Two Years Before the Mast/Twenty Four Years Later: Part I
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Twenty Four Years Later: Part I
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Twenty-Four Years Later: Part I
It was in the winter of 1835–6 that the ship Alert, in the prosecution of her voyage for hides on the remote and almost unknown coast of California, floated into the vast solitude of the Bay of San Francisco. All around was the stillness of nature. One vessel, a Russian, lay at anchor there, but during our whole stay not a sail came or went. Our trade was with remote Missions, which sent hides to us in launches manned by their Indians. Our anchorage was between a small island, called Yerba Buena, and a gravel beach in a little bight or cove of the same name, formed by two small projecting points. Beyond, to the westward of the landing-place, were dreary sand-hills, with little grass to be seen, and few trees, and beyond them higher hills, steep and barren, their sides gullied by the rains. Some five or six miles beyond the landing-place, to the right, was as ruinous Presidio, and some three or four miles to the left was the Mission of Dolores, a ruinous as the Presidio, almost deserted, with but few Indians attached to it, and but little property in cattle. Over a region far beyond our sight there were no other human habitations, except that an enterprising Yankee, years in advance of his time, had put up, on the rising ground above the landing, a shanty of rough boards, where he carried on a very small retail trade between the hide ships and the Indians. Vast banks of fog, invading us from the North Pacific, drove in through the entrance, and covered the whole bay; and when they disappeared, we saw a few well-wooded islands, the sand-hills on the west, the grassy and wooded slopes on the east, and the vast stretch of the bay to the southward, where we were told lay the Missions of Santa Clara and San José, and still longer stretches to the northward and northeastward, where we understood smaller bays spread out, and large rivers poured in their tributes of waters. There were no settlements on these bays or rivers, and the few ranchos and Missions were remote and widely separated. Not only the neighborhood of our anchorage, but the entire region of the great bay, was a solitude. On the whole coast of California there was not a lighthouse, a beacon, or a buoy, and the charts were made up from old and disconnected surveys by British, Russian, and Mexican voyagers. Birds of prey and passage swooped and dived about us, wild beasts ranged through the oak groves, and as we slowly floated out of the harbor with the tide, herds of deer came to the water’s edge, on the northerly side of the entrance, to gaze at the strange spectacle.
On the evening of Saturday, the 13th of August, 1859, the superb steamship Golden Gate, gay with crowds of passengers, and lighting the sea for miles around with the glare of her signal lights of red, green, and white, and brilliant with lighted saloons and staterooms, bound up from the Isthmus of Panama, neared the entrance to San Francisco, the great centre of a world-wide commerce. Miles out at sea, on the desolate rocks of the Farallones, gleamed the powerful rays of one of the most costly and effective light-houses in the world. As we drew in through the Golden Gate, another light-house met our eyes, and in the clear moonlight of the unbroken California summer we saw, on the right, a large fortification protecting the narrow entrance, and just before us the little island of Alcatraz confronted us,—one entire fortress. We bore round the point toward the old anchoring-ground of the hide ships, and there, covering the sand-hills and the valleys, stretching from the water’s edge to the base of the great hills, and from the old Presidio to the Mission, flickering all over with the lamps of its streets and houses, lay a city of one hundred thousand inhabitants. Clocks tolled the hour of midnight from its steeples, but the city was alive from the salute of our guns, spreading the news that the fortnightly steamer had come, bringing mails and passengers from the Atlantic world. Clipper ships of the largest size lay at anchor in the stream, or were girt to the wharves; and capacious high-pressure steamers, as large and showy as those of the Hudson or Mississippi, bodies of dazzling light, awaited the delivery of our mails to take their courses up the Bay, stopping at Benicia and the United States Naval Station, and then up the great tributaries—the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Feather Rivers—to the far inland cities of Sacramento, Stockton, and Marysville.
The dock into which we drew, and the streets about it, were densely crowded with express wagons and hand-carts to take luggage, coaches and cabs for passengers, and with men,—some looking out for friends among one hundreds of passengers,—agents of the press, and a greater multitude eager for newspapers and verbal intelligence from the great Atlantic and European world. Through this crowd I made my way, along the well-built and well-lighted streets, as alive as by day, where boys in high-keyed voices were already crying the latest New York papers; and between one and two o’clock in the morning found myself comfortably abed in a commodious room, in the Oriental Hotel, which stood, as well as I could learn, on the filled-up cove, and not far from the spot where we used to beach our boats from the Alert.
Sunday, August 14th. When I awoke in the morning, and looked from my windows over the city of San Francisco, with its store-houses, towers, and steeples; its court-houses, theatres, and hospitals; its daily journals; its well-filled learned professions; its fortresses and light-houses; its wharves and harbor, with their thousand-ton clipper ships, more in number than London or Liverpool sheltered that day, itself one of the capitals of the American Republic, and the sole emporium of a new world, the awakened Pacific; when I looked across the bay to the eastward, and beheld a beautiful town on the fertile, wooded shores of the Contra Costa, and steamers, large and small, the ferryboats to the Contra Costa, and capacious freighters and passenger-carriers to all parts of the great bay and its tributaries, with lines of their smoke in the horizon,—when I saw all these things, and reflected on what I once was and saw here, and what now surrounded me, I could scarcely keep my hold on reality at all, or the genuineness of anything, and seemed to myself like one who had moved in “worlds not realized.”
I could not complain that I had not a choice of places of worship. The Roman Catholics have an archbishop, a cathedral, and five or six smaller churches, French, German, Spanish, and English; and the Episcopalians, a bishop, a cathedral, and three other churches; the Methodists and Presbyterians have three or four each, and there are Congregationalists, Baptists, a Unitarian, and other societies. On my way to church, I met two classmates of mine at Harvard standing in a door-way, one a lawyer and the other a teacher, and made appointments for a future meeting. A little farther on I came upon another Harvard man, a fine scholar and wit, and full of cleverness and good-humor, who invited me to go to breakfast with him at the French house,—he was a bachelor, and a late riser on Sundays. I asked him to show me the way to Bishop Kip’s church. He hesitated, looked a little confused, and admitted that he was not as well up in certain classes of knowledge as in others, but, by a desperate guess, pointed out a wooden building at the foot of the street, which any one might have seen could not be right, and which turned out to be an African Baptist meeting-house. But my friend had many capital points of character, and I owed much of the pleasure of my visit to his attentions.
The congregation at the Bishop’s church was precisely like one you would meet in New York, Philadelphia, or Boston. To be sure, the identity of the service makes one feel at once at home, but the people were alike, nearly all of the English race, though from all parts of the Union. The latest French bonnets were at the head of the chief pews, and business men at the foot. The music was without character, but there was an instructive sermon, and the church was full.
I found that there were no services at any of the Protestant churches in the afternoon. They have two services on Sunday; at 11 A.M., and after dark. The afternoon is spent at home, or in friendly visiting, or teaching of Sunday Schools, or other humane and social duties.
This is as much the practice with what at home are called the strictest denominations as with any others. Indeed, I found individuals, as well as public bodies, affected in a marked degree by a change of oceans and by California life. One Sunday afternoon I was surprised at receiving the card of a man whom I had last known, some fifteen years ago, as a strict and formal deacon of a Congregational Society in New England. He was a deacon still, in San Francisco, a leader in all pious works, devoted to his denomination and to total abstinence,—the same internally, but externally—what a change! Gone was the downcast eye, the bated breath, the solemn, non-natural voice, the watchful gait, stepping as if he felt responsible for the balance of the moral universe! He walked with a stride, an uplifted open countenance, his face covered with beard, whiskers, and mustache, his voice strong and natural,—and, in short, he had put off the New England deacon and become a human being. In a visit of an hour I learned much from him about the religious societies, the moral reforms, the “Dashaways,”—total abstinence societies, which had taken strong hold on the young and wilder parts of society,—and then of the Vigilance Committee, of which he was a member, and of more secular points of interest.
In one of the parlors of the hotel, I saw a man of about sixty years of age, with his feet bandaged and resting in a chair, whom somebody addressed by the name of Lies. Lies! thought I, that must be the man who came across the country from Kentucky to Monterey while we lay there in the Pilgrim in 1835, and made a passage in the Alert, when he used to shoot with his rifle bottles hung from the top-gallant studding-sail-boom-ends. He married the beautiful Doña Rosalia Vallejo, sister of Don Guadalupe. There were the old high features and sandy hair. I put my chair beside him, and began conversation, as any one may do in California. Yes, he was the Mr. Lies; and when I gave my name he professed at once to remember me, and spoke of my book. I found that almost—I might perhaps say quite—every American in California had read it; for when California “broke out,” as the phrase is, in 1848, and so large a portion of the Anglo-Saxon race flocked to it, there was no book upon California but mine. Many who were on the coast at the time the book refers to, and afterwards read it, and remembered the Pilgrim and Alert, thought they also remembered me. But perhaps more did remember me than I was inclined at first to believe, for the novelty of a collegian coming out before the mast had drawn more attention to me than I was aware of at the time.
Late in the afternoon, as there were vespers at the Roman Catholic churches, I went to that of Notre Dame des Victoires. The congregation was French, and a sermon in French was preached by an Abbe; the music was excellent, all things airy and tasteful, and making one feel as if in one of the chapels in Paris. The Cathedral of St. Mary, which I afterwards visited, where the Irish attend, was a contrast indeed, and more like one of our stifling Irish Catholic churches in Boston or New York, with intelligence in so small a proportion to the number of faces. During the three Sundays I was in San Francisco, I visited three of the Episcopal churches, and the Congregational, a Chinese Mission Chapel, and on the Sabbath (Saturday) a Jewish synagogue. The Jews are a wealthy and powerful class here. The Chinese, too, are numerous, and do a great part of the manual labor and small shop-keeping, and have some wealthy mercantile houses.
It is noticeable that European Continental fashions prevail generally in this city,—French cooking, lunch at noon, and dinner at the end of the day, with cafe noir after meals, and to a great extent the European Sunday,—to all which emigrants from the United States and Great Britain seem to adapt themselves. Some dinners which were given to me at French restaurants were, it seemed to me,—a poor judge of such matters, to be sure,—as sumptuous and as good, in dishes—and wines, as I have found in Paris. But I had a relish-maker which my friends at table did not suspect,—the remembrance of the forecastle dinners I ate here twenty-four years before.
August 17th. The customs of California are free; and any person who knows about my book speaks to me. The newspapers have announced the arrival of the veteran pioneer of all. I hardly walk out without meeting or making acquaintances. I have already been invited to deliver the anniversary oration before the Pioneer Society, to celebrate the settlement of San Francisco. Any man is qualified for election into the society who came to California before 1853. What moderns they are! I tell them of the time when Richardson’s shanty of 1835—not his adobe house of 1836—was the only human habitation between the Mission and the Presidio, and when the vast bay, with all its tributaries and recesses, was a solitude,—and yet I am but little past forty years of age. They point out the place where Richardson’s adobe house stood, and tell me that the first court and first town council were convened in it, the first Protestant worship performed in it, and in it the first capital trial by the Vigilance Committee held. I am taken down to the wharves, by antiquaries of a ten or twelve years’ range, to identify the two points, now known as Clark’s and Rincon, which formed the little cove of Yerba Buena, where we used to beach our boats,—now filled up and built upon. The island we called “Wood Island,” where we spent the cold days and nights of December, in our launch, getting wood for our year’s supply, is clean shorn of trees; and the bare rocks of Alcatraz Island, an entire fortress. I have looked at the city from the water and islands from the city, but I can see nothing that recalls the times gone by, except the venerable Mission, the ruinous Presidio, the high hills in the rear of the town, and the great stretches of the bay in all directions.
To-day I took a California horse of the old style,—the run, the loping gait,—and visited the Presidio. The walls stand as they did, with some changes made to accommodate a small garrison of United States troops. It has a noble situation, and I saw from it a clipper ship of the very largest class, coming through the Gate, under her fore-and-aft sails. Thence I rode to the Fort, now nearly finished, on the southern shore of the Gate, and made an inspection of it. It is very expensive and of the latest style. One of the engineers here is Custis Lee, who has just left West Point at the head of his class, —a son of Colonel Robert E. Lee, who distinguished himself in the Mexican War.
Another morning I ride to the Mission Dolores. It has a strangely solitary aspect, enhanced by its surroundings of the most uncongenial, rapidly growing modernisms; the hoar of ages surrounded by the brightest, slightest, and rapidest of modern growths. Its old belfries still clanged with the discordant bells, and Mass was saying within, for it is used as a place of worship for the extreme south part of the city.
In one of my walks about the wharves, I found a pile of dry hides lying by the side of a vessel. Here was something to feelingly persuade me what I had been, to recall a past scarce credible to myself. I stood lost in reflection. What were these hides—what were they not?—to us, to me, a boy, twenty-four years ago? These were our constant labor, our chief object, our almost habitual thought. They brought us out here, they kept us here, and it was only by getting them that we could escape from the coast and return to home and civilized life. If it had not been that I might be seen, I should have seized one, slung it over my head, walked off with it, and thrown it by the old toss—I do not believe yet a lost art—to the ground. How they called up to my mind the months of curing at San Diego, the year and more of beach and surf work, and the steering of the ship for home! I was in a dream of San Diego, San Pedro,—with its hills so steep for taking up goods, and its stones so hard to our bare feet,—and the cliffs of San Juan! All this, too, is no more! The entire hide-business is of the past, and to the present inhabitants of California a dim tradition. The gold discoveries drew off all men from the gathering or cure of hides, the inflowing population made an end of the great droves of cattle; and now not a vessel pursues the—I was about to say dear—the dreary once hated business of gathering hides upon the coast, and the beach of San Diego is abandoned and its hide-houses have disappeared. Meeting a respectable-looking citizen on the wharf, I inquired of him how the hide-trade was carried on. “O,” said he, “there is very little of it, and that is all here. The few that are brought in are placed under sheds in winter, or left out on the wharf in summer, and are loaded from the wharves into the vessels alongside. They form parts of cargoes of other materials.” I really felt too much, at the instant, to express to him the cause of my interest in the subject, and only added, “Then the old business of trading up and down the coast and curing hides for cargoes is all over?” “O yes, sir,” said he, “those old times of the Pilgrim and Alert and California, that we read about, are gone by.”
Saturday, August 20th. The steamer Senator makes regular trips up and down the coast, between San Francisco and San Diego, calling at intermediate ports. This is my opportunity to revisit the old scenes. She sails to-day, and I am off, steaming among the great clippers anchored in the harbor, and gliding rapidly round the point, past Alcatraz Island, the light-house, and through the fortified Golden Gate, and bending to the southward,—all done in two or three hours, which, in the Alert, under canvas, with head tides, variable winds, and sweeping currents to deal with, took us full two days.
Among the passengers I noticed an elderly gentleman, thin, with sandy hair and face that seemed familiar. He took off his glove and showed one shrivelled hand. It must be he! I went to him and said, “Captain Wilson, I believe.” Yes, that was his name. “I knew you, sir, when you commanded the Ayacucho on this coast, in old hide-droghing times, in 1835–6.” He was quickened by this, and at once inquiries were made on each side, and we were in full talk about the Pilgrim and Alert, Ayacucho and Loriotte, the California and Lagoda. I found he had been very much flattered by the praise I had bestowed in my book on his seamanship, especially in bringing the Pilgrim to her berth in San Diego harbor, after she had drifted successively into the Lagoda and Loriotte, and was coming into him. I had made a pet of his brig, the Ayacucho, which pleased him almost as much as my remembrance of his bride and their wedding, which I saw at Santa Barbara in 1836. Doña Ramona was now the mother of a large family, and Wilson assured me that if I would visit him as his rancho, near San Luis Obispo, I should find her still a handsome woman, and very glad to see me. How we walked the deck together, hour after hour, talking over the old times,—the ships, the captains, the crews, the traders on shore, the ladies, the Missions, the south-easters! indeed, where could we stop? He had sold the Ayacucho in Chili for a vessel of war, and had given up the sea, and had been for years a ranchero. (I learned from others that he had become one of the most wealthy and respectable farmers in the State, and that his rancho was well worth visiting.) Thompson, he said, hadn’t the sailor in him; and he never could laugh enough at his fiasco in San Diego, and his reception by Bradshaw. Faucon was a sailor and a navigator. He did not know what had become of George Marsh, except that he left him in Callao; nor could he tell me anything of handsome Bill Jackson, nor of Captain Nye of the Loriotte. I told him all I then knew of the ships, the masters, and the officers. I found he had kept some run of my history, and needed little information. Old Señor Noriego of Santa Barbara, he told me, was dead, and Don Carlos and Don Santiago, but I should find their children there, now in middle life. Doña Augustia, he said, I had made famous by my praises of her beauty and dancing, and I should have from her a royal reception. She had been a widow, and remarried since, and had a daughter as handsome as herself. The descendants of Noriego had taken the ancestral name of De la Guerra, as they were nobles of Old Spain by birth; and the boy Pablo, who used to make passages in the Alert, was now Don Pablo de la Guerra, a Senator in the State Legislature for Santa Barbara County. The points in the country, too, he noticed, as he passed them,—Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, Point Año Nuevo, the opening to Monterey, which to my disappointment we did not visit. No; Monterey, the prettiest town on the coast, and its capital and seat of customs, had got no advantage from the great changes, was out of the way of commerce and of the travel to the mines and great rivers, and was not worth stopping at. Point Conception we passed in the night, a cheery light gleaming over the waters from its tall light-house, standing on its outermost peak. Point Conception! That word was enough to recall all our experiences and dreads of gales, swept decks, topmast carried away, and the hardships of a coast service in the winter. But Captain Wilson tells me that the climate has altered; that the southeasters are no longer the bane of the coast they once were, and that vessels now anchor inside the kelp at Santa Barbara and San Pedro all the year round. I should have thought this owing to his spending his winters on a rancho instead of the deck of the Ayacucho, had not the same thing been told me by others.
Passing round Point Conception, and steering easterly, we opened the islands that form, with the main-land, the canal of Santa Barbara. There they are, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa; and there is the beautiful point, Santa Buenaventura; and there lies Santa Barbara on its plain, with its amphitheatre of high hills and distant mountains. There is the old white Mission with its belfries, and there the town, with its one-story adobe houses, with here and there a two-story wooden house of later build; yet little is it altered,—the same repose in the golden sunlight and glorious climate, sheltered by its hills; and then, more remindful than anything else, there roars and tumbles upon the beach the same grand surf of the great Pacific as on the beautiful day when the Pilgrim, after her five months’ voyage, dropped her weary anchors here; the same bright blue ocean, and the surf making just the same monotonous, melancholy roar, and the same dreamy town, and gleaming white Mission, as when we beached our boats for the first time, riding over the breakers with shouting Kanakas, the three small hide-traders lying at anchor in the offing. But now we are the only vessel, and that an unromantic, sail-less, spar-less, engine-driven hulk!
I landed in the surf, in the old style, but it was not high enough to excite us, the only change being that I was somehow unaccountably a passenger, and did not have to jump overboard and steady the boat, and run her up by the gunwales.
Santa Barbara has gained but little. I should not know, from anything I saw, that she was now a seaport of the United States, a part of the enterprising Yankee nation, and not still a lifeless Mexican town. At the same old house, where Señor Noriego lived, on the piazza in front of the court-yard, where was the gay scene of the marriage of our agent, Mr. Robinson, to Doña Anita, where Don Juan Bandini and Doña Augustia danced, Don Pablo de la Guerra received me in a courtly fashion. I passed the day with the family, and in walking about the place; and ate the old dinner with its accompaniments of frijoles, native olives and grapes, and native wines. In due time I paid my respects to Doña Augustia, and notwithstanding what Wilson told me, I could hardly believe that after twenty-four years there would still be so much of the enchanting woman about her.
She thanked me for the kind and, as she called them, greatly exaggerated compliments I had paid her; and her daughter told me that all travellers who came to Santa Barbara called to see her mother, and that she herself never expected to live long enough to be a belle.
Mr. Alfred Robinson, our agent in 1835–6, was here, with a part of his family. I did not know how he would receive me, remembering what I had printed to the world about him at a time when I took little thought that the world was going to read it; but there was no sign of offence, only cordiality which gave him, as between us, rather the advantage in status.
The people of this region are giving attention to sheep-raising, wine-making, and the raising of olives, just enough to keep the town from going backwards.
But evening is drawing on, and our boat sails to-night. So, refusing a horse or carriage, I walk down, not unwilling to be a little early, that I may pace up and down the beach, looking off to the islands and the points, and watching the roaring, tumbling billows. How softening is the effect of time! It touches us through the affections. I almost feel as if I were lamenting the passing away of something loved and dear,—the boats, the Kanakas, the hides, my old shipmates. Death, change, distance, lend them a character which makes them quite another thing from the vulgar, wearisome toil of uninteresting, forced manual labour.
The breeze freshened as we stood out to sea, and the wild waves rolled over the red sun, on the broad horizon of the Pacific; but it is summer, and in summer there can be no bad weather in California. Every day is pleasant. Nature forbids a drop of rain to fall by day or night, or a wind to excite itself beyond a fresh summer breeze.
- Pronounced Leese.