What I Saw in California
By Edwin Bryant
Public Domain Books
Climate of San Francisco Periodical winds Dine on board the Portsmouth A supper party on shore Arrival of Commodore Stockton at San Francisco Rumours of rebellion from the south Californian court Trial by jury Fandango Californian belles American pioneers of the Pacific Reception of Commodore Stockton Sitca Captain Fremont leaves San Francisco for the south Offer our services as volunteers.
From the 21st of September to the 13th of October I remained at San Francisco. The weather during this period was uniformly clear. The climate of San Francisco is peculiar and local, from its position. During the summer and autumnal months, the wind on this coast blows from the west and northwest, directly from the ocean. The mornings here are usually calm and pleasantly warm. About twelve o’clock M., the wind blows strong from the ocean, through the entrance of the bay, rendering the temperature cool enough for woollen clothing in midsummer. About sunset the wind dies away, and the evenings and nights are comparatively calm. In the winter months the wind blows in soft and gentle breezes from the south-east, and the temperature is agreeable, the thermometer rarely sinking below 50 deg. When the winds blow from the ocean, it never rains; when they blow from the land, as they do during the winter and spring months, the weather is showery, and resembles that of the month of May in the same latitude on the Atlantic coast. The coolness of the climate and briskness of the air above described are confined to particular positions on the coast, and the description in this respect is not applicable to the interior of the country, nor even to other localities immediately on the coast.
On the 21st, by invitation of Captain Montgomery, I dined on board of the sloop-of-war Portsmouth. The party, including myself, consisted of Colonel Russell, Mr. Jacob, Lieutenant Bartlett, and a son of Captain M. There are few if any officers in our navy more highly and universally esteemed, for their moral qualities and professional merits, than Captain M. He is a sincere Christian, a brave officer, and an accomplished gentleman. Under the orders of Commodore Sloat, he first raised the American flag in San Francisco. We spent the afternoon most agreeably, and the refined hospitality, courteous manners, and intelligent and interesting conversation of our host made us regret the rapidly fleeting moments. The wines on the table were the produce of the vine of California, and, having attained age, were of an excellent quality in substance and flavour.
I attended a supper-party given this evening by Mr. Frank Ward. The party was composed of citizens of the town, and officers of the navy and the merchant and whale ships in the harbour. In such a company as was here assembled, it was very difficult for me to realize that I was many thousand miles from, home, in a strange and foreign country. All the faces about me were American, and there was nothing in scene or sentiment to remind the guests of their remoteness from their native shores. Indeed, it seems to be a settled opinion, that California is henceforth to compose a part of the United States, and every American who is now here considers himself as treading upon his own soil, as much as if he were in one of the old thirteen revolutionary states. Song, sentiment, story, and wit heightened the enjoyments of the excellent entertainment of our host, and the jovial party did not separate until a late hour of the night. The guests, as may be supposed, were composed chiefly of gentlemen who had, from their pursuits, travelled over most of the world–had seen developments of human character under every variety of circumstance, and observed society, civilized, barbarous, and savage, in all its phases. Their conversation, therefore, when around the convivial board, possessed an unhackneyed freshness and raciness highly entertaining and instructive.
On the 27th of September, the U.S. frigate Congress, Captain Livingston, bearing the broad pennant of Commodore Stockton, and the U.S. frigate Savannah, Captain Mervine, anchored in the harbour, having sailed from Monterey a day or two previously. The arrival of these large men-of-war produced an increase of the bustle in the small town. Blue coats and bright buttons (the naval uniform) became the prevailing costume at the billiard-rooms and other public places, and the plain dress of a private citizen might be regarded as a badge of distinction.
On the 1st of October a courier arrived from the south with intelligence that the Californians at Los Angeles had organized a force and rebelled against the authority of the Americans–that they had also captured an American merchant-vessel lying at San Pedro, the port of the city of Angels, about thirty miles distant, and robbed it of a quantity of merchandise and specie. Whether this latter report was or was not true, I do not know–the former was correct. The frigate Savannah sailed for Los Angeles immediately.
Among those American naval officers whose agreeable acquaintance I made at San Francisco, was Mr. James F. Schenck, first-lieutenant of the frigate Congress, brother of the distinguished member of congress from Ohio of that name,–a native of Dayton, Ohio,–a gentleman of intelligence, keen wit, and a most accomplished officer. The officers of our navy are our representatives in foreign countries, and they are generally such representatives as their constituents have reason to feel proud of. Their chivalry, patriotism, gentlemanlike deportment, and professional skill cannot be too much admired and applauded by their countrymen. I shall ever feel grateful to the naval officers of the Pacific squadron for their numerous civilities during my sojourn on the Pacific coast.
Among the novelties presented while at San Francisco was a trial by jury–the second tribunal of this kind which had been organized in California. The trial look place before Judge Bartlett, and the litigants were two Mormons. Counsel was employed on both sides. Some of the forms of American judicial proceedings were observed, and many of the legal technicalities and nice flaws, so often urged in common-law courts, were here argued by the learned counsel of the parties, with a vehemence of language and gesticulation with which I thought the legal learning and acumen displayed did not correspond. The proceedings were a mixture, made up of common law, equity, and a sprinkling of military despotism–which last ingredient the court was compelled to employ, when entangled in the intricate meshes woven by the counsel for the litigants, in order to extricate itself. The jury, after the case was referred to them, were what is called “hung;” they could not agree, and the matters in issue, therefore, remained exactly where they were before the proceedings were commenced.
I attended one evening a fandango given by Mr. Ridley, an English gentleman, whose wife is a Californian lady. Several of the senoras and senoritas from the ranchos of the vicinity were present. The Californian ladies dance with much ease and grace. The waltz appears to be a favourite with them. Smoking is not prohibited in these assemblies, nor is it confined to the gentlemen. The cigarita is freely used by the senoras and senoritas, and they puff it with much gusto while threading the mazes of the cotillion or swinging in the waltz.
I had the pleasure of being introduced, at the residence of Mr. Leidesdorff, to two young ladies, sisters and belles in Alta California. They are members of an old and numerous family on the Contra Costa. Their names are singular indeed, for, if I heard them correctly, one of them was called Donna Maria Jesus, and the other Donna Maria Conception. They were interesting and graceful young ladies, with regular features, symmetrical figures, and their dark eyes flashed with all the intelligence and passion characteristic of Spanish women.
Among the gentlemen with whom I met soon after my arrival at San Francisco, and whoso acquaintance I afterwards cultivated, were Mr. E. Grimes and Mr. N. Spear, both natives of Massachusetts, but residents of this coast and of the Pacific Islands, for many years. They may be called the patriarchs of American pioneers on the Pacific. After forming an acquaintance with Mr. G., if any one were to say to me that
“Old Grimes is dead, that good old man,”
I should not hesitate to contradict him with emphasis; for he is still living, and possesses all the charities and virtues which can adorn human nature, with some of the eccentricities of his name-sake in the song. By leading a life of peril and adventure on the Pacific Ocean for fifty years he has accumulated a large fortune, and is a man now proverbial for his integrity, candour, and charities. Both of these gentlemen have been largely engaged in the local commerce of the Pacific. Mr. S., some twenty-five or thirty years ago, colonized one of the Cannibal Islands, and remained upon it with the colony for nearly two years. The attempt to introduce agriculture into the island was a failure, and the enterprise was afterwards abandoned.
On the evening of the third of October, it having been announced that Commodore Stockton would land on the fifth, a public meeting of the citizens was called by the alcalde, for the purpose of adopting suitable arrangements for his reception, in his civic capacity as governor. The meeting was convened in the plaza (Portsmouth Square). Colonel Russell was appointed chairman, and on motion of E. Bryant a committee was appointed to make all necessary and suitable arrangements for the reception of his excellency, Governor Stockton. The following account of this pageant I extract from the “California” newspaper of October 24th, 1846.
“Agreeable to public notice, a large number of the citizens of San Francisco and vicinity assembled in Portsmouth Square for the purpose of meeting his excellency Robert F. Stockton, to welcome his arrival, and offer him the hospitalities of the city. At ten o’clock, a procession was formed, led by the Chief Marshal of the day, supported on either hand by two aids, followed by an excellent band of music–a military escort, under command of Captain J. Zeilen, U.S.M.C.–Captain John B. Montgomery and suite–Magistracy of the District, and the Orator of the day–Foreign Consuls–Captain John Paty, Senior Captain of the Hawanian Navy–Lieutenant-Commanding Ruducoff, Russian Navy, and Lieutenant-Commanding Bonnett, French Navy. The procession was closed by the Committee of Arrangements, captains of ships in port, and a long line of citizens.
“General Mariano Guadaloupe Valléjo, with several others who had held office under the late government, took their appropriate place in the line.
“The procession moved in fine style down Portsmouth Street to the landing, and formed a line in Water Street. The Governor-General landed from his barge, and was met on the wharf by Captain John B. Montgomery, U.S.N., Judge W.A. Bartlett, and Marshal of the day (Frank Ward), who conducted him to the front of the line, and presented him to the procession, through the orator of the day, Colonel Russell, who addressed the commodore.”
When the governor and commander-in-chief had closed his reply, the procession moved through the principal streets, and halted in front of Captain Leidesdorff’s residence, where the governor and suite entered, and was presented to a number of ladies, who welcomed him to the shores of California. After which a large portion of the procession accompanied the governor, on horseback, to the mission of San Francisco Dolores, several miles in the country, and returned to an excellent collation prepared by the committee of arrangements, at the house of Captain Leidesdorff. After the cloth was removed, the usual number of regular toasts, prepared by the committee of arrangements, and numerous volunteer sentiments by the members of the company, were drunk with many demonstrations of enthusiasm, and several speeches were made. In response to a complimentary toast, Commodore Stockton made an eloquent address of an hour’s length. The toasts given in English were translated into Spanish, and those given in Spanish were translated into English. A ball in honour of the occasion was given by the committee of arrangements in the evening, which was attended by all the ladies, native and foreign, in the town and vicinity, the naval officers attached to the three ships of war, and the captains of the merchant vessels lying in the harbour. So seductive were the festivities of the day and the pleasures of the dance, that they were not closed until a late hour of the night, or rather until an early hour in the morning.
Among the numerous vessels of many nations at anchor in the harbour is a Russian brig from Sitca, the central port of the Russian-American Fur Company, on the northwestern coast of this continent. She is commanded by Lieutenant Ruducoff of the Russian navy, and is here to be freighted with wheat to supply that settlement with breadstuff. Sitca is situated in a high northern latitude, and has a population of some four or five thousand inhabitants. A large portion of these, I conjecture, are christianized natives or Indians. Many of the crew of this vessel are the aborigines of the country to which she belongs, and from which she last sailed. I noticed, however, from an inscription, that the brig was built at Newburyport, Massachusetts, showing that the autocrat of all the Russias is tributary, to some extent, to the free Yankees of New England for his naval equipment. On the 11th of October, by invitation of Lieutenant Ruducoff, in company of Mr. Jacob and Captain Leidesdorff, I dined on board this vessel. The Russian customs are in some respects peculiar. Soon after we reached the vessel and were shown into the cabin, a lunch was served up. This consisted of a variety of dried and smoked fish, pickled fish-roe, and other hyperborean pickles, the nature of which, whether animal or vegetable, I could not determine. Various wines and liquors accompanied this lunch, the discussion of which lasted until an Indian servant, a native of the north-pole, or thereabouts, announced dinner. We were then shown into a handsomely furnished dining-cabin, where the table was spread. The dinner consisted of several courses, some of which were peculiarly Russian or Sitcan, and I regret that my culinary knowledge is not equal to the task of describing them, for the benefit of epicures of a more southern region than the place of their invention. They were certainly very delightful to the palate. The afternoon glided away most agreeably.
On the 12th of October, Captain Fremont, with a number of volunteers destined for the south, to co-operate with Commodore Stockton in the suppression of the reported rebellion at Los Angeles, arrived at San Francisco from the Sacramento. I had previously offered my services, and Mr. Jacob had done the same, to Commodore Stockton, as volunteers in this expedition, if they were necessary or desirable. They were now repeated. Although travellers in the country, we were American citizens, and we felt under obligation to assist in defending the flag of our country wherever it had been planted by proper authority. At this time we were given to understand that a larger force than was already organised was not considered necessary for the expedition.