What I Saw in California
By Edwin Bryant
Public Domain Books
Tremendous rain Mission of San Luis Obispo Gardens Various fruits Farm Cactus tuna Calinche Pumpkins Trial of Tortoria Pico Procession of women Pico’s pardon Leave San Luis Surf of the Pacific Captain Dana Tempestuous night Mission of St. Ynes Effects of drought Horses exhausted St. Ynes Mountain View of the plain of Santa Barbara and the Pacific A wretched Christmas-day Descent of St. Ynes Mountain Terrible storm Frightful destruction of horses Dark night What we are fighting for Arrive at Santa Barbara Town deserted.
December 15.–The rain fell in cataracts the entire day. The small streams which flow from the mountains through, and water the valley of, San Luis Obispo, are swollen by the deluge of water from the clouds into foaming unfordable torrents. In order not to trespass upon the population at the mission, in their miserable abodes of mud, the church was opened, and a large number of the soldiers were quartered in it. A guard, however, was set day and night, over the chancel and all other property contained in the building, to prevent its being injured or disturbed. The decorations of the church are much the same as I have before described. The edifice is large, and the interior in good repair. The floor is paved with square bricks. I noticed a common hand-organ in the church, which played the airs we usually hear from organ-grinders in the street.
Besides the main large buildings connected with the church, there are standing, and partially occupied, several small squares of adobe houses, belonging to this mission. The heaps of mud, and crumbling walls outside of these, are evidence that the place was once of much greater extent, and probably one of the most opulent and prosperous establishments of the kind in the country. The lands surrounding the mission are finely situated for cultivation and irrigation if necessary. There are several large gardens, inclosed by high and substantial walls, which now contain a great variety of fruit-trees and shrubbery. I noticed the orange, fig, palm, olive, and grape. There are also large inclosures hedged in by the prickly-pear (cactus), which grows to an enormous size, and makes an impervious barrier against man or beast. The stalks of some of these plants are of the thickness of a man’s body, and grow to the height of fifteen feet. A juicy fruit is produced by the prickly-pear, named tuna, from which a beverage is sometimes made, called calinche. It has a pleasant flavour, as has also the fruit, which, when ripe, is blood-red. A small quantity of pounded wheat was found here, which, being purchased, was served out to the troops, about a pound to the man. Frijoles and pumpkins were also obtained, delicacies of no common order.
December 16.–A court-martial was convened this morning for the trial of Pico, the principal prisoner, on the charge, I understood, of the forfeiture of his parole which had been taken on a former occasion. The sentence of the court was, that he should be shot or hung, I do not know which. A rumour is current among the population here, that there has been an engagement between a party of Americans and Californians, near Los Angeles, in which the former were defeated with the loss of thirty men killed.
December 17.–Cool, with a hazy sky. While standing in one of the corridors this morning, a procession of females passed by me, headed by a lady of fine appearance and dressed with remarkable taste and neatness, compared with those who followed her. Their rebososconcealed the faces of most of them, except the leader, whose beautiful features, dare say, she thought (and justly) required no concealment. They proceeded to the quarters of Colonel Fremont, and their object, I understood, was to petition for the reprieve or pardon of Pico, who had been condemned to death by the court-martial yesterday, and whose execution was expected to take place this morning. Their intercession was successful, as no execution took place, and in a short time all the prisoners were discharged, and the order to saddle up and march given. We resumed our march at ten o’clock, and encamped just before sunset in a small but picturesque and fertile valley timbered with oak, so near the coast that the roar of the surf breaking against the shore could be heard distinctly. Distance seven miles.
December 18.–Clear, with a delightful temperature. Before the sun rose the grass was covered with a white frost. The day throughout has been calm and beautiful. A march of four miles brought us to the shore of a small indentation in the coast of the Pacific, where vessels can anchor, and boats can land when the wind is not too fresh. The surf is now rolling and foaming with prodigious energy–breaking upon the beach in long lines one behind the other, and striking the shore like cataracts. The hills and plains are verdant with a carpet of fresh grass, and the scattered live-oaks on all sides, appearing like orchards of fruit-trees, give to the country an old and cultivated aspect. The mountains bench away on our left, the low hills rising in gentle conical forms, beyond which are the more elevated and precipitous peaks covered with snow. We encamped about three o’clock near the rancho of Captain Dana, in a large and handsome valley well watered by an arroyo.
Captain Dana is a native of Massachusetts, and has resided in this country about thirty years. He is known and esteemed throughout California for his intelligence and private virtues, and his unbounded generosity and hospitality. I purchased here a few loaves of wheat bread, and distributed them among the men belonging to our company as far as they would go, a luxury which they have not indulged in since the commencement of the march. Distance 15 miles.
December 19.–The night was cold and tempestuous, with a slight fall of rain. The clouds broke away after sunrise, and the day became warm and pleasant. We continued our march up the valley, and encamped near its head. The table-land and hills are generally gravelly, but appear to be productive of fine grass. The soil of the bottom is of the richest and most productive composition. We crossed in the course of the day a wide flat plain, upon which were grazing large herds of brood-mares (manadas) and cattle. In the distance they resembled large armies approaching us. The peaks of the elevated mountains in sight are covered with snow. A large number of horses gave out, strayed, and were left behind to-day, estimated at one hundred. The men came into camp bringing their saddles on their backs, and some of them arriving late in the evening. Distance 18 miles.
December 20.–Parties were sent back this morning to gather up horses and baggage left on the march yesterday, and it was one o’clock before the rear-guard, waiting for the return of those, left camp. The main body made a short march and encamped early, in a small hollow near the rancho of Mr. Faxon, through which flows an arroyo, the surrounding hills being timbered with evergreen oaks. The men amused themselves during the afternoon in target-shooting. Many of the battalion are fine marksmen with the rifle, and the average of shots could not easily be surpassed. The camp spread over an undulating surface of half a mile in diameter, and at night, when the fires were lighted, illuminating the grove, with its drapery of drooping Spanish moss, it presented a most picturesque appearance. Distance 3 miles.
December 21.–Clear and pleasant. A foot march was ordered, with the exception of the horse and baggage guard. We marched several miles through a winding hollow, passing a deserted rancho, and ascending with much labour a steep ridge of hills, descending which we entered a handsome valley, and encamped upon a small stream about four miles from the mission of St. Ynes. The banks of the arroyo are strewn with dead and prostrate timber, the trees, large and small, having been overthrown by tornados. The plain has suffered, like much of the country we have passed through, by a long-continued drought, but the composition of the soil is such as indicates fertility, and from the effects of the late rains the grass is springing up with great luxuriance, from places which before were entirely denuded of vegetation. A party was sent from camp to inspect the mission, but returned without making any important discoveries. Our horses are so weak that many of them are unable to carry their saddles, and were left on the road as usual. A man had his leg broken on the march to-day, by the kick of a mule. He was sent back to the rancho of Mr. Faxon. Distance 15 miles.
December 22.–Clear and pleasant. Being of the party which performed rear-guard duty to-day, with orders to bring in all stragglers, we did not leave camp until several hours after the main body had left. The horses of the caballada and the pack-animals were continually giving out and refusing to proceed. Parties of men, exhausted, lay down upon the ground, and it was with much urging, and sometimes with peremptory commands only, that they could be prevailed upon to proceed. The country bears the same marks of drought heretofore described, but fresh vegetation is now springing up and appears vigorous. A large horse-trail loading into one of the canadas of the mountains on our left was discovered by the scouts, and a party was dispatched to trace it. We passed one deserted rancho, and reached camp between nine and ten o’clock at night, having forced in all the men and most of the horses and pack-mules. Distance 15 miles.
December 23.–Rain fell steadily and heavily the entire day. A small party of men was in advance. Discovering in a brushy valley two Indians armed with bows and arrows, they were taken prisoners. Learning from them that there was a caballada of horses secreted in one of the canadas, they continued on about ten miles, and found about twenty-five fresh fat horses, belonging to a Californian now among the insurgents below. They were taken and delivered at the camp near the eastern base of the St. Ynes Mountain. Passed this morning a rancho inhabited by a foreigner, an Englishman.
December 24.–Cloudy and cool, with an occasional sprinkling rain. Our route to-day lay directly over the St. Ynes Mountain, by an elevated and most difficult pass. The height of this mountain is several thousand feet. We reached the summit about twelve o’clock, and, our company composing the advance-guard, we encamped about a mile and a half in advance of the main body of the battalion, at a point which overlooks the beautiful plain of Santa Barbara, of which, and the ocean beyond, we had a most extended and interesting view. With the spy-glass, we could see, in the plain far below us, herds of cattle quietly grazing upon the green herbage that carpets its gentle undulations. The plain is dotted with groves, surrounding the springs and belting the small water-courses, of which there are many flowing from this range of mountains. Ranchos are scattered far up and down the plain, but not one human being could be seen stirring. About ten or twelve miles to the south, the white towers of the mission of Santa Barbara raise themselves. Beyond is the illimitable waste of waters. A more lovely and picturesque landscape I never beheld. On the summit of the mountain, and surrounding us, there is a growth of hawthorn, manzinita (in bloom), and other small shrubbery. The rock is soft sandstone and conglomerate, immense masses of which, piled one upon another, form a wall along the western brow of the mountain, through which there is a single pass or gateway about eight or ten feet in width. The descent on the western side is precipitous, and appears almost impassable. Distance 4 miles.
December 25.–Christmas-day, and a memorable one to me. Owing to the difficulty in hauling the cannon up the steep acclivities of the mountain, the main body of the battalion did not come up with us until twelve o’clock, and before we commenced the descent of the mountain a furious storm commenced, raging with a violence rarely surpassed. The rain fell in torrents, and the wind blew almost with the force of a tornado. This fierce strife of the elements continued without abatement the entire afternoon, and until two o’clock at night. Driving our horses before us, we were compelled to slide down the steep and slippery rocks, or wade through deep gullies and ravines filled with mud and foaming torrents of water, that rushed downwards with such force as to carry along the loose rocks and tear up the trees and shrubbery by the roots. Many of the horses falling into the ravines refused to make an effort to extricate themselves, and were swept downwards and drowned. Others, bewildered by the fierceness and terrors of the storm, rushed or fell headlong over the steep precipices and were killed. Others obstinately refused to proceed, but stood quaking with fear or shivering with cold, and many of these perished in the night from the severity of the storm. The advance party did not reach the foot of the mountain and find a place to encamp until night–and a night of more impenetrable and terrific darkness I never witnessed. The ground upon which our camp was made, although sloping from the hills to a small stream, was so saturated with water that men as well as horses sunk deep at every step. The rain fell in such quantities, that fires with great difficulty could be lighted, and most of them were immediately extinguished.
The officers and men belonging to the company having the cannon in charge laboured until nine or ten o’clock to bring them down the mountain, but they were finally compelled to leave them. Much of the baggage also remained on the side of the mountain, with the pack-mules and horses conveying them, all efforts to force the animals down being fruitless. The men continued to straggle into the camp until a late hour of the night;–some crept under the shelving rocks and did not come in until the next morning. We were so fortunate as to find our tent, and after much difficulty pitched it under an oak-tree. All efforts to light a fire and keep it blazing proving abortive, we spread our blankets upon the ground and endeavoured to sleep, although we could feel the cold streams of water running through the tent and between and around our bodies.
In this condition we remained until about two o’clock in the morning, when the storm having abated I rose, and shaking from my garments the dripping water, after many unsuccessful efforts succeeded in kindling a fire. Near our tent I found three soldiers who had reached camp at a late hour. They were fast asleep on the ground, the water around them being two or three inches deep; but they had taken care to keep their heads above water, by using a log of wood for a pillow. The fire beginning to blaze freely, I dug a ditch with my hands and a sharp stick of wood, which drained off the pool surrounding the tent. One of the men, when he felt the sensation consequent upon being “high and dry,” roused himself, and, sitting upright, looked around for some time with an expression of bewildered amazement. At length he seemed to realize the true state of the case, and exclaimed, in a tone of energetic soliloquy,–
“Well, who wouldn’t be a soldier and fight for California?”
“You are mistaken,” I replied.
Rubbing his eyes, he gazed at me with astonishment, as if having been entirely unconscious of my presence; but, reassuring himself, he said:
“Why,” I answered, “you are not fighting for California.”
“What the d––l, then, am I fighting for?” he inquired.
“Texas be d––d; but hurrah for General Jackson!” and with this exclamation he threw himself back again upon his wooden pillow, and was soon snoring in a profound slumber.
Making a platform composed of sticks of wood upon the soft mud, I stripped myself to the skin, wringing the water from each garment as I proceeded. I then commenced drying them by the fire in the order that they were replaced upon my body, an employment that occupied me until daylight, which sign, above the high mountain to the east, down which we had rolled rather than marched yesterday, I was truly rejoiced to see. Distance 3 miles.
December 26.–Parties were detailed early this morning, and despatched up the mountain to bring down the cannon, and collect the living horses and baggage. The destruction of horse-flesh, by those who witnessed the scene by daylight, is described as frightful. In some places large numbers of dead horses were piled together. In others, horses half buried in the mud of the ravines, or among the rocks, were gasping in the agonies of death. The number of dead animals is variously estimated at from seventy-five to one hundred and fifty, by different persons. The cannon, most of the missing baggage, and the living horses, were all brought in by noon. The day was busily employed in cleansing our rifles and pistols, and drying our drenched baggage.
December 27.–Preparations were commenced early for the resumption of our march; but such was the condition of everything around us, that it was two o’clock, P.M., before the battalion was in readiness; and then so great had been the loss of horses in various ways, that the number remaining was insufficient to mount the men. One or two companies, and portions of others, were compelled to march on foot. We were visited during the forenoon by Mr. Sparks, an American, Dr. Den, an Irishman, and Mr. Burton, another American, residents of Santa Barbara. They had been suffered by the Californians to remain in the place. Their information communicated to us was, that the town was deserted of nearly all its population. A few houses only were occupied. Passing down a beautiful and fertile undulating plain, we encamped just before sunset in a live-oak grove, about half a mile from the town of Santa Barbara. Strict orders were issued by Col. Fremont, that the property and the persons of Californians, not found in arms, should be sacredly respected. To prevent all collisions, no soldier was allowed to pass the lines of the camp without special permission, or orders from his officers.
I visited the town before dark, but found the houses, with few exceptions, closed, and the streets deserted. After hunting about some time, we discovered a miserable dwelling, occupied by a shoemaker and his family, open. Entering it, we were very kindly received by its occupants, who, with a princely supply of civility, possessed but a beggarly array of comforts. At our request they provided for us a supper of tortillas, frijoles, and stewed carne seasoned with chile colorado, for which, paying them dos pesos for four, we bade them good evening, all parties being well satisfied. The family consisted, exclusive of the shoemaker, of a dozen women and children, of all ages. The women, from the accounts they had received of the intentions of the Americans, were evidently unprepared for civil treatment from them. They expected to be dealt with in a very barbarous manner, in all respects; but they were disappointed, and invited us to visit them again. Distance 8 miles.