What I Saw in California
By Edwin Bryant
Public Domain Books
Disastrous news from the south Return of Colonel Fremont to Monterey Call for volunteers Volunteer our services Leave New Helvetia Swimming the Sacramento First fall of rain Beautiful and romantic valley Precipitous mountains Deserted house Arable land of California Fattening qualities of the acorn Lost in the Coast Mountains Strange Indians Indian women gathering grass-seed for bread Indian guide Laguna Rough dialogue Hunters’ camp “Old Greenwood" Grisly bear meat Greenwood’s account of himself His opinion of the Indians and Spaniards Retrace our steps Severe storm Nappa valley Arrive at Sonoma More rain Arrive at San Francisco Return to New Helvetia.
I remained at the fort from the 27th to the 30th of October. On the 28th, Mr. Reed, whom I have before mentioned as belonging to the rear emigrating party, arrived here. He left his party on Mary’s River, and in company with one man crossed the desert and the mountains. He was several days without provisions, and, when he arrived at Johnson’s, was so much emaciated and exhausted by fatigue and famine, that he could scarcely walk. His object was to procure provisions immediately, and to transport them with pack-mules over the mountains for the relief of the suffering emigrants behind. He had lost all of his cattle, and had been compelled to cache two of his wagons and most of his property. Captain Sutter generously furnished the requisite quantity of mules and horses, with Indian vaqueros, and jerked meat and flour. This is the second expedition for the relief of the emigrants he has fitted out since our arrival in the country. Ex-governor Boggs and family reached Sutter’s Fort to-day.
On the evening of the 28th, a courier arrived with letters from Colonel Fremont, now at Monterey. The substance of the intelligence received by the courier was, that a large force of Californians (varying, according to different reports, from five to fifteen hundred strong) had met the marines and sailors, four hundred strong, under the command of Captain Mervine, of the U.S. frigate Savannah, who had landed at San Pedro for the purpose of marching to Los Angeles, and had driven Captain Mervine and his force back to the ship, with the loss, in killed, of six men. That the towns of Angeles and Santa Barbara had been taken by the insurgents, and the American garrisons there had either been captured or had made their escape by retreating. What had become of them was unknown. Colonel Fremont, who I before mentioned had sailed with a party of one hundred and eighty volunteers from San Francisco to San Pedro, or San Diego, for the purpose of co-operating with Commodore Stockton, after having been some time at sea, had put into Monterey and landed his men, and his purpose now was to increase his force and mount them, and to proceed by land for Los Angeles.
 The garrison under Captain Gillespie, at Los Angeles, capitulated. The garrison at Santa Barbara, under Lieutenant Talbot, marched out in defiance of the enemy, and after suffering many hardships arrived in safety at Monterey.
On the receipt of this intelligence, I immediately drew up a paper, which was signed by myself, Messrs Reed, Jacob, Lippincott, and Grayson, offering our services as volunteers, and our exertions to raise a force of emigrants and Indians which would be a sufficient reinforcement to Colonel Fremont. This paper was addressed to Mr. Kern, the commandant of Fort Sacramento, and required his sanction. The next morning (29th) he accepted of our proposal, and the labour of raising the volunteers and of procuring the necessary clothing and supplies for them and the Indians was apportioned.
It commenced raining on the night of the twenty-eighth, and the rain fell heavily and steadily until twelve o’clock, P.M., on the twenty-ninth. This is the first fall of rain since March last. About one o’clock, P.M., the clouds cleared away and the weather and temperature were delightful.
About twelve o’clock, on the 30th, accompanied by Mr. Grayson, I left New Helvetia. We crossed the Sacramento at the embarcadero, swimming our horses, and passing ourselves over in a small canoe. The method of swimming horses over so broad a stream as the Sacramento is as follows. A light canoe or “dug-out” is manned by three persons, one at the bow one at the stern and one in the centre; those at the bow and stern have paddles, and propel and steer the craft. The man in the centre holds the horses one on each side, keeping their heads out of water. When the horses are first forced into the deep water, they struggle prodigiously, and sometimes upset the canoe; but, when the canoe gets fairly under way, they cease their resistance, but snort loudly at every breath to clear their mouths and nostrils of the water.
Proceeding ten miles over a level plain, we overtook a company of emigrants bound for Nappa valley, and encamped with them for the night on Puta creek, a tributary of the Sacramento. Five of the seven or eight men belonging to the company enrolled their names as volunteers. The grass on the western side of the Sacramento is very rank and of an excellent quality.
It commenced raining about two o’clock on the morning of the 31st, and continued to rain and mist all day. We crossed from Puta to Cache creek, reaching the residence of Mr. Gordon (25 miles) about three o’clock P.M. Here we enrolled several additional emigrants in our list of volunteers, and then travelled fifteen miles up the creek to a small log-house, occupied temporarily by some of the younger members of the family of Mr. Gordon, who emigrated from Jackson county, Mo., this year, and by Mrs. Grayson. Here we remained during the night, glad to find a shelter and a fire, for we were drenched to our skins.
On the morning of the 1st of November the sun shone out warm and pleasant. The birds were singing, chattering, and flitting from tree to tree, through the romantic and picturesque valley where we had slept during the night. The scenery and its adjuncts were so charming and enticing that I recommenced my travels with reluctance. No scenery can be more beautiful than that of the small valleys of California. Ascending the range of elevated mountains which border the Cache creek, we had a most extensive view of the broad plain of the Sacramento, stretching with islands and bells of limber far away to the south as the eye could penetrate. The gorges and summits of these mountains are timbered with largo pines, firs, and cedars, with a smaller growth of magnolias, manzanitas, hawthorns, etc., etc. Travelling several miles over a level plateau, we descended into a beautiful valley, richly carpeted with grass and timbered with evergreen oak. Proceeding across this three or four miles, we rose another range of mountains, and, travelling a league along the summit ridge, we descended through a crevice in a sleep rocky precipice, just sufficient in breadth to admit the passage of our animals. Our horses were frequently compelled to slide or leap down nearly perpendicular rocks or stairs, until we finally, just after sunset, reached the bottom of the mountain, and found ourselves in another level and most fertile and picturesque valley.
We knew that in this valley, of considerable extent, there was a house known as “Barnett’s,” where we expected to find quarters for the night. There were numerous trails of cattle, horses, deer, and other wild animals, crossing each other in every direction through the live oak-timber. We followed on the largest of the cattle trails until it became so blind that we could not see it. Taking another, we did the same, and the result was the same; another and another with no better success. We then shouted so loud that our voices were echoed and re-echoed by the surrounding mountains, hoping, if there were any inhabitants in the valley, that they would respond to us. There was no response–all was silent when the sound of our voices died away in the gorges and ravines; and at ten o’clock at night we encamped under the wide-spreading branches of an oak, having travelled about 40 miles. Striking a fire and heaping upon it a large quantity of wood, which blazed brightly, displaying the Gothic shapes of the surrounding oaks, we picketed our animals, spread our blankets, and slept soundly.
It rained several hours during the night, and in the morning a dense fog filled the valley. Saddling our animals, we searched along the foot of the next range of mountains for a trail, but could find none. Returning to our camp, we proceeded up the valley, and struck a trail, by following which two miles, we came to the house (Barnett’s). The door was ajar, and entering the dwelling we found it tenantless. The hearth was cold, and the ashes in the jambs of the large fire-place were baked. In the corners of the building there were some frames, upon which beds had been once spread. The house evidently had been abandoned by its former occupants for some time. The prolific mothers of several families of the swinish species, with their squealing progenies, gathered around us, in full expectation, doubtless, of the dispensation of an extra ration, which we had not to give. Having eaten nothing but a crust of bread for 24 hours, the inclination of our appetites was strong to draw upon them for a ration; but for old acquaintance’ sake, and because they were the foreshadowing of the “manifest destiny,” they were permitted to pass without molestation. There were two or three small inclosures near the house, where corn and wheat had been planted and harvested this year; but none of the product of the harvest could be found in the empty house, or on the place. Dismounting from our horses at a limpid spring-branch near the house, we slaked our thirst, and made our hydropathical breakfast from its cool and delicious water.
Although the trail of the valley did not run in our course, still, under the expectation that it would soon take another direction, we followed it, passing over a fertile soil, sufficiently timbered and watered by several small streams. The quantity of arable land in California, I believe, is much greater than has generally been supposed from the accounts of the country given by travellers who have visited only the parts on the Pacific, and some few of the missions. Most of the mountain valleys between the Sierra Nevada and the coast are exuberantly fertile, and finely watered, and will produce crops of all kinds, while the hills are covered with oats and grass of the most nutritious qualities, for the sustenance of cattle, horses, and hogs. The acorns which fall from the oaks are, of themselves, a rich annual product for the fattening of hogs; and during the period of transition (four or five weeks after the rains commence falling) from the dry grass to the fresh growth, horses, mules, and even horned cattle mostly subsist and fatten upon these large and oleaginous nuts.
We left the valley in a warm and genial sunshine, about 11 o’clock, and commenced ascending another high mountain, timbered as those I have previously described. When we reached the summit, we were enveloped in clouds, and the rain was falling copiously, and a wintry blast drove the cold element to our skins. Crossing this mountain three or four miles, we descended its sleep sides, and entered another beautiful and romantic hollow, divided as it were into various apartments by short ranges of low conical hills, covered to their summits with grass and wild oats. The grass and other vegetation on the level bottom are very rank, indicating a soil of the most prolific qualities. In winding through this valley, we met four Indians on foot, armed with long bows, and arrows of corresponding weight and length, weapons that I have not previously seen among the Indians. Their complexions were lighter than those of the rancheria Indians of California. They evidently belonged to some more northern tribe. We stopped them to make inquiries, but they seemed to know nothing of the country, nor could we learn from them from whence they came or where they were going. They were clothed in dressed skins, and two of them were highly rouged.
Ascending and descending gradually over some low hills, we entered another circular valley, through which flows a stream, the waters of which, judging from its channel, at certain seasons are broad and deep. The ground, from the rains that have recently fallen and are now falling, is very soft, and we had difficulty in urging our tired animals across this valley. We soon discovered fresh cattle signs, and afterwards a large herd grazing near the stream. Farther on, we saw five old and miserably emaciated Indian women, gathering grass-seed for bread. This process is performed with two baskets, one shaped like a round shield, and the other having a basin and handle. With the shield the lop of the grass is brushed, and the seed by the motion is thrown into the deep basket held in the other hand. The five women appeared at a distance like so many mowers cutting down the grass of a meadow. These women could give us no satisfaction in response to inquiries, but pointed over the river indicating that we should there find the casaand rancheria. They then continued their work with as much zeal and industry as if their lives were dependent upon the proceeds of their labour, and I suppose they were.
Crossing the river, we struck a trail which led us to the casa and rancheria, about two miles distant. The casa was a small adobe building, about twelve feet square, and was locked up. Finding that admission was not to be gained here, we hailed at the rancheria, and presently some dozen squalid and naked men, women, and children, made their appearance. We inquired for the mayor domo, or overseer. The chief speaker signified that he was absent, and that he did not expect hint to return until several suns rose and set. We then signified we were hungry, and very soon a loaf made of pulverized acorns, mingled with wild fruit of some kind, was brought to us with a basket of water. These Indians manufacture small baskets which are impervious to water, and they are used as basins to drink from, and for other purposes.
I knew that we had been travelling out of our course all day, and it was now three o’clock, P.M. Rain and mist had succeeded each other, and the sun was hidden from us by dark and threatening masses of clouds. We had no compass with us, and could not determine the course to Nappa Valley or Sonoma. Believing that the Indian would have some knowledge of the latter place, we made him comprehend that we wished to go there, and inquired the route. He pointed in a direction which he signified would take us to Sonoma. We pointed in another course, which it seemed to us was the right one. But he persisted in asserting that he was right. After some further talk, for the shirt on my back he promised to guide us, and, placing a ragged skin on one of our horses, he mounted the animal and led the way over the next range of hills. The rain soon poured down so hard upon the poor fellow’s bare skin, that he begged permission to return, to which we would not consent; but, out of compassion to him, I took off my over-coat, with which he covered his swarthy hide, and seemed highly delighted with the shelter from the pitiless storm it afforded him, or with the supposition that I intended to present it to him.
Crossing several elevated and rocky hills, just before sunset, we had a view of a large timbered valley and a sheet of water, the extent of which we could not compass with the eye, on account of the thickness of the atmosphere. When we came in sight of the water, the Indian uttered various exclamations of pleasure; and, although I had felt but little faith in him as a pilot from the first, I began now to think that we were approaching the Bay of San Francisco. Descending into the valley, we travelled along a small stream two or three miles, and were continuing on in the twilight, when we heard the tinkling of a cow-bell on the opposite side of the stream. Certain, from this sound, that there must be an encampment near, I halted and hallooed at the top of my voice. The halloo called forth a similar response, with an interrogation in English, “Who the d––l are you–Spaniards or Americans?” “Americans.” “Show yourselves, then, d––n you, and let us see the colour of your hide,” was the answer.
“Tell us where we can cross the stream, and you shall soon see us,” was our reply.
“Ride back and follow the sound of my voice, and be d––d to you, and you can cross the stream with a deer’s jump.”
Accordingly, following the sound of the voice of this rough colloquist, who shouted repeatedly, we rode back in the dark several hundred yards, and, plunging into the stream, the channel of which was deep, we gained the other side, where we found three men standing ready to receive us. We soon discovered them to be a party of professional hunters, or trappers, at the head of which was Mr. Greenwood, a famed mountaineer, commonly known as “Old Greenwood.” They invited us to their camp, situated across a small opening in the timber about half a mile distant. Having unsaddled our tired animals and turned them loose to graze for the night, we placed our baggage under the cover of a small tent, and, taking our seats by the huge camp fire, made known as far as was expedient our business. We soon ascertained that we had ridden the entire day (about 40 miles) directly out of our course to Nappa Valley and Sonoma, and that the Indian’s information was all wrong. We were now near the shore of a large lake, called the Laguna by Californians, some fifty or sixty miles in length, which lake is situated about sixty or seventy miles north of the Bay of San Francisco; consequently, to-morrow we shall be compelled to retrace our steps and find the trail that leads from Harriett’s house to Nappa, which escaped us this morning. We received such directions, however, from Mr. Greenwood, that we could not fail to find it.
We found in the camp, much to our gratification after a long fast, an abundance of fat grisly bear-meat and the most delicious and tender deer-meat. The camp looked like a butcher’s stall. The pot filled with bear-flesh was boiled again and again, and the choice pieces of the tender venison were roasting, and disappearing with singular rapidity for a long time. Bread there was none of course. Such a delicacy is unknown to the mountain trappers, nor is it much desired by them.
The hunting party consisted of Mr. Greenwood, Mr. Turner, Mr. Adams, and three sons of Mr. G., one grown, and the other two boys 10 or 12 years of age, half-bred Indians, the mother being a Crow. One of these boys is named “Governor Boggs,” after ex-governor Boggs of Missouri, an old friend of the father. Mr. Greenwood, or “Old Greenwood,” as he is familiarly called, according to his own statement, is 83 years of age, and has been a mountain trapper between 40 and 50 years. He lived among the Crow Indians, where he married his wife, between thirty and forty years. He is about six feet in height, raw-boned and spare in flesh, but muscular, and, notwithstanding his old age, walks with all the erectness and elasticity of youth. His dress was of tanned buckskin, and from its appearance one would suppose its antiquity to be nearly equal to the age of its wearer. It had probably never been off his body since he first put it on. “I am,” said he, “an old man–eighty-three years–it is a long time to live;–eighty-three years last–. I have seen all the Injun varmints of the Rocky Mountains,–have fout them–lived with them. I have many children–I don’t know how many, they are scattered; but my wife was a Crow. The Crows are a brave nation,–the bravest of all the Injuns; they fight like the white man; they don’t kill you in the dark like the Black-foot varmint, and then take your scalp and run, the cowardly reptiles. Eighty-three years last––; and yet old Greenwood could handle the rifle as well as the best on ’em, but for this infernal humour in my eyes, caught three years ago in bringing the emigrators over the de-sart.” (A circle of scarlet surrounded his weeping eyeballs.) “I can’t see jist now as well as I did fifty years ago, but I can always bring the game or the slinking and skulking Injun. I have jist come over the mountains from Sweetwater with the emigrators as pilot, living upon bacon, bread, milk, and sich like mushy stuff. It don’t agree with me; it never will agree with a man of my age, eighty-three last ––; that is a long time to live. I thought I would take a small hunt to get a little exercise for my old bones, and some good fresh meat. The grisly bear, fat deer, and poultry and fish–them are such things as a man should eat. I came up here, where I knew there was plenty. I was here twenty years ago, before any white man see this lake and the rich land about it. It’s filled with big fish. That’s beer-springs here, better than them in the Rocky Mountains; thar’s a mountain of solid brimstone, and thar’s mines of gold and silver, all of which I know’d many years ago, and I can show them to you if you will go with me in the morning. These black-skinned Spaniards have rebelled again. Wall, they can make a fuss, d–m ’em, and have revolutions every year, but they can’t fight. It’s no use to go after ’em, unless when you ketch ’em you kill ’em. They won’t stand an’ fight like men, an’ when they can’t fight longer give up; but the skared varmints run away and then make another fuss, d–m ’em.” Such was the discourse of our host.
The camp consisted of two small tents, which had probably been obtained from the emigrants. They were pitched so as to face each other, and between them there was a large pile of blazing logs. On the trees surrounding the camp were stretched the skins of various animals which had been killed in the hunt; some preserved for their hides, others for the fur. Bear-meat and venison enough for a winter’s supply were hanging from the limbs. The swearing of Turner, a man of immense frame and muscular power, during our evening’s conversation, was almost terrific. I had heard mountain swearing before, but his went far beyond all former examples. He could do all the swearing for our army in Mexico, and then have a surplus.
The next morning (Nov. 3rd), after partaking of a hearty breakfast, and suspending from our saddles a sufficient supply of venison and bear-meat for two days’ journey, we started back on our own trail. We left our miserable Indian pilot at his rancheria. I gave him the shirt from my back, out of compassion for his sufferings–he well deserved a dressing of another kind. It rained all day, and, when we reached Barnett’s (the empty house) after four o’clock, P.M., the black masses of clouds which hung over the valley portended a storm so furious, that we thought it prudent to take shelter under a roof for the night. Securing our animals in one of the inclosures, we encamped in the deserted dwelling. The storm soon commenced, and raged and roared with a fierceness and strength rarely witnessed. The hogs and pigs came squealing about the door for admission; and the cattle and horses in the valley, terrified by the violence of elemental battle, ran backwards and forwards, bellowing and snorting. In comfortable quarters, we roasted and enjoyed our bear-meat and venison, and left the wind, rain, lightning, and thunder to play their pranks as best suited them, which they did all night.
On the morning of the fourth, we found the trail described to us by Mr. Greenwood, and, crossing a ridge of mountains, descended into the valley of Nappa creek, which empties into the Bay of San Francisco just below the Straits of Carquinez. This is a most beautiful and fertile valley, and is already occupied by several American settlers. Among the first who established themselves here is Mr. Yount, who soon after erected a flouring-mill and saw-mill. These have been in operation several years. Before reaching Mr. Yount’s settlement we passed a saw-mill more recently erected, by Dr. Bale. There seems to be an abundance of pine and red-wood (a species of fir), in the canadas. No lumber can be superior for building purposes than that sawed from the red-wood. The trees are of immense size, straight, free from knots and twists, and the wood is soft, and easily cut with plane and saw. Arriving at the residence of Dr. Bale, in Nappa Valley, we were hospitably entertained by him with a late breakfast of coffee, boiled eggs, steaks, and tortillas, served up in American style. Leaving Nappa, after travelling down it some ten or twelve miles, we crossed another range of hills or mountains, and reached Sonoma after dark, our clothing thoroughly drenched with the rain, which, with intermissions, had fallen the whole day. I put up at the same quarters as when here before. The house was covered with a dilapidated thatch, and the rain dripped through it, not leaving a dry spot on the floor of the room where we slept. But there was an advantage in this–the inundation of water had completely discomfited the army of fleas that infested the building when we were here before.
It rained incessantly on the fifth. Col. Russell arrived at Sonoma early in the morning, having arrived from San Francisco last night. Procuring a boat belonging to Messrs. Howard and Mellus, lying at the embarcadero, I left for San Francisco, but, owing to the storm and contrary winds, did not arrive there until the morning of the seventh, being two nights and a day in the creek, and churning on the bay. Purchasing a quantity of clothing, and other supplies for volunteers, I sailed early on the morning of the eighth for New Helvetia, in a boat belonging to the sloop-of-war Portsmouth, manned by U.S. sailors, under the command of Midshipman Byres, a native of Maysville, Ky. We encamped that night at the head of “Soeson,” having sailed about fifty miles in a severe storm of wind and rain. The waves frequently dashed entirely over our little craft. The rain continued during the ninth, and we encamped at night about the mouth of the Sacramento. On the night of the tenth we encamped at “Meritt’s camp,” the rain still falling, and the river rising rapidly, rendering navigation up-stream impossible, except with the aid of the tide. On the night of the eleventh we encamped fifteen miles below New Helvetia, still raining. On the morning of the twelfth the clouds cleared away, and the sun burst out warm and spring-like. After having been exposed to the rain for ten or twelve days, without having the clothing upon me once dry, the sight of the sun, and the influence of his beams, were cheering and most agreeable. We arrived at New Helvetia about twelve o’clock.