happy air, holding his head up, and smoking a fragrant Havana with much grace. The road was rough and rocky, with a mud-hole now and then of rather uncertain depth. At every one of these mud-holes the Captain’s mule would stop, put down his head, blow his nose and look wise, and then carefully sound the miniature sea with his fore-feet, being altogether too cautious to suit his rider who had never been accustomed to a craft that was afraid of water.
At one of these performances the mule evidently concluded the sea before him was not safe, for when the captain tried to persuade him to cross his persuasions had no effect. Then he coaxed him with voice gentle, soft and low, with the result that the little animal took a few very short steps and then came to anchor again. Then the captain began to get slightly roiled in temper, and the voice was not so gentle, sweet and low, but it had no greater effect upon his craft. He began to get anxious, for the others had gone on, and he thought perhaps he might be left.
Now, this sea-faring man had armed his heels with the large Spanish spurs so common in the country, and bringing them in contact with the force due to considerable impatience, Mr. Mule was quite suddenly and painfully aware of the result. This was harsher treatment than he could peaceably submit to, and at the second application of the spurs a pair of small hoofs were very high in the air and the captain very low on his back in the mud and water, having been blown from the hurricane deck of his craft in a very sudden and lively style. The philosophical mule stood very still and looked on while the white coat and pantaloons were changing to a dirty brown, and watched the captain as he waded out, to the accompaniment of some very vigorous swear words.
Both the man and beast looked very doubtful of each other’s future actions, but the man shook the water off and bestowed some lively kicks on his muleship which made him bounce into and through the mud-hole, and the captain, still holding the bridle, followed after. Once across the pool the captain set his marine eye on the only craft that had been too much for his navigation and said “Vengeance should be mine,” and in this doubtful state of mind he cautiously mounted his beast again and fully resolved to stick to the deck, hereafter, at all hazards, he hurried on and soon overtook the train again, looking quite like a half drowned rooster. The others laughed at him and told him they could find better water a little way ahead, at the river, and they would see him safely in. The captain was over his pet, and made as much fun as any of them, declaring that he could not navigate such a bloody craft as that in such limited sea room, for it was dangerous even when there was no gale to speak of.
The ladies did not blush at the new and convenient costumes which they saw in this country, and laughed a good deal over the way of traveling they had to adopt. Any who were sick were carried in a kind of chair strapped to the back of a native. Passengers were strung along the road for miles, going and coming. We would occasionally sit down awhile and let the sweat run off while a party of them passed us. Some were mounted on horses, some on mules, and some on donkeys, and they had to pay twelve dollars for the use of an animal for the trip.
Our night at this wayside deadfall was not much better than some of the nights about Death Valley, but as I was used to low fare, I did not complain as some did. This seemed a wonderful country to a northern raised boy. The trail was lined on both sides with all kinds of palms and various other kinds of trees and shrubs, and they were woven together in a compact mass with trailing and running vines. The trees were not tall, and the bark was as smooth as a young hickory. The roots would start out of the tree three feet above the ground and stand out at an angle, and looked like big planks placed edgewise.
It seemed as if there were too many plants for the ground to support, and so they grew on the big limbs of the trees all around, the same as the mistletoe on the oak, only there were ever so many different kinds.
The weather was very clear, and the sun so hot that many of the travelers began to wilt and sit down by the roadside to rest. Many walked along very slowly and wore long faces. The road from Panama to Crucez, on the Chagres River, was eighteen miles long, and all were glad when they were on the last end of it. The climate here seems to take all the starch and energy out of a man’s body, and in this condition he must be very cautious or some disease will overtake him and he will be left to die without burial for his body if he has no personal friends with him.
We started on the next morning, and on our way stepped over a large ship anchor that lay across the trail. I suppose the natives had undertaken to pack it across the isthmus and found it too heavy for them. Perhaps it was for Capt. Kidd, the great pirate, for it is said that he often visited Panama in the course of his cruising about in search of treasures.
Passing along a sandy place in the trail, a snake crossed and left his track, big as a stovepipe it seemed to be, and after this we kept a sharp watch for big snakes that might be in waiting to waylay us for game.
There were plenty of monkeys and parrots climbing and chattering around in the trees. The forest is here so dense that the wind never blows, and consequently it never gets cool. The sun, ever since we got down near the equator, was nearly overhead, and the moon seemed to be even north of us.
When we reached the Chagres River we hired a boat of an Irishman for the trip down. I wondered if there was a place on earth so desolate that the “Paddy” would not find it. The boat for the journey cost two hundred dollars, and would hold passengers enough so that it would cost us ten dollars each, at any rate, and perhaps a little more. Two natives had charge of the boat and did the navigating. There were two ladies among the passengers, and when the two natives, who I suppose were the captain and mate of the craft, came on board, clad very coolly in Panama hats, the ladies looked at them a little out of the corners of their eyes and made the best of it. Our two navigators took the oars and pulled slowly down the stream.
Nothing but water and evergreen trees could we see, for the shore on either hand was completely hidden by the dense growth that hung over and touched the water. On a mud bar that we passed a huge alligator lay, taking a sun bath, and though many shots were fired at him he moved away very leisurely. No one could get on shore without first clearing a road through the thick brushes and vines along the bank. On the way one of our boatmen lost his hat, his only garment, into the river, and overboard he went, like a dog, and soon had it and climbed on board again. I wondered why some of the big alligators did not make a snap at him.
The water in the run looked very roily and dirty, and no doubt had fever in it. The only animals we saw were monkeys and alligators, and there were parrots in the trees. The farther we went down the stream the wider it became, and the current slacker so that we moved more slowly with the same amount of rowing. At a place called Dos Hermanos (two brothers) we could see a little cleared spot near the bank, which seemed to be three or four feet above the water. There were no mountains nor hills in sight, and the whole country seemed to be an extensive swamp. It was near night that we came to a small native village of palm huts, and here our boatmen landed and hid themselves, and not being able to find them we were compelled to stay all night, for we dare not go on alone. The place looked like a regular robbers’ roost, and being forced to sleep outside the huts, we considered it safest to sleep with one eye open. We would have gone on with the boat only that we were afraid the river might have more than one outlet, and if we should take the wrong one we might be too late for the steamer, which even now we were afraid would not wait for us, and getting left would be a very serious matter in this country.
We had very little to eat, and all we could buy was sugar cane, bananas, monkeys and parrots. We kept a sharp eye out for robbers, keeping together as much as we could, for we knew that all returning Californians would be suspected of having money. Most all of them were ready for war except myself who had no weapon of any kind. All of these people had a bad name, and every one of them carried a long bladed knife called a Macheta, with which they could kill a man at a single blow. But with all our fears we got through the night safely, and in the morning found our boatmen who had hidden away. We waited not for breakfast, but sailed away as soon as we could, and reached Chagres, near the mouth of the river, before night.
The river banks here are not more than three feet high, and farther back the land fell off again into a wet swamp of timber and dense vegetable growth. The town was small and poorly built, on the immediate bank, and the houses were little brush and palm affairs except the boarding house which was “T” shaped, the front two stories high, with a long dining room running back, having holes for windows, but no glass in them.
Before the bell rung for meals a long string of hungry men would form in line, and at the first tap would make a rush for the table like a flock of sheep. After all were seated a waiter came around and collected a dollar from each one, and we thought this paid pretty well for the very poor grub they served afterwards.
No ship had as yet been in sight to take us away from this lowest, dirtiest, most unhealthful place on earth, and the prospect of remaining here had nothing very charming about it. The river was full of alligators, so the bathing was dangerous, and the whole country was about fit for its inhabitants, which were snakes, alligators, monkeys, parrots and lazy negroes. It could not have been more filthy if the dregs of the whole earth had been dumped here, and cholera and yellow fever were easy for a decent man to catch.
My companion and I went out on the beach a mile or two to get the salt water breeze, and leave the stinking malaria for those who chose to stay in the hot, suffocating village, and here we would stay until nearly night. Across a small neck of water was what was called a fort. It could hardly be seen it was so covered with moss and vines, but near the top could be seen something that looked like old walls. There was no sign of life about it, and I should judge it was built at some very early day. Surely there was nothing here to protect, for the whole country did not seem able to support even a few barefooted soldiers.
Some men who wandered along up the river bank, following a path, said they had seen some dead human bodies thrown into the swamp and left, probably because it was easier than putting them under ground.
For a bedroom I hired a little platform which a store keeper had placed before his store, where I slept, and paid a dollar for the privilege. Some one walked around near me all night, and I dared not close more than one eye at a time for fear of losing a little bag of gold dust. This little bag of gold was getting to be a great burden to me in this sickly climate, and the vigilant guard I had to keep over so small a treasure was very tiresome.
The second night no steamer came, but on the third morning the steamer was riding at anchor three or four miles out, and soon after a ship came in from the Atlantic end of the Nicaragua route with one thousand passengers, there being no steamer there for them to take a passage home on, and so they had to come here for a start. This filled the little town to overflowing, but as the ship that had arrived was the Georga, one of the largest afloat, all could go if they only could endure the fare.
We now had to go in small boats from the shore to the ship, and the trip cost two dollars and a half. I waited till I had seen some of the boats make a trip or two, and then choosing one that had a sober skipper, I made the venture. It was said that one drunken boatman allowed his boat to drift into some breakers and all were lost.
I tell you I was over anxious to get out of this country, for I well knew that if I stayed very long I should stay forever, for one like myself raised in a healthful climate, could not remain long without taking some of the fatal diseases the country was full of.
We made the trip to the vessel safely, and as our boat lay under the ship’s quarter, the men holding the ropes, I looked up, and when I saw the swinging rope ladder on which I was expected to climb up to the ship’s deck, it seemed a pretty dangerous job; but I mustered up courage and made the attempt. The sea was pretty rough out here for the small boats, and the ship rolled some, so that when persons tried to get hold of the ladder they were thrown down and sometimes hurt a little. A man held on to the lower end of the ladder so that the one who was climbing might not get banged against the side of the ship and have his breath knocked out of him, I mounted the ladder safely and climbed away like a monkey, reaching the deck all right. Ladies and weak people were hauled up in a sort of chair with a block and rope.
It took the most of two days to get the people on board, and when they were counted up there were one thousand four hundred and forty, all told. This steamer had a very long upper deck and a comparatively short keel, and rolled very badly; and as for me, I had swallowed so much of the deadly malaria of the isthmus that I soon got very seasick, and the first day or two were very unpleasant. I went to the bar and paid two bits for a glass of wine to help my appetite, but it staid with me no longer than time enough to reach the ship’s side. When night came the decks were covered with sleepy men, and if the weather had been rough and all sick, as was the case when we left San Francisco, we should have had more filthy decks than we had even on that occasion.
Approaching the harbor at Havana, Cuba, we seemed to be going head foremost against a wall of solid rock, but when within speaking distance an officer came in sight on the fort right before us, and shouted through his speaking trumpet, saying:–“Why don’t you salute us?” Our officer said, “You know us well enough without.” Our ship had a small cannon on the forecastle, but did not choose to use it, and I suppose the Cuban officer felt slighted. We now turned short to the right and entered the beautiful harbor, which is perfectly landlocked and as still as a pond. The city is all on the right side of the bay and our coal yard was on the left at a short wharf at which we landed.
A lot of armed soldiers were placed a short distance back on the high ground and no one was allowed to go beyond them. We now had a port officer on board who had entire charge of the ship, and if anyone wanted to go to the city, across the bay two or three miles, he had to pay a dollar for a pass. This pass business made the blue bloods terribly angry, and they swore long and loud, and the longer they talked the madder they got, and more bitter in their feelings, so that they were ready to fight (not with sugar-bowls this time.)
The weather here was very warm and the heat powerful, and as these fellows saw there was only one course to be pursued if they wanted to get on shore, they slowly took passes good for all day and paid their dollar for them, and also another dollar each to the canoe men to take them to the city. Myself and companion also took passes and went over.
Arriving at the city we walked a short distance and came to the plaza, which is not a very large one. Here was a single grave nicely fenced in, and across the plaza were some large two-story houses in front of which was stationed a squad of cavalry standing as motionless as if every man of them was a marble statue. We kept on the opposite side of the street, and chancing to meet a man whom we rightly supposed to be an Englishman, we inquired about the grave on the plaza and were informed that it was that of Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of America.
Just then we noticed the cavalry moving up the street at a slow gallop, and so formed that a close carriage was in the center of the squad. As they rushed by and we gazed at them with purely American curiousity, our new English friend raised our hats for us and held them till the cavalcade had passed, merely remarking that the Governor General was within the carriage. We spoke perhaps a bit unpleasantly when we asked him why he was so ungentlemanly in his treatment of us as to remove our hats, but he said:–“My friends, if I had not taken off your hats for you as a friend, some of those other fellows would have knocked them off, so I did for you an act of greatest kindness, for every one removes his hat when the Governor General passes.” He also informed us that the special occasion for this rather pompous parade was the execution of some criminals at a park or prison not far away, and that this was done by beheading them.
Our friend proposed that we also walk out in that direction, and we went with him to the edge of the city, but when he turned into a by path that did not seem much frequented, we declined to follow farther, and turned back along the open road. The path looked to us a sort of robber’s route, and not exactly safe for unarmed men like us in a strange country.
The man followed us back and took us into a large, airy saloon, in the center of which a big fountain was playing, and the great basin in which the water fell was filled with beautiful fish. Our friend called for an iced drink for each of us, and as we sat at the table we tasted it and found it rather intoxicating. For this they charged us one dollar each, but we noticed that our friend paid nothing, and we set him down as a sort of capper, after the style we had seen at the gold mines. We sat a few minutes and then so coolly bade our friend good-bye that he had not the face to follow us further, and continued our walk about the streets which seemed to us very narrow, and the houses generally two stories high.
A chaise passed us, containing two young ladies with complexions white and fair, and eyes and hair black, in striking contrast. The carriage was drawn by two horses tandem, the horse in the shafts being mounted by a big negro of very dignified appearance, dressed in livery and having top boots that came to his knees. This was the only vehicle of the kind we saw on the streets.
We did not dare to go very far alone, for with our ignorance of the Spanish language we might go astray and not get back to the ship within the lifetime of our passes, and not knowing how much trouble that might cause us, we were naturally a little timid; so we took a boat back to the ship, and when on board again we felt safe. We had only about four dollars cash left.
A big gang of darkies were coaling the ship. Each one carried a large tub full of coal upon his head and poured it down into the ship’s hold. All the clothes these fellows wore was a strip of cloth about their middle. When they were let off for dinner they skimmed off all they could get from the ship’s slop barrel which stood on the wharf alongside, to help out their very scanty food. The overseer stood by them all the time with a big whip and made them hurry up as fast as possible, talking Spanish pretty vigorously, and though we could not understand, we made up our minds that a good part of it was swearing.
The next morning the steamship Prometheus came in and tied up near us, and soon word was brought that she would take the New Orleans passengers on board and sail immediately for that port. It now occurred to me that I could get nearer home by going up the Mississippi River than by way of New York, so I went on board the Prometheus, and we soon sailed out of the harbor, passing under the gate of the fortress called, I think, San Juan de Ulloa.
Nothing special occurred during our passage till we were near the mouth of the Mississippi River, when, in the absence of a pilot boat or tug, our Captain thought he would try to get in alone, and as a consequence we were soon fast in the mud. The Captain now made all the passengers go aft, and worked the engine hard but could not move her at all. The tide was now low, and there was a prospect that we should have to wait full six hours to get away. We worked on, however, and after a few hours a tug came to our assistance and pulled us out of the mud and towed us into the right channel, up which we steamed on our way to New Orleans, one-hundred-twenty miles away.
The country on both sides of us was an immense marsh–no hills in sight, no timber, nothing but the same level marsh or prairie. When we were nearer the Crescent City some houses came in sight; then we passed General Jackson’s battle-field, and in due time reached the city.
On board this ship I became acquainted with Dick Evans who lived in the same county that I used to in Wisconsin, near Mineral Point, so the three of us now concluded to travel together.
New Orleans seemed to be a very large city. Near the levee a large government building was in course of construction for a Custom House. It was all of stone, and the walls were up about two stories. We put up at a private boarding house, and the first business was to try and sell our gold dust. So we went to the mint and were told we would have to wait ten days to run it through the mill, and we did not like to wait so long. We were shown all through the mint and saw all the wonders of coin making. Every thing seemed perfect here. Beautiful machinery was in operation making all sizes of gold coins, from a twenty dollar piece down. Strips of gold bands about six feet long and of the proper thickness for twenty dollar pieces are run through a machine which cuts out the pieces, and when these are cut they can stamp out the pieces as fast as one can count.
This was the most ingenious work I ever saw, and very wonderful and astonishing to a backwoodsman like myself, for I supposed that money was run in moulds like bullets.
As we could not wait we went to a bank and sold our dust, getting only sixteen dollars per ounce, the same price they paid in California. We now took the cars and rode out to Lake Ponchartrain–most of the way over a trestle work. We found a wharf and warehouse at the lake, and a steamer lay there all ready to go across to the other side. The country all about looked low, with no hills in sight.
When we returned to the city we looked all about, and in the course of our travels came to a slave market. Here there were all sorts of black folks for sale; big and little, old and young and all sorts. They all seemed good-natured, and were clean, and seemed to think they were worth a good deal of money. Looking at them a few minutes sent my mind back to St. Joseph, Missouri, where I saw a black sold at auction. From my standpoint of education I did not approve of this way of trading in colored people.
We continued our stroll about the city, coming to a cemetery, where I looked into a newly dug grave to find it half full of water. On one side were many brick vaults above ground. The ground here is very low and wet, and seemed to be all swamp. The drainage was in surface gutters, and in them the water stood nearly still. It seemed to me such water must have yellow fever in it.
For a long way along the levee the steamboats lay thick and close together, unloading cotton, hemp, sugar, hoop poles, bacon and other products, mostly the product of negro labor.
Here our friend Evans was taken sick, and as he got no better after a day or two, we called a doctor to examine him. He pronounced it a mild case of yellow fever. His skin was yellow in places, and he looked very badly. The doctor advised us to go on up the river, saying it was very dangerous staying here with him. Evans gave me most of his money and all of his gold specimens to take to his wife, and when he got well he would follow us. We bade him good-bye, and with many wishes for his speedy recovery, we took passage on a steamer for St. Louis. This steamer, the Atlantic, proved to be a real floating palace in all respects. The table was supplied with everything the country afforded, and polite and well-dressed darkies were numerous as table waiters. This was the most pleasant trip I had ever taken, and I could not help comparing the luxuriance of my coming home to the hardships of the outward journey across the plains, and our starvation fare.
Our boat was rather large for the stage of water this time of year, and we proceeded rather slowly, but I cared little for speed as bed and board were extra good, and a first cabin passage in the company of friends, many of whom were going to the same part of Wisconsin as myself, was not a tedious affair by any means.
At night gambling was carried on very extensively, and money changed hands freely as the result of sundry games of poker, which was the popular game.
We reached St. Louis in time, and here was the end of our boat’s run. The river had some ice floating on its surface, and this plainly told us that we were likely to meet more ice and colder weather as we went north. We concluded to take the Illinois River boat from here to Peoria, and paid our passage and stepped on board. We were no more than half way through this trip when the ice began to form on the surface of the water, and soon became so thick and strong that the boat finally came to a perfect standstill, frozen in solid.
We now engaged a farm wagon to take us to Peoria, from which place we took regular stages for Galena. Our driver was inclined to be very merciful to his horses, so we were two days in reaching that town, but perhaps it was best, for the roads were icy and slippery, and the weather of the real winter sort. From here we hired a team to take four of us to Plattville, and then an eighteen-mile walk brought me to Mineral Point, the place from which I started with my Winnebago pony in 1849. I had now finished my circle and brought both ends of the long belt together.
I now went to a drug store and weighed Mr. Evans’ specimens, wrapping each in a separate piece of paper, with the value marked on each, and took them to his wife, to whom I told the news about her husband. In two week’s time he came home sound and well.
I was quite disappointed in regard to the looks and business appearance of the country. It looked thinly settled, people scarce, and business dull. I could not get a day’s work to do, and I could not go much farther on foot, for the snow was eight or ten inches deep, and I was still several hundred miles from my parents in Michigan. So my journey farther east was delayed until spring. The hunting season was over, and when I came into Mineral Point without a gun, and wore good clothes, making a better appearance than I used to, they seemed to think I must be rich and showed me marked attention, and made many inquiries about their neighbors who started for California about the same time I did. The young ladies smiled pleasantly when near me, and put on their best white aprons, looking very tidy and bright, far superior to any of the ladies I had seen in my crooked route from San Francisco through Acapulco, Panama, the West Indies and along the Mississippi.
After a few days in town I went out into the neighborhood where I used to live and stopped with Mr. E.A. Hall, who used to be a neighbor of Mr. Bennett, as he had invited me to stay with himself and wife, who were the only occupants of a good house, and all was pleasant. But notwithstanding all the comfort in which I was placed, I grew lonesome, for the enforced idleness, on account of the stormy weather, was a new feature in my life, and grew terribly monotonous.
After some delay I concluded to write to my parents in Michigan and give them a long letter with something of a history of my travels, and to refresh my memory I got out my memorandum I had kept through all my journey.
As my letter was liable to be quite lengthy I bought a quantity of foolscap paper and begun. I took my diary as my guide, and filled out the ideas suggested in it so they would understand them. I soon ran through with my paper and bought more, and kept on writing. The weather was cold and stormy, and I found it the best occupation I could have to prevent my being lonesome; so I worked away, day after day, for about a month, and I was really quite tired of this sort of work before I had all the facts recorded which I found noted down in my diary. My notes began in March, 1849, in Wisconsin, and ended in February, 1852, on my return to Mineral Point. I found, as the result of my elaboration, over three hundred pages of closely written foolscap paper, and I felt very much relieved when it was done. By the aid of my notes I could very easily remember everything that had taken place during my absence, and it was recorded in regular form, with day and date, not an incident of any importance left out, and every word as true as gospel. I had neither exaggerated nor detracted from any event so far as I could recollect.
I now loaned Mr. Hall, with whom I lived, six hundred dollars to enable him to cross the plains to California and try to make his fortune. To secure this I took a mortgage on his eighty-acre farm, and he set out to make the journey. I had another eighty acres of land near here which I bought at government price before going to California, but I could not now sell it for what it cost me. When I went away I had left my chest and contents with my friend Samuel Zollinger, and he had kept it safely, so I now made him my lawful agent. I placed my narrative and some other papers in the chest and gave the key into his charge, while I went north, across the Wisconsin River, to visit my old hunting and trapping friend, Robert McCloud. Here I made a very pleasant visit of perhaps a week, and the common prospects of the country were freely talked over. It seemed to us as if the good times were still far off; every day was like Sunday so far as anything going on; no money in circulation, many places abandoned, and, like myself, many had gone to California to seek gold instead of lead. (The mines at Mineral Point are mostly of lead, with some copper.)
Looking at matters in this light it did not need a great deal of McCloud’s persuasion to induce me to go back with him to California, all the more so as my little pile seemed to look smaller every day, while three or four years ago it would have seemed quite large. Deciding to go, I wrote to Mr. Zollinger to send the account I had written to my parents in Michigan, reading it first himself, and admonishing him not to lend it. I also wrote to my parents telling them what they might look for in the mails, and cautioning them never to have it printed, for the writing was so ungrammatical and the spelling so incorrect that it would be no credit to me.
I afterward learned that in time they received the bundle of paper and read it through and through, and circulated it around the neighborhood till it was badly worn, and laid it away for future perusal when their minds should incline that way. But the farm house soon after took fire and burned, my labor going up in smoke.
When the news of this reached me I resolved to try to forget all the trials, troubles and hardships I had gone through, and which I had almost lived over again as I wrote them down, and I said to myself that I would not talk about them more than I could help, the sooner to have them vanish, and never write them down again, but a few years ago an accident befell me so that I could not work, and I back-slid from my determination when I was persuaded so earnestly by many friends to write the account which appeared a few years ago in the Santa Clara Valley now the Pacific Tree and Vine, edited by H.A. Brainard, at San Jose, California. The diary was lost, and from memory alone the facts have been rehearsed, and it is but fair to tell the reader that the hardest and worst of it has never been told nor will it ever be.