What I Saw in California
By Edwin Bryant
Public Domain Books
Leave Los Angeles for San Francisco Don Andres Pico A Californian returning from the wars Domestic life at a rancho Women in favour of peace Hospitable treatment Fandango Singular custom Arrive at Santa Barbara Lost in a fog Valley of the Salinas Californians wanting Yankee wives High waters Arrive at San Francisco.
We left Los Angeles late in the afternoon of the 29th of January, with two Indian vaqueros, on miserable broken-down horses (the best we could obtain), and encamped at the deserted rancho at the foot of Couenga plain, where the treaty of peace had been concluded. After we had been here some time, two Indians came to the house, who had been sent by the proprietor of the rancho to herd the cattle. Having nothing to eat with us, a tempting offer prevailed upon the Indians to milk one of the cows; and we made our supper and our breakfast next morning on milk. Both of our Indian vaqueros deserted in the night, carrying with them sundry articles of clothing placed in their charge. A few days have made a great change in the appearance of the country. The fresh grass is now several inches in height, and many flowers are in bloom. The sky is bright, and the temperature is delightful.
On the 30th of January, leaving the mission of San Fernando on our right, at a distance of eight or ten miles, we followed the usually travelled trail next to the hills, on the western side of the plain. As we were passing near a rancho, a well-dressed Californian rode out to us, and, after examining the horses of our miserable caballada, politely claimed one of them as his property. He was told that the horse was drawn from the public caballada, at Los Angeles, and could not be given up. This seemed to satisfy him. After some further conversation, he informed us, that he was Don Andres Pico, the late leader and general of the Californians. The expression of his countenance is intelligent and prepossessing, and his address and manners courteous and pleasing. Shaking hands, and bidding us a very earnest adios, he put spurs to his horse and galloped away.
We were soon after overtaken by a young Californian, who appeared at first rather doubtful whether or not he should make our acquaintance. The ice being broken, however, he became very loquacious and communicative. He stated that he was returning to his home near Santa Barbara, from the wars, in which he had been engaged against his will. The language that he used was, that he, with many others of his acquaintances, were forced to take up arms by the leading men of the country. He was in the two battles of the 8th and 9th of January, below Los Angeles; and he desired never to be in any more battles. He was heartily rejoiced that there was peace, and hoped that there would never be any more wars. He travelled along with us until afternoon, when he fell behind, and we did not see him again until the next day.
After passing two or three deserted houses, we reached an inhabited rancho, situated at the extremity of a valley, and near a narrow gorge in the hills, about four o’clock, and, our jaded animals performing duty with reluctance, we determined to halt for the night, if the prospect of obtaining anything to eat (of which we stood in much need) was flattering. Riding up to the house, a small adobe, with one room, and a shed for a kitchen, the ranchero and the ranchera came out and greeted us with a hearty ’Buenas tardes, Senores, paisanos amigos,” shaking hands, and inviting us at the same time to alight and remain for the night, which invitation we accepted. The kind-hearted ranchera immediately set about preparing supper for us. An Indian muchacha was seated at the metate (hand-mill), which is one of the most important articles of the Californian culinary apparatus. While the muchacha ground, or rather crushed, the wheat between the stones, the ranchera, with a platter-shaped basket, cleansed it of dust, chaff, and all impure particles, by tossing the grain in the basket. The flour being manufactured and sifted through a cedazo, or coarse sieve, the labour of kneading the dough was performed by the muchacha. An iron plate was then placed over a rudely-constructed furnace, and the dough, being beaten by hand into tortillas (thin cakes), was baked upon this. What would American housewives say to such a system as this? The viands being prepared, they were set out upon a small table, at which we were invited to seat ourselves. The meal consisted of tortillas, stewed jerk beef, with chile seasoning, milk, and quesadillas, or cheesecakes, green and tough as leather. However, our appetites were excellent, and we enjoyed the repast with a high relish.
Our host and hostess were very inquisitive in regard to the news from below, and as to what would be the effects of the conquest of the country by the Americans. The man stated that he and all his family had refused to join in the late insurrection. We told them that all was peaceable now; that there would be no more wars in California; that we were all Americans, all Californians–hermanos, hermanas, amigos. They expressed their delight at this information by numerous exclamations.
We asked the woman how much the dress which she wore, a miserable calico, cost her? She answered, “Seis pesos” (six dollars). When we told her that in a short time, under the American government, she could purchase as good a one ’por un peso,” she threw up her hands in astonishment, expressing by her features at the same time the most unbounded delight. Her entire wardrobe was soon brought forth, and the price paid for every article named. She then inquired what would be the cost of similar clothing under the American government, which we told her. As we replied, exclamation followed upon exclamation, expressive of her surprise and pleasure, and the whole was concluded with ’Viva los Americanos–viva los Americanos!” I wore a large coarse woollen pea-jacket, which the man was very desirous to obtain, offering for it a fine horse. I declined the trade.
In the evening several of the brothers, sisters, and brothers and sisters-in-law of the family collected, and the guitar and violin, which were suspended from a beam in the house, were taken down, and we were entertained by a concert of instrumental and vocal music. Most of the tunes were such as are performed at fandangos. Some plaintive airs were played and sung with much pathos and expression, the whole party joining in the choruses. Although invited to occupy the only room in the house, we declined it, and spread our blankets on the outside.
The next morning (January 31st), when we woke, the sun was shining bright and warm, and the birds were singing gayly in the grove of evergreen oaks near the house. Having made ready to resume our journey, as delicately as possible we offered our kind hostess compensation for the trouble we had given her, which she declined, saying, that although they were not rich, they nevertheless had enough and to spare. We however insisted, and she finally accepted, with the condition that we would also accept of some of her quesadillas and tortillas to carry along with us. The ranchero mounted his horse and rode with us about three or four miles, to place us on the right trail, when, after inviting us very earnestly to call and see him again, and bidding us an affectionate adios, he galloped away.
Travelling over a hilly country, and passing the ruins of several deserted ranchos, the grounds surrounding which were strewn with the bones of slaughtered cattle, we reached, about five o’clock P.M., a cluster of houses in the valley of Santa Clara River, ten miles east of the mission of San Buenaventura. Here we stopped at the house of a man named Sanchez. Our arrival was thought to be worthy of notice, and it was accordingly celebrated in the evening by a fandango given at one of the houses, to which we were invited. The company, to the number of some thirty or forty persons, young and old, were assembled in the largest room of the house, the floor being hard clay. The only furniture contained in the room was a bed and some benches, upon which the company seated themselves when not engaged in dancing.
Among the senoritas assembled were two daughters of an American named Chapman, who has been a resident of the country for many years. They were fair-skinned, and might be called handsome. An elder and married sister was also present. They called themselves Americans, although they did not speak our language, and seemed to be more proud of their American than their Spanish blood.
A singular custom prevails at these fandangos. It is this: during the intervals between the waltzes, quadrilles, and other dances, when the company is seated, a young lady takes the floor solus, and, after showing off her graces for general observation a few minutes, she approaches any gentleman she may select, and performs a variety of pirouettes and other Terpsichorean movements before him for his especial amusement and admiration, until he places on her head his hat or cap, as the case may be, when she dances away with it. The hat or cap has afterwards to be redeemed by some present, and this usually is in money. Not dancing ourselves, we were favoured with numerous special exhibitions of this kind, the cost of each of which was un peso. With a long journey before us, and with purses in a nearly collapsed condition, the drafts upon us became so frequent, that at an early hour, under a plea of fatigue and want of rest, we thought it prudent to beat a retreat, leaving our fair and partial fandangueras to bestow their favours upon others better able to bear them. The motions of the Californian females of all classes in the dance are highly graceful. The waltz is their favourite measure, and in this they appear to excel as much as the men do in horsemanship. During the progress of the dance, the males and females improvise doggerel rhymes complimentary of the personal beauties and graces of those whom they admire, or expressive of their love and devotion, which are chanted with the music of the instruments, and the whole company join in the general chorus at the end of each verse. The din of voices is sometimes almost deafening.
Our host accompanied us to our lodgings on the opposite side of the way. Beds were spread down under the small porch outside, and we laid our bodies upon them, but not to sleep, for the noise of the fandango dancers kept us awake until broad daylight, at which time it broke up.
Hiring fresh horses here, and a vaquero to drive our tired animals after us, we started about 9 o’clock in the morning, and, passing through San Buenaventura, reached Santa Barbara, 45 miles, a little after two in the afternoon. We stopped at the house of Mr. Sparks, who received us with genuine hospitality. Santa Barbara presented a more lively appearance than when we passed here on our way down, most of its population having returned to their homes. Procuring fresh but miserably poor horses, we resumed our journey on the afternoon of the 2nd of February, and encamped at the rancho of Dr. Deu, situated on the plain of Santa Barbara, near the sea shore. The soil of this plain is of the most fertile composition. The fresh grass is now six or eight inches high, and the varieties are numerous. Many of the early flowers are in bloom. I noticed a large wheat field near the house, and its appearance was such as to promise a rich harvest.
The rain fell heavily on the morning of the 3rd, but continuing our journey we crossed the St. Ynes Mountain, and, passing the mission by that name, reached the rancho of Mr. Faxon after dark, where we halted for the night. Around the mission of St. Ynes I noticed, as we passed, immense quantities of cattle bones thickly strewn in all directions. Acres of ground were white with these remains of the immense herds belonging to this mission in the days of its prosperity, slaughtered for their hides and tallow. We met two or three elegantly dressed Californians to-day, who accosted us with much civility and apparent friendliness.
Mr. Faxon is an Englishman by birth, and has resided in California about thirty years. He is married to a Californian lady, and has a family of interesting and beautiful children. A large portion of the land belonging to his rancho is admirably adapted to agriculture, and he raises crops of corn and vegetables as well as wheat without irrigation. He informed me that the yield of wheat on his rancho was fully seventy bushels to the acre. Mr. F. showed me specimens of lead ore from which he moulds his bullets, taken from an inexhaustible mine in the Tular Valley, some fifty miles distant from this. It is certainly the richest ore that I have ever seen, appearing almost like the pure metal. He also showed me a caustic alkali, produced by burning a plant or shrub which grows in great abundance in the Tular Valley. This substance is used by him in the manufacture of soap.
About noon on the 4th, we halted at the rancho of Captain Dana, where we procured fresh horses, leaving our wretchedly lean and tired animals, and, proceeding on, stopped for the night at the rancho of Mr. Branch, an intelligent American, originally from the state of New York, who has been settled in the country a number of years. His rancho is situated on what is called the arroyo grande, a small stream which empties into the Pacific some two or three miles from the house. The house is new, and constructed after American models of farm-houses, with neat and comfortable apartments, chimneys and fireplaces. The arable lands here are finely adapted to the culture of maize, wheat, and potatoes.
Our horses straying, it was twelve o’clock on the 5th before we found them. The rain had fallen steadily and heavily all night, and during the forenoon, and was pouring down when we started. We passed through the mission of San Luis Obispo just before sunset, intending to halt at a rancho about three miles distant in a canada. But, the storm increasing in strength, it became suddenly so dark in the mountain-gorge, that we could not distinguish the trail, and, after wandering about some time, vainly attempting to find the house, we were compelled to bivouac, wet to our skins, without fire or shelter, and the rain pouring down in torrents.
The next morning (Feb. 6.), in hunting up our loose horses, we discovered the house about half a mile distant from our camp. Continuing our journey, we halted about nine o’clock at a rancho near the ruins of Santa Margarita. A solitary Indian was the only occupant of the house, and only inhabitant of the place; and he could furnish us with no food. Passing two or three other deserted ranches, we reached the house of a Mexican about one o’clock, where we obtained a meal of fried eggs and tortillas, after having been without food thirty hours. Late in the afternoon we arrived at the mission of San Miguel, now occupied by an Englishman named Reed, his mestiza wife, and one child, with two or three Indian vaqueros. Crossing the Salinas in the morning (Feb. 7), we continued down its eastern side, and encamped in a wide bottom under a large live oak. A quesadilla was all we had to eat. This was divided, one-half being reserved for breakfast. The fresh vegetation has so much changed the face of the country on this river since we passed along here in December, that I scarcely recognise it. The grass is six or eight inches high in the bottom, the blades standing so thick as to present a matted appearance, and the hills are brilliant with flowers–pink, purple, blue, and yellow.
On the 8th we continued down the eastern bank of the Salinas, passing through several large and fertile bottoms, and reaching the rancho of San Lorenzo about twelve o’clock. This rancho, as we learned from the proprietors, is owned by two bachelor brothers, one of whom told me that he had not been off his lands but once or twice for several years. Large herds of fat cattle and horses were grazing upon the luxuriant grasses of the plain, and there were several extensive inclosures sowed in wheat, which presented all the indications of an abundant harvest. But, with all these natural resources surrounding him the elder brother told us that he had nothing to eat in his house but fresh beef. A quantity of the choice pieces of a fat beef was roasted by an Indian boy, which we enjoyed with all the relish of hungry men. Our host, a gentleman of intelligence and politeness, made apology after apology for his rude style of living, a principal excuse being that he had no wife. He inquired, with apparent earnestness, if we could not send him two pretty accomplished and capable American women, whom they could marry; and then they would build a fine house, have bread, butter, cheese, and all the delicacies, luxuries, and elegancies of life in abundance. He appeared to be well pleased with the conquest of the country by the Americans, and desirous that they should not give it up. When we resumed our journey in the afternoon, he rode with us four or five miles to show us the way, and, on taking his leave, invited us to return again, when he said he hoped his accommodations would be much improved. Riding 15 miles, we halted at a tule-cabin, where we remained until two o’clock in the morning, when, the moon shining brightly, we mounted our horses, and continued our journey.
We reached the Monterey road just at daylight. My intention had been to visit Monterey; but the Salinas being unfordable, and there being no ferry, it was not possible to do it without swimming the river, which I did not feel inclined to do. Monterey is situated on the bay by that name, about 90 miles by water south of San Francisco. The bay affords a good anchorage and landing in calm weather, being exposed only to the northers, which blow violently. The town contains about 1500 inhabitants, and is rapidly increasing in wealth and population. Arriving at the rancho of Don Joaquin Gomez, we found no one but a mestiza servant at home, and could obtain nothing to eat but a quesadilla. All the streams, large and small, are much swollen by late heavy rains, and the travelling is consequently very laborious and difficult. Resting our horses a short time, we crossed the mountains, and reached the mission of San Juan Bautista about noon.
At San Juan we met with Messrs. Grayson, Boggs, and a party of volunteers returning from Monterey to San Francisco, having been discharged since the suppression of the rebellion in this part of California, headed by Francisco Sanchez. Here we learned, for the first time, the arrival at Monterey of Commodore Shubrick in the ship Independence, and of the Lexington with Captain Tomkins’s company of artillery, and freighted otherwise with munitions, stores, and tools necessary to the erection and defence of durable fortifications at Monterey and San Francisco.
Seven or eight miles beyond San Juan, we found that the waters of the arroyo had risen so as to inundate a wide valley which we were compelled to cross. After making several ineffectual attempts to reach the opposite side, wading through the water, and sometimes falling into deep holes from which it was difficult for either men or horses to extricate themselves, we encamped for the night on a small elevation in the valley, entirely surrounded by water. Our condition was miserable enough. Tired, wet, and hungry, we laid down for the night on the damp ground.
The next day (Feb. 10), about eleven o’clock, we succeeded in finding a ford across the valley and stream, and procured dinner at a soap-factory on the opposite side, belonging to T.O. Larkin, Esq. Continuing on, we encamped at a rancho occupied by an Englishman as mayor domo. He was very glad to see us, and treated us with unbounded hospitality, furnishing a superabundance of beef and frijoles for our consumption. On the 11th, about three P.M., we arrived at the Pueblo de San Josť, and, finding there a launch employed by Messrs. Howard and Mellus in collecting hides, bound for San Francisco, we embarked in her, and on the morning of the 13th arrived at that place. We found lying here the U.S. sloop Warren, and Lieutenant Radford politely furnished us with a boat to land. In the afternoon the Cyane, Commander Dupont, with Gen. Kearny on board, and the store-ship Erie, with Col. Mason on board, arrived in the harbour. Col. Mason is from the United States direct, via Panama, and brings late and interesting intelligence.
The Cyane and Warren have just returned from a cruise on the southern Pacific coast of Mexico. The town of Guymas had been taken by bombardment. The Cyane had captured, during her cruize, fourteen prizes, besides several guns at San Blas. The boats of the Warren, under the command of Lieut. Radford, performed the gallant feat of cutting out of the harbour of Mazatlan the Mexican schooner Malek Abdel.
Landing in San Francisco, I found my wardrobe, which I had deposited in the care of Capt. Leidesdorff, and the first time for nearly five months dressed myself in a civilized costume. Having been during that time almost constantly in motion, and exposed to many hardships and privations, it was, as may be supposed, no small satisfaction to find once more a place where I could repose for a short time at least.