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Valley of the Sacramento, November 19, 1849
DEAR FREE TRADER:--I take the first leisur moment that I have had since my arrival in this Paradise of California to redeem the promise I made of giving you what I know to be facts of this much-praised country and of the charming Valley of the Sacramento, and the leisure which I now enjoy is forced upon me by the rains and the utter impossibility of operating during the autumn. We had been led to believe that on reaching the Valley we should find a delightful climate, green with flowers and ever-blooming herbage, a luxuriant soil unsurpassed by any in the world. It was the 16th of September when I first set foot upon the Sacramento Valley. The sun was burning hot, the grass was dry and crisp, with no vegetation except upon the immediate banks of the stream, where the scrubby oaks still retained their verdure from the effects of the water which the thirsty soil soaked up, and the whole Valley looked as dry and vegetation as dead to all intents and purposes as you ever saw it in the States upon the approach of winter or a long continued drought. For miles in many places there were large and deep cracks in the earth produced by the glowing sun, and we found no water along the road often for fifteen and twenty miles when we came to a creek or river, except now and then a muddy pond hole so brackish as to be used only from absolute necessity. The Valley may be from thirty to forty miles wide in many places, but not always. The road down the Valley from Lawson's to Sacramento City approaches occasionally within ten to fifteen miles of the California (and Gold) mountains, but the atmosphere was so hazy that I could not distinguish their outline and often could not see them at all even in that short distance, and but once since I have been in the Valley--the 13th of November, has it been clear enough to see the Coast Range and both sides of the Valley distinctly. Whether this is always the case or not I do not pretend to know; I simply state the case as I saw it this fall. In passing ranchos and on my arrival at the city, I saw more sickness from fever and chill and flux than I ever saw before, and Mr. Bryant in speaking of the salubrity of the climate, says that dead cattle emit no offensive smell but dry up This is not so; animal matter decays as soon and emits as offensive an effluvia here as at home though no dew falls during the long dry season, so that sleeping outdoors is not unpleasant. The days are excessively warm and the nights become so cool towards morning that extra clothing is necessary for comfort. We supposed that the labor of crossing the plains would have fitted emigrants to bear the climate better than those who came by sea. But so far as my observation goes, there was no difference. All suffered sickness alike, and one was as likely to be taken down as another. And thousands were sick, and still are. Indian corn and potatoes do not thrive well, though they can be raised, and but one crop of wheat can be raised in a year.
If there is rain, enough wheat will grow without irrigation; otherwise the land must be watered. To sum it all up, it is no agricultural country, it will not compare with the western prairie, and its chief value consists in the mines. The mountains are a barren waste which cannot be cultivated, and the Valley is an arid plain unfit for an agriculturalist to spend his time and labor upon. The ranchos are from ten to twenty miles apart. These are rude houses without floors, built of sun-dried brick, owned by men either squatting on the land or by those holding a grant from the Mexican governors of California, a dubious title which the U. S. Government may or may not recognize. These men claim from ten to one hundred leagues of land, making a landed aristocracy which must control the country if their claim is recognized by our Government, and which will eventually produce much disturbance unless the U. S. buy them out. Should their claims not be acknowledged, the titles to the lots sold in San Francisco, Sacramento City and other places are good for nothing and can be held only by pre-emption, and this will open a wide door for litigation and trouble Near each ranch is generally a village of Indians --These are for the most part perfectly naked at all seasons of the year, the women having only a small tuft of grass before them, though those employed about the house are dressed " a la Americain," but I have seen scores of men lounging around a ranch as naked as they were born, where were several women of the household. A more filthy and disgusting class of human beings you cannot well conceive. They are dark-skinned, nearly as dark as a negro, covered with dust, living upon acorns, wild fruit and fish. They have nothing of the noble bearing of the Indians east of the Rocky Mountains, and they seem to be only a few degrees removed from brutes. Their dwellings resemble almost exactly large coal pits where wood is charred; a hole is dug in the ground, a circular framework is built, and this is covered with dirt six or eight feet high, with a small hole at the base to creep in and out of, and another at the top to let out the smoke. You will always see numbers of men sitting on the tops of their hives sunning themselves, while the squaws are generally engaged in preparing their acorn flour or in weaving baskets and pans, in which they are very ingenious. They make them perfectly watertight. Their acorns are dried, then pounded fine and mixed with some kind of berries, making a kind of bread which is by no means unpalatable, but it requires a man who has the courage to eat a rattlesnake to taste it. In fact, a man must cross the plains before he can summon resolution to eat it, especially after seeing them prepare it. The men are very expert in spearing salmon, of which there is the finest here I ever saw, and very abundant. They are now frequently employed in the mines for a mere trifle, and such generally contrive to get a shirt, and a few get rich enough to buy a coat and pantaloons, but since the rains have set in I have seen hundreds of them wading the streams for fish or traveling on the plain naked, and paying no more regard to the wet chilly storm than dumb beasts. In the Valley they are now inoffensive, as the number of whites overawe them, but in the mountains they sometimes give the miners trouble and some collisions have taken place. Those in the mountains are treacherous and unsafe, and will be until they become acquainted with the power and strength of their Anglo-Saxon neighbors.--And now for the real value of California, the staple commodity which has made it an El Dorado, and the only thing which renders it of consequence in a commercial point of view and which has induced so many to leave home and friends, to encounter hardships, sickness and privation, and finally to lay their bones in the lonely dells or high mountain tops of this volcanic and sunburned country, so far from home and kindred--Gold is the talisman. Gold is the lamp of Aladdin. Gold is the magic wand. And it is here, but howfew, alas! of that mighty throng that passed the plains will have their dreams of wealth realized. Many have made fortunes, many are still doing so, but you do not hear of those who do not get enough to pay their board, of those whom disease has prostrated in the mines before they have dug an ounce, and the difficulties to be encountered before it can be obtained.
I shall tell you the whole story as I see it, and then let those come who wish to. I will give no advice. I will neither discourage nor advise anyone to come. They may come and get rich, or they may come and remain poor, and they may die.
The gold appears to lay in the mountains in a certain range running north and south. Fine gold is found at the foot of the mountains, in the streams and ravines, being washed by the floods from higher points. At about the same range and depth of ravines from twenty to thirty miles from the Valley coarse gold or lumps are found, and although everbody run to the rivers and go up as high as they can, the fact seems to have been generally overlooked that it exists in the same range where the depth of ravines are the same.
I believe a man may go anywhere up such a ravine and find gold in lumps, and this range extends for hundred of miles, and probably through Oregon and on into Asia. Much is said of gold diggings on Trinity River, which heads in Klamath Lake and flows among the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific This has been discovered within the last season, and I do not doubt but rich mines exist there, for the upheaval of those mountains are higher and the dislocation of strata greater than in the California mountains; so that in the range the gold will be easily come at, and more ravines exist to work in.
It has been found impossible hitherto to penetrate very high up the mountains from the difficulty of getting provisions up, and strong parties are more necessary on account of the treacherous savages who inhabit the hills.
But passes are being found and obstacles overcome, and men are working their way gradually up, and will do so until they finally succeed in getting to the highest point of the golden range. As to the amount of gold which exists in the country, it has not perhaps been much exaggerated. There is great quantities, but the difficulty of obtaining it has not been properly understood at home, nor the trials a man suffers in getting it. There are always exceptions. Some men seem "born with a golden spoon in their mouths," but the great bulk of mankind have to labor for it.--A man cannot dig gold without something to eat, nor can he labor unless he has health and strength.
Those who have been here long enough to get well prepared can do much better than those recently arrived. You hear of men picking out lumps of gold from the crevices of the rocks as if all they had to do was to stoop down and dig it out. These rocks by the way are in the beds of the streams, when at high water bars are formed over them often five or six feet. Before you get to the rocks and crevices you have to remove the stones, often heavy rocks, gravel and dirt, to the whole depth, and then scoop out the dirt lodged in the crevice, and under this dirt and sand or mixed with it lays the gold--sometimes you may spend a day or two in getting down to the rock and find no gold there; yet you may make a good strike and find thousands. Bars are not always so deep, and gold is found too during low water, when the rock is exposed, but there is always dirt in the crevice which covers the gold, and to obtain this it is frequently necessary to pry up large masses with a bar or lever and then gather the dust and wash it.
But work is work, at home as well as here, and it is not the labor which is so exceptionable, for all do, or at least should expect to labor hard to obtain "the dust." There are difficulties of another kind to encounter which are insurmountable.--From July to October the weather is too hot, especially in the mountain gorges where the "winds do not blow" and where no rain falls to cool the feverish air, to work, and the nights are often cold, giving two extremes in twenty-four hours. Chills often are the consequence to those who attempt to brave the climate. From November--at least from the 1st of December till April--the continued rains and floods make it impossible for men to labor but little of the time without entailing disease upon them, and when a man gets sick in the mines, even if he has a physician and medicine, the food he gets is not of the kind required, and prices of attendance and of necessaries are so high that a month's sickness sweeps off a "big pile." Physicians' charges are one ounce per visit. Nurses charge from ten dollars up to any price. As miners often change their location, a great variety of provisions cannot be carried, and the essential and most convenient ones are pork, flour and salt. This diet, long continued, produces scurvy, of which I have known and seen many instances. These are the general difficulties, and I now proceed to facts respecting those who have come in the present season. A few had provisions enough left to go at once into the mines on their arrival, but they were very few. Some of these have done well, while many have done but little. But by far the greatest part were obliged to get provisions before they could make a step towards the mines. The seasons was somewhat advanced before they arrived; many were without money and had to go to work to earn enough before they could buy provisions. Others rushed to the mines and went to work without experience, depending on their luck for subsistence. Without tents, many without blankets to shield them from the cold night air, living on pork and hard bread, with a burning sun by day, hundreds were stricken down by disease; many died, while others were unfitted for work for the rest of the season. On my arrival at the mines there was a heavy rain of twelve hours, and I know of four men who lay out in it, all of whom were too sick with chills and flux to sit up. I let my own blanket and buffalo skin go to cover one man from the storm within two hours after my arrival. His bones now lay on the mountains's side where the cold storm will trouble him no more. I know of companies of ten to fifteen men who crossed the plains, everyone of whom were down sick at once, with no one to wait on them. Some recovered and some died.
And there were many men who were taken sick on their arrival, before they could dig an ounce. Four men passed my shanty, where I am now writing, yesterday, who were in that condition, and they are trying to get to the Coast, hoping to find a change of climate there.
My friend Chipman has been unfortunate I have just learned that he was taken with the scurvy on the road and now hobbles about on crutches. He has been within eight miles of me a month, and an accident only made us acquainted with our proximity. I shall see him tomorrow and minister all in my power to his wants. And those who went to the city for supplies--about the time of their return and before many got to their intended diggings, the rainy season set in; so that those who could have went to work can do but little till next spring--say June, when they must start off for more provisions; yet proper arrangements with their companies will enable them to do something, however. My own adventures will give you an inkling of some of a miner's troubles, which I will give you directly, and hundreds are at this moment much worse off than I am.
There has been much sickness, not only in the mines but through the Valley generally, and a good deal of suffering--I have seen it and could fill sheets with individual cases. If there is anything like getting acclimated to the country, the emigrants are going it with a rush, Mr. Bryant to the contrary notwithstanding. Hundreds are leaving the mines on account of the scarcity of provisions. The rainy season has set in, and there are not provisions enough in these mines for those at work; of those who leave (and scores pass by my shanty daily) many expect to support themselves by labor in the city, but at this season business is suspended there, and they will find nothing to do at any price, and I do not believe that there are tents and houses enough to contain the throng that are rushing in. If a man has gold enough to support him and a tent, it may do to go to the city, but if he has neither he may die of want, for there are so many cases that common charity cannot relieve them. Yet, strange enough, it is the best country to make money in I ever saw, and a man who can and will work is pretty sure of congressman's wages, at least during the season of labor, which will be after the rains and floods are over. The rains have played the deuce with the calculations of a good many. They had been at work in the mines, some successfully, and having got enough to purchase supplies, dispatched a team after them. The rains have come on, and twenty-four hours have made the roads so bad in this beautiful and charming Valley that they are either fast in the mud on the Valley plain, wealth-bound on the bank of some stream or slough, or trying to count the stars amid the fogs and clouds of the first hill. The latter is my case precisely.--I have not yet found out exactly how many stars there are in the Milky Way, but I know within a few feet how deep the mud is between me and my camp at Bidwell Bar, only ten miles distant. Well, I lent my yoke and chains today to a man to pull an ox out of the mud that got mired fast, although he was driving his cattle unyoked before him, and this is on a side hill of the mountain. You know I came here to make money. On my arrival at Lawson's, the two men who had engaged to work a year for me that I brought through, left me as a matter of course, and I took charge of my own team. On reaching the city, I took a load of provisions and started off for some place, not knowing exactly where, but to be governed by circumstances. The third day I lost one of my best oxen--strayed and got lost myself in hunting for him in a tangled morass where the brush, pea and grape vines were so thick as to make it almost impossible to get through.
I got out, however, after a half day's hard labor, but did not find my ox and was compelled to buy another. Circumstances directed me to the Feather River mines, and I cleared six hundred dollars in two weeks on my load, and started for the city about the 20th of October for a recruit. No accident occurred in going down, but the day before reaching the Yuba the 3rd of November, the rains commenced, although the old settlers assured us that we would have no trouble from rains till about Christmas. It poured down steadily for twenty-four hours and then held up. We drove five miles to the Yuba, where we had to lay up, as there was no grass nor water for the next twelve miles--too long a drive for the afternoon. The next morning we started out (there being three wagons in company) and I, being acquainted with the ford, took the lead. I observed that the river was swollen, but still thought it fordable and drove in. The opposite landing was only wide enough for a wagon to go up the bank, and I noticed my leaders were giving ground, and I jumped into the river to keep them up, but I found the current so strong that I was glad to get back on the wagon. As the water went deeper the current was stronger, and I soon saw my cattle could not stem it and were now at least two rods below the landing, unable to gain an inch upstream, and when within three rods of the shore they turned down the stream. I stopped them and jumped in to keep them towards the bank at least, but now I could not stand, and the current whirled me away like a shaving. I caught hold of my leader's horn as I was passing him and drew myself back to the wagon. I reflected that all my capital was there and that it was of the first moment to save my cattle.
No aid could be given me by my friends on shore, as the current would sweep them away, and they stood there helpless, expecting to see me go to Davy Jones' bag and baggage, every instant. I got out between the wheel cattle and, with the utmost labor, finally succeeded in getting the chain unhooked in about half an hour. The cattle started for the back shore, and I started for the wagon, but I was whirled away again with no more consideration by the foaming waters than if I had not been a teamster. But I caught hold of one of my oxen's tail and in this inglorious manner was tailed out, so chilled by the cold mountain stream that I could scarcely stand. Towards noon I went up to a ranch nearby to see if I could get a horse to ride in to my wagon, when a fiery young fellow swore he could get my wagon out or draw it to h--1. "Well, my fine fellow, if you will do it I will give you ten dollars and risk the wagon's going to the d--1." He took three yoke of strong cattle and a horse--drove down to the river, when his courage evaporated entirely and he dared not even ride in. I then took his horse and rode in myself, and availing myself of the aid of a strong company that had just arrived, I took one end of a rope, while they held to the other; landing into my wagon and sending my horse ashore, I contrived to fasten the rope to the wagon tongue, when the men hauled it to the shore safe and sound. With much labor I cut a path through the thicket of willows which line the bank, dug the bank down, unloaded my wagon, and secured my load, just as a second edition of the first rain commenced, when I retreated to my wagon, where I spent a delicious night with the river foaming under me and the heavens "hung with black," though I was this side up and kept dry, all but my wet clothes. The next morning the river was lower (as there had been no rain during the previous day) and the other wagons passed safely over, and hitching five yoke of cattle to my wagon tongue, it was drawn out and we soon started off. But now it rained and we found the rich soil of this charming Valley so unctuous that it was dark before we reached our campground, our cattle completely exhausted, ourselves completely soaked, and our song of "Susanna, don't you cry," washed out of our memories by the trouble of getting our fires lighted and of cooking our suppers in the rain--in fact, we "just took a cold bite and went right to bed."
The next morning dawned with outpourings upon us, and for my especial comfort I was violently seized with bloody flux, brought on, probably, by extreme exposure. We lay there six days, during which it rained incessantly. I found my comfort in two doses of calomel and about half a ton of opium (or less) which straightened my internal relations, and the good and kind care of my companions, Messrs. Billinghurst, of Chicago, and Erholtz Holland of New Lisbon, Ohio, brought me to my feet. They stuck to me like brothers, and their nursing probably went as far as the medicine to make me whole again--and we stick together yet in the mud on the mountainside, and we will stick together after we get out of the mire.
As soon as we could move, we left our delightful quarters and, crossing a deep slough that now was a deep and rapid torrent in four days, we reached the first hill at the foot of the mountains twenty miles distant
One would naturally suppose that once upon the high ground where the water had a chance to run off readily, the road would have been better, but we found the contrary to be the case. Ascending the first bench, the soft red soil was so completely saturated that any farther movement was utterly out of the question, for in or out of the road, the cattle sunk up to their bellies in mire, and scarcely an hour had passed that some courageous and go-ahead individual did not get fast, and several could not get their cattle out at all, and they perished miserably in the mud. There was not a blade of grass, and the only way left was for us to send our cattle back to the plain below, ten miles, to graze while we erected a kind of bough house (not a "bower of roses") and determined to await the course of events. Up to the present time, over two weeks, I have been on duty as bodyguard to the wagons. Our men come down and take up provisions as they need them, and instead of clearing over a thousand dollars which I should have done with ease upon my load, it is now probable that I shall stay here and eat it all up, and mine is not a solitary instance. It is only an exemplification of hundreds of teams who "went down into Egypt" for corn when I did. Most of them are still behind, unable to cross the streams, while their companions above are practicing the art of living without food or nearly approximating to it. In the meantime provisions are so scarce and high that hundreds are leaving for the city to buy provisions, intending to spend the winter on the spoils they have already won. Flour here is $200 per bbl., pork, $200; sugar, 75c. per pound; butter, $2.50; rice, 50c.; hard bread, $1.25c.; molasses, $5 per gallon; vinegar, $5; tobacco, $1; pipes from 25 to 50c.; fresh beef, 50c., &c. &c., so that during the rainy season a man can just about pay his way.
Yet you daily hear of men who have been successful and who have got enough to satisfy them in a few weeks. Now I believe this to be the actual state of things at this time. What another season may bring about, I cannot say; but I presume that arrangements will be made to get up provisions so that miners will be better supplied than they are this fall. Heavy shipments of provisions from the States must pay well next year unless it is brought here by speculators. When I first went to Sacramento City, I bought flour at $15 per bbl. Towards the close of the season the speculators put it up to $40. I saw a barrel of sauerkraut sell for $100; pickles (common) sell at $4 per gallon, and were measured in a two-quart measure. They have been scarce and are an invaluable article and almost indispensable in the mines as an anti-scorbutic. Vinegar in the city sells for $1.00 per gallon. The character of the miners so far as I have seen, as a general thing, is highly respectable. As much order reigns here as at home, and thus far property is more safe. No serious difficulties have occurred, and slight difficulties are adjusted by arbitration.
Firearms and bowie knives are nuisances, and when a man makes a claim, it is respected as long as he works it, as long as he leaves his pick and tools in it.
I still keep a journal of incidents from which I may occasionally copy for you, but this communication is intended simply to place the actual state of things before you as they now exist, independent of a regular routine of events. I am obliged to close this as I have an opportunity of sending it off. Since my leaving home to the present moment, I have not heard a single word from any of my friends. The mails are more than three months behind. I have written you fully of my whole trip besides one or two minor communications, and have written to many friends besides. Whether you will receive my letters or not, I cannot say. An express in now in operation between here and the States, and I shall hereafter send my letters by it to be mailed at some post office in the States, although the cost of each letter is one dollar paid to the agents. I wish all communications and papers to me, to be directed to Sacramento City.
- Valley Of The Sacramento
- Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division
Alonzo Delano's California correspondence: being letters hitherto uncollected from the Ottawa (Illinois) Free trader and the New Orleans True delta