The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right. — G. K. Chesterton

Gold Seekers of '49 - Edwin Sabin

On to the Diggin's

Suisun Bay was bordered with reedy marshes where the rushes grew higher than a man's head. It seemed to be a great hunting ground, for ducks, geese and swans flew in armies—a beautiful sight in the sunset. These quite excited the Mary Ann's passengers, until suddenly somebody noted, distant in the east, ahead, a long broken line of bluish white.


"Look at the mountains, boys!"

"No! Those are clouds."

"No, siree! Mountains, with snow on 'em!"

"Hooray for the Sierras, boys! There's where the gold lies."

"See them?" bade Mr. Grigsby, to Charley and his father. "That's the main range of the Sierra Nevada—the Snowy Range, as the Spanish goes. It divides California from the Great Desert. Over it Carson led Fremont and us other fellows, in winter, through ten and twenty feet of snow, to the headwaters of the American River and down the American River to Sutter's Fort and the Sacramento. How far away is that range, do you think?"

"Near a hundred miles, I should judge," calculated Mr. Adams.

Various passengers were guessing twenty, fifty, one hundred and two hundred miles—making all kinds of wild assertions. But Charley's father had struck pretty accurately, for he had seen mountains before, in Mexico.

"Just about," approved Mr. Grigsby. "The nearest perhaps seventy-five. But Sacramento's more than sixty miles yet, by the river, and the high Sierras are one hundred miles up the American from there."

As evening fell, the Mary Ann was entering a wide channel through the marshes where the San Joaquin River from the south and the Sacramento, further on the east, emptied into Suisun Bay. The mouth of the San Joaquin, said several people, was narrow and shallow, and boats ascending for Stockton and the southern mines frequently went aground if the tide was out; but the Sacramento was wide and deep. A mist or fog began to veil the shores and water, and passengers prepared to go to bed. The Adams party decided to sleep rolled in their blankets on deck—which suited Charley exactly. He had grown fond of this open-air sleeping, and planks did not seem hard any more.

The breeze died, and in the dusk the anchor rattled out, holding the schooner short, near the mouth of the Sacramento. All night the wild fowl screamed—and all night the mosquitoes hummed. Charley stuck his head under his blanket and slept fairly well.

The sun rose red, and so did many of the passengers, for the mosquitoes had been fierce indeed. But everybody was good-natured; a few hardships must be expected, in making a fortune. With the morning breeze the Mary Ann hoisted in her anchor. All sails set again, she glided through the slough, and struck the current of the Sacramento.

The Sacramento proved to be a fine, noble stream, flowing 200 and 300 yards wide, with gentle current and plenty of "sea room" around and under. The banks were heavily timbered clear to the water's edge, flowers blossomed gaily, and through grassy openings in the timber on the right were given glimpses of the distant foothills, over-topped by the blue-misted snow-crests behind them. It certainly looked like a wonderful country, not only for mining but for farming, also.

The banks appeared mainly deserted, save where squatters, as they were called, had taken land, cleared it, and had piled up wood to sell. There was one spot which Mr. Grigsby said was an Indian village, and he pointed out reed huts. But the most interesting feature was the boats, most of them going up, a few coming down.

There were two schooners, larger than the Mary Ann, but crowded as full, which, just ahead, tacking back and forth, sometimes were near, sometimes far. There were also smaller boats, skiffs and scows, full to the gunwales, their passengers rowing and paddling hard, as if in a race. In one funny hand-made skiff the men were using boards and even pans. They scarcely paused to cheer the Mary Ann as she triumphantly glided past, and her passengers yelled:

"Bye-bye!" "See you later!" "We're bound for the mines. Where are you going?" "Want a tow?" And so forth, and so forth. Another boat was a suspiciously built yawl, which looked much like the boat in which Charley had slept, over the stern of the California. It held nine men, three of them in sailor costumes; and on the bows a name evidently had been scratched out. Rowing desperately, the men in it barely glanced up as the Mary Ann passed. They appeared to be anxious to sheer off.

"Here's a runaway, I'll bet my hat," exclaimed the captain of the Mary Ann, who happened to be standing near the Adams party. "It's a ship's boat, and those men row like sailors—let alone their clothes. They've taken French leave, for the mines. It's impossible to hold a crew, in San Francisco Bay. If they can't steal a boat they'll swim ashore and make their way on foot."

Now down the river came a broad scow, made of rough planks, and steered by sweeps. As it passed, the men in it (who wore miners' costumes) waved their hands—and see; they held up gunny sacks and salt bags, stuffed full and heavy.

"Just from the mines," they shouted. "Back from the land of gold. You're too late. We got it all."

The sight of those fat, heavy sacks created intense excitement aboard the Mary Ann. The passengers rushed to the near rail; eyes bulged and voices volleyed in a chorus of questions—and several persons almost jumped overboard.

"Where'd you get it?"

"How much?"

"There's more, isn't there?"

"Wait a minute!"

"Stop the ship, captain!"

"Hey! Show us a handful!"

Charley was as excited as anybody. Big sacks of gold! Think of that! Look at them! But the captain laughed, winking at Mr. Grigsby.

"Sand, boys; sand," he drawled. "That's a trick of those up-river fellows. They load with bags of sand for ballast, and show them to the other crowd. Bah!"

At this Charley felt better, although he did not begrudge anybody a sack of gold, if only there was enough left.

The Mary Ann made rather slow progress. The river, always broad and smooth, curved in mighty sweeping bends, so that sometimes the breeze was dead ahead. Then the Mary Ann must tack and tack, gaining only a few yards in several hundred. At night she tied up, to a tree; and several of her passengers caught some fish from the rail. Charley tended a line, for a few minutes, and caught a cat-fish that weighed twenty pounds; he couldn't pull it in until his neighbor helped.

The Sacramento evidently flowed through a wide valley, for mountains were visible beyond the timber on either hand. Each evening the schooner stopped for the night, tying or anchoring. Not until noon of the fifth day on the river was any sign of settlement along the banks encountered, although boats continued frequent. But that noon a large ranch was passed, where a settler by the name of Schwartz had been wise enough to start in raising vegetables. He had made over $15,000 already, claimed people aboard the schooner—yet for all that nobody on the Mary Ann seemed ready to farm instead of mine.

Next, ahead on the right bank, above the Schwartz ranch, appeared a collection of houses and tents. The Mary Ann waxed excited again.

"There's Sacramento!"

"Get your things together, boys."

"Is that Sacramento, cap'n?"

"No, sir," answered the captain, shortly. "That's only Sutterville."

"Do we stop?"

"No, sir; we do not."

"Where's Sacramento?"

"Three miles above."

"This must be the town old Captain Sutter's started," remarked Mr. Grigsby, surveying it narrowly. "Well, he's taken plenty of land to spread out in." And that was so, for about twenty houses were scattered along the high bank for half a mile. "Hope the old captain's up at Sacramento. I'd like to see him."

"How large is Sacramento, stranger?" asked a neighbor at the rail.

"Large, you say?" answered another. "Make yore guess. Last April when I came out with my pile it had four houses. Now I'm told it's boomin' wuss'n San Francisco—and you know what that means."

"So you've been to the mines, have you?" invited Mr. Adams.

"Yes, sir; I have, sir. You bet I have, sir."

"How'd you make it?"

"To the tune of $20,000 in two weeks, sir. Then I was fool enough to quit, and spend it all in San Francisco. But here I'm back again, for $50,000."

Instantly everybody within sound of his voice deluged him with questions, as to "How much could be dug in a day," and other foolish remarks. Charley stared at him. This certainly was a wonderful land. If a man could make and spend $20,000 and then expect $50,000 more, why should anyone remain poor?

"Look at the ships!" cried voices, as the Mary Ann rounded a curve.

Against the timber to the right, before, rose a score and more of mast-heads. Above the timber floated a cloud of brown dust, as if stirred by many feet. And beyond the masts, in the midst of the trees, could be descried tents and houses—a great number, laid out in streets, with a levee of earth and sod piled high with freight and baggage, fronting the river. This was Sacramento, at last!

[Illustration] from Gold Seekers of '49 by Edwin Sabin

The Mary Ann glided in on a long tack. Down fluttered her main-sail, presently down fluttered her fore-sail; and as she swung to, spilling the breeze from her jibs, close to the bank at the end of the levee, a sailor sprang into the water and swimming until he could wade carried a hawser ashore. This he made fast to the great root of a tree, washed bare by the waters. All up and down the banks other vessels were moored likewise, to trees and trunks and roots, so that some of the branches brushed the yards and spars. A number of cook's galleys had been set up on shore, as cabins, and several ship's figure-heads were established like sign-posts! It was a queer water-front—and what a swarm of people it exhibited!

From the Mary Ann Sacramento looked even busier than San Francisco. It was better laid out, too, for the streets were regular and straight.

"Four houses and fifty people three months ago; 5,000 people now and houses going up so fast you can't count 'em," said the red-faced captain, as in obedience to his orders the mate dropped the schooner's boats. "Wish I'd bought some lots here when they were offered to me—three for a thousand apiece."

"What are they worth now?" asked Charley, breathless.

"Well, sonny, a lot twenty feet wide is selling for $2,300." And the captain turned away.

The passengers were piling ashore; some would not wait for a boat; the Mary Ann had swung close to the bank, and they made running jumps from the rail, to land sprawling in the shallows or to plump out of sight and swim. When the Adams party finally stepped from the skiff to the levee (which was called embarcadero, of course) they were fairly deafened by a multitude of cries from citizens who insisted upon their buying lots. But Mr. Grigsby sighted a stout, ruddy-faced man; and exclaiming: "There's Captain Sutter!" made for him.

He and the captain shook hands heartily, and Mr. Grigsby brought his friend over to the rest of the party.

"Captain Sutter, gentlemen," introduced the Fremonter (and Charley felt quite like a man, to be included in "gentlemen"). "The first American settler in California, and the friend of all the other Americans who came after. You've heard of Sutter's Fort. He was the boss."

Captain Sutter was a short, stoutly built man, with crisp mustache and goatee, and a military way. His complexion was florid, his eyes very blue, and his forehead so high that probably he was bald. He looked to be German (though really he was Swiss), and he spoke with a German accent. His manner was very courtly, as he bowed and shook hands.

"Yes, of Sutter's Fort—but where is that now?" he said. "These gold seekers, they run over it; they leave me nothing. They have no rights of land to respect. Ach, what is the country coming to? All here was mine, once. See, now! Somebody put up a city, on this embarcadero where I landed my supplies for my fort. My saw-mill is a hotel—the City Hotel—and for it and the land it is on somebody gets $30,000 per year, they tell me. Nobody work for me any more; even my Indians go to mining gold, and my wheat fields are stepped all over. My new city which I start only three miles below, and call by my name—my gute name which when I was useful was so popular—is neglected, and everybody flock here. I once was rich; now soon I am bankrupt; all because my men discovered this gold. This gold, I hate it. It will be the ruin of this country."

"Well, captain, I'm sorry to hear this from you," said Mr. Grigsby. "But I'm powerful glad to see you, anyway. You've been too generous. You gave away your land, so as to help build up the country."

"Yes," answered the captain. "I did not want the gold, but I did not think the people would go crazy and flock over everything and obey me not at all. Well, what can I do for you, my friends?"

"We're going in to the mines, captain," informed Mr. Grigsby. "How's the horse and mule market? We want a pack animal of some kind. Colonel Fremont said you might be able to help us. I saw him in San Francisco."

"The grand Colonel!" exclaimed Captain Sutter. "For my real American friends I would do anything yet." He spread his hands. "But horses and mules? One time I remember I had many for you—that time you came out of the mountains so nearly famished to my fort. Now times are different. Horse and mule sell for $100, where they used to be ten. Maybe when the emigrants begin to come in, over the mountains, with their beasts, things will be different. I hear 30,000 are on the way, for the American River and the Sacramento. But I guess I know of one mule. I will try. Come this way, gentlemen. Leave your baggage. It will be safe—safer than the land it is on."

Captain Sutter led the way from the levee, crowded with people and baggage and freight. What a beautiful city this Sacramento was growing to be! The buildings were mainly of rough-sawn timber, with some of clay, and of course many tents; but the streets were wide, and straight, and everywhere great trees had been left standing, many of them six feet through at the ground. Business of buying and selling real estate and goods was at full blast. As he trotted along, the captain proved talkative.

"You saw my own city of Sutter's Ville, below?" he asked. "That is a much better site; not? It is high and dry, while this place—bah! Gentlemen, in the spring I have moored my boats to the tops of trees on that very embarcadero! But we shall see. I have hired Lieutenant Sherman of the Army to survey between my town and this, and connect the two; and maybe soon they will be one. Lieutenant Davidson, of the Army—he is surveying my town now, for fine streets and big lots."

"Davidson? Lieutenant J. W. Davidson, I suppose," remarked Charley's father; and Captain Sutter nodded. "He was with General Kearny in that overland march with the First Dragoons, from Santa Fe to San Diego, in the summer of Forty-six, when the Army was sent to capture California."

"Yes, sir," answered the captain. "But my friend Fremont and Kit Carson and Mr. Grigsby, here, and the American settlers, they got in ahead of the United States Army. Still, we needed the Army, like we needed the Navy; and we need them still. It is another of General Kearny's officers, Lieutenant John Warner, who surveyed this Sacramento City. A brave man, a very brave man. Three lance wounds he got, in the battle of San Pasqual, when the Californians would have prevented the Army from entering to San Diego. He is now already far up in the Sierra Nevada, at the head of the Feather River, surveying for a railroad route, I hear. Think, gentlemen! Soon a railroad, maybe!"

Captain Sutter had led the way to a rude hut of woven grass walls and thatch roof, on the outskirts of the town. Here he halted, and called:

"Ho, Pedro! Amigo (friend)!"

An Indian came out. Yes, an Indian—but different from the Indians whom Charley had seen in Missouri. He was squatty, dark and wrinkled, his hair cut short, and cotton shirt and trousers as his clothes. The captain spoke to him in Spanish. Pedro listened, and with a nod, turning, made off at a trot. In a moment he came back, leading from a shed among a clump of trees a small donkey.

"A burro, 'pon my word!" exclaimed Mr. Adams. "I haven't seen a donkey like that out of Mexico!"

"It is the best Pedro has," explained the captain. "These gold seekers so crazy they have robbed him, because they think he is nothing but an Indian. There will be troubles with my Indians, if the whites do not treat them better. Anyway, gentlemen, this animal is not so small as his size. He will carry all you put aboard him, and Pedro will sell him for twenty-five dollar, since you are friends of mine. Otherwise, he would not sell him at all."

"Good," said Mr. Adams. "Bueno," he added, so that Pedro might understand. "We'll take him, and glad of it."

So they bought the burro (a funny little creature with shaggy head, enormously long ears, and small hoofs) and led him away, Charley proudly holding the rope.

"You are lucky, my friends," spoke Captain Sutter; "one other animal there was, which I found for those friends of yours who came through the day before yesterday."

"What!" exclaimed Mr. Adams, sharply. "Who were they?"

"A rather small, dark man with a very long nose, sir, and two companions. They came by trail, from San Francisco, they said, and wanted a pack animal. They told me of my friend Grigsby, who had recommended them to me if they saw me, and of course I was happy to oblige them."

"Great thunder!" muttered Mr. Grigsby, as he and Mr. Adams stared at one another. But he quickly added, as if not to hurt the honest captain's feelings: "Very good, captain. When did they leave? Going up the American?"

"They left immediately, and I think they spoke of the American," answered the captain. "Yes," he continued, placidly, "it was a large bay mule, with one ear under-bitten—a notch taken out of it. I was of course happy to oblige them; but this burro I saved for you."

No, there was no use in telling the captain of his mistake, and making him feel bad; and Mr. Adams shook his head warningly at Charley. But what nerve, on the part of the long-nosed man! However, Mr. Adams only said:

"We'd better set right out, then, Grigsby."

"Can I do anything more for you, gentlemen?" inquired Captain Sutter.

"No, thank you, captain. We're fixed nicely. Now we'll pack up and leave at once. Time is precious, you know, to us gold seekers. Where is Jim Marshall? Up at the saw-mill?"

"Yes, at Coloma, but the saw-mill is not running. We have nobody to run it. Ah," mused the captain, "everyone is in a great hurry, like you. They see nothing but gold, much gold. It was not so in the old days. Well," he added, extending his hand, "good-bye, gentlemen, and good luck. Maybe we shall meet again."

They shook hands with him, thanked him once more for his kindness, and he trotted off—evidently as "hurried" as other people.