What I Saw in California
By Edwin Bryant

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Journey From Arkansas to California.

The following general view of the nature of the country which divides the United States from California is taken from a narrative, published by Lieutenant Emory, of a journey from the Arkansas to the newly annexed territory of the United States.

“The country,” says the lieutenant, “from the Arkansas to the Colorado, a distance of over 1200 miles, in its adaptation to agriculture, has peculiarities which must for ever stamp itself upon the population which inhabits it. All North Mexico, embracing New Mexico, Chihuahua, Sonora, and the Californias, as far north as the Sacramento, is, as far as the best information goes, the same in the physical character of its surface, and differs but little in climate and products. In no part of this vast tract can the rains from heaven be relied upon, to any extent, for the cultivation of the soil. The earth is destitute of trees, and in great part also of any vegetation whatever. A few feeble streams flow in different directions from the great mountains, which in many places traverse this region. These streams are separated, sometimes by plains, and sometimes by mountains, without water and without vegetation, and may be called deserts, so far as they perform any useful part in the sustenance of animal life.

“The whole extent of country, except on the margin of streams, is destitute of forest trees. The Apaches, a very numerous race, and the Navajoes, are the chief occupants, but there are many minor bands, who, unlike the Apaches and Navajoes, are not nomadic, but have fixed habitations. Amongst the most remarkable of these are the Soones, most of whom are said to be Albinoes. The latter cultivate the soil, and live in peace with their more numerous and savage neighbours. Departing from the ford of the Colorado in the direction of Sonora, there is a fearful desert to encounter. Alter, a small town, with a Mexican garrison, is the nearest settlement. All accounts concur in representing the journey as one of extreme hardship, and even peril. The distance is not exactly known, but it is variously represented at from four to seven days’ journey. Persons bound for Sonora from California, who do not mind a circuitous route, should ascend the Gila as far as the Pimos village, and thence penetrate the province by way of Tucson. At the ford, the Colorado is 1,500 feet wide, and flows at the rate of a mile and a half per hour. Its greatest depth in the channel, at the ford where we crossed, is four feet. The banks are low, not more than four feet high, and, judging from indications, sometimes, though not frequently, overflowed. Its general appearance at this point is much like that of the Arkansas, with its turbid waters and shifting sand islands.”

The narrative of Lieut. Emory, of his journey from this point across the Desert of California, becomes highly interesting and characteristic.

November 26.–The dawn of day found every man on horseback, and a bunch of grass from the Colorado tied behind him on the cantle of his saddle. After getting well under way, the keen air at 26° Fahrenheit made it most comfortable to walk. We travelled four miles along the sand butte, in a southern direction; we mounted the buttes and found a firmer footing covered with fragments of lava, rounded by water, and many agates. We were now fairly on the desert.

“Our course now inclined a few degrees more to the north, and at 10, A.M., we found a large patch of grama, where we halted for an hour, and then pursued our way over the plains covered with fragments of lava, traversed at intervals by sand buttes, until 4, P.M., when, after travelling 24 miles, we reached the Alamo or cotton-wood. At this point, the Spaniards informed us, that, failing to find water, they had gone a league to the west, in pursuit of their horses, where they found a running stream. We accordingly sent parties to search, but neither the water nor their trail could be found. Neither was there any cotton-wood at the Alamo, as its name would signify; but it was nevertheless the place, the tree having probably been covered by the encroachments of the sand, which here terminates in a bluff 40 feet high, making the arc of a great circle convexing to the north. Descending this bluff, we found in what had been the channel of a stream, now overgrown with a few ill-conditioned mesquite, a large hole where persons had evidently dug for water. It was necessary to halt to rest our animals, and the time was occupied in deepening this hole, which, after a strong struggle, showed signs of water. An old champagne basket, used by one of the officers as a pannier, was lowered in the hole, to prevent the crumbling of the sand. After many efforts to keep out the caving sand, a basket-work of willow twigs effected the object, and, much to the joy of all, the basket, which was now 15 or 20 feet below the surface, filled with water. The order was given for each mess to draw a kettle of water, and Captain Turner was placed in charge of the spring, to see fair distribution.

“When the messes were supplied, the firmness of the banks gave hopes that the animals might be watered, and each party was notified to have their animals in waiting; the important business of watering then commenced, upon the success of which depended the possibility of their advancing with us a foot further. Two buckets for each animal were allowed. At 10, A.M., when my turn came, Captain Moore had succeeded, by great exertions, in opening another well, and the one already opened began to flow more freely, in consequence of which, we could afford to give each animal as much as it could drink. The poor brutes, none of which had tasted water in forty-eight hours, and some not for the last sixty, clustered round the well and scrambled for precedence. At 12 o’clock I had watered all my animals, thirty-seven in number, and turned over the well to Captain Moore. The animals still had an aching void to fill, and all night was heard the munching of sticks, and their piteous cries for more congenial food.

November 27 and 28.–To-day we started a few minutes after sunrise. Our course was a winding one, to avoid the sand-drifts. The Mexicans had informed us that the waters of the salt lake, some thirty or forty miles distant, were too salt to use, but other information led us to think the intelligence was wrong. We accordingly tried to reach it; about 3, P.M., we disengaged ourselves from the sand, and went due (magnetic) west, over an immense level of clay detritus, hard and smooth as a bowling-green. The desert was almost destitute of vegetation; now and then an Ephedra, Oenothera, or bunches of Aristida were seen, and occasionally the level was covered with a growth of Obione canescens, and a low bush with small oval plaited leaves, unknown. The heavy sand had proved too much for many horses and some mules, and all the efforts of their drivers could bring them no further than the middle of this desert. About 8 o’clock, as we approached the lake, the stench of dead animals confirmed the reports of the Mexicans, and put to flight all hopes of being able to use the water.

“The basin of the lake, as well as I could judge at night, is about three-quarters of a mile long and half a mile wide. The water had receded to a pool, diminished to one half its size, and the approach to it, was through a thick soapy quagmire. It was wholly unfit for man or brute, and we studiously kept the latter from it, thinking that the use of it would but aggravate their thirst. One or two of the men came in late, and, rushing to the lake, threw themselves down and took many swallows before discovering their mistake; but the effect was not injurious except that it increased their thirst. A few mezquite trees and a chenopodiaceous shrub bordered the lake, and on these our mules munched till they had sufficiently refreshed themselves, when the call to saddle was sounded, and we groped silently our way in the dark. The stoutest animals now began to stagger, and when day dawned scarcely a man was seen mounted.

“With the sun rose a heavy fog from the south-west, no doubt from the gulf, and, sweeping towards us, enveloped us for two or three hours, wetting our blankets and giving relief to the animals. Before it had disappeared we came to a patch of sun-burned grass. When the fog had entirely dispersed we found ourselves entering a gap in the mountains, which had been before us for four days. The plain was crossed, but we had not yet found water. The first valley we reached was dry, and it was not till 12 o’clock, M., that we struck the Cariso (cane) creek, within half a mile of one of its sources, and although so close to the source, the sands had already absorbed much of its water, and left but little running. A mile or two below, the creek entirely disappears. We halted, having made fifty-four miles in the two days, at the source, a magnificent spring, twenty or thirty feet in diameter, highly impregnated with sulphur, and medicinal in its properties.

“The desert over which we had passed, ninety miles from water to water, is an immense triangular plain, bounded on one side by the Colorado, on the west by the Cordilleras of California, the coast chain of mountains which now encircles us, extending from the Sacramento river to the southern extremity of Lower California, and on the north-east by a chain of mountains, running southeast and northwest. It is chiefly covered with floating sand, the surface of which in various places is white, with diminutive spinelas, and everywhere over the whole surface is found the large and soft muscle shell. I have noted the only two patches of grass found during the ’jornada.’ There were scattered, at wide intervals, the Palafoxia linearis, Atriplex, Encelia farinosa, Daleas, Euphorbias, and a Simsia, described by Dr. Torrey as a new species.

“The southern termination of this desert is bounded by the Tecaté chain of mountains and the Colorado; but its northern and eastern boundaries are undefined, and I should suppose from the accounts of trappers, and others, who have attempted the passage from California to the Gila by a more northern route, that it extends many days’ travel beyond the chain of barren mountains which bound the horizon in that direction. The portal to the mountains through which we passed was formed by immense buttes of yellow clay and sand, with large flakes of mica and seams of gypsum. Nothing could be more forlorn and desolate in appearance. The gypsum had given some consistency to the sand buttes, which were washed into fantastic figures. One ridge formed apparently a complete circle, giving it the appearance of a crater; and although some miles to the left, I should have gone to visit it, supposing it to be a crater, but my mule was sinking with thirst, and water was yet at some distance. Many animals were left on the road to die of thirst and hunger, in spite of the generous efforts of the men to bring them to the spring. More than one was brought up, by one man tugging at the halter and another pushing up the brute, by placing his shoulder against its buttocks. Our most serious loss, perhaps, was that of one or two fat mares and colts brought with us for food; for, before leaving camp, Major Swords found in a concealed place one of the best pack mules slaughtered, and the choice bits cut from his shoulders and flanks, stealthily done by some mess less provident than others.

Nov. 29.–The grass at the spring was anything but desirable for our horses, and there was scarcely a ration left for the men. This last consideration would not prevent our giving the horses a day’s rest wherever grass could be found. We followed the dry sandy bed of the Cariso nearly all day, at a snail’s pace, and at length reached the ’little pools’ where the grass was luxuriant but very salt. The water strongly resembled that at the head of the Cariso creek, and the earth, which was very tremulous for many acres about the pools, was covered with salt. This valley is not more than half a mile wide, and on each side are mountains of grey granite and pure quartz, rising from 1,000 to 3,000 feet above it.

“We rode for miles through thickets of the centennial plant, Agave Americana, and found one in full bloom. The sharp thorns terminating every leaf of this plant were a great annoyance to our dismounted and wearied men, whose legs were now almost bare. A number of these plants were cut by the soldiers, and the body of them used as food. The day was intensely hot, and the sand deep; the animals, inflated with water and rushes, gave way by scores; and although we advanced only sixteen miles, many did not arrive at camp until 10 o’clock at night. It was a feast day for the wolves, which followed in packs close on our track, seizing our deserted brutes, and making the air resound with their howls as they battled for the carcases.

December 12.–We followed the Solidad through a deep fertile valley in the shape of a cross. Here we ascended to the left a steep hill to the table lands, which, keeping for a few miles, we descended into a waterless valley, leading into False Bay at a point distant two or three miles from San Diego. At this place we were in view of the fort overlooking the town of San Diego and the barren waste which surrounds it.

“The town consists of a few adobe houses, two or three of which only have plank floors. It is situated at the foot of a high hill on a sand flat, two miles wide, reaching from the head of San Diego Bay to False Bay. A high promontory, of nearly the same width, runs into the sea four or five miles, and is connected by the flat with the main land. The road to the hide-houses leads on the east side of this promontory, and abreast of them the frigate Congress and the sloop Portsmouth are at anchor. The hide-houses are a collection of store-houses where the hides of cattle are packed before being shipped, this article forming the only trade of the little town.

“The bay is a narrow arm of the sea indenting the land some four or five miles, easily defended, and having twenty feet of water at the lowest tide. The rise is five feet, making the greatest water twenty-five feet.

“Standing on the hill which overlooks the town, and looking to the north-east, I saw the mission of San Diego, a fine large building now deserted. The Rio San Diego runs under ground in a direct course from the mission to the town, and, sweeping around the hill, discharges itself into the bay. Its original debouche was into False bay, where, meeting the waters rolling in from the seaward, a bar was formed by the deposit of sand, making the entrance of False Bay impracticable.

January 2.–Six and a half miles’ march brought us to the deserted mission of San Luis Rey. The keys of this mission were in charge of the alcalde of the Indian village, a mile distant. He was at the door to receive us and deliver up possession. There we halted for the day, to let the sailors, who suffered dreadfully from sore feet, recruit a little. This building is one which, for magnitude, convenience, and durability of architecture, would do honour to any country.

“The walls are adobe, and the roofs of well-made tile. It was built about sixty years since by the Indians of the country, under the guidance of a zealous priest. At that time the Indians were very numerous, and under the absolute sway of the missionaries. These missionaries at one time bid fair to christianize the Indians of California. Under grants from the Mexican government, they collected them into missions, built immense houses, and began successfully to till the soil by the hands of the Indians for the benefit of the Indians.

“The habits of the priests, and the avarice of the military rulers of the territory, however, soon converted these missions into instruments of oppression and slavery of the Indian race.

“The revolution of 1836 saw the downfall of the priests, and most of these missions passed by fraud into the hands of private individuals, and with them the Indians were transferred as serfs of the land.

“This race, which, in our country, has never been reduced to slavery, is in that degraded condition throughout California, and does the only labour performed in the country. Nothing can exceed their present degradation.”

The general closing remarks of Lieutenant Emory are as follow:

“The region extending from the head of the Gulf of California to the parallel of the Pueblo, or Ciudad de los Angeles, is the only portion not heretofore covered by my own notes and journal, or by the notes and journals of other scientific expeditions fitted out by the United States. The journals and published accounts of these several expeditions combined will give definite ideas of all those portions of California susceptible of cultivation or settlement. From this remark is to be excepted the vast basin watered by the Colorado, and the country lying between that river and the range of Cordilleras, represented as running east of the Tulare lakes, and south of the parallel of 36°, and the country between the Colorado and Gila rivers.

“Of these regions nothing is known except from the reports of trappers, and the speculations of geologists. As far as these accounts go, all concur in representing it as a waste of sand and rock, unadorned with vegetation, poorly watered, and unfit, it is believed, for any of the useful purposes of life. A glance at the map will show what an immense area is embraced in these boundaries; and, notwithstanding the oral accounts in regard to it, it is difficult to bring the mind to the belief in the existence of such a sea of waste and desert; when every other grand division of the earth presents some prominent feature in the economy of nature, administering to the wants of man. Possibly this unexplored region may be filled with valuable minerals.

“Where irrigation can be had in this country, the produce of the soil is abundant beyond description. All the grains and fruits of the temperate zones, and many of those of the tropical, flourish luxuriantly. Descending from the heights of San Barnardo to the Pacific one meets every degree of temperature. Near the coast, the winds prevailing from the south-west in winter, and from the north-west in summer, produce a great uniformity of temperature, and the climate is perhaps unsurpassed in salubrity. With the exception of a very few cases of ague and fever of a mild type, sickness is unknown.

“The season of the year at which we visited the country was unfavourable to obtaining a knowledge of its botany. The vegetation, mostly deciduous, had gone to decay, and no flowers nor seeds were collected. The country generally is entirely destitute of trees. Along the principal range of the mountains are a few live oaks, sycamore and pine; now and then, but very rarely, the sycamore and cotton-wood occur in the champaign country, immediately on the margins of the streams. Wild oats everywhere cover the surface of the hills, and these, with the wild mustard and carrots, furnish good pasturage to the immense herds of cattle which form the staple of California. Of the many fruits capable of being produced with success, by culture and irrigation, the grape is perhaps that which is brought nearest to perfection. Experienced wine-growers and Europeans, pronounce this portion of California unequalled for the quality of its wines.”


Chapter I.  •  Chapter II.  •  Chapter III.  •  Chapter IV.  •  Chapter V.  •  Chapter VI.  •  Chapter VII.  •  Chapter VIII.  •  Chapter IX.  •  Chapter X.  •  Chapter XI.  •  Chapter XII.  •  Chapter XIII.  •  Chapter XIV.  •  Chapter XV.  •  Chapter XVI.  •  Chapter XVII.  •  Chapter XVIII.  •  Appendix.  •  Journey From Arkansas to California.  • 

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What I Saw in California
By Edwin Bryant
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