It was in the winter of 1835–6 that the ship Alert, in the prosecution of her voyage for hides on the remote and almost unknown coast of California, floated into the vast solitude of the Bay of San Francisco. All around was the stillness of nature. One vessel, a Russian, lay at anchor there, but during our whole stay not a sail came or went. Our trade was with remote Missions, which sent hides to us in launches manned by their Indians. Our anchorage was between a small island, called Yerba Buena, and a gravel beach in a little bight or cove of the same name, formed by two small, projecting points. Beyond, to the westward of the landing-place, were dreary sand-hills, with little grass to be seen, and few trees, and beyond them higher hills, steep and barren, their sides gullied by the rains. Some five or six miles beyond the landing-place, to the right, was a ruinous Presidio, and some three or four miles to the left was the Mission of Dolores, as ruinous as the Presidio, almost deserted, with but few Indians attached to it, and but little property in cattle. Over a region far beyond our sight there were no other human habitations, except that an enterprising Yankee, years in advance of his time, had put up, on the rising ground above the landing, a shanty of rough boards, where he carried on a very small retail trade between the hide ships and the Indians. Vast banks of fog, invading us from the North Pacific, drove in through the entrance, and covered the whole bay; and when they disappeared, we saw a few well-wooded islands, the sand-hills on the west, the grassy and wooded slopes on the east, and the vast stretch of the bay to the southward, where we were told lay the Missions of Santa Clara and San José, and still longer stretches to the northward and northeastward, where we understood smaller bays spread out, and large rivers poured in their tributes of waters. There were no settlements on these bays or rivers, and the few ranchos and Missions were remote and widely separated. Not only the neighborhood of our anchorage, but the entire region of the great bay, was a solitude. On the whole coast of California there was not a light-house, a beacon, or a buoy, and the charts were made up from old and disconnected surveys by British, Russian, and Mexican voyagers. Birds of prey and passage swooped and dived about us, wild beasts ranged through the oak groves, and as we slowly floated out of the harbor with the tide, herds of deer came to the water’s edge, on the northerly side of the entrance, to gaze at the strange spectacle.
On the evening of Saturday, the 13th of August, 1859, the superb steamship Golden Gate, gay with crowds of passengers, and lighting the sea for miles around with the glare of her signal lights of red, green, and white, and brilliant with lighted saloons and staterooms, bound up from the Isthmus of Panama, neared the entrance to San Francisco, the great centre of a world-wide commerce. Miles out at sea, on the desolate rocks of the Farallones, gleamed the powerful rays of one of the most costly and effective light-houses in the world. As we drew in through the Golden Gate, another light-house met our eyes, and in the clear moonlight of the unbroken California summer we saw, on the right, a large fortification protecting the narrow entrance, and just before us the little island of Alcatraz confronted us — one entire fortress. We bore round the point toward the old anchoring-ground of the hide ships, and there, covering the sand-hills and the valleys, stretching from the water’s edge to the base of the great hills, and from the old Presidio to the Mission, flickering all over with the lamps of its streets and houses, lay a city of one hundred thousand inhabitants. Clocks tolled the hour of midnight from its steeples, but the city was alive from the salute of our guns, spreading the news that the fortnightly steamer had come, bringing mails and passengers from the Atlantic world. Clipper ships of the largest size lay at anchor in the stream, or were girt to the wharves; and capacious high-pressure steamers, as large and showy as those of the Hudson or Mississippi, bodies of dazzling light, awaited the delivery of our mails to take their courses up the Bay, stopping at Benicia and the United States Naval Station, and then up the great tributaries — the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Feather Rivers — to the far inland cities of Sacramento, Stockton, and Marysville.
The dock into which we drew, and the streets about it, were densely crowded with express wagons and hand-carts to take luggage, coaches and cabs for passengers, and with men — some looking out for friends among our hundreds of passengers — agents of the press, and a greater multitude eager for newspapers and verbal intelligence from the great Atlantic and European world. Through this crowd I made my way, along the well-built and well-lighted streets, as alive as by day, where boys in high-keyed voices were already crying the latest New York papers; and between one and two o’clock in the morning found myself comfortably abed in a commodious room, in the Oriental Hotel, which stood, as well as I could learn, on the filled-up cove, and not far from the spot where we used to beach our boats from the Alert.
Sunday, August 14th. When I awoke in the morning, and looked from my windows over the city of San Francisco, with its storehouses, towers, and steeples; its court-houses, theatres, and hospitals; its daily journals; its well-filled learned professions; its fortresses and light-houses; its wharves and harbor, with their thousand-ton clipper ships, more in number than London or Liverpool sheltered that day, itself one of the capitals of the American Republic, and the sole emporium of a new world, the awakened Pacific; when I looked across the bay to the eastward, and beheld a beautiful town on the fertile, wooded shores of the Contra Costa, and steamers, large and small, the ferryboats to the Contra Costa, and capacious freighters and passenger-carriers to all parts of the great bay and its tributaries, with lines of their smoke in the horizon — when I saw all these things, and reflected on what I once was and saw here, and what now surrounded me, I could scarcely keep my hold on reality at all, or the genuineness of anything, and seemed to myself like one who had moved in “worlds not realized.”
I could not complain that I had not a choice of places of worship. The Roman Catholics have an archbishop, a cathedral, and five or six smaller churches, French, German, Spanish, and English; and the Episcopalians a bishop, a cathedral, and three other churches; the Methodists and Presbyterians have three or four each, and there are Congregationalists, Baptists, a Unitarian, and other societies. On my way to church, I met two classmates of mine at Harvard standing in a door-way, one a lawyer and the other a teacher, and made appointments for a future meeting. A little farther on I came upon another Harvard man, a fine scholar and wit, and full of cleverness and good-humor, who invited me to go to breakfast with him at the French house — he was a bachelor, and a late riser on Sundays. I asked him to show me the way to Bishop Kip’s church. He hesitated, looked a little confused, and admitted that he was not as well up in certain classes of knowledge as in others, but, by a desperate guess, pointed out a wooden building at the foot of the street, which any one might have seen could not be right, and which turned out to be an African Baptist meeting-house. But my friend had many capital points of character, and I owed much of the pleasure of my visit to his attentions.
The congregation at the Bishop’s church was precisely like one you would meet in New York, Philadelphia, or Boston. To be sure, the identity of the service makes one feel at once at home, but the people were alike, nearly all of the English race, though from all parts of the Union. The latest French bonnets were at the head of the chief pews, and business men at the foot. The music was without character, but there was an instructive sermon, and the church was full.
I found that there were no services at any of the Protestant churches in the afternoon. They have two services on Sunday; at 11 A.M., and after dark. The afternoon is spent at home, or in friendly visiting, or teaching of Sunday Schools, or other humane and social duties.
This is as much the practice with what at home are called the strictest denominations as with any others. Indeed, I found individuals, as well as public bodies, affected in a marked degree by a change of oceans and by California life. One Sunday afternoon I was surprised at receiving the card of a man whom I had last known, some fifteen years ago, as a strict and formal deacon of a Congregational Society in New England. He was a deacon still, in San Francisco, a leader in all pious works, devoted to his denomination and to total abstinence — the same internally, but externally — what a change! Gone was the downcast eye, the bated breath, the solemn, non-natural voice, the watchful gait, stepping as if he felt responsible for the balance of the moral universe! He walked with a stride, an uplifted open countenance, his face covered with beard, whiskers, and mustache, his voice strong and natural — and, in short, he had put off the New England deacon and become a human being. In a visit of an hour I learned much from him about the religious societies, the moral reforms, the “Dashaways,”— total abstinence societies, which had taken strong hold on the young and wilder parts of society — and then of the Vigilance Committee, of which he was a member, and of more secular points of interest.
In one of the parlors of the hotel, I saw a man of about sixty years of age, with his feet bandaged and resting in a chair, whom somebody addressed by the name of Lies.2 Lies! thought I, that must be the man who came across the country from Kentucky to Monterey while we lay there in the Pilgrim in 1835, and made a passage in the Alert, when he used to shoot with his rifle bottles hung from the top-gallant studding-sail-boom-ends. He married the beautiful Doña Rosalía Vallejo, sister of Don Guadalupe. There were the old high features and sandy hair. I put my chair beside him, and began conversation, as any one may do in California. Yes, he was the Mr. Lies; and when I gave my name he professed at once to remember me, and spoke of my book. I found that almost — I might perhaps say quite — every American in California had read it; for when California “broke out,” as the phrase is, in 1848, and so large a portion of the Anglo–Saxon race flocked to it, there was no book upon California but mine. Many who were on the coast at the time the book refers to, and afterwards read it, and remembered the Pilgrim and Alert, thought they also remembered me. But perhaps more did remember me than I was inclined at first to believe, for the novelty of a collegian coming out before the mast had drawn more attention to me than I was aware of at the time.
Late in the afternoon, as there were vespers at the Roman Catholic churches, I went to that of Notre Dame des Victoires. The congregation was French, and a sermon in French was preached by an Abbé; the music was excellent, all things airy and tasteful, and making one feel as if in one of the chapels in Paris. The Cathedral of St. Mary, which I afterwards visited, where the Irish attend, was a contrast indeed, and more like one of our stifling Irish Catholic churches in Boston or New York, with intelligence in so small a proportion to the number of faces. During the three Sundays I was in San Francisco, I visited three of the Episcopal churches, and the Congregational, a Chinese Mission Chapel, and on the Sabbath (Saturday) a Jewish synagogue. The Jews are a wealthy and powerful class here. The Chinese, too, are numerous, and do a great part of the manual labor and small shop-keeping, and have some wealthy mercantile houses.
It is noticeable that European Continental fashions prevail generally in this city — French cooking, lunch at noon, and dinner at the end of the day, with café noir after meals, and to a great extent the European Sunday — to all which emigrants from the United States and Great Britain seem to adapt themselves. Some dinners which were given to me at French restaurants were, it seemed to me — a poor judge of such matters, to be sure — as sumptuous and as good, in dishes and wines, as I have found in Paris. But I had a relish-maker which my friends at table did not suspect — the remembrance of the forecastle dinners I ate here twenty-four years before.
August 17th. The customs of California are free; and any person who knows about my book speaks to me. The newspapers have announced the arrival of the veteran pioneer of all. I hardly walk out without meeting or making acquaintances. I have already been invited to deliver the anniversary oration before the Pioneer Society, to celebrate the settlement of San Francisco. Any man is qualified for election into this society who came to California before 1853. What moderns they are! I tell them of the time when Richardson’s shanty of 1835 — not his adobe house of 1836 — was the only human habitation between the Mission and the Presidio, and when the vast bay, with all its tributaries and recesses, was a solitude — and yet I am but little past forty years of age. They point out the place where Richardson’s adobe house stood, and tell me that the first court and first town council were convened in it, the first Protestant worship performed in it, and in it the first capital trial by the Vigilance Committee held. I am taken down to the wharves, by antiquaries of a ten or twelve years’ range, to identify the two points, now known as Clark’s and Rincon, which formed the little cove of Yerba Buena, where we used to beach our boats — now filled up and built upon. The island we called “Wood Island,” where we spent the cold days and nights of December, in our launch, getting wood for our year’s supply, is clean shorn of trees; and the bare rocks of Alcatraz Island, an entire fortress. I have looked at the city from the water, and at the water and islands from the city, but I can see nothing that recalls the times gone by, except the venerable Mission, the ruinous Presidio, the high hills in the rear of the town, and the great stretches of the bay in all directions.
To-day I took a California horse of the old style — the run, the loping gait — and visited the Presidio. The walls stand as they did, with some changes made to accommodate a small garrison of United States troops. It has a noble situation, and I saw from it a clipper ship of the very largest class, coming through the Gate, under her fore-and-aft sails. Thence I rode to the Fort, now nearly finished, on the southern shore of the Gate, and made an inspection of it. It is very expensive and of the latest style. One of the engineers here is Custis Lee, who has just left West Point at the head of his class — a son of Colonel Robert E. Lee, who distinguished himself in the Mexican War.3
Another morning I ride to the Mission Dolores. It has a strangely solitary aspect, enhanced by its surroundings of the most uncongenial, rapidly growing modernisms; the hoar of ages surrounded by the brightest, slightest, and rapidest of modern growths. Its old belfries still clanged with the discordant bells, and Mass was saying within, for it is used as a place of worship for the extreme south part of the city.
In one of my walks about the wharves, I found a pile of dry hides lying by the side of a vessel. Here was something to feelingly persuade me what I had been, to recall a past scarce credible to myself. I stood lost in reflection. What were these hides — what were they not? — to us, to me, a boy, twenty-four years ago? These were our constant labor, our chief object, our almost habitual thought. They brought us out here, they kept us here, and it was only by getting them that we could escape from the coast and return to home and civilized life. If it had not been that I might be seen, I should have seized one, slung it over my head, walked off with it, and thrown it by the old toss — I do not believe yet a lost art — to the ground. How they called up to my mind the months of curing at San Diego, the year and more of beach and surf work, and the steeving of the ship for home! I was in a dream of San Diego, San Pedro — with its hill so steep for taking up goods, and its stones so hard to our bare feet — and the cliffs of San Juan! All this, too, is no more! The entire hide-business is of the past, and to the present inhabitants of California a dim tradition. The gold discoveries drew off all men from the gathering or cure of hides, the inflowing population made an end of the great droves of cattle; and now not a vessel pursues the — I was about to say dear — the dreary, once hated business of gathering hides upon the coast, and the beach of San Diego is abandoned and its hide-houses have disappeared. Meeting a respectable-looking citizen on the wharf, I inquired of him how the hide-trade was carried on. “O,” said he, “there is very little of it, and that is all here. The few that are brought in are placed under sheds in winter, or left out on the wharf in summer, and are loaded from the wharves into the vessels alongside. They form parts of cargoes of other materials.” I really felt too much, at the instant, to express to him the cause of my interest in the subject, and only added, “Then the old business of trading up and down the coast and curing hides for cargoes is all over?” “O yes, sir,” said he, “those old times of the Pilgrim and Alert and California, that we read about, are gone by.”
Saturday, August 20th. The steamer Senator makes regular trips up and down the coast, between San Francisco and San Diego, calling at intermediate ports. This is my opportunity to revisit the old scenes. She sails today, and I am off, steaming among the great clippers anchored in the harbor, and gliding rapidly round the point, past Alcatraz Island, the light-house, and through the fortified Golden Gate, and bending to the southward — all done in two or three hours, which, in the Alert, under canvas, with head tides, variable winds, and sweeping currents to deal with, took us full two days.
Among the passengers I noticed an elderly gentleman, thin, with sandy hair and a face that seemed familiar. He took off his glove and showed one shrivelled hand. It must be he! I went to him and said, “Captain Wilson, I believe.” Yes, that was his name. “I knew you, sir, when you commanded the Ayacucho on this coast, in old hide-droghing times, in 1835–6.” He was quickened by this, and at once inquiries were made on each side, and we were in full talk about the Pilgrim and Alert, Ayacucho and Loriotte, the California and Lagoda. I found he had been very much flattered by the praise I had bestowed in my book on his seamanship, especially in bringing the Pilgrim to her berth in San Diego harbor, after she had drifted successively into the Lagoda and Loriotte, and was coming into him. I had made a pet of his brig, the Ayacucho, which pleased him almost as much as my remembrance of his bride and their wedding, which I saw at Santa Barbara in 1836. Doña Ramona was now the mother of a large family, and Wilson assured me that if I would visit him at his rancho, near San Luis Obispo, I should find her still a handsome woman, and very glad to see me. How we walked the deck together, hour after hour, talking over the old times — the ships, the captains, the crews, the traders on shore, the ladies, the Missions, the southeasters! indeed, where could we stop? He had sold the Ayacucho in Chili for a vessel of war, and had given up the sea, and had been for years a ranchero. (I learned from others that he had become one of the most wealthy and respectable farmers in the State, and that his rancho was well worth visiting.) Thompson, he said, hadn’t the sailor in him; and he never could laugh enough at his fiasco in San Diego, and his reception by Bradshaw. Faucon was a sailor and a navigator. He did not know what had become of George Marsh (ante, pp. 255–258), except that he left him in Callao; nor could he tell me anything of handsome Bill Jackson (ante, p. 104), nor of Captain Nye of the Loriotte. I told him all I then knew of the ships, the masters, and the officers. I found he had kept some run of my history, and needed little information. Old Señor Noriego of Santa Barbara, he told me, was dead, and Don Carlos and Don Santiago, but I should find their children there, now in middle life. Doña Angustias, he said, I had made famous by my praises of her beauty and dancing, and I should have from her a royal reception. She had been a widow, and remarried since, and had a daughter as handsome as herself. The descendants of Noriego had taken the ancestral name of De la Guerra, as they were nobles of Old Spain by birth; and the boy Pablo, who used to make passages in the Alert, was now Don Pablo de la Guerra, a Senator in the State Legislature for Santa Barbara County.
The points in the country, too, we noticed, as we passed them — Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, Point Año Nuevo, the opening to Monterey, which to my disappointment we did not visit. No; Monterey, the prettiest town on the coast, and its capital and seat of customs, had got no advantage from the great changes, was out of the way of commerce and of the travel to the mines and great rivers, and was not worth stopping at. Point Conception we passed in the night, a cheery light gleaming over the waters from its tall light-house, standing on its outermost peak. Point Conception! That word was enough to recall all our experiences and dreads of gales, swept decks, topmast carried away, and the hardships of a coast service in the winter. But Captain Wilson tells me that the climate has altered; that the southeasters are no longer the bane of the coast they once were, and that vessels now anchor inside the kelp at Santa Barbara and San Pedro all the year round. I should have thought this owing to his spending his winters on a rancho instead of the deck of the Ayacucho, had not the same thing been told me by others.
Passing round Point Conception, and steering easterly, we opened the islands that form, with the main-land, the canal of Santa Barbara. There they are, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa; and there is the beautiful point, Santa Buenaventura; and there lies Santa Barbara on its plain, with its amphitheatre of high hills and distant mountains. There is the old white Mission with its belfries, and there the town, with its one-story adobe houses, with here and there a two-story wooden house of later build; yet little is it altered — the same repose in the golden sunlight and glorious climate, sheltered by its hills; and then, more remindful than anything else, there roars and tumbles upon the beach the same grand surf of the great Pacific as on the beautiful day when the Pilgrim, after her five months’ voyage, dropped her weary anchors here; the same bright blue ocean, and the surf making just the same monotonous, melancholy roar, and the same dreamy town, and gleaming white Mission, as when we beached our boats for the first time, riding over the breakers with shouting Kanakas, the three small hide-traders lying at anchor in the offing. But now we are the only vessel, and that an unromantic, sail-less, spar-less, engine-driven hulk!
I landed in the surf, in the old style, but it was not high enough to excite us, the only change being that I was somehow unaccountably a passenger, and did not have to jump overboard and steady the boat, and run her up by the gunwales.
Santa Barbara has gained but little. I should not know, from anything I saw, that she was now a seaport of the United States, a part of the enterprising Yankee nation, and not still a lifeless Mexican town. At the same old house, where Señor Noriego lived, on the piazza in front of the court-yard, where was the gay scene of the marriage of our agent, Mr. Robinson, to Doña Anita, where Don Juan Bandini and Doña Angustias danced, Don Pablo de la Guerra received me in a courtly fashion. I passed the day with the family, and in walking about the place; and ate the old dinner with its accompaniments of fríjoles, native olives and grapes, and native wines. In due time I paid my respects to Doña Angustias, and, notwithstanding what Wilson told me, I could hardly believe that after twenty-four years there would still be so much of the enchanting woman about her. She thanked me for the kind and, as she called them, greatly exaggerated compliments I had paid her; and her daughter told me that all travellers who came to Santa Barbara called to see her mother, and that she herself never expected to live long enough to be a belle.
Mr. Alfred Robinson, our agent in 1835–6, was here, with a part of his family. I did not know how he would receive me, remembering what I had printed to the world about him at a time when I took little thought that the world was going to read it; but there was no sign of offence, only a cordiality which gave him, as between us, rather the advantage in status.
The people of this region are giving attention to sheep-raising, wine-making, and the raising of olives, just enough to keep the town from going backwards.
But evening is drawing on, and our boat sails to-night. So, refusing a horse or carriage, I walk down, not unwilling to be a little early, that I may pace up and down the beach, looking off to the islands and the points, and watching the roaring, tumbling billows. How softening is the effect of time! It touches us through the affections. I almost feel as if I were lamenting the passing away of something loved and dear — the boats, the Kanakas, the hides, my old shipmates! Death, change, distance, lend them a character which makes them quite another thing from the vulgar, wearisome toil of uninteresting, forced manual labor.
The breeze freshened as we stood out to sea, and the wild waves rolled over the red sun, on the broad horizon of the Pacific; but it is summer, and in summer there can be no bad weather in California. Every day is pleasant. Nature forbids a drop of rain to fall by day or night, or a wind to excite itself beyond a fresh summer breeze.
The next morning we found ourselves at anchor in the Bay of San Pedro. Here was this hated, this thoroughly detested spot. Although we lay near, I could scarce recognize the hill up which we rolled and dragged and pushed and carried our heavy loads, and down which we pitched the hides, to carry them barefooted over the rocks to the floating long-boat. It was no longer the landing-place. One had been made at the head of the creek, and boats discharged and took off cargoes from a mole or wharf, in a quiet place, safe from southeasters. A tug ran to take off passengers from the steamer to the wharf — for the trade of Los Angeles is sufficient to support such a vessel. I got the captain to land me privately, in a small boat, at the old place by the hill. I dismissed the boat, and, alone, found my way to the high ground. I say found my way, for neglect and weather had left but few traces of the steep road the hide-vessels had built to the top. The cliff off which we used to throw the hides, and where I spent nights watching them, was more easily found. The population was doubled, that is to say, there were two houses, instead of one, on the hill. I stood on the brow and looked out toward the offing, the Santa Catalina Island, and, nearer, the melancholy Dead Man’s Island, with its painful tradition, and recalled the gloomy days that followed the flogging, and fancied the Pilgrim at anchor in the offing. But the tug is going toward our steamer, and I must awake and be off. I walked along the shore to the new landing-place, where were two or three store-houses and other buildings, forming a small depot; and a stage-coach, I found, went daily between this place and the Pueblo. I got a seat on the top of the coach, to which were tackled six little less than wild California horses. Each horse had a man at his head, and when the driver had got his reins in hand he gave the word, all the horses were let go at once, and away they went on a spring, tearing over the ground, the driver only keeping them from going the wrong way, for they had a wide, level pampa to run over the whole thirty miles to the Pueblo. This plain is almost treeless, with no grass, at least none now in the drought of midsummer, and is filled with squirrel-holes, and alive with squirrels. As we changed horses twice, we did not slacken our speed until we turned into the streets of the Pueblo.
The Pueblo de los Angeles I found a large and flourishing town of about twenty thousand inhabitants, with brick sidewalks, and blocks of stone or brick houses. The three principal traders when we were here for hides in the Pilgrim and Alert are still among the chief traders of the place — Stearns, Temple, and Warner, the two former being reputed very rich. I dined with Mr. Stearns, now a very old man, and met there Don Juan Bandini, to whom I had given a good deal of notice in my book. From him, as indeed from every one in this town, I met with the kindest attentions. The wife of Don Juan, who was a beautiful young girl when we were on the coast, Doña Refugio, daughter of Don Santiago Argüello, the commandante of San Diego, was with him, and still handsome. This is one of several instances I have noticed of the preserving quality of the California climate. Here, too, was Henry Mellus, who came out with me before the mast in the Pilgrim, and left the brig to be agent’s clerk on shore. He had experienced varying fortunes here, and was now married to a Mexican lady, and had a family. I dined with him, and in the afternoon he drove me round to see the vineyards, the chief objects in this region. The vintage of last year was estimated at half a million of gallons. Every year new square miles of ground are laid down to vineyards, and the Pueblo promises to be the centre of one of the largest wine-producing regions in the world. Grapes are a drug here, and I found a great abundance of figs, olives, peaches, pears, and melons. The climate is well suited to these fruits, but is too hot and dry for successful wheat crops.
Towards evening, we started off in the stage-coach, with again our relays of six mad horses, and reached the creek before dark, though it was late at night before we got on board the steamer, which was slowly moving her wheels, under way for San Diego.
As we skirted along the coast, Wilson and I recognized, or thought we did, in the clear moonlight, the rude white Mission of San Juan Capistrano, and its cliff, from which I had swung down by a pair of halyards to save a few hides — a boy who could not be prudential, and who caught at every chance for adventure.
As we made the high point off San Diego, Point Loma, we were greeted by the cheering presence of a light-house. As we swept round it in the early morning, there, before us, lay the little harbor of San Diego, its low spit of sand, where the water runs so deep; the opposite flats, where the Alert grounded in starting for home; the low hills, without trees, and almost without brush; the quiet little beach; — but the chief objects, the hide-houses, my eye looked for in vain. They were gone, all, and left no mark behind.
I wished to be alone, so I let the other passengers go up to the town, and was quietly pulled ashore in a boat, and left to myself. The recollections and the emotions all were sad, and only sad.
Fugit, interea fugit irreparabile tempus.
The past was real. The present, all about me, was unreal, unnatural, repellant. I saw the big ships lying in the stream, the Alert, the California, the Rosa, with her Italians; then the handsome Ayacucho, my favorite; the poor dear old Pilgrim, the home of hardship and hopelessness; the boats passing to and fro; the cries of the sailors at the capstan or falls; the peopled beach; the large hide-houses, with their gangs of men; and the Kanakas interspersed everywhere. All, all were gone! not a vestige to mark where one hide-house stood. The oven, too, was gone. I searched for its site, and found, where I thought it should be, a few broken bricks and bits of mortar. I alone was left of all, and how strangely was I here! What changes to me! Where were they all? Why should I care for them — poor Kanakas and sailors, the refuse of civilization, the outlaws and beach-combers of the Pacific! Time and death seemed to transfigure them. Doubtless nearly all were dead; but how had they died, and where? In hospitals, in fever-climes, in dens of vice, or falling from the mast, or dropping exhausted from the wreck —
“When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.”
The light-hearted boys are now hardened middle-aged men, if the seas, rocks, fevers, and the deadlier enemies that beset a sailor’s life on shore have spared them; and the then strong men have bowed themselves, and the earth or sea has covered them.
Even the animals are gone — the colony of dogs, the broods of poultry, the useful horses; but the coyotes bark still in the woods, for they belong not to man, and are not touched by his changes.
I walked slowly up the hill, finding my way among the few bushes, for the path was long grown over, and sat down where we used to rest in carrying our burdens of wood, and to look out for vessels that might, though so seldom, be coming down from the windward.
To rally myself by calling to mind my own better fortune and nobler lot, and cherished surroundings at home, was impossible. Borne down by depression, the day being yet at its noon, and the sun over the old point — it is four miles to the town, the Presidio — I have walked it often, and can do it once more — I passed the familiar objects, and it seemed to me that I remembered them better than those of any other place I had ever been in; — the opening to the little cave; the low hills where we cut wood and killed rattlesnakes, and where our dogs chased the coyotes; and the black ground where so many of the ship’s crew and beach-combers used to bring up on their return at the end of a liberty day, and spend the night sub Jove.
The little town of San Diego has undergone no change whatever that I can see. It certainly has not grown. It is still, like Santa Barbara, a Mexican town. The four principal houses of the gente de razon — of the Bandinis, Estudillos, Argüellos, and Picos — are the chief houses now; but all the gentlemen — and their families, too, I believe — are gone. The big vulgar shop-keeper and trader, Fitch, is long since dead; Tom Wrightington, who kept the rival pulpería, fell from his horse when drunk, and was found nearly eaten up by coyotes; and I can scarce find a person whom I remember. I went into a familiar one-story adobe house, with its piazza and earthen floor, inhabited by a respectable lower-class family by the name of Machado, and inquired if any of the family remained, when a bright-eyed middle-aged woman recognized me, for she had heard I was on board the steamer, and told me she had married a shipmate of mine, Jack Stewart, who went out as second mate the next voyage, but left the ship and married and settled here. She said he wished very much to see me. In a few minutes he came in, and his sincere pleasure in meeting me was extremely grateful. We talked over old times as long as I could afford to. I was glad to hear that he was sober and doing well. Doña Tomasa Pico I found and talked with. She was the only person of the old upper class that remained on the spot, if I rightly recollect. I found an American family here, with whom I dined — Doyle and his wife, nice young people, Doyle agent for the great line of coaches to run to the frontier of the old States.
I must complete my acts of pious remembrance, so I take a horse and make a run out to the old Mission, where Ben Stimson and I went the first liberty day we had after we left Boston (ante, p. 140). All has gone to decay. The buildings are unused and ruinous, and the large gardens show now only wild cactuses, willows, and a few olive-trees. A fast run brings me back in time to take leave of the few I knew and who knew me, and to reach the steamer before she sails. A last look — yes, last for life — to the beach, the hills, the low point, the distant town, as we round Point Loma and the first beams of the light-house strike out towards the setting sun.
Wednesday, August 24th. At anchor at San Pedro by daylight. But instead of being roused out of the forecastle to row the long-boat ashore and bring off a load of hides before breakfast, we were served with breakfast in the cabin, and again took our drive with the wild horses to the Pueblo and spent the day; seeing nearly the same persons as before, and again getting back by dark. We steamed again for Santa Barbara, where we only lay an hour, and passed through its canal and round Point Conception, stopping at San Luis Obispo to land my friend, as I may truly call him after this long passage together, Captain Wilson, whose most earnest invitation to stop here and visit him at his rancho I was obliged to decline.
Friday evening, 26th August, we entered the Golden Gate, passed the light-houses and forts, and clipper ships at anchor, and came to our dock, with this great city, on its high hills and rising surfaces, brilliant before us, and full of eager life.
Making San Francisco my head-quarters, I paid visits to various parts of the State — down the Bay to Santa Clara, with its live oaks and sycamores, and its Jesuit College for boys; and San José, where is the best girls’ school in the State, kept by the Sisters of Notre Dame — a town now famous for a year’s session of “The legislature of a thousand drinks,”— and thence to the rich Almaden quicksilver mines, returning on the Contra Costa side through the rich agricultural country, with its ranchos and the vast grants of the Castro and Soto families, where farming and fruit-raising are done on so large a scale. Another excursion was up the San Joaquin to Stockton, a town of some ten thousand inhabitants, a hundred miles from San Francisco, and crossing the Tuolumne and Stanislaus and Merced, by the little Spanish town of Hornitos, and Snelling’s Tavern, at the ford of the Merced, where so many fatal fights are had. Thence I went to Mariposa County, and Colonel Fremont’s mines, and made an interesting visit to “the Colonel,” as he is called all over the country, and Mrs. Fremont, a heroine equal to either fortune, the salons of Paris and the drawing-rooms of New York and Washington, or the roughest life of the remote and wild mining regions of Mariposa — with their fine family of spirited, clever children. After a rest there, we went on to Clark’s Camp and the Big Trees, where I measured one tree ninety-seven feet in circumference without its bark, and the bark is usually eighteen inches thick; and rode through another which lay on the ground, a shell, with all the insides out — rode through it mounted, and sitting at full height in the saddle; then to the wonderful Yo Semite Valley — itself a stupendous miracle of nature, with its Dome, its Capitan, its walls of three thousand feet of perpendicular height — but a valley of streams, of waterfalls, from the torrent to the mere shimmer of a bridal veil, only enough to reflect a rainbow, with their plunges of twenty-five hundred feet, or their smaller falls of eight hundred, with nothing at the base but thick mists, which form and trickle, and then run and at last plunge into the blue Merced that flows through the centre of the valley. Back by the Coulterville trail, the peaks of Sierra Nevada in sight, across the North Fork of the Merced, by Gentry’s Gulch, over hills and through cañons, to Fremont’s again, and thence to Stockton and San Francisco — all this at the end of August, when there has been no rain for four months, and the air is clear and very hot, and the ground perfectly dry; windmills, to raise water for artificial irrigation of small patches, seen all over the landscape, while we travel through square miles of hot dust, where they tell us, and truly, that in winter and early spring we should be up to our knees in flowers; a country, too, where surface gold-digging is so common and unnoticed that the large, six-horse stage-coach, in which I travelled from Stockton to Hornitos, turned off in the high road for a Chinaman, who, with his pan and washer, was working up a hole which an American had abandoned, but where the minute and patient industry of the Chinaman averaged a few dollars a day.
These visits were so full of interest, with grandeurs and humors of all sorts, that I am strongly tempted to describe them. But I remember that I am not to write a journal of a visit over the new California, but to sketch briefly the contrasts with the old spots of 1835–6, and I forbear.
How strange and eventful has been the brief history of this marvellous city, San Francisco! In 1835 there was one board shanty. In 1836, one adobe house on the same spot. In 1847, a population of four hundred and fifty persons, who organized a town government. Then came the auri sacra fames, the flocking together of many of the worst spirits of Christendom; a sudden birth of a city of canvas and boards, entirely destroyed by fire five times in eighteen months, with a loss of sixteen millions of dollars, and as often rebuilt, until it became a solid city of brick and stone, of nearly one hundred thousand inhabitants, with all the accompaniments of wealth and culture, and now (in 1859) the most quiet and well-governed city of its size in the United States. But it has been through its season of Heaven-defying crime, violence, and blood, from which it was rescued and handed back to soberness, morality, and good government, by that peculiar invention of Anglo–Saxon Republican America, the solemn, awe-inspiring Vigilance Committee of the most grave and responsible citizens, the last resort of the thinking and the good, taken to only when vice, fraud, and ruffianism have intrenched themselves behind the forms of law, suffrage, and ballot, and there is no hope but in organized force, whose action must be instant and thorough, or its state will be worse than before. A history of the passage of this city through those ordeals, and through its almost incredible financial extremes, should be written by a pen which not only accuracy shall govern, but imagination shall inspire.
I cannot pause for the civility of referring to the many kind attentions I received, and the society of educated men and women from all parts of the Union I met with; where New England, the Carolinas, Virginia, and the new West sat side by side with English, French, and German civilization.
My stay in California was interrupted by an absence of nearly four months, when I sailed for the Sandwich Islands in the noble Boston clipper ship Mastiff, which was burned at sea to the water’s edge; we escaping in boats, and carried by a friendly British bark into Honolulu, whence, after a deeply interesting visit of three months in that most fascinating group of islands, with its natural and its moral wonders, I returned to San Francisco in an American whaler, and found myself again in my quarters on the morning of Sunday, December 11th, 1859.
My first visit after my return was to Sacramento, a city of about forty thousand inhabitants, more than a hundred miles inland from San Francisco, on the Sacramento, where was the capital of the State, and where were fleets of river steamers, and a large inland commerce. Here I saw the inauguration of a Governor, Mr. Latham, a young man from Massachusetts, much my junior; and met a member of the State Senate, a man who, as a carpenter, repaired my father’s house at home some ten years before; and two more Senators from southern California, relics of another age — Don Andres Pico, from San Diego; and Don Pablo de la Guerra, whom I have mentioned as meeting at Santa Barbara. I had a good deal of conversation with these gentlemen, who stood alone in an assembly of Americans, who had conquered their country, spared pillars of the past. Don Andres had fought us at San Pazqual and Sepulveda’s rancho, in 1846, and as he fought bravely, not a common thing among the Mexicans, and, indeed, repulsed Kearney, is always treated with respect. He had the satisfaction, dear to the proud Spanish heart, of making a speech before a Senate of Americans, in favor of the retention in office of an officer of our army who was wounded at San Pazqual, and whom some wretched caucus was going to displace to carry out a political job. Don Andres’s magnanimity and indignation carried the day.
My last visit in this part of the country was to a new and rich farming region, the Napa Valley, the United States Navy Yard at Mare Island, the river gold workings, and the Geysers, and old Mr. John Yount’s rancho. On board the steamer, found Mr. Edward Stanley, formerly member of Congress from North Carolina, who became my companion for the greater part of my trip. I also met — a revival on the spot of an acquaintance of twenty years ago — Don Guadalupe Vallejo; I may say acquaintance, for although I was then before the mast, he knew my story, and, as he spoke English well, used to hold many conversations with me, when in the boat or on shore. He received me with true earnestness, and would not hear of my passing his estate without visiting him. He reminded me of a remark I made to him once, when pulling him ashore in the boat, when he was commandante at the Presidio. I learned that the two Vallejos, Guadalupe and Salvador, owned, at an early time, nearly all Napa and Sonoma, having princely estates. But they have not much left. They were nearly ruined by their bargain with the State, that they would put up the public buildings if the Capital should be placed at Vallejo, then a town of some promise. They spent $100,000, the Capital was moved there, and in two years removed to San José on another contract. The town fell to pieces, and the houses, chiefly wooden, were taken down and removed. I accepted the old gentleman’s invitation so far as to stop at Vallejo to breakfast.
The United States Navy Yard, at Mare Island, near Vallejo, is large and well placed, with deep fresh water. The old Independence, and the sloop Decatur, and two steamers were there, and they were experimenting on building a despatch boat, the Saginaw, of California timber.
I have no excuse for attempting to describe my visit through the fertile and beautiful Napa Valley, nor even, what exceeded that in interest, my visit to old John Yount at his rancho, where I heard from his own lips some of his most interesting stories of hunting and trapping and Indian fighting, during an adventurous life of forty years of such work, between our back settlements in Missouri and Arkansas, and the mountains of California, trapping the Colorado and Gila — and his celebrated dream, thrice repeated, which led him to organize a party to go out over the mountains, that did actually rescue from death by starvation the wretched remnants of the Donner Party.
I must not pause for the dreary country of the Geysers, the screaming escapes of steam, the sulphur, the boiling caldrons of black and yellow and green, and the region of Gehenna, through which runs a quiet stream of pure water; nor for the park scenery, and captivating ranchos of the Napa Valley, where farming is done on so grand a scale — where I have seen a man plough a furrow by little red flags on sticks, to keep his range by, until nearly out of sight, and where, the wits tell us, he returns the next day on the back furrow; a region where, at Christmas time, I have seen old strawberries still on the vines, by the side of vines in full blossom for the next crop, and grapes in the same stages, and open windows, and yet a grateful wood fire on the hearth in early morning; nor for the titanic operations of hydraulic surface mining, where large mountain streams are diverted from their ancient beds, and made to do the work, beyond the reach of all other agents, of washing out valleys and carrying away hills, and changing the whole surface of the country, to expose the stores of gold hidden for centuries in the darkness of their earthy depths.
January 10th, 1860. I am again in San Francisco, and my revisit to California is closed. I have touched too lightly and rapidly for much impression upon the reader on my last visit into the interior; but, as I have said, in a mere continuation to a narrative of a sea-faring life on the coast, I am only to carry the reader with me on a revisit to those scenes in which the public has long manifested so gratifying an interest. But it seemed to me that slight notices of these entirely new parts of the country would not be out of place, for they serve to put in strong contrast with the solitudes of 1835–6 the developed interior, with its mines, and agricultural wealth, and rapidly filling population, and its large cities, so far from the coast, with their education, religion, arts, and trade.
On the morning of the 11th January, 1860, I passed, for the eighth time, through the Golden Gate, on my way across the delightful Pacific to the Oriental world, with its civilization three thousand years older than that I was leaving behind. As the shores of California faded in the distance, and the summits of the Coast Range sank under the blue horizon, I bade farewell — yes, I do not doubt, forever — to those scenes which, however changed or unchanged, must always possess an ineffable interest for me.
It is time my fellow-travellers and I should part company. But I have been requested by a great many persons to give some account of the subsequent history of the vessels and their crews, with which I had made them acquainted. I attempt the following sketches in deference to these suggestions, and not, I trust, with any undue estimate of the general interest my narrative may have created.
Something less than a year after my return in the Alert, and when, my eyes having recovered, I was again in college life, I found one morning in the newspapers, among the arrivals of the day before, “The brig Pilgrim, Faucon, from San Diego, California.” In a few hours I was down in Ann Street, and on my way to Hackstadt’s boarding-house, where I knew Tom Harris and others would lodge. Entering the front room, I heard my name called from amid a group of blue-jackets, and several sunburned, tar-colored men came forward to speak to me. They were, at first, a little embarrassed by the dress and style in which they had never seen me, and one of them was calling me Mr. Dana; but I soon stopped that, and we were shipmates once more. First, there was Tom Harris, in a characteristic occupation. I had made him promise to come and see me when we parted in San Diego; he had got a directory of Boston, found the street and number of my father’s house, and, by a study of the plan of the city, had laid out his course, and was committing it to memory. He said he could go straight to the house without asking a question. And so he could, for I took the book from him, and he gave his course, naming each street and turn to right or left, directly to the door.
Tom had been second mate of the Pilgrim, and had laid up no mean sum of money. True to his resolution, he was going to England to find his mother, and he entered into the comparative advantages of taking his money home in gold or in bills — a matter of some moment, as this was in the disastrous financial year of 1837. He seemed to have his ideas well arranged, but I took him to a leading banker, whose advice he followed; and, declining my invitation to go up and show himself to my friends, he was off for New York that afternoon, to sail the next day for Liverpool. The last I ever saw of Tom Harris was as he passed down Tremont Street on the sidewalk, a man dragging a hand-cart in the street by his side, on which were his voyage-worn chest, his mattress, and a box of nautical instruments.
Sam seemed to have got funny again, and he and John the Swede learned that Captain Thompson had several months before sailed in command of a ship for the coast of Sumatra, and that their chance of proceedings against him at law was hopeless. Sam was afterwards lost in a brig off the coast of Brazil, when all hands went down. Of John and the rest of the men I have never heard. The Marblehead boy, Sam, turned out badly; and, although he had influential friends, never allowed them to improve his condition. The old carpenter, the Fin, of whom the cook stood in such awe (ante, p. 47), had fallen sick and died in Santa Barbara, and was buried ashore. Jim Hall, from the Kennebec, who sailed with us before the mast, and was made second mate in Foster’s place, came home chief mate of the Pilgrim. I have often seen him since. His lot has been prosperous, as he well deserved it should be. He has commanded the largest ships, and, when I last saw him, was going to the Pacific coast of South America, to take charge of a line of mail steamers. Poor, luckless Foster I have twice seen. He came into my rooms in Boston, after I had become a barrister and my narrative had been published, and told me he was chief mate of a big ship; that he had heard I had said some things unfavorable of him in my book; that he had just bought it, and was going to read it that night, and if I had said anything unfair of him, he would punish me if he found me in State Street. I surveyed him from head to foot, and said to him, “Foster, you were not a formidable man when I last knew you, and I don’t believe you are now.” Either he was of my opinion, or thought I had spoken of him well enough, for the next (and last) time I met him he was civil and pleasant.
I believe I omitted to state that Mr. Andrew B. Amerzene, the chief mate of the Pilgrim, an estimable, kind, and trustworthy man, had a difficulty with Captain Faucon, who thought him slack, was turned off duty, and sent home with us in the Alert. Captain Thompson, instead of giving him the place of a mate off duty, put him into the narrow between-decks, where a space, not over four feet high, had been left out among the hides, and there compelled him to live the whole wearisome voyage, through trades and tropics, and round Cape Horn, with nothing to do — not allowed to converse or walk with the officers, and obliged to get his grub himself from the galley, in the tin pot and kid of a common sailor. I used to talk with him as much as I had opportunity to, but his lot was wretched, and in every way wounding to his feelings. After our arrival, Captain Thompson was obliged to make him compensation for this treatment. It happens that I have never heard of him since.
Henry Mellus, who had been in a counting-house in Boston, and left the forecastle, on the coast, to be agent’s clerk, and whom I met, a married man, at Los Angeles in 1859, died at that place a few years ago, not having been successful in commercial life. Ben Stimson left the sea for the fresh water and prairies, settled in Detroit as a merchant, and when I visited that city, in 1863, I was rejoiced to find him a prosperous and respected man, and the same generous-hearted shipmate as ever.
This ends the catalogue of the Pilgrim’s original crew, except her first master, Captain Thompson. He was not employed by the same firm again, and got up a voyage to the coast of Sumatra for pepper. A cousin and classmate of mine, Mr. Channing, went as supercargo, not having consulted me as to the captain. First, Captain Thompson got into difficulties with another American vessel on the coast, which charged him with having taken some advantage of her in getting pepper; and then with the natives, who accused him of having obtained too much pepper for his weights. The natives seized him, one afternoon, as he landed in his boat, and demanded of him to sign an order on the supercargo for the Spanish dollars that they said were due them, on pain of being imprisoned on shore. He never failed in pluck, and now ordered his boat aboard, leaving him ashore, the officer to tell the supercargo to obey no direction except under his hand. For several successive days and nights, his ship, the Alciope, lay in the burning sun, with rain-squalls and thunder-clouds coming over the high mountains, waiting for a word from him. Toward evening of the fourth or fifth day he was seen on the beach, hailing for the boat. The natives, finding they could not force more money from him, were afraid to hold him longer, and had let him go. He sprang into the boat, urged her off with the utmost eagerness, leaped on board the ship like a tiger, his eyes flashing and his face full of blood, ordered the anchor aweigh, and the topsails set, the four guns, two on a side, loaded with all sorts of devilish stuff, and wore her round, and, keeping as close into the bamboo village as he could, gave them both broadsides, slam-bang into the midst of the houses and people, and stood out to sea! As his excitement passed off, headache, languor, fever, set in — the deadly coast-fever, contracted from the water and night-dews on shore and his maddened temper. He ordered the ship to Penang, and never saw the deck again. He died on the passage, and was buried at sea. Mr. Channing, who took care of him in his sickness and delirium, caught the fever from him, but, as we gratefully remember, did not die until the ship made port, and he was under the kindly roof of a hospitable family in Penang. The chief mate, also, took the fever, and the second mate and crew deserted; and, although the chief mate recovered and took the ship to Europe and home, the voyage was a melancholy disaster. In a tour I made round the world in 1859–1860, of which my revisit to California was the beginning, I went to Penang. In that fairy-like scene of sea and sky and shore, as beautiful as material earth can be, with its fruits and flowers of a perpetual summer — somewhere in which still lurks the deadly fever — I found the tomb of my kinsman, classmate, and friend. Standing beside his grave, I tried not to think that his life had been sacrificed to the faults and violence of another; I tried not to think too hardly of that other, who at least had suffered in death.
The dear old Pilgrim herself! She was sold, at the end of this voyage, to a merchant in New Hampshire, who employed her on short voyages, and, after a few years, I read of her total loss at sea, by fire, off the coast of North Carolina.
Captain Faucon, who took out the Alert, and brought home the Pilgrim, spent many years in command of vessels in the Indian and Chinese seas, and was in our volunteer navy during the late war, commanding several large vessels in succession, on the blockade of the Carolinas, with the rank of lieutenant. He has now given up the sea, but still keeps it under his eye, from the piazza of his house on the most beautiful hill in the environs of Boston. I have the pleasure of meeting him often. Once, in speaking of the Alert’s crew, in a company of gentlemen, I heard him say that that crew was exceptional; that he had passed all his life at sea, but whether before the mast or abaft, whether officer or master, he had never met such a crew, and never should expect to; and that the two officers of the Alert, long ago shipmasters, agreed with him that, for intelligence, knowledge of duty and willingness to perform it, pride in the ship, her appearance and sailing, and in absolute reliableness, they never had seen their equal. Especially he spoke of his favorite seaman, French John. John, after a few more years at sea, became a boatman, and kept his neat boat at the end of Granite Wharf, and was ready to take all, but delighted to take any of us of the old Alert’s crew, to sail down the harbor. One day Captain Faucon went to the end of the wharf to board a vessel in the stream, and hailed for John. There was no response, and his boat was not there. He inquired, of a boatman near, where John was. The time had come that comes to all! There was no loyal voice to respond to the familiar call, the hatches had closed over him, his boat was sold to another, and he had left not a trace behind. We could not find out even where he was buried.
Mr. Richard Brown, of Marblehead, our chief mate in the Alert, commanded many of our noblest ships in the European trade, a general favorite. A few years ago, while stepping on board his ship from the wharf, he fell from the plank into the hold and was killed. If he did not actually die at sea, at least he died as a sailor — he died on board ship.
Our second mate, Evans, no one liked or cared for, and I know nothing of him, except that I once saw him in court, on trial for some alleged petty tyranny towards his men — still a subaltern officer.
The third mate, Mr. Hatch, a nephew of one of the owners, though only a lad on board the ship, went out chief mate the next voyage, and rose soon to command some of the finest clippers in the California and India trade, under the new order of things — a man of character, good judgment, and no little cultivation.
Of the other men before the mast in the Alert, I know nothing of peculiar interest. When visiting, with a party of ladies and gentlemen, one of our largest line-of-battle ships, we were escorted about the decks by a midshipman, who was explaining various matters on board, when one of the party came to me and told me that there was an old sailor there with a whistle round his neck, who looked at me and said of the officer, “he can’t show him anything aboard a ship.” I found him out, and, looking into his sunburnt face, covered with hair, and his little eyes drawn up into the smallest passages for light — like a man who had peered into hundreds of northeasters — there was old “Sails” of the Alert, clothed in all the honors of boatswain’s-mate. We stood aside, out of the cun of the officers, and had a good talk over old times. I remember the contempt with which he turned on his heel to conceal his face, when the midshipman (who was a grown youth) could not tell the ladies the length of a fathom, and said it depended on circumstances. Notwithstanding his advice and consolation to “Chips,” in the steerage of the Alert, and his story of his runaway wife and the flag-bottomed chairs (ante, p. 318), he confessed to me that he had tried marriage again, and had a little tenement just outside the gate of the yard.
Harry Bennett, the man who had the palsy, and was unfeelingly left on shore when the Alert sailed, came home in the Pilgrim, and I had the pleasure of helping to get him into the Massachusetts General Hospital. When he had been there about a week, I went to see him in his ward, and asked him how he got along. “Oh! first-rate usage, sir; not a hand’s turn to do, and all your grub brought to you, sir.” This is a sailor’s paradise — not a hand’s turn to do, and all your grub brought to you. But an earthly paradise may pall. Bennett got tired of indoors and stillness, and was soon out again, and set up a stall, covered with canvas, at the end of one of the bridges, where he could see all the passers-by, and turn a penny by cakes and ale. The stall in time disappeared, and I could learn nothing of his last end, if it has come.
Of the lads who, beside myself, composed the gig’s crew, I know something of all but one. Our bright-eyed, quick-witted little cockswain, from the Boston public schools, Harry May, or Harry Bluff, as he was called, with all his songs and gibes, went the road to ruin as fast as the usual means could carry him. Nat, the “bucket-maker,” grave and sober, left the seas, and, I believe, is a hack-driver in his native town, although I have not had the luck to see him since the Alert hauled into her berth at the North End.
One cold winter evening, a pull at the bell, and a woman in distress wished to see me. Her poor son George — George Somerby — “you remember him, sir; he was a boy in the Alert; he always talks of you — he is dying in my poor house.” I went with her, and in a small room, with the most scanty furniture, upon a mattress on the floor — emaciated, ashy pale, with hollow voice and sunken eyes — lay the boy George, whom we took out a small, bright boy of fourteen from a Boston public school, who fought himself into a position on board ship (ante, p. 295), and whom we brought home a tall, athletic youth, that might have been the pride and support of his widowed mother. There he lay, not over nineteen years of age, ruined by every vice a sailor’s life absorbs. He took my hand in his wasted feeble fingers, and talked a little with his hollow, death-smitten voice. I was to leave town the next day for a fortnight’s absence, and whom had they to see to them? The mother named her landlord — she knew no one else able to do much for them. It was the name of a physician of wealth and high social position, well known in the city as the owner of many small tenements, and of whom hard things had been said as to his strictness in collecting what he thought his dues. Be that as it may, my memory associates him only with ready and active beneficence. His name has since been known the civilized world over, from his having been the victim of one of the most painful tragedies in the records of the criminal law.4 I tried the experiment of calling upon him; and, having drawn him away from the cheerful fire, sofa, and curtains of a luxurious parlor, I told him this simple tale of woe, of one of his tenants, unknown to him even by name. He did not hesitate; and I well remember how, in that biting, eager air, and at a late hour, he drew his cloak about his thin and bent form, and walked off with me across the Common, and to the South End, nearly two miles of an exposed walk, to the scene of misery. He gave his full share, and more, of kindness and material aid; and, as George’s mother told me, on my return, had with medical aid and stores, and a clergyman, made the boy’s end as comfortable and hopeful as possible.
The Alert made two more voyages to the coast of California, successful, and without a mishap, as usual, and was sold by Messrs. Bryant and Sturgis, in 1843, to Mr. Thomas W. Williams, a merchant of New London, Connecticut, who employed her in the whale-trade in the Pacific. She was as lucky and prosperous there as in the merchant service. When I was at the Sandwich Islands in 1860, a man was introduced to me as having commanded the Alert on two cruises, and his friends told me that he was as proud of it as if he had commanded a frigate.
I am permitted to publish the following letter from the owner of the Alert, giving her later record and her historic end — captured and burned by the rebel Alabama:—
New London, March 17, 1868.
Richard H. Dana, Esq.:
Dear Sir — I am happy to acknowledge the receipt of your favor of the 14th inst., and to answer your inquiries about the good ship Alert. I bought her of Messrs. Bryant and Sturgis, in the year 1843, for my firm of Williams and Haven, for a whaler, in which business she was successful until captured by the rebel steamer Alabama, September, 1862, making a period of more than nineteen years, during which she took and delivered at New London upwards of twenty-five thousand barrels of whale and sperm oil. She sailed last from this port, August 30, 1862, for Hurd’s Island (the newly discovered land south of Kerguelen’s), commanded by Edwin Church, and was captured and burned on the 9th of September following, only ten days out, near or close to the Azores, with thirty barrels of sperm oil on board, and while her boats were off in pursuit of whales.
The Alert was a favorite ship with all owners, officers, and men who had anything to do with her; and I may add almost all who heard her name asked if that was the ship the man went in who wrote the book called “Two Years before the Mast”; and thus we feel, with you, no doubt, a sort of sympathy at her loss, and that, too, in such a manner, and by wicked acts of our own countrymen.
My partner, Mr. Haven, sends me a note from the office this P.M., saying that he had just found the last log-book, and would send up this evening a copy of the last entry on it; and if there should be anything of importance I will enclose it to you, and if you have any further inquiries to put, I will, with great pleasure, endeavor to answer them.
Remaining very respectfully and truly yours,
Thomas W. Williams.
P.S. — Since writing the above I have received the extract from the log-book, and enclose the same.
The last Entry in the Log–Book of the Alert.
“September 9, 1862.
“Shortly after the ship came to the wind, with the main yard aback, we went alongside and were hoisted up, when we found we were prisoners of war, and our ship a prize to the Confederate steamer Alabama. We were then ordered to give up all nautical instruments and letters appertaining to any of us. Afterwards we were offered the privilege, as they called it, of joining the steamer or signing a parole of honor not to serve in the army or navy of the United States. Thank God no one accepted the former of these offers. We were all then ordered to get our things ready in haste, to go on shore — the ship running off shore all the time. We were allowed four boats to go on shore in, and when we had got what things we could take in them, were ordered to get into the boats and pull for the shore — the nearest land being about fourteen miles off — which we reached in safety, and, shortly after, saw the ship in flames.
“So end all our bright prospects, blasted by a gang of miscreants, who certainly can have no regard for humanity so long as they continue to foster their so-called peculiar institution, which is now destroying our country.”
I love to think that our noble ship, with her long record of good service and uniform success, attractive and beloved in her life, should have passed, at her death, into the lofty regions of international jurisprudence and debate, forming a part of the body of the “Alabama Claims”; — that, like a true ship, committed to her element once for all at her launching, she perished at sea, and, without an extreme use of language, we may say, a victim in the cause of her country.
Boston, May 6, 1869.
2 Pronounced Leese.
3 This journal was of 1859 before Colonel Robert E. Lee became the celebrated General Lee in command of the Confederate forces in the Civil War.
4 [Dr. George Parkman.]
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:49