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The daylight woke us next morning to the realization that if we were to accomplish anything we must be up and stirring. The world around us was all alive. Camp fires crackled, breakfast steamed, and long lines of mules and horses, packed with provisions, filed past on their way out from what was already called a city. The three or four wooden buildings and the zinc banking house, owned by Sam Brannan, looked like solid masonry beside the airy canvas structures which gleamed in the October sunshine like cloud pictures. There was no credit in '49 for men, but I was a woman with two children, and I might have bought out the town with no security other than my word. My first purchase was a quart of molasses for a dollar, and a slice of salt pork as large as my hand, for the same price. That pork, by-the-by, was an experience. When it went into the pan it was as innocent looking pork as I ever saw, but no sooner did it touch the fire than it pranced, it sizzled, frothed over the pan, sputtered, crackled, and acted as if possessed. When finally it subsided, there was left a shaving the size of a dollar, and my pork had vanished into smoke. I found afterward that many of our purchases were as deceptive, for the long trip around the "Horn" was not calculated to improve an article which was probably inferior in quality when it left New York. The flour we used was often soured and from a single sieve-full I have sifted out at one time a handful of long black worms. The butter was brown from age and had spent a year on the way out to California. I once endeavored to freshen some of this butter by washing it first in chloride of lime, and afterwards churning it with fresh milk. I improved it in a measure, for it became white, but still it retained its strength. It was, however, such a superior article to the origninal "Boston" butter, that my boarders ate it as a luxury. Strange to say, in a country overrun with cattle as California was in early days, fresh milk and butter were unheard of, and I sold what little milk was left from my children's meals for the enormous price of a dollar a pint. Many a sick man has come to me for a little porridge, half milk, half water, and thickened with flour, and paid me a dollar and a half a bowl full. The beans and dried fruits from Chile, and the yams and onions from the Sandwich Islands, were the best articles for table use we had for months. The New York warehouses were cleared of the provisions they had held for years, and after a twelve-months' sea voyage, they fed the hungry Californians.
Half the inhabitants kept stores; a few barrels of flour, a sack or two of yams, a keg of molasses, a barrel of salt pork, another of corned beef (like redwood in texture) some gulls' eggs from the Farallones, a sack of onions, a few picks and shovels, and a barrel of whisky, served for a stock in trade, while a board laid across the head of a barrel answered for a counter. On many counters were scales, for coin was rare, and all debts were paid in gold dust at sixteen dollars per ounce. In the absence of scales a pinch of dust was accepted as a dollar, and you may well imagine the size of the pinch very often varied from the real standard. Nothing sold for less than a dollar; it was the smallest fractional currency. A dollar each for onions, a dollar each for eggs, beef a dollar a pound, whisky a dollar a drink, flour fifty dollars a barrel. One morning an official of the town stopped at my fire, and said in his pompus way, "Madame, I want a good substantial breakfast, cooked by a woman." I asked him what he would have, and he gave his order, "Two onions, two eggs, a beef-steak and a cup of coffee." He ate it, thanked me, and gave me five dollars. The sum seems large now for such a meal, but then it was not much above cost, and if I had asked ten dollars he would have paid it.
After two or three days in Sacramento we sold our oxen, and with the proceeds, six hundred dollars, we bought an interest in the hotel kept in one of the wooden houses, a story-and-a-half building which stood on what is now known as K Street, near Sixth, close to what was then the Commercial Exchange, Board of Trade, and Chamber of Commerce, all in one "The Horse Market". The hotel we bought consisted of two rooms, the kitchen, which was my special province, and the general living room, the first room I had entered in Sacramento. I thought I had already grown accustomed to the queer scenes around me, but that first glimpse into a Sacramento hotel was a picture which only loss of memory can efface. Imagine a long room, dimly lighted by dripping tallow candles stuck into whisky bottles, with bunks built from floor to ceiling on either side. A bar with rows of bottles and glasses was in one corner, and two or three miners were drinking; the barkeeper dressed in half sailor, half vaquero fashion, with a blue shirt rolled far back at the collar to display the snowy linen beneath, and his waist encircled by a flaming scarlet sash, was in commanding tones subduing their noisy demands, for the barkeeper, next to the stage-driver, was in early days the most important man in camp. In the opposite corner of the room some men were having a wordy dispute over a game of cards; a cracked fiddle was, under the manipulation of rather clumsy fingers, furnishing music for some half dozen others to dance to the tune of "Moneymusk". One young man was reading a letter by a sputtering candle, and the tears rolling down his yet unbearded face told of the homesickness in his heart. Some of the men lay sick in their bunks, some lay asleep, and out from another bunk, upon this curious mingling of merriment and sadness stared the white face of a corpse. They had forgotten even to cover the still features with the edge of a blanket, and he lay there, in his rigid calmness, a silent unheeded witness to the acquired insensibility of the early settlers. What was one dead man, more or less! Nobody missed him. They would bury him tomorrow to make room for a new applicant for his bunk. The music and the dancing, the card-playing, drinking, and searing went on unchecked by the hideous presence of Death. His face grew too familiar in those days to be a terror.
It was a motley crowd that gathered every day at my table but always at my coming the loud voices were hushed, the swearing ceased, the quarrels stopped, and deference and respect were as readily and as heartily tendered me as if I had been a queen. I was a queen. Any woman who had a womanly heart, who spoke a kindly, sympathetic word to the lonely, homesick men, was a queen, and lacked no honor which a subject could bestow. Women were scarce in those days. I lived six months in Sacramento and saw only two. There may have been others, but I never saw them. There was no time for visiting or gossiping; it was hard work from daylight till dark, and sometimes long after, and I nodded to my neighbor and called out "Good morning" as each of us hung the clothes out to dry on the lines. Yes, we worked; we did things that our high-toned servants would now look at aghast, and say it was impossible for a woman to do. But the one who did not work in '49 went to the wall. It was a hand to hand fight with starvation at the first; later the "flush" times came, when the miners had given out their golden store, and every one had money.
Many a miserable unfortunate, stricken down by the horrors of scurvy or Panama fever, died in his lonely, deserted tent, and waited days for the hurrying crowd to bestow the rites of burial. It has been a life-long source of regret to me that I grew hard-hearted like the rest. I was hard-worked, hurried all day, and tired out, but I might have stopped sometimes for a minute to heed the moans which caught my ears from the canvas house next to me. I knew a young man lived there, for he had often stopped to say "Good morning", but I thought he had friends in the town; and when I heard his weak calls for water I never thought but some one gave it. One day the moans ceased, and, on looking in, I found him lying dead with not even a friendly hand to close his eyes. Many a time since, when my own boys have been wandering in new countries have I wept for the sore heart of that poor boy's mother, and I have prayed that if ever want and sickness came to mine, some other woman would be more tender than I had been, and give them at least a glass of cold water.
We lived two months in the "Trumbow House", then sold our interest in it for a thousand dollard in dust, and left it, moving a few doors below on K Street. The street was always full of wagons and pack-mules; five hundred would often pass in a day packed heavily with picks, shovels, camp-kettles, gum-boots, and provisions for the miners. A fleet of schooners and sloops anchored at the river bank was always unloading the freight from San Francisco. Steam-vessels had not yet plowed the muddy waters of the Sacramento. When one of these slow-moving schooners brought the Eastern mails there was excitement in the town. For the hour all work was suspended, and every man dropped into line to ask in turn for letters from home. Sometimes the letters came; more often the poor fellows turned away with pale faces and sick disappointment in their hearts. Even the fortunate recipients of the precious sheets seemed often not less sad, for the closely written lines brought with their loving words a host of tender memories, and many a man whose daily life was one long battle faced with fortitude and courage, succumbed at the gentle touch of the home letters and wept like a woman. There was never a jeer at these sacred tears, for each man respected, nay, honored the feelings of his neighbor. Brave, honest, noble men! The world will never see the like again of those "pioneers of '49". They were, as a rule, upright, energetic, and hard-working, many of them men of education and culture whom the misfortune of poverty had forced into the ranks of labor in this strange country. The rough days which earned for California its name for recklessness had not begun. There was no shooting, little gambling, and less theft in those first months. The necessities of hard work left no leisure for the indulgence even of one's temper, and the "rough" element which comes to every mining country with the first flush times had not yet begun to crowd the West.
One of the institutions of '49, which more than filled the place of our present local telegraphic and telephonic systems, was the "Town Crier". Every pioneer must remember his gaunt form, unshaven face, and long, unkempt hair, and his thin bob-tailed, sorrel Mexican pony, and the clang of his bell as he rode through the streets and cried his news. Sometimes he announced a "preaching", or a "show", "mail in", an "auction", or a "stray". Another of the features of the city was the horse market to which I have already alluded. A platform was built facing what was only by courtesy called the street, and from his elevation every day rang out the voice of the auctioneer and around it gathered the men who came to buy or sell. The largest trace of the day was in live stock. The miners who came down with dust exchanged it here for horses and mules to carry back their supplies, and vaqueros brought in their cattle to sell to the city butchers. Here, too, were sold the hay and grain, which almost brought their weight in gold.
The population of Sacramento was largely a floating one. Today there might be ten thousand people in the town, and tomorrow four thousand of them might be on their way to the gold fields. The immigrants came pouring in every day from the plains, and the schooners from San Francisco brought a living freight, eager to be away to the mountains.
There was not much lumber in Sacramento, and what little there was, and the few wooden houses, came in ships around the Horn from Boston. The great majority of the people lived like ourselves in houses made of canvas, and with natural dirt floors. The furniture was primitive: a stove (of which there always seemed plenty), a few cooking vessels, a table made of unplaned boards, two or three boxes which answered for chairs, and a bunk built in the corner to hold our mattresses and blankets. One of the articles on which great profit was made was barley, and my husband had invested our little fortune of a thousand dollars in that commodity at fifteen cents a pound, and this lay piled at the wind side of the house as an additional protection. The first night we spent in our new home it rained, and we slept with a coton umbrella, a vertable pioneer, spread over our heads to keep off the water. Men and animals struggled through a sea of mud. We wrung out our blankets every morning, and warmed them by the fire-they never had time to dry. The canvas roof seemed like a sieve, and the water dropped on us through every crevice.
At last the clouds broke, the sun shone out, the rain ceased, and the water began to sink away and give us a glimpse of mother earth, and everybody broke out into smiles and congratulations over the change. One afternoon late, about Christmas -- I do not remember the exact day -- as I was cooking supper and the men were coming in from work, the familiar clang of the Crier's bell was heard down the street, and, as he galloped past, the cry, "The levee's broke" fell on our ears. We did not realize what that cry foretold, but knew that it was a misfortune that was mutual, and one that every man must fight; so my husband ran like the rest to the Point, a mile or more away up the American River, where the temporary sand-bag barrier had given way. Every man worked with beating heart and hurrying breath to save the town, but it was useless; their puny strength could do nothing against such a flood of waters. At every moment the breech grew wider, and the current stronger, and they hastened back to rescue the threatened property. In the meantime I went on cooking supper, the children played about on the floor, and I stepped every minute to the door and looked up the street for some one to come back to tell me of the break.
While I stood watching, I saw tiny rivulets trickling over the ground, and behind them came the flood of waters in such a volume that it had not time to spread, but seemed like a little wall three or four inches high. Almost before I thought what it was, the water rushed against the door-sill at my feet and in five minutes more it rose over this small obstacle and poured on the floor. I snatched up the children, and put them on the bed, and hastily gathered up the articles which I feared the water might reach. The water kept rising, and I concluded to carry my children into the hotel, which we had lately sold, and which stood some three or four feet above the ground. I put them inside the door, and ran back, meeting my husband just come from the levee. He said, "We must sleep in there tonight" and, knowing the scanty hotel accommodations, I gathered up our beds and blankets and carried them in, and put in a basket the supper I had just cooked. By this time the water was six inches high in our house, and I knew we could not come back for some days, so I gathered up what I could of our clothing, and hurried again to the hotel through water which now reached nearly to my knees and ran with a force which almost carried me off my feet. In an hour more the whole town was afloat, and the little boats were rowed here and there picking up the people and rescuing what could be saved of the property. It was not until later in the night that we began to feel real alarm, for we expected every hour to see the water subside, but it steadily rose, and at midnight we moved to the upper floor. All through the night came the calls for "Help! help!" from every quarter, and the men listened a moment and then rowed in the direction of the call, sometimes too late to save. The cruel clouds clung like a cloak over the moon, and refused to break and give them light to aid them in their search. Sometimes for a moment the light shone through, but only long enough to make the darkness blacker. And the waters rushed and roared, and pale, set faces peered into the darkness, upon the hurrying monster which swallowed up in its raging fury the results of their hard labors and their perseverance.
The place where we had taken refuge was one long room, a half story with a window at each end; and here for several days lived forty people. There was one other woman besides myself and my two children; all the rest were men. For provisions, we caught the sacks of onions or boxes of anything which went floating by, or fished up with boat-hooks whatever we could. The fire by which we cooked was built of driftwood. Those were days of terror and fear, for at every minute we expected to follow the zinc house we saw float away on the flood. The water splashed upon the ceiling below, and the rain and the wind made the waves run high on this inland sea. The crazy structure shook and trembled at every blast of wind or rush of water, but the swiftest current turned away and left us standing. They hung a blanket across one corner of the room, and that little territory, about six feet by four, was mine exclussively during our stay. The rest of the space was common property, where we cooked and ate during the day, and at night the men slept on the floor, rolled in their blankets. Two or three boats were tied always at the windows, and the men rowed out to the river and back again, bringing provisions from the store hulks, and news from the people who had taken refuge on the vessels lying there. It came to be a horrible suspense, waiting either for the expected destruction or watching for the first abating of the waters. Even now, more than thirty years after, I can not hear the sound of continuous rain without, in a measure, living over again the terrors of those monotonous days, and fell creeping over me the dread of the rising waters.
Many an occurrence of those terrible days would have been funny, had we not been so filled with fear, and had not tragedy trodden so closely on the heels of comedy. Heroic actions went unnoticed and uncounted. Every man was willing, and many times did risk his life to aid his neighbor. Many a poor fellow doubtless found his death in the waters, and his grave far out at sea, perhaps in the lonely marshes which lined the river banks. There were few close ties and few friendships; and when a familiar fact dropped out no one knew whether the man was dead or gone away, nobody inquired, nobody cared. The character of the pioneers was a paradox. They were generous to a degree which we can scarcely realize, yet selfish beyond parallel.
One of the numerous queer accessories of our flood-surrounded household was the gentlemen's dressing-room. If there had been any one there to see, it must have been a very remarkable performance. Each man took his bundle of clothing, brought from the schooners, and rowing to the center of the house, climbed up to the peak of the roof, where, at his leisure, and in a dexterously acrobatic way, he re-arranged his toilet and cast his insect-infested clothing into the flood. Inside the house the scenes were quite as remarkable. We had all professions among our number: lawyers, physicians, miners, mechanics, merchants. Some had been senators, some gamblers; some had been owners of great plantations in the South; some had shipped before the mast. And they talked in groups about the fire, told stories, sang- rarely some one played melancholy tunes on a sad violin -played cards, gathered drift-wood, and sawed and split it up, dried their wet garments by the fire, and watched for the turning of the flood. At the end of ten days the change came; and at the end of the seventeenth day the water had run down to wading depth and we left the hotel.
The fastenings of the canvas of our house had broken away, but by some good fortune it still clung to the slender scantlings, so we had the beginnings of a house. Between the supports had gathered great piles of drift-wood and the carcasses of several animals; in one corner lay our rusty stove, the whole covered with slime and sediment. My husband cleared out the small enclosure, fastened down the canvas walls, and built a floating floor, which rose and sank with the tide, and at every footstep the water splashed up through the open cracks. We walked on a plank from the floor to the beds, under which hung great sheets of mould. At night, when I awoke, I reached down the bed-post till my hand touched the water, and if it had risen above a certain notch, we got up and packed our movables, in preparation for a new misfortune; if it was still below the notch, we went to sleep again. A boat was tied always at the door, ready to carry us away, and we lived in this way for six weeks in constant anticipation of another overflow. The canvas city was laid low; the wooden houses stood like grim sentinels in the waste, and slime and drift-wood covered the whole town. The flood of '49, I have been told, was not nearly so high as that of '52, and probably wrecked a far smaller quantity of property, but it was an unexpected blow to the '49ers, and therefore carried with it everthing they had. There was not protection of any kind for property. The canvas which covered their scanty stores of goods was no barrier against the inroads of that ocean.
No attempt had been made to ward off the effects of so fearful and powerful an enemy, and the survivors were left, as we were, adrift without a dollar. When the mule trains began to move again, the poor beasts would flounder out of one hole into another, miring sometimes half up to their sides, and would be packed and unpacked half a dozen times in the length of as many blocks. Our little fortune of barley was gone - the sacks had burst and the grain had sprouted - and ruin stared us again in the face. We were terrified at the awful termination of the winter, and I felt that I should never again be safe unless high in the Sierra. A new excitement came whispered down from the mountains, that they had "struck it rich" at Nevada City - for every group of three or four tents was called a city -so we made up our minds that we would try the luck of the new mining camp. But how to get there? That was the question. We had neither money nor wagons, and apparently no way to get them. Finally we found a man with an idle team, who said he would take us, that is myself and the two children, and a stove and two sacks of flour, to Nevada City for seven hundred dollars. This looked hopeless, and I told him I guessed we wouldn't go as we had no money. I must have carried my honesty in my face, for he looked at me a minute and said, "I'll take you, Ma'am, if you will go security for the money." I promised him it should be paid. "if I lived, and we made the money". So, pledged to a new master, Debt, we pressed forward on the road. It took us twelve long days and nights to traverse the distance of sixty miles, from Sacramento to Nevada City. There were no roads and the track, well nigh effaced by the winter storms, led up and down steep mountains, across deep ravines, through marshy holes, and over mountain streams. We were away from any shelter, for the way was as desolate as if the foot of man had never trod the soil. Scarce a sound broke the stillness of the nights except the sighing of the pines, the crash of a falling tree, or the howling of a panther. Sometimes we were overtaken by mule trains which passed us and vanished into the woods like phantoms. Occasionally we came across a lonely prospector, bending over his rocker, watching with eager eyes for the precious dust; but like a spirit, he presently dropped out of sight, and we were again alone.
The winter rains and melting snows had saturated the earth like a sponge, and the wagon and oxen sunk like lead in the sticky mud. Sometimes a whole day was consumed in going two or three miles, and one day we made camp but a quarter of a mile distant from the last. The days were spent in digging out both animals and wagon, and the light of the camp fire was utilized to mend the broken bolts and braces. We built the fire at night close by the wagon, under which we slept, for it had no cover. To add to the miseries of the trip it rained, and one night when the wagon was mired, and we could not shelter under it, we slept with our feet pushed under it and the old cotton umbrella spread over our faces. Sometimes, as we went down the mountains, they were so steep we tied great trees behind to keep the wagon from falling over the oxen; and once when the whole surface of the mountain side was a smooth, slippery rock, the oxen stiffened out their legs, and wagon and all literally slid down a quarter of a mile. But the longest way has an end. At last we caught the glimmer of the miners' huts far down in the gulch and reached the end of our journey.