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The Silver Dons, 1833-1865

CHAPTER EIGHT: The Burning Trail

Some months passed before the news of gold reached the towns and settlements of California. At Monterey, on May 29, 1848, the American alcalde, Walter Colton, who had been the chaplain on the USS Congress, wrote in his diary:

“Our town was startled out of its quiet dreams to-day, by the announcement that gold had been discovered on the American Fork. The men wondered and talked, and the women, too; but neither believed. The sibyls were less skeptical; they said the moon had, for several nights, appeared not more than a cable’s length from the earth; that a white ram had been seen playing with an infant; and that an owl had rung the church bells.”

Mexicans were the first to reach the gold fields in large num­bers. Many of them had gained experience in placer mining in their own country and had begun taking gold out of the San Fer­nando hills north of Los Angeles as early as 1842. With the outbreak of war, they had left California but now they returned, following the Old Anza Trail across the Borrego Desert and up Coyote Canyon or the longer desert route through Coachella Valley and up San Gorgonio Pass. This became known as the Sonora Route. One of those who came over the Anza Trail in 1849 was Joaquín Murietta. He and other desperadoes from Sonora were to leave their own trails of robbery and murder.

By late June of 1848, San Francisco and Monterey were almost deserted. By December the news had reached the East Coast. By the spring of 1849 more than 35,000 persons had taken passage on ships diverted to California or had crossed the Missouri River with wagon trains that soon stretched across the Western deserts. Some were to reach California in three or four months; others were to be on the trail as long as nine months.

The discovery of gold gave a sharp impetus to a westward move­ment already under way. The acquisition of California had heightened the dreams of new lands and new opportunities for many thousands of people in a restless age of exploration, expan­sion and settlement. To some, land even was more precious than gold, and they arrived to push against the vast possessions of the defiant Dons.

The sea route was by way of Cape Horn or Panama. At Panama thousands of gold seekers waited for passage north after having sailed south and crossed the isthmus on foot. Ships bound for San Francisco put into San Diego for water and provisions. One party of forty-eight left a leaky old ship about 300 miles south and walked toward San Diego, amid terrible hardships. At last they sighted the bay and the masts of two ships, as had Fr. Junipero Serra eighty years before them. One of them was their own ship, the Dolphin. Hundreds then thousands of adventurers and settlers followed the Gila Trail of the fur traders and trans­formed San Diego.

In the van of this push along the Southern trail in 1848, by chance, was Graham’s Battalion. This was another unit of the United States Army, composed of two other companies of the First Dragoons and two of the Second Dragoons. With the end of the war, the battalion was marched all the way from Monterrey in north central Mexico to Tucson and California. There were 275 soldiers, 160 wagons, 205 teamsters, and a number of other work­men, or nearly 500 men in all. One of the lieutenants with the First Dragoons was Cave J. Couts.

Couts’ diary relates a story of an arduous and disorganized march because of the incompetence of the commander, Brevet Maj. Lawrence P. Graham, who had taken along a comfortable tent, an understanding mistress and a goodly supply of liquor.

After crossing the Colorado River on November 27 they began to experience the effects of the gold rush and Couts wrote that “persons, Mexicans, from Sonora, are passing us daily on their way to the abundancia, the gold mines! This is all we can hear, The Mines!” A few days later, after failing to receive anticipated supplies from Los Angeles, Couts wrote of the excitement there and in San Diego:

“No corn, provisions scarce, men all deserting and going to the gold mines! Everybody crazy on the subject, rather hard for us to contemplate upon! Four fine companies, with nearly two hundred horses, all to be now lost! Men for gold, horses for want of forage! The mania that pervades the whole country, our camp included, is beyond all description or creditibility. The whole state of Sonora is on the move, are passing us in gangs daily, and say they have not yet started. Naked and shirttailed Indians and Mexicans or Californians, go and return in 15 or 20 days with over a pound of pure gold each, per day, and say “they had bad luck and left.” In Los Angeles and San Diego a man in fitting out a party of 5 or 10 men for the mines has only to go to a merchant and bor­row from one to two thousand dollars and give him an “order on the gold mines.” Nothing apparently sells for less than an ounce of gold. If the Government man­ages it properly, or luckily, it will be the richest nation on earth, if unluckily, California will prove an ulcer that will follow her to her long unhappy home. We will make our fortunes! Not a doubt of it! All is cut and dried!”

The battalion trudged through one to four inches of snow in upper San Felipe Pass on the way to Los Angeles. At Warner’s, where they arrived December 29, more than a month after cross­ing the Colorado, Couts described the trader and former trapper as “a white man, famed for his ability in telling lies, but not sur­passed even in this by his notoriety as a rascal. He, Warner, stole my stallion as the horses passed. Luckily for him that it was not known to us until we had left him.”

San Diego was to hear more of Lt. Couts.

The winter saw the arrest once again of Warner, this time on an accusation of stealing government mules. He was seized by the Army, taken to Los Angeles and walked through the streets to prison, but evidently won his freedom on the contention he had obtained the mules from soldiers in exchange for fresh mounts.

The rush of business came too late for Capt. Fitch, the first Amer­ican to take up residence in San Diego and who had sacrificed his United States citizenship to elope with Josefa Carrillo. He died on January 14, 1849, leaving eleven children, and his widow saw to it that he was buried in the old Spanish campo santo, or cemetery, on Presidio Hill. He was the last of the early settlers to be buried there, among the mounds of ruined walls and not far from the spot where Fr. Junípero Serra eighty years before had blessed the site of the first rude mission established in California. A new Catholic cemetery, near two palm trees at the foot of Pre­sidio Hill, and enclosed with a paling fence, had been in use for some time. Señora Fitch and her sons continued to operate the store, a dark red adobe structure erected in 1848 on what is now Calhoun Street.

Though the fur ships had vanished from the coast, and the hide trade ships were beginning to thin out, the whalers began to ap­pear in increasing numbers and then early in 1849 came the first passenger ships, those of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., the side-wheelers California, Oregon and Panama, packed with fortune-seekers from the four corners of the world. These ships forced their way up the coast from Panama, against wind and current, picking up still more adventurers at Acapulco, San Blas and San Diego.

Arriving by sea from Northern California were other military detachments, of which two companies of infantry were assigned to the San Diego area to garrison Warner’s, the outlet to Lower California and Sonora, and the mouth of the Gila River, for pro­tection of the immigrant trains rolling toward California. Companies D and H of the Second Infantry, under Maj. Samuel P. Heintzelman, arrived at Monterey April 6 and immediately were ordered to San Diego.

The journal of Lt. Thomas W. Sweeny, who had lost his right arm in the war in Mexico, records that when they arrived on the propeller ship Edith, it was boarded by Don Miguel de Pedrorena who said he was the recognized commandant of the Southern dis­trict but supposed he would have to resign now that the troops had arrived. The journal reads:

“As this was arrogated by himself and irresponsible, we relieved him of it at once, notwithstanding the dignity with which he maintained it and the friendly offices he had performed toward the American government.”

Sweeny was disappointed in San Diego, finding that it consisted of a collection of dilapidated adobe buildings affording but scanty shelter to a population of three or four hundred Spaniards and In­dians. He said the gold fever was raging and his command had been thinned by desertions. “Hidden wealth fills every mind.”

Though the principal migration was over the North Platte Route from Independence, Missouri, to San Francisco, in 1849 alone more than twelve thousand persons, perhaps half of them Mexicans, forded the Colorado River in the vicinity of the Gila junction, and most of them, after crossing the desert, flowed up through the San Felipe, Coyote, San Gorgonio and Cajon Passes to Los Angeles and then directly north to the gold fields. Others, worn and destitute, drifted down the old Spanish trails andcarreta roads to San Diego, where, after resting, they took passage on a boat, if possible, or resumed their trek up El Camino Real. How­ever, many remained. Many others were to return.

Bayard Taylor, who was on board a vessel bound for San Francisco but which stopped at San Diego, wrote in his book, El Dorado, or Adventures in the Path of Empire, that he saw:

“. . . a number of men, lank and brown, “as is the ribbed sea sand” — men with long hair and beards, and faces from which the rigid expression of suffering was scarcely relaxed. They were the first of the overland immigrants by the Gila route, who had reached San Diego a few days before. Their clothes were in tatters, their boots, in many cases, replaced by moccasins, and except their rifles and small packages rolled in deerskin, they had nothing left of the abun­dant stores with which they left home.”

To him their adventures “sounded more marvelous than any­thing I have heard or read since my boyish acquaintance with Robinson Crusoe, Captain Cook, and John Ledyard . . . this Cali­fornia crusade will more than equal the great military expeditions of the Middle Ages in magnitude, peril and adventure.”

There were many variations of the Southern route though they all converged on the Gila River in central Arizona. One route led from Memphis or New Orleans to San Antonio, from where there were two different trails, both leading to El Paso, from where they diverged again, one deep into Mexico, to come together at the Gila. Another main route started at Fort Smith, Kansas, and went west to Albuquerque and then dipped southward to the Gila. El Paso then was a Mexican settlement, which is now known as Juarez, just across the Rio Grande from the present American city of El Paso.

The Gila route seemed the most practical, at first glance, having been travelled by Kearny’s Army of the West and the Mormon and Graham Battalions, and with wagons, and it avoided the harsh winters of the Plains and the formidable Sierra Nevada. But it did pass the land of the dreaded Apaches and through that of the unconquered Yumas. A correspondent of the New York Tribune who made his way to the gold fields described the various routes to California and stated:

“. . . the last and most terrible one of all is by way of Chihuahua and down the Gila across the 90-mile desert. Caution all emigrants to California to avoid this way as they would the plague. I have seen men arrive at Santa Barbara, when I was there, who were completely broken down by the fatigues attendant on this route. Across the desert thousands of skeletons of mules and horses lie.”

Those coming over the Gila Trail in large proportion were South­erners and they brought with them a sympathy for slavery that was to linger in San Diego through the Civil War. So many came from Pike County, Missouri, that a certain type of Southerners, who were generally poorly educated, if at all, and inclined to wan­der in gypsy fashion, became known as “Pikes.” Probably they were not much different from the “Okies” of later years who mi­grated West from the Dust Bowl.

It was a long way from New Orleans to San Diego, literally and figuratively. A port of entry for immigrants from Europe, and with more bank credit than New York, New Orleans was compared by a contemporary writer with Paris, “with lamps hanging from ropes across the streets, the `noble’ old buildings such as the St. Louis Hotel which has a ballroom unequalled in the United States for size and beauty,” and operas, concerts, ballets, balls and masquerades.

A tide of humanity that has never slowed surged West through New Orleans, leaving the wet malarial lands of the Mississippi Valley, where only the slave could work, and on across the rolling green lowlands of east Texas, thick with the life-saving mesquite tree, then on again, as Texas dried out into a wasteland and then gave way to the desert.

Great wagon trains were made up at New Orleans, with people who had come recently from Europe or down the Mississippi from the upper territories. Those who possessed money enough could take a boat to Panama, from where the fare to San Diego, cabin class, was $250 and steerage, $125.

The New Orleans Daily Picayune in March 1850 said that “large numbers of emigrants mostly from the Western states and without exception of the respectable class — the bone and sinew of the land — are almost daily arriving in our city and waiting anx­iously the first opportunity to depart for the promised land.”

San Antonio was the frontier. After the Mexican war it began to grow rapidly and by 1850 it had a population of more than 3000. An immigrant from Germany wrote that “women pay more attention to dress in San Antonio than they do in New York or in the large cities of Europe. We have balls and revelries. Men, thank God, are not so particular; they appear on the street in shirtsleeves or woolen jackets.” Beyond San Antonio was Tucson.

A few miles below lonely Tucson was the mission and village of Tubac, where Capt. Bautista de Anza seventy-seven years before had first learned from Indians of the possibility of an overland route to the Spanish settlements in Upper California. The immi­grant party of Benjamin Butler Harris found Tubac deserted. Harris wrote in his narrative of the march:

“The bell and costly pictures, with other ornaments, were still in the church. Peaches and other fruits were ripening on the trees. Streets were uninvaded by weeds and the buildings still shone with new whitewash. There was not a hu­man soul to enliven all this silence . . . When our men rang the church bell, its hollow echoes seemed a bellowing mockery of all things human. Our voices seemed unnatural and ghostly. It was a gloomy solitude — far more so than the loneliest desert.”

Tubac, which served the Papago Indians, once again had been attacked by Apaches, as it had incessantly since its founding in 1752. Approaching Tucson they saw Mission San Xavier, the white dove of the desert, almost identical in appearance and style with San Luis Rey Mission in San Diego County, the church being built in the shape of a cross by a series of circular domes. Tucson, still Mexican in appearance and population, was the last town on the route to San Diego, more than 400 miles away, and Harris found it crowded with hundreds of immigrants, with fandangos going all the twenty-four hours of the day and night.

Etched forbiddingly against the western sky were grim conical peaks. At any moment, it seemed, they could become a line of vol­canic fire shutting off all that lay beyond. From Tucson to the big bend of the Gila River there was a stretch of some 130 miles with­out a drop of water. At the Gila the immigrants encountered the friendly Pima Indians, who, averse to war, cultivated their lands and gave assistance to all who passed, but each man was required to keep a horse ready for war against the ever-threatening Apaches. Farther down the Gila country were the Maricopas, large and handsome Indians who engaged in wars with the Yumas as well as the Apaches. The Yumas were the most troublesome and though they could be engaged to assist in the crossing of the Colo­rado, they stole the mules, any goods they could lay their hands on, and in time, turned once more to killing. The immigrants had little or no knowledge of the tragedy that had taken place on the Colorado in 1781, when the Yuma Indians had wiped out two mission settlements, slaughtered more than a half hundred persons, and for many years had shut off the overland route from Sonora to California.

The country was eternally fascinating for those who could look beyond their suffering. A half day’s journey above its mouth, the Gila leaves the base of a steep range of mountains and runs across the plain to meet the Colorado, which at that time was swollen with snow water from the Rocky Mountains and running five hun­dred yards wide. North of the river they could see peaks which to Harris resembled “a vast city with domes, steeples, min­arets, roofs, house walls. . .”

Harris wrote that while they camped and rested in the grass and among the trees of the Colorado River bottom, where “several odds and ends of emigrant companies also gathered,” about forty Apaches, all walking with fat, fresh horses, and well-armed and equipped for entering on a raid in Sonora, passed by:

“They must have anticipated a long and arduous campaign, else they would not have been so studiously economical of horseflesh as to lead them afoot. Con­sidering the rapine and murder that would soon redden their track, violent intervention in our part would have been mercy and humanity. They and we being in the United States, we let them pass.”

The area was strewn with wagons abandoned by Graham’s Bat­talion, and one of them was made into a boat on which they floated their supplies across the Colorado. Once beyond the river they saw dead animals lining the road, “and being dry, had been stood on all four feet by irreverent humorists in ghastly mockery and gloomy fun.”

Beyond the Colorado, John W. Audubon, son of the famed natur­alist, a member of another immigrant party, reported that he saw:

“Broken wagons, dead, shrivelled-up cattle, horses and mules as well, lay bak­ing in the sun, around the dried up wells that had been opened, in the hopes of getting water. Not a blade of grass or green thing of any kind relieved the monotony of the parched, ash-colored earth, and the most melancholy scene presented itself that I had seen since I left the Rio Grande.”

The Harris party, however, encountered a miracle of the des­ert — a river. It was the New River, a channel which periodically carried high waters of the Colorado River, under the pressure of tidal force in the Gulf of California, back into the desert area ly­ing below the level of the sea. In the blazing heat of August, they found the river three feet deep and thirty to forty feet wide. The re-appearance of this “river” after many years was to save the lives of many immigrants.

A physician, Dr. Oliver Meredith Wozencraft, crossed the Colo­rado desert by mule and observed that the sink now embracing the Imperial Valley was once the bed of an ancient lake and evi­dently lay below the level of the sea, and that the Colorado River seemed to flow in a channel higher than much of the surrounding area. It was Dr. Wozencraft who later conceived the plan of divert­ing the Colorado River water into the desert and creating one of the world’s richest agricultural empires.

The rising mountains, the trees and the pleasant valleys on the western slopes appeared as a paradise to the weary travelers. On approaching the San Diego Mission, Audubon was deeply moved by the ruin and desolation:

“As the last reflection of sunlight tipped the waves of the Pacific Ocean with gold, and the sullen roar of the breakers borne in on the last of the sea breeze for that day came to my ears, tired and sad, I sat on the tiled edge of the long piazza and leaning against one of the brick pillars in a most melancholy mood, I could remain here a long time musing on what is before me, realizing in the desolation about me that all things mortal pass . . .”

To John E. Durivage, who arrived in July, it was a time for thanksgiving. He wrote to the New Orleans Daily Picayune:

“After much tribulation I have entered the port of San Diego — the jumping-­off place against which the old Pacific beats and thumps with the same spirit as does the Atlantic . . . The comfort of having passed through all the dangers, difficulties, perplexities, and sufferings attendant upon the Gila route, and sit­ting down, pen in hand, once more under a roof, is indescribable . . . A man who has traveled the Gila route may throw himself upon his knees when reaching this point and thank God for preserving him through it.”

Hundreds of immigrants’ tents were pitched along the beach at La Playa, as were those of soldiers. The storms of winter blew them down and soaked clothes and bedding. Death from exposure was frequent.

The United States Boundary Commission arrived in San Diego on June 1, on the ship Panama by way of the isthmus, for the sur­vey of the international border between the United States and Mexico, which was to begin at a point one marine league south of the Port of San Diego and run, at that time, to the junction of the Gila and Colorado Rivers. With the commission was W. H. Emory, a survivor of the Battle of San Pasqual and now a major in the Topographical Engineers. He was assigned to the commission as astronomer and commander of troops.

Emory found that San Diego as yet had not changed much from 1846:

“The news of the discovery of gold in the northern part of California produced less commotion in this quiet town than in New York or Panama. Fortunately for us, it did not feel the effect until the reaction came from the Atlantic side some months after our arrival. Had it been otherwise, all attempts to keep together the enlisted men and laborers of the survey would have been idle, and the commission would have been disorganized before doing anything.”

Waiting in San Diego to accompany and protect the commission were Company A of the First Dragoons, commanded by Lt. Couts, and Company H of the Second Infantry. The Mexican commission arrived by ship on July 3, and one hundred and fifty Mexican sol­diers came up from Sonora. Emory established his headquarters at La Punta, the rancho of Santiago Arguello, at the foot of the bay, and called it Camp Riley, after Gen. Bennett Riley, now the military governor of California.

In connection with the establishment of the starting point of the boundary line, Andrew B. Gray, a civilian engineer with the commission, was assigned to measure and triangulate the shore line of the bay, the first American map other than a crude one which had been made by Capt. Fitch in trying to approximate the pueblo boundaries. Other maps of San Diego Bay had been made by Spaniards, Sebastián Viscaíno in 1603, by Vicente Vila in 1769, and by Juan Pantoja in 1782. The survey point was to be determined by the Pantoja map. Gray was to write of San Diego Bay that:

“I feel satisfied that for all the ocean traffic of the Pacific, from the islands and from the Indies, it is amply capacious, being large enough to hold comfortably more than a thousand vessels at a time.”

The commission, composed of civilians as well as military personnel, with conflicting instructions and antagonistic person­alities, accomplished its mission under extreme difficulties. The letters of Maj. Emory tell of a fist fight in the Plaza, between a major and a lieutenant over the honor of the California sweet­heart of another officer.

Lt. Amiel Weeks Whipple, accompanied by a cavalry escort un­der Lt. Couts, was to establish the exact point of the confluence of the Gila and Colorado Rivers, and Lt. Edmund L. F. Hardcastle was to explore the country between San Diego and the river. Dis­putes arose between Whipple and Couts, and Gray left his own line of survey to lead the Collier party of immigrants to San Diego, and thus never reached the Gila junction to verify Whipple’s findings.

The survey also was to check out the possibility of acquiring a southeastern route for a transcontinental railroad, as had been suggested by Emory in 1847. It began on September 11, when the astronomical party left the San Diego Mission and took the road by way of El Cajon, and again Couts kept a detailed diary of the expedition. At Santa Maria Valley they found José María Ortega, whom Couts described as a “curiosity in himself”:

“He is 68 years of age, and cares to talk of nothing but aguardiente (brandy) and women. Is the oldest of 21 children, has had 21 himself, his sister (wife of old Santiago Arguello and mother of Doña Refugia) has 22.”

At Santa Ysabel, also a ranch held by the Ortega family, Couts found the natives far ahead of what he called common rancheros:

“They have an abundance of chickens, eggs, melons, grapes, pears, etc. They are well dressed (some even dandily) and their Captain or General (Old Tomás Chihu) is our guide, and a great old rogue he is . . .”

Here they met three Americans just in from the Colorado who reported there were not less than two hundred wagons between the Pima villages and the river.

From there, instead of taking the road to Warner’s, they crossed directly over the mountains on a route which he said was least known, to rejoin the wagon route at San Felipe. The distance by this pass was twelve miles; by way of Warner’s, twenty-five miles. This would mark the first American crossing of the mountains by way of the Julian area, where Bill Williams, or “Cockney Bill,” had his rancho on Volcan Mountain.

In the mountains the expedition shot sixteen bears to add to their supplies of food, and in the desert hills Couts noted indica­tions of gold “and certainly metal of some kind abounds.” All along the desert route they encountered immigrants, many beg­ging for food and in all states of despair, in temperatures as high as 120 degrees. So many were from the Southern states that Couts was led to comment that “if any are left in Arks., it is more numer­ously populated than I had anticipated.” They were whipped by sand and hail storms, threatened by a flash flood, and shaken by earthquakes which opened crevasses in the earth.

Though San Diego, as with other settlements, was filled with talk of statehood as well as gold, Congress deadlocked in session after session in an effort to establish a territorial government for California, which still was administered in large measure by Mex­ican laws and Spanish customs and traditions and by a succession of military governors. The issue of whether new states were to be slave or free even then was dividing the nation. Southerners were determined to maintain the equality of slave and free states.

Californians became impatient, and called for the election of delegates to a constitutional convention. Miguel de Pedrorena was chosen on August 1 to represent San Diego at the convention early in September at Monterey. Northern California had thirty-eight delegates and Southern California only ten. The convention was indicative of the change that was coming over California. Of its forty-eight members, only six had been born in California. Five others were natives of foreign countries. Pedrorena was the only native of Spain, the “mother country” of California. The conven­tion unanimously voted to prohibit slavery in California, prepared a constitution, and adjourned on October 13 to put it before the people. It was ratified on November 13.

At about the same time a small Illinois company of immigrants pushed wearily along the Gila Trail. Of the original eleven mem­bers, three already had died en route of cholera. In November along the Gila they met a large train of packers on mules from Missouri who related a fearful tale of the ravages of cholera. H. M. T. Powell, an artist with the Illinois company, of whom little is known other than by the sketches he left of San Diego and other California regions, wrote in his diary:

“Fires and camps all up and down the river. In fact the whole river from the Pima Villages to the Colorado is one vast camp, as far as we can learn.”

At Carrizo Creek, this company left the regular trail and em­barked on “Colonel Collier’s” route over the mountains more directly to the west, and on the way, before entering the high country, they met a government train from San Diego bringing relief rations to immigrants reported in near-starving conditions in the desert. Powell says they struck the foot of rugged peaks and then climbed gorges and ravines for four miles, which “beat anything I ever saw.” This is in the rugged Carrizo Gorge country. They emerged into a pretty valley with plenty of grass and a spring, and then swinging south by west went by way of Tecate and along the border, meeting several other immigrant trains, and finally arrived at La Punta, Emory’s headquarters, on Decem­ber 3. Thus were marked out the routes which were to become the roads and highways of the future.