What I Saw in California
By Edwin Bryant
Public Domain Books
Boat trip up the bay and the Sacramento to New Helvetia An appeal to the alcalde Kanackas Straits of San Pueblo and Pedro Straits of Carquinez Town of Francisca Feather-beds furnished by nature Mouth of the Sacramento Islands Delaware Tom A man who has forgotten his mother tongue Salmon of the Sacramento Indian fishermen Arrive at New Helvetia.
October 22.–Having determined to make a trip to Nueva Helvetia by water, for the purpose of examining more particularly the upper portion of the bay and the Sacramento river, in conjunction with Mr. Larkin, we chartered a small open sail-boat for the excursion. The charter, to avoid disputes, was regularly drawn and signed, with all conditions specified. The price to be paid for a certain number of passengers was thirty-two dollars, and demurrage at the rate of twenty-five cents per hour for all delays ordered by the charter-party, on the trip upwards to Nueva Helvetia. The boat was to be ready at the most convenient landing at seven o’clock this morning, but when I called at the place appointed, with our baggage, the boat was not there. In an hour or two the skipper was found, but refused to comply with his contract. We immediately laid our grievance before the alcalde, who, after reading the papers and hearing the statements on both sides, ordered the skipper to perform what he had agreed to perform, to which decision he reluctantly assented. In order to facilitate matters, I paid the costs of the action myself, although the successful litigant in the suit.
We left San Francisco about two o’clock P.M., and, crossing the mouth of the bay, boarded a Mexican schooner, a prize captured by the U.S. sloop-of-war Cyane, Captain Dupont, which had entered the bay this morning and anchored in front of Sausolito. The prize is commanded by Lieutenant Renshaw, a gallant officer of our navy. Our object in boarding the schooner was to learn the latest news, but she did not bring much. We met on board the schooner Lieutenant Hunter of the Portsmouth, a chivalrous officer, and Lieutenant Ruducoff, commanding the Russian brig previously mentioned, whose vessel, preparatory to sailing, was taking in water at Sausolito. Accepting of his pressing invitation, we visited the brig, and took a parting glass of wine with her gallant and gentlemanly commander.
About five o’clock P.M., we proceeded on our voyage. At eight o’clock a dense fog hung over the bay, and, the ebb-tide being adverse to our progress, we were compelled to find a landing for our small and frail craft. This was not an easy matter, in the almost impenetrable darkness. As good-luck would have it, however, after we had groped about for some time, a light was discovered by our skipper. He rowed the boat towards it, but grounded. Hauling off, he made another attempt with better success, reaching within hailing distance of the shore. The light proceeded from a camp-fire of three Kanacka (Sandwich island) runaway sailors. As soon as they ascertained who we were and what we wanted, they stripped themselves naked, and, wading through the mud and water to the boat, took us on their shoulders, and carried us high and dry to the land. The boat, being thus lightened of her burden, was rowed farther up, and landed.
The natives of the Sandwich islands (Kanackas, as they are called) are, without doubt, the most expert watermen in the world. Their performances in swimming and diving are so extraordinary, that they may almost be considered amphibious in their natures and instincts. Water appears to be as much their natural element as the land. They have straight black hair, good features, and an amiable and intelligent expression of countenance. Their complexion resembles that of a bright mulatto; and, in symmetrical proportions and muscular developments, they will advantageously compare with any race of men I have seen. The crews of many of the whale and merchant ships on this coast are partly composed of Kanackas, and they are justly esteemed as most valuable sailors.
October 23.–The damp raw weather, auguring the near approach of the autumnal rains, continues. A drizzling mist fell on us during the night, and the clouds were not dissipated when we resumed our voyage this morning. Passing through the straits of San Pablo and San Pedro, we entered a division of the bay called the bay of San Pablo. Wind and tide being in our favour, we crossed this sheet of water, and afterwards entered and passed through the Straits of Carquinez. At these straits the waters of the bay are compressed within the breadth of a mile, for the distance of about two leagues. On the southern side the shore is hilly, and canoned in some places. The northern shore is gentle, the hills and table-land sloping gradually down to the water. We landed at the bend of the Straits of Carquinez, and spent several hours in examining the country and soundings on the northern side. There is no timber here. The soil is covered with a growth of grass and white oats. The bend of the Straits of Carquinez, on the northern side, has been thought to be a favourable position for a commercial town. It has some advantages and some disadvantages, which it would be tedious for me now to detail.
[Subsequently to this my first visit here, a town of extensive dimensions has been laid off by Gen. Valléjo and Mr. Semple, the proprietors, under the name of “Francisca.” It fronts for two or three miles on the ’Soeson,” the upper division of the Bay of San Francisco, and the Straits of Carquinez. A ferry has also been established, which crosses regularly from shore to shore, conveying travellers over the bay. I crossed, myself and horses, here in June, 1847, when on my return to the United States. Lots had then been offered to settlers on favourable conditions, and preparations, I understand, were making for the erection of a number of houses.]
About sunset we resumed our voyage. The Wind having lulled, we attempted to stem the adverse tide by the use of oars, but the ebb of the tide was stronger than the propelling force of our oars. Soon, in spite of all our exertions, we found ourselves drifting rapidly backwards, and, after two or three hours of hard labour in the dark, we were at last so fortunate as to effect a landing in a cove on the southern side of the straits, having retrograded several miles. In the cove there is a small sandy beach, upon which the waves have drifted, and deposited a large quantity of oat-straw, and feathers shed by the millions of water-fowls which sport upon the bay. On this downy deposit furnished by nature we spread our blankets, and slept soundly.
October 24.–We proceeded on our voyage at daylight, coasting along the southern shore of the Soeson. About nine o’clock we landed on a marshy plain, and cooked breakfast. A range of mountains bounds this plain, the base of which is several miles from the shore of the bay. These mountains, although of considerable elevation, exhibit signs of fertility to their summits. On the plain, numerous herds of wild cattle were grazing. About two o’clock, P.M., we entered the mouth of the Sacramento. The Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers empty into the Bay of San Francisco at the same point, about sixty miles from the Pacific, and by numerous mouths or sloughs as they are here called. These sloughs wind through an immense timbered swamp, and constitute a terraqueous labyrinth of such intricacy, that unskilful and inexperienced navigators have been lost for many days in it, and some, I have been told, have perished, never finding their way out. A range of low sloping hills approach the Sacramento a short distance above its mouth, on the left-hand side as you ascend, and run parallel with the stream several miles. The banks of the river, and several large islands which we passed during the day, are timbered with sycamore, oak, and a variety of smaller trees and shrubbery. Numerous grape-vines, climbing over the trees, and loaded down with a small and very acid fruit, give to the forest a tangled appearance. The islands of the Sacramento are all low, and subject to overflow in the spring of the year. The soil of the river bottom, including the islands, is covered with rank vegetation, a certain evidence of its fertility. The water, at this season, is perfectly limpid, and, although the tide ebbs and flows more than a hundred miles above the mouth of the river, it is fresh and sweet. The channel of the Sacramento is remarkably free from snags and other obstructions to navigation. A more beautiful and placid stream of water I never saw.
At twelve o’clock at night, the ebb-tide being so strong that we found ourselves drifting backwards, with some difficulty we effected a landing on one of the islands, clearing a way through the tangled brush and vines with our hatchets and knives. Lighting a fire, we bivouacked until daylight.
October 25.–Continuing our voyage, we landed, about nine o’clock, A.M., at an Indian rancheria, situated on the bank of the river. An old Indian, his wife, and two or three children, were all the present occupants of this rancheria. The woman was the most miserable and emaciated object I ever beheld. She was probably a victim of the “sweat-house.” Surrounding the rancheria were two or three acres of ground, planted with maize, beans, and melons. Purchasing a quantity of water and musk-melons, we re-embarked and pursued our voyage. As we ascended the stream, the banks became more elevated, the country on both sides opening into vast savannas, dotted occasionally with parks of evergreen oak.
The tide turning against us again about eleven or twelve o’clock, we landed at an encampment of Walla-Walla Indians, a portion of the party previously referred to, and reported to have visited California for hostile purposes. Among them was a Delaware Indian, known as “Delaware Tom,” who speaks English as fluently as any Anglo-Saxon, and is a most gallant and honourable Indian. Several of the party, a majority of whom were women and children, were sick with chills and fever. The men were engaged in hunting and jerking deer and elk meat. Throwing our hooks, baited with fresh meat, into the river, we soon drew out small fish enough for dinner.
The specimens of Walla-Wallas at this encampment are far superior to the Indians of California in features, figure, and intelligence. Their complexion is much lighter, and their features more regular, expressive, and pleasing. Men and women were clothed in dressed skins. The men were armed with rifles.
At sunset we put our little craft in motion again, and at one o’clock at night landed near the cabin of a German emigrant named Schwartz, six miles below the embarcadero of New Helvetia. The cabin is about twenty feet in length by twelve in breadth, constructed of a light rude frame, shingled with tule. After gaining admission, we found a fire blazing in the centre of the dwelling on the earth-floor, and suspended over us were as many salmon, taken from the Sacramento, as could be placed in position to imbibe the preservative qualities of the smoke.
Our host, Mr. Schwartz, is one of those eccentric human phenomena rarely met with, who, wandering from their own nation into foreign countries, forget their own language without acquiring any other. He speaks a tongue (language it cannot be called) peculiar to himself, and scarcely intelligible. It is a mixture, in about equal parts, of German, English, French, Spanish, and rancheria Indian, a compounded polyglot or lingual pi–each syllable of a word sometimes being derived from a different language. Stretching ourselves on the benches surrounding the fire, so as to avoid the drippings from the pendent salmon, we slept until morning.
October 26.–Mr. Schwartz provided us with a breakfast of fried salmon and some fresh milk. Coffee, sugar, and bread we brought with us, so that we enjoyed a luxurious repast.
Near the house was a shed containing some forty or fifty barrels of pickled salmon, but the fish, from their having been badly put up, were spoiled. Mr. Schwartz attempted to explain the particular causes of this, but I could not understand him. The salmon are taken with seines dragged across the channel of the river by Indians in canoes. On the bank of the river the Indians were eating their breakfast, which consisted of a large fresh salmon, roasted in the ashes or embers, and a kettle of atole, made of acorn-meal. The salmon was four or five feet in length, and, when taken out of the fire and cut open, presented a most tempting appearance. The Indians were all nearly naked, and most of them, having been wading in the water at daylight to set their seines, were shivering with the cold whilst greedily devouring their morning meal.
We reached the embarcadero of New Helvetia about eleven o’clock, A.M., and, finding there a wagon, we placed our baggage in it, and walked to the fort, about two and a half miles.