What I Saw in California
By Edwin Bryant
Public Domain Books
City of Angels Gardens Vineyards Produce of the vine in California General products of the country Reputed personal charms of the females of Los Angeles San Diego Gold and quicksilver mines Lower California Bituminous springs Wines A Kentuckian among the angels Missions of San Gabriel and San Luis Rey Gen. Kearny and Com. Stockton leave for San Diego Col. Fremont appointed Governor of California by Com. Stockton Com. Shubrick’s arrival Insurrection in the northern part of California suppressed Arrival of Col. Cooke at San Diego.
La Ciudad de los Angeles is the largest town in California, containing between fifteen hundred and two thousand inhabitants. Its streets are laid out without any regard to regularity. The buildings are generally constructed of adobes one and two stories high, with flat roofs. The public buildings are a church, quartel, and government house. Some of the dwelling-houses are frames, and large. Few of them, interiorly or exteriorly, have any pretensions to architectural taste, finish, or convenience of plan and arrangement. The town is situated about 20 miles from the ocean, in a extensive undulating plain, bounded on the north by a ridge of elevated hills, on the east by high mountains whose summits are now covered with snow, on the west by the ocean, and stretching to the south and the south-east as far as the eye can reach. The Rio St. Gabriel flows near the town. This stream is skirted with numerous vineyards and gardens, inclosed by willow-hedges. The gardens produce a great variety of tropical fruits and plants. The yield of the vineyards is very abundant; and a large quantity of wines of a good quality and flavour, and aguardiénte, are manufactured here. Some of the vineyards, I understand, contain as many as twenty thousand vines. The produce of the vine in California will, undoubtedly, in a short time form an important item, in its exports and commerce. The soil and climate, especially of the southern portion of the country, appear to be peculiarly adapted to the culture of the grape.
We found in Los Angeles an abundance of maize, wheat, and frijoles, showing that the surrounding country is highly productive of these important articles of subsistence. There are no mills, however, in this vicinity, the universal practice of Californian families being to grind their corn by hand; and consequently flour and bread are very scarce, and not to be obtained in any considerable quantities. The only garden vegetables which I saw while here were onions, potatoes, and chile colorado, or red pepper, which enters very largely into the cuisineof the country. I do not doubt, however, that every description of garden vegetables can be produced here, in perfection and abundance.
While I remained at Los Angeles, I boarded with two or three other officers at the house of a Mexican Californian, the late alcalde of the town, whose political functions had ceased. He was a thin, delicate, amiable, and very polite gentleman, treating us with much courtesy, for which we paid him, when his bill was presented, a very liberal compensation. In the morning we were served, on a common deal table, with a cup of coffee and a plate of tortillas. At eleven o’clock, a more substantial meal was provided, consisting of stewed beef, seasoned with chile colorado, a rib of roasted beef, and a plate of frijoleswith tortillas, and a bottle of native wine. Our supper was a second edition of the eleven o’clock entertainment.
The town being abandoned by most of its population, and especially by the better class of the female portion of it, those who remained, which I saw, could not, without injustice, be considered as fair specimens of the angels, which are reputed here to inhabit. I did not happen to see one beautiful or even comely-looking woman in the place; but, as the fair descendants of Eve at Los Angeles have an exalted reputation for personal charms, doubtless the reason of the invisibility of the examples of feminine attractions, so far-famed and so much looked for by the sojourner, is to be ascribed to their “unavoidable absence,” on account of the dangers and casualties of war. At this time, of course, everything in regard to society, as it usually exists here, is in a state of confusion and disorganization, and no correct conclusions in reference to it can be drawn from observation under such circumstances.
The bay of San Pedro, about twenty-five miles south of Los Angeles, is the port of the town. The bay affords a good anchorage for vessels of any size; but it is not a safe harbour at all times, as I have been informed by experienced nautical men on this coast. San Gabriel River empties into the bay. The mission of San Gabriel is about twelve miles east of Los Angeles. It is represented as an extensive establishment of this kind, the lands surrounding and belonging to it being highly fertile. The mission of San Luis Rey is situated to the south, about midway between Los Angeles and San Diego. This mission, according to the descriptions which I have received of it, is more substantial and tasteful in its construction than any other in the country; and the gardens and grounds belonging to it are now in a high state of cultivation.
San Diego is the most southern town in Upper California. It is situated on the Bay of San Diego, in latitude 33° north. The country back of it is described by those who have travelled through it as sandy and arid, and incapable of supporting any considerable population. There are, however, it is reported on authority regarded as reliable, rich mines of quicksilver, copper, gold, and coal, in the neighbourhood, which, if such be the fact, will before long render the place one of considerable importance. The harbour, next to that of San Francisco, is the best on the Pacific coast of North America, between the Straits of Fuca and Acapulco.
For the following interesting account of Lower California I am indebted to Rodman M. Price, Esq., purser of the U.S. sloop-of-war Cyane, who has been connected with most of the important events which have recently taken place in Upper and Lower California, and whose observations and opinions are valuable and reliable. It will be seen that the observations of Mr. Price differ materially from the generally received opinions in reference to Lower California.
“Burlington, N.J., June 7, 1848.
“Dear Sir,–It affords me pleasure to give you all the information I have about Lower California, derived from personal observation at several of its ports that I have visited, in the U.S. ship Cyane, in 1846-47.
“Cape St. Lucas, the southern extremity of the peninsula of Lower California, is in lat. 22° 45’ N., has a bay that affords a good harbour and anchorage, perfectly safe nine months in the year; but it is open to the eastward, and the hurricanes which sometimes occur during July, August, and September, blow the strongest from the southeast, so that vessels will not venture in the bay during the hurricane season. I have landed twice at the Cape in a small boat, and I think a breakwater can be built, at small cost, so as to make a safe harbour at all seasons. Stone can be obtained with great ease from three cones of rocks rising from the sea, and forming the extreme southerly point of the Cape, called the Frayles. Looking to the future trade and commerce of the Pacific Ocean, this great headland must become a most important point as a dépôt for coal and merchandise, and a most convenient location for vessels trading on that coast to get their supplies. Mr. Ritchie, now residing there, supplies a large number of whale-ships that cruise off the Cape, annually, with fresh provisions, fruits, and water. The supplies are drawn from the valley of San José twenty miles north of the Cape, as the land in its immediate vicinity is mountainous and sterile; but the valley of San José is extensive and well cultivated, producing the greatest variety of vegetables and fruits. The sweet and Irish potato, tomato, cabbage, lettuce, beans, peas, beets, and carrots are the vegetables; oranges, lemons, bananas, plantains, figs, dates, grapes, pomegranates, and olives are its fruits. Good beef and mutton are cheap. A large amount of sugar-cane is grown, from which is made panoche, a favourite sugar with the natives; it is the syrup from the cane boiled down, and run into cakes of a pound weight, and in appearance is like our maple-sugar.
“Panoche, cheese, olives, raisins, dried figs, and dates, put up in ceroons of hide, with the great staples of the Californians–hides and tallow–make the export of San José, which is carried to San Blas and Mazatlan, on the opposite coast. This commerce the presence of the Cyane interrupted, finding and capturing in the Bay of La Paz, just after the receipt of the news of war on that coast in September, 1846, sixteen small craft, laid up during the stormy season, engaged in this trade.
“I cannot dismiss the valley of San José, from which the crew of the Cyane have drawn so many luxuries, without alluding to the never-failing stream of excellent water that runs through it (to which it owes its productiveness) and empties into the Gulf here, and is easily obtained for shipping when the surf is low. It is now frequented by some of our whale ships, and European vessels bound to Mazatlan with cargoes usually stop here to get instructions from their consignees before appearing off the port; but vessels do not anchor during the three hurricane months. The view from seaward, up this valley, is beautiful indeed, being surrounded by high barren mountains, which is the general appearance of the whole peninsula, and gives the impression that the whole country is without soil, and unproductive. When your eye gets a view of this beautiful, fertile, cultivated, rich, green valley, producing all the fruits and vegetables of the earth, Lower California stock rises. To one that has been at sea for months, on salt grub, the sight of this bright spot of cultivated acres, with the turkeys, ducks, chickens, eggs, vegetables, and fruit, makes him believe the country an Eldorado. Following up the coast on the Gulf side, after passing Cape Polmo, good anchorage is found between the peninsula and the island of Cerralbo. Immediately to the north of this island is the entrance to the great and beautiful bay of La Paz. It has two entrances, one to the north and one to the south of the island of Espiritu Santo. The northern one is the boldest and safest for all craft drawing over twelve feet. The town of La Paz is at the bottom or south side of the bay, about twenty miles from the mouth. The bay is a large and beautiful sheet of water. The harbour of Pichelinque, of perfect mill-pond stillness, is formed inside of this bay. The Cyane lay at this quiet anchorage several days.
“Pearl-fishing is the chief employment of the inhabitants about the bay, and the pearls are said to be of superior quality. I was shown a necklace, valued at two thousand dollars, taken in this water. They are all found by diving. The Yake Indians are the best divers, going down in eight-fathom water. The pearl shells are sent to China, and are worth, at La Paz, one dollar and a half the arroba, or twenty-five pounds. Why it is a submarine diving apparatus has not been employed in this fishery, with all its advantages over Indian diving, I cannot say. Yankee enterprise has not yet reached this new world. I cannot say this either, as a countryman of ours, Mr. Davis, living at Loretta, has been a most successful pearl-fisher, employing more Indians than any one else engaged in the business. I am sorry to add that he has suffered greatly by the war. The country about La Paz is a good grazing country, but very dry. The mountains in the vicinity are said to be very rich in minerals. Some silver mines near San Antonio, about forty miles south, are worked, and produce well. La Paz may export one hundred thousand dollars a-year of platapina. Gold-dust and virgin gold are brought to La Paz. The copper and lead mines are numerous and rich. To the north of La Paz are numerous safe and good harbours. Escondida, Loretta, and Muleje are all good harbours, formed by the islands in front of the main land.
“The island of Carmen, lying in front of Loretta, has a large salt lake, which has a solid salt surface of several feet thickness. The salt is of good quality, is cut out like ice, and it could supply the world. It has heretofore been a monopoly to the governor of Lower California, who employed convicts to get out the salt and put it on the beach ready for shipping. It is carried about a quarter of a mile, and is sent to Mazatlan and San Blas. A large quantity of salt is used in producing silver. To the north of Muleje, which is nearly opposite Guymas, the gulf is so much narrower that it is a harbour itself. No accurate survey has ever been made of it–indeed, all the peninsula, as well as the coast of Upper California, is laid down wrong on the charts, being about twelve miles too far easterly. The English Government now have two naval ships engaged in surveying the Gulf of California.
“On the Pacific coast of the peninsula there is the great Bay of Magdalena, which has fine harbours, but no water, provisions, or inhabitants. Its shores are high barren mountains, said to possess great mineral wealth. A fleet of whale-ships have been there during the winter months of the last two years, for a new species of whale that are found there, represented as rather a small whale, producing forty or fifty barrels of oil; and, what is most singular, I was assured, by most respectable whaling captains, that the oil is a good paint-oil (an entire new quality for fish-oil). Geographically and commercially, Lower California must become very valuable. It will be a constant source of regret to this country, that it is not included in the treaty of peace just made with Mexico. We have held and governed it during the war, and the boundary of Upper California cuts the head of the Gulf of California, so that Lower California is left entirely disconnected with the Mexican territory.
“Cape St. Lucas is the great headland of the Pacific Ocean, and is destined to be the Gibraltar and entrepot of that coast, or perhaps La Paz may be preferred, on account of its superior harbour. As a possession to any foreign power, I think Lower California more valuable than the group of the Sandwich Islands. It has as many arable acres as that group of islands, with rich mines, pearl-fishing, fine bays and harbours, with equal health, and all their productions. As a country, it is dry, mountainous, and sterile, yet possessing many fine valleys like San José, as the old mission establishments indicate. I have heard Todas Santos, Commondee, Santa Guadalupe, and others, spoken of as being more extensive, and as productive as San José.
“I am, most faithfully and truly, yours,
“Rodman M. Price.”
In the vicinity of Los Angeles there are a number of warm springs which throw out and deposit large quantities of bitumen or mineral tar. This substance, when it cools, becomes hard and brittle like resin. Around some of these springs many acres of ground are covered with this deposit to the depth of several feet. It is a principal material in the roofing of houses. When thrown upon the fire, it ignites immediately, emitting a smoke like that from turpentine, and an odour like that from bituminous coal. This mineral, so abundant in California, may one day become a valuable article of commerce.
There are no reliable statistics in California. The traveller is obliged to form his estimate of matters and things chiefly from his own observation. You can place but little reliance upon information derived from the population, even when they choose to answer your questions; and most generally the response to your inquiries is–”Quien sabe?“ (who knows?) No Californian troubles his brains about these matters. The quantity of wines and aguardiénte produced by the vineyards and distilleries, at and near Los Angeles, must be considerable–basing my estimate upon the statement of Mr. Wolfskill, an American gentleman residing here, and whose house and vineyard I visited. Mr. W.’s vineyard is young, and covers about forty acres of ground, the number of vines being 4,000 or 5,000. From the produce of these, he told me, that last year he made 180 casks of wine, and the same quantity of aguardiénte. A cask here is sixteen gallons. When the vines mature, their produce will be greatly increased. Mr. W.’s vineyard is doubtless a model of its kind. It was a delightful recreation to stroll through it, and among the tropical fruit-trees bordering its walks. His house, too, exhibited an air of cleanliness and comfort, and a convenience of arrangement not often met with in this country. He set out for our refreshment three or four specimens of his wines, some of which would compare favourably with the best French and Madeira wines. The aguardiénte and peach-brandy, which I tasted, of his manufacture, being mellowed by age, were of an excellent flavour. The quantity of wine and aguardiénte produced in California, I would suppose, amounted to 100,000 casks of sixteen gallons, or 1,600,000 gallons. This quantity by culture can be increased indefinitely.
It was not possible to obtain at Los Angeles a piece of woollen cloth sufficiently large for a pair of pantaloons, or a pair of shoes, which would last a week. I succeeded, after searching through all the shops of the town, in procuring some black cotton velvet, for four yards of which I paid the sum of 12 dollars. In the United States the same article would probably have cost 1.50 dollar. For four dollars more I succeeded in getting the pantaloons made up by an American tailor, who came into the country with General Kearny’s forces. A Rocky Mountain trapper and trader (Mr. Goodyear), who has established himself near the Salt Lake since I passed there last year, fortunately arrived at Los Angeles, bringing with him a quantity of dressed deer and elk skins, which were purchased for clothing for the nearly naked soldiers.
Among the houses I visited while here, was that of Mr. Pryor, an American, and a native of Louisville, Ky. He has been a resident of the country between twenty and thirty years, but his Kentucky manners, frankness, and hospitality still adhere to him.
I remained at Los Angeles from the 14th to the 29th of January. During this time, with the exception of three days, the weather and temperature were pleasant. It rained one day, and during two days the winds blew strong and cold from the north-west. The nights are cool, but fires are not requisite to comfort. The snow-clad mountains, about twenty-five or thirty miles to the east of us, contrast singularly with the brilliant fresh verdure of the plain.
On the 18th of January General Kearny, with the dragoons, left for San Diego. There was understood to be a difference between General Kearny and Commodore Stockton, and General Kearny and Colonel Fremont, in regard to their respective powers and duties; which, as the whole subject has subsequently undergone a thorough investigation, and the result made public, it is unnecessary for me to allude to more particularly. I did not converse with General Kearny while he was at Los Angeles, and consequently possessed no other knowledge of his views and intentions, or of the powers with which he had been invested by the President, than what I derived from report.
On the 19th, Commodore Stockton and suite, with a small escort, left for San Diego. Soon after his departure the battalion was paraded, and the appointment of Colonel Fremont as governor of California, and Colonel W.H. Russell, as secretary of state, by Commodore Stockton, was read to them by Colonel Russell. It was announced, also, that, although Colonel Fremont had accepted the office of chief civil magistrate of California, he would still retain his military office, and command the battalion as heretofore.
Commodore Shubrick, however, arrived at Monterey on the 23rd of January, in the U.S. ship Independence, and, ranking above Commodore Stockton, assumed the chief command, as appears by the date of a general order published at Monterey, and written on board the United States ship Independence, on February 1st, thanking the volunteers for their services, and announcing the restoration of order. For I should state that an insurrection, headed by Don Francisco Sanchez, had broken out in the upper portion of California some time towards the last of December, which had been put down by a detachment of marines and volunteers. The insurgents had committed some outrages, and among other acts had taken prisoner Lieutenant W.A. Bartlett, acting Alcalde of San Francisco, with some other Americans. An account of the suppression of this affair I find in the “Californian” newspaper of February 6th, 1847, from which it appears, “that a party of one hundred and one men, commanded by Captain Ward Marston, of the United States marines, marched from San Francisco on the 29th December in search of the enemy, whom they discovered on the 2nd of January, about one hundred in number, on the plains of Santa Clara, under the command of Francisco Sanchez. An attack was immediately ordered. The enemy was forced to retire, which they were able to do in safety, after some resistance, in consequence of their superior horses. The affair lasted about an hour, during which time we had one marine slightly wounded in the head, one volunteer of Captain Weber’s command in the leg; and the enemy had one horse killed, and some of their forces supposed to be killed or wounded. In the evening the enemy sent in a flag of truce, with a communication, requesting an interview with the commanding officer of the expedition the next day, which was granted, when an armistice was entered into, preparatory to a settlement of the difficulties. On the 3rd, the expedition was reinforced by the mounted Monterey volunteers, fifty-five men, under the command of Captain W.A.T. Maddox, and on the 7th, by the arrival of Lieutenant Grayson with fifteen men, attached to Captain Maddox’s company. On the 8th a treaty was concluded, by which the enemy surrendered Lieutenant Bartlett, and the other prisoners, as well as all their arms, including one small field-piece, their ammunition and accoutrements, and were permitted to return peaceably to their homes, and the expedition to their respective posts.”
A list of the expedition which marched from San Francisco is given as follows:–Captain Ward Marston, commandant; Assistant-surgeon J. Duval, aide-de-camp. A detachment of United States marines, under command of Lieutenant Tansil, thirty-four men; artillery, consisting of one field-piece, under the charge of Master William F. De Iongh, assisted by Mid. John M. Kell, ten men; Interpreter John Pray; mounted company of San José volunteers, under command of Captain C.M. Weber, Lieutenant John Murphy, and acting Lieutenant John Reed, thirty-three men; mounted company of Yerba Buena volunteers, under command of Captain William M. Smith, Lieutenant John Rose, with a small detachment under Captain J. Martin, twelve men.
Thus ended the insurrections, if resistance against invasion can properly be so called, in Upper California.
On the 20th January, the force of sailors and marines which had marched with Commodore Stockton and General Kearny left Los Angeles, to embark at San Pedro for San Diego. On the 21st a national salute was fired by the artillery company belonging to the battalion, in honour of Governor Fremont. On the 22nd, letters were received from San Diego, stating that Colonel Cooke, who followed General Kearny from Santa Fé with a force of four hundred Mormon volunteers, had reached the neighbourhood of that place. Having applied for my discharge from the battalion as soon as we reached Los Angeles, I received it on the 29th, on which day, in company with Captain Hastings, I set out on my return to San Francisco, designing to leave that place on the first favourable opportunity for the United States.