On the road to the Mines

I think I must stop right here and tell about the California carriages of which I had seen several at Los Angeles and at the Missions along our road. The first time I saw one it was a great curiosity, I assure you. The wheels were cut off the end of a sycamore log a little over two feet in diameter and each section about a foot long. The axle was a piece of wood eight inches square with a tongue fastened to it long enough to be used with a yoke of oxen, and the ends of the axle were roughly rounded, leaving something of a shoulder. The wheels were retained in place by a big lynch-pin. On the axle and tongue was a strong frame of square hewed timbers answering for bed pieces, and the bottom was of raw-hide tightly stretched, which covered the whole frame. Tall stakes at each corner of the frame held up an awning in hot weather. The yoke was fastened to the horns of the oxen by strong, narrow strips of raw-hide, and the tongue was fastened to the yoke in the same way. The driver was generally an Indian, armed with a small pole six or eight feet long, who marched on before, the oxen following after. I saw many a wagon like this, the platform well filled up with women and children, and a pack of dogs following along behind, slowly rolling over the country, and this is the way they traveled when they went visiting friends who lived a few miles in the country. Sometimes the wheels gave perfectly agonizing shrieks as they revolved, and when they made so much noise that their strong Spanish nerves could stand it no longer, if there was any green grass to be found the drivers would crowd in a quantity around the axle, and there was generally room for a good lot of it, to answer for a lubricator.

We passed on from Soledad and shortly rose into the table land we had seen for some time before us. From here we could look north for a long way with no hill or mountain in sight; but our road led along on the east side of this treeless plain, so thickly covered with grass that we recalled some of the old tales of the grassy plains. We passed a landholder’s house on the road, then crossed a range of low mountains and came to the Mission of San Juan (St. John) situated near the foot-hills, overlooking a level, rich appearing extent of valley land with a big vegetable growth all over it; in some places wild mustard which stood thickly and was from four to ten feet high. I thought what a splendid place it would be for the Yankees who are fond of greens.

This was the first place since we left Los Angeles where we could buy any kind of breadstuff, and we were here enabled to get a change of diet, including greens. This seemed to be one end or side of another valley, and as we went along it seemed to widen away to the east; but our course was to the north, and we followed the road. The architecture of all the buildings except the churches was all the same, being built of the sun dried adobes or bricks made by mixing up a clay mud with tough grass and letting it get dry and hard. We saw the same kind of roof material as before, a sort of mineral tar which I supposed they must find somewhere about.

I could imagine why the houses were built in this way, for when the Jesuit missionaries first came in they found the country occupied by Indians who used their arrows to good effect, as they were jealous of all outside occupation. The early settlers evidently made the walls of their dwellings thick and strong enough to resist all kinds of weapons used by Indians. They could not set fire to them for they were fire proof and arrow proof, and the hostile Indian could dance on the roof without being able to get in or do any injury. Thus the poor Indian was fairly beat and eventually became a better Indian.

The Indians of what is now Nevada and Arizona used to come over into these rich valleys and clandestinely capture a band of a hundred or more head of cattle or horses and make their escape. They were often followed by the herders, but if they did not overtake the thieves before they got into the deep cañons of the mountains, they would usually turn back and let them go rather than be led into ambush in some strange narrow place where escape would be impossible and they might be filled with arrows. No doubt the trail we had followed across the plains, where there were so many horses’ bones, was one of these trails along which the thieving Indians took their booty which died upon the trip.

Our road from here was near the foot-hills on the west side of a level, grassy, thinly timbered valley, and as we advanced we noticed that the timber grew more plentiful and the trees larger, without much underbrush. We also noticed that the vegetation was ranker and no doubt the soil was very rich. We then came to a point where the mountain reaches out almost across the valley to meet the mountain on the east side. Here we found a gravelly creek with but little water, but as soon as we passed this point we saw the valley suddenly widening out, and beautiful groves of live oak trees scattered all around. The vegetation here was very rank, the mustard ten feet high in places, making it difficult to see out of the road. This was perhaps the strongest contrast to the arid desert that we had seen.

As we went on down the valley the hills seemed to stand farther and farther back as if to make more room for those who would soon settle in this fertile place, and we soon came in sight of the village or pueblo of San Jose (St. Joseph) where we camped. Here we learned that the two owners of the horses intended to go to San Francisco instead of Sacramento, and as we considered the former place a very poor one for a penniless person to go we concluded to break up the company camp and each do the best he could for himself, for our objective point was the gold mines, and the sooner we reached them the better.

The drovers who had been anxious to have us go with them and help them now began to talk about a settlement with us, as if they had done us great favors, and called on the other fellows to help pay for their board upon the way. When they came to me they said my share would be an ounce. This struck me hard, but they said I had ridden their horse all the way and the charge was very low. I told them I had furnished the most of the provisions I had eaten, and my mule had packed a good load all the way, which I considered worth as much as the use of the horse. But they refused to allow me anything for the use of the mule and became very urgent in their demand for money.

These men were evidently of the tribe of Skinflint, who had no souls, or they would not have attempted to rob an almost penniless emigrant in this way of the last few dollars he had, and all the hope he had of reaching the mines. I did not desire to give up to such narrow principles as this and hesitated, but they were bound to have the money or make a quarrel, and talked pretty loud of the way they collected debts in Sacramento, so that to avoid trouble and get out of the clutches of such mean scoundrels as these I counted out sixteen dollars, almost every cent I had, and reluctantly gave them to my enemy. I immediately mounted my mule, and without stopping to say goodbye rode off. I may have quoted a part of the speech Capt Hunt made when the party wanted to leave the trail and take the cut-off, especially that part where he alluded to their going to h–l. I very much fear the little piety my mother taught me was badly strained on that occasion, and I thought of a good many swear words if I did not say them, which I suppose is about as bad. I could see how cunningly they had managed to get me to ride their horse that it might serve as the foundation for a claim on me for about all the money I had in the world.

I hitched my mule in the edge of the town and went in to look at the place. The houses were situated very much as in other places we had come through–scattered around over much ground and built low, but had a different style of roof, a peaked or sloping one, and covered with half round tile two feet or more long and an inch thick. One course of these would be laid with the hollow side up, and then a course with the hollow side down, covering the joints of the lower course. This allowed the air to circulate freely and was proof against rain. I saw no flat roofs such as I had seen down along the coast. I saw one gambling house and about all the men in town were gathered there, and some women, too. This was the busiest place in town and situated near the plaza. This was the largest town I had yet been in. There seemed to be plenty of women and lots of dogs, but the men were as scarce as they had been in any of the towns–gone to the gold mines to make a stake. I took in the sights pretty well, and there were a great many new things for me to see, and when pretty well satisfied concluded I would go back to my mule and camp in some place just out of town for the night.

Before I reached my animal whom should I meet but my old traveling companion John Rogers whom I thought to be a hundred miles away by this time. We shook hands heartily and he told me that Bennett, Moody and Skinner were camped not far off, and he was still with them. He wore a pair of blue overalls, a blue woolen shirt and the same little narrow rimmed hat he had worn so long. I observed, too, that he was barefoot, and told him I had a dollar or two which he could take and get some shoes. He said it was no use for there was not a pair of shoes in the town to buy, and he had not found any material of which he could make himself a pair of moccasins. I told him how I had been swindled coming up, and he was about as angry as I had been. I think if I had known that my friend John Rogers had been so near I should have bidden the rascals an unceremonious good-bye and we would have been able to hold our own on a claim for the services of myself and mule.

We went up to the place where our people were camped, perhaps a mile above town on the bank of a river, nearly dry, but where plenty of wood, water and grass were at hand; such a place as we had looked for in vain for many a weary day upon the desert. This was as far above Death Valley as a king above a pauper, and we hoped never to see such a country again.

In camp we talked about moving on to the mines. Rogers said he was going to start next day, and in answer to exclamations of surprise that he should start off alone, he said that some fellows camped a little way down the river were going to start and he had made arrangements to go with them, as the Bennett party would not go yet for a week. In the morning he shook hands and bade us good-bye and good luck, and started off down the river bank, lost to us, as it proved, for many years.

The next day as we were all sitting on the ground I felt a sort of moving of the earth under me and heard a rumbling sound that seemed very queer. It seemed there was a motion also to the trees around us. We all started and looked a little frightened, and Skinner said he believed it was an earthquake, for he said he could see the motion in a sort of wave. It was gone in half a minute. Moody said:–“How do you like California now?” I said I thought this part of it was a pretty good place for there was plenty of wood, water and grass, and that was better than we had seen in some places.

He then went on to say that he had heard Mr. Bennett’s story of their sufferings and narrow escape from death, and it was the most wonderful story he had ever heard. He said the idea of Mrs. Bennett walking over such a country for twenty-two days was almost beyond belief, for he would not have thought her able to walk one-third the distance. He never knew before how much women could do when they were called to do it, and they proved in emergencies to be as tough as any body. He said if he ever got back home he should move to give them all the rights and privileges of men for sure.

One day I mounted my mule for a ride to the eastern foothills, and sat down on a little incline and overlooked the valley, a beautiful landscape, while my mule cropped the rich grasses in a circle described by the rope which confined him. I was always a great admirer of nature, and as I sat there alone I could see miles on miles of mammoth mustard waving in the strong breeze which came down over the San Francisco Bay just visible to the northward, and on the mountain summits to the west could see tall timber reaching up into the deep blue of the sky. It was a real contented comfort to be thus in the midst of luxuriance and beauty, and I enjoyed it, coming as it did at the end of the long and dreary road I had been traveling for the past twelve months. Up the Platte; across the Rockies; down the Green River cañons in my canoe; across the mountains to Salt Lake; out over the “Rim of the Basin,” and across the desert, guided only by the fact that we knew the Pacific Ocean was to the west of us, and choosing our road as best we could in view of the lofty, snow-clad, impassible mountains; seeing thirteen of our comrades lie down never to rise again, and, when hope and strength were almost gone, to suddenly come out into a fertile region on the seventh of March, 1850. How I wished the fellows who slept in Death Valley could have seen this view. The change from all that barrenness and desolation to this beautiful, fertile country, covered with wild flowers and luxuriant live oaks, was as strong a contrast as one could imagine a sudden coming from purgatory to paradise in the space of a single hour.

I waked up from my dreamy thoughts, mounted my mule and rode to camp. As I rode along the nimble ground squirrel, with his keen black eye, would climb to the top of the high mustard stalks to get a better view and, suspicious of an enemy within his almost undisputed territory, disappear in a wink to his safe underground fortress. Fat cattle and horses would appear before me a moment, and then, with a wild look and high heads, dash through the tall mustard out of sight.

Next day my trip was toward the western hills, and before I came to them was confronted with an extensive stretch of chaparral brush, absolutely impenetrable, which I must go around or stop my progress in this direction. These thickets were a regular paradise for grizzly bears, for within the protection of this matted and thorny growth he is as safe as is the soldier in the rocky fort of Gibraltar. I soon found a way around the brush and rose high enough so that a backward look over the valley was charming, quite as much so as the eastern side. I wandered over the grassy hills covered with great scattering oaks, and came to a grove of mammoth trees, six feet or more in diameter, with tops reaching two hundred or three hundred feet toward the blue sky. They seemed to me to be a kind of cedar, and were far larger and taller than any trees I had ever seen in the forests of Vermont, Michigan or Wisconsin, and in my long journey from the East the route had been principally through a country devoid of good timber. A stranger in a strange land, everything was new and wonderful. After satisfying my inquiring mind I returned to camp again, and soon learned that my newly discovered trees were the famous redwoods, so greatly prized for their valuable qualities.

Taking the most direct course to camp I came, when within two or three miles of San Jose, to a large extent of willows so thick, and so thickly woven together with wild blackberry vines, wild roses and other thorny plants, that it appeared at first as if I never could get through. But I found a winding trail made by the cattle through the bushes and mustard, and this I followed, being nearly scared occasionally by some wild steers as they rushed off through the thickets. I got through safely, though it would have been difficult to escape a wild, enraged steer, or a grizzly had I met him face to face even with a rifle in hand. I could see nowhere but by looking straight up, for the willows were in places fifty feet high and a foot in diameter. The willows where I came from were mere bushes, and these astonished me. This bit of brush is still locally known as “The Willows,” but the trees are all gone, and the ground thickly covered with orchards and fine residences, the land selling at from one thousand to two thousand dollars per acre.

The sun rose without a cloud, and a little later the sea breeze from the bay blew gently over the valley, making the climate perfectly delightful in its temperate coolness, a true paradise on earth it seemed to me, if I was able to judge or set a value upon so beautiful a spot; and surely I had seen all sorts, good and poor, desert and valley, mountain and plain.

But I was poor in purse, and resolved I would seek first the gold mines and secure gold enough to buy a piece of this valley afterward.

When I had seen what was to be seen about San Jose I had a talk with my friends and found that Mr. Bennett favored going on to the mines at once and that Moody and Skinner thought they would remain a little while at least.

I went along in company with Bennett, and when we got a little way from San Jose, on the road to the Mission, the road seemed walled in on both sides with growing mustard ten or twelve feet high and all in blossom. How so much mustard could grow, and grow so large, I could not understand. I had seen a few plants in the gardens or fields which people used for greens, and here seemed to be enough to feed the nation, if they liked mustard greens.

The second day out we passed the big church at Mission San Jose and soon left the valley and turned into the mountains and when part way over we came to a stream which we followed up and came out into Livermore valley, where we found a road to follow. Houses were scarce, and we camped a mile or so before we got to the Livermore ranch buildings. There was very little sign of life about the place, and we soon went out of the valley and into the mountains again.

The first sign of settlement we saw when part way through the mountains was a stone corral, but no house or other improvements. The next place was a small house made of willow poles set in the ground and plastered over with mud. This rejoiced in the name of “Mountain House.” This wayside inn looked like a horse thief’s glory; only one or two men, a quarter of an elk hanging on a pole, and no accommodations for man or beast. There was very little water, nothing to sell as well as nothing wanted. On the summits of the mountains as we passed through we saw, standing like guards, many large buck elks.

It was now fifteen miles to the San Joaquin river, and a level plain lay before us. When our road turned into the river bottom we found the water too deep to get through safely, so we concluded to go on and try to find some place where we could cross. On our way droves of antelopes could be seen frolicking over the broad plains, while in the distance were herds of elk winding their way from the mountains towards the river for water. When far away their horns were the first things visible, and they much resembled the dry tops of dead pine trees, but a nearer view showed them to us as the proud monarchs of the plain.

When we came up opposite the mouth of the Merced river we concluded to try again to cross. The river here, as below, was out of its banks, and the overflowed part was quite wide which we had to pass through before we could reach the river proper.

I waded in ahead of the team and sounded the depth of the river so as not to get in too deep water, and avoid if possible such accidents as might otherwise occur. Sometimes the water was up to the wagon bed and it looked a little doubtful of our getting through in safety, but we made it at last.

We found a narrow strip of dry land along the river bank. A town was on the east side of the San Joaquin. river, just below where the Merced river came in. I think this place was called Merced City. This so-called city contained but one residence, a tent occupied by the ferryman. We crossed the sluggish stream and for the privilege paid the ferryman, ten dollars for toll. The road was not much used and the ferry business seemed lonesome.

Here we camped for the night. The mosquitoes soon found us, and they were all very hungry and had good teeth. They annoyed me so that I moved my lodgings to the ferryboat, but here they quickly found me and troubled me all night. These insects were the first I had seen since I left the lower Platte river, and I thought them as bad as on the Mississippi.

From here the road led up the Merced river near the bottom, and as we came near groves of willows, big, stately elk would start out and trot off proudly into the open plains to avoid danger. These proud, big-horned monarchs of the plains could be seen in bunches scattered over the broad meadows, as well as an equal amount of antelope. They all seemed to fear us, which was wise on their part, and kept out of rifle shot. As were not starving as we were once, I did not follow them out on the open plain, for I thought I could get meat when we were more in need.

We followed up the river bottom and saw not a single house until we reached the road leading from Stockton to the Mariposa mines, where we found a ferry and a small store. Here we learned that some men were mining a few miles up the river, so we drove on until we found a little work being done in a dry gulch near the river bank. We made our camp at this spot and had plenty of wood, water and grass. We found there was something to be learned in the art of gold mining. We had no tools nor money, and had never seen a speck of native gold and did not know how to separate it from the dirt nor where to search for it. We were poor, ignorant emigrants. There were two or three men camped here. One of them was more social than the rest and we soon got acquainted. His name was Williams, from Missouri. He came down to the river with a pan of dirt, and seeing me in my ignorance trying to wash some as well, he took the pan from me and very kindly showed me how to work so as to let the dirt go and save the gold. When he had the pan finished a few small, bright scales remained. These to me were curious little follows and I examined them closely and concluded there was a vast difference between gold and lead mining. Williams became more friendly and we told him something about our journey across the plains, and he seemed to think that we deserved a good claim. He went to a dry gulch where a Spaniard was working and told him that all of California, now that the war was over, belonged to Americans and he must leave. Williams had his gun in his hand and war might follow, so Mr. Spaniard left and his claim was presented to Bennett and myself.

Williams had been twice to Santa Fe from Missouri and had learned the Spanish language and could swear at them by note if necessary. We now began work almost without tools, but our ground we had to work was quite shallow and Williams helped us out by loaning us some of his tools at times. We soon succeeded in scratching together some of the yellow stuff and I went down to the store and bought a pan for five dollars, a shovel for ten dollars, and a poor pick cost me ten dollars more. This took about two ounces of my money.

We now worked harder than ever for about three weeks, but we could not save much and pay such high prices as were charged. Our gulch claim was soon worked out, and as the river had fallen some we tried the bar, but we could only make four or five dollars a day, and the gold was very fine and hard to save. We bought a hind quarter of an elk and hung it up in a tree and it kept fresh till all of it was eaten.

Some others came and took up claims on the bar, and as the prospects were not as good as was wished, three of us concluded to go and try to find a better place. The next day was Sunday and all lay in bed late. Before I rose I felt something crawling on my breast, and when I looked I found it to be an insect, slow in motion, resembling a louse, but larger. He was a new emigrant to me and I wondered what he was. I now took off my pants and found many of his kind in the seams. I murdered all I could find, and when I got up I told Williams what I had found. He said they hurt nobody and were called piojos, more commonly known as body lice.

We started on our prospecting tour and went northeast to a place now called Big Oak Flat. This was at the head of a small stream and there were several small gulches that emptied into it that paid well. This flat was all taken up and a ditch was cut through to drain it. A ship load of gold was expected to be found when it was worked. A small town of tents had been pitched on both sides of the flat. One side was occupied by gamblers, and many games were constantly carried on and were well patronized. On the opposite side of the flat were many small tents, and around on the hillside some mules and jacks were feeding. One of the little long-eared donkeys came down among the tents and went in one and commenced eating flour from the sack. The owner of the flour ran to the tent, took his shot gun and fired a load of buck-shot into the donkey’s hams. The animal reeled and seemed shot fatally. I now looked for a battle to commence, but the parties were more reasonable. The price of the animal was fully paid, and no blood shed as I expected there surely would be.

We now prospected further east, but nothing good enough was found. The place we looked over was where the town of Garota now stands. We concluded to go back, have a council, and go somewhere else. On our way back we stopped to get dinner. While I was around the fire, barefooted, I felt something crawl up my instep, and it proved to be another of those piojos of Williams’. I now thought these torments must be all over this country.

Gold dust was used to transact all business; all the coin was in the hands of the gentlemen gamblers. Most miners found it necessary to have a small pair of scales in the breast pocket to weigh the dust so as not to have to trust some one who carried lead weights and often got more than his just dues. Gold dust was valued at sixteen dollars an ounce.

We now thought it would be best for two of us to take our mules and go down in the small hills and try to get some elk meat to take with us, as our route would be mostly through the unsettled part of the country, and no provisions could likely be procured, so Mr. Bradford of New Orleans and myself took our mules and went down where the hills were low and the game plenty. We camped in a low ravine, staked out our mules and staid all night without a fire, believing that when we woke in the early morning some of the many herd of elk then in sight would be near us at daylight, and we could easily kill all we wanted without leaving camp; but we were disappointed. Hundreds of the big-horned fellows were in sight, but none in rifle shot, and there was no chance for us to get any nearer to them. We got near a couple of antelope and Mr. Bradford, who was a brag shot and had the best gun, proposed to kill them as we stood. The larger of the two was on his side and much nearer than the smaller one, but we fired together just as we stood. Bradford’s antelope ran off unhurt: mine fell dead in its tracks. Bradford bragged no more about his fine gun and superior marksmanship.

We went back to camp with the little we had killed and soon got ready to start north. Bennett was to go with his team to Sacramento and wait there until he heard from us.

Four of us, mounted on mules, now started on our journey along the foothills without a road. We struck the Tuolumne river at a ferry. The stream was high and rapid and could not be forded, so we had to patronize the ferryman, and give him half an ounce apiece. We thought such charges on poor and almost penniless emigrants were unjust.

The point we were seeking to reach was a new discovery called Gold Lake on Feather River, where many rich gulches that emptied into it had been worked, and the lake was believed to have at least a ship load of gold in it. It was located high in the mountains and could be easily drained and a fortune soon obtained if we got there in time and said nothing to anyone we might meet on the road. We might succeed in getting a claim before they were all taken up. We followed along the foothills without a road, and when we came to the Stanislaus River we had to patronize a ferry and pay half an ounce each again. We thought their scale weights were rather heavy and their ferrymen well paid.

We continued along the foothills without any trail until we struck the road from Sacramento to Hangtown. This sounded like a bad name for a good village, but we found it was fittingly named after some ugly devils who were hanged there. The first house that we came to on this road was the Mormon Tavern. Here were some men playing cards for money, and two boys, twelve or fourteen years old, playing poker for the same and trying in every way to ape the older gamblers and bet their money as freely and swear as loud as the old sports. All I saw was new and strange to me and became indelibly fixed on my mind. I had never before seen such wicked boys, and the men paid no attention to these fast American boys. I began to wonder if all the people in California were like these, bad and wicked.

Here we learned that Gold Lake was not as rich as reported, so we concluded to take the road and go to Coloma, the place where gold was first found on the American River.

We camped at Coloma all night. Mr. Bradford got his mule shod and paid sixteen dollars, or in the mining phrase, an ounce of gold dust. I visited the small town and found that the only lively business place in it was a large gambling house, and I saw money (gold dust) liberally used–sometimes hundreds of dollars bet on a single card. When a few hundred or thousand were lost more would be brought on. The purse would be set in the center of the table and the owners would take perhaps twenty silver dollars or checks, and when they were lost the deposited purse would be handed to the barkeeper, the amount weighed out and the purse returned. When the purse was empty a friend of the better would bring another, and so the game went on almost in silence. The game called Monte seemed to be the favorite. How long these sacks of gold lasted or who eventually got the whole I never knew. This was a new country with new people, and many seemed to be engaged in a business that was new, strange and hazardous. The final result of all this was what puzzled me.

We now followed the road up the mountain to Georgetown. Here was a small village on the summit of the ridge and it seemed to be in a prosperous mining section. After some inquiry about a good place to work we concluded to go down a couple of miles northeast of town on Cañon creek and go to work if vacant ground could be found. There was a piece of creek bottom here that had not been much worked. Georgia Flat above had been worked and paid well, and the Illinois and Oregon cañons that emptied into the bottom here were rich, so we concluded to locate in the bottom. Claims here in the flat were only fifteen feet square. I located one and my notice told others that I would go to work on it as soon my partner came from Sacramento. I sent my partner, Mr. Bennett a note telling him to come up.

While waiting for Mr. Bennett I took my pan and butcher knife and went into a dry gulch out of sight of the other campers and began work. As the ground was mostly bare bed rock by scratching around I succeeded in getting three or four pans of dirt a day. The few days I had to wait for Bennett I made eight dollars a day until my claim was worked out.

I then went to Georgetown to meet Bennett and family, and soon after my arrival they came well and safe. All of them, even to the faithful camp dog, Cuff, were glad to see me. Old Cuff followed me all around town, but when we got ready to start for camp the dog was gone and could not be found. Some one had hidden him away knowing he could not be gotten any other way, for six ounces would not have bought him. We had raised him in Wisconsin, made him a good deer dog, and with us he had crossed the dry and sandy deserts. He had been a great protection to Bennett’s children on the plains, and company for us all.

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