The Journal of San Diego History
January 1963, Volume 9, Number 1
Jerry MacMullen, Editor

By Wilmer B. Shields

Lewis Birdsall HarrisOn the fourth day of March, 1850 a young man posted a letter in San Diego to his brother in Houston, Texas. It was one of several letters to his brother, written during a year-long journey from San Antonio to Sacramento. These letters are now in the California State Library at Sacramento. Many other documents of this kind and time, some also concerned like these with wagon-trains and goldfields, are in the archives of the library, but in several important respects these papers are different from the others.

For one thing, the letters are written in a manner that could never have been very common. Postage was high in 1850 — forty cents for each sheet of a letter. Lew Harris was a thrifty and practical young man, as is clearly revealed throughout his correspondence. He had much to write, but he remembered the high postage rates; his solution of the problem was to make one sheet of paper carry four pages of writing. He did this by writing in the usual manner from top to bottom of the page, then turning the sheet partly around and writing across the written page from bottom to top. This method saved postage, but in inflicted on the reader the difficult task of unraveling the overwritten words. Sometimes ink of different hues was used, and this was helpful. It is in these cross-hatched letters that are found the details of one of the most remarkable overland journeys made during the “Gold Rush” to California.

Postage was high in 1850 - 40 cents for each sheet of a letter - so Harris, in this letter to Seneca Falls, N.Y., wrote in two directions, to save space.Lew Harris was nearing his thirty-third birthday when he wrote the first letter of the series to his brother Clinton from “Onion Creek, camp near Austin”, May 3, 1849. He had come to Texas from New York when not yet twenty. (His experiences there are told in the “Journal of Lewis Birdsall Harris, 1836-1842”, printed in the South western Historical Quarterly, Vol. XXV). At the time of his first letter, he was preparing to start for California with his wife, Jennie, and two slaves, Bob and Jane. Characteristic passages appear in this earliest letter:

“I suppose you think we ought to be half way to California before this, but we have moved along very slowly, partly from choice and partly on account of bad roads. One thing, I shall not undertake the trip unless I go with a company strong enough to go through, and composed of those in whom I have the greatest confidence”.

This note of caution, foresight and practicality runs through all the letters, and explains the exceptional history of the ensuing journey.

In a missive which begins “In hopes of getting an opportunity of sending a letter from El Paso by some of the guides, I shall scribble a letter to you”, he mentions for the first time a unique device for overcoming the difficulty of crossing bridgeless streams. He writes: “We found our boat-wagon here indispensable. It answered a splendid purpose, and crossed everything in a few hours”. It is unfortunate that we do not have a picture of this double-service vehicle; there is more about it in later letters.

The progress of the train with which the Harris’ traveled was unusually slow. This is acknowledged, and explained, in the next and much later letter from “Camp Salvation, Oasis in the Desert”, October 21, 1849.

Harris begins: “I am almost ashamed to give any date to this, for by this time I fully expected to be at the ‘diggins’.” This is the first opportunity I have had since leaving Paso Del Norte of communicating with the white settlements, and now only by accident, there being some pack-mule men out of provisions who are compelled to go direct from here to San Diego to get supplies”.

Then the practical young man goes on to explain the delay:

“We have taken it very moderately, as you can judge. There has been nobody on the road who has gotten along any better, if as well, as we. We have every animal with which we started from home, and all in good condition. At Paso we got wheat and flour, and between the Copper Mines and Santa Cruz we killed as many wild cattle as we could haul, after jerking the beef. At Santa Cruz and Tucson (which he spells Tueson) I sold some of the robes (?), the first I was able to sell, and got sufficient wheat and flour at a very low rate. I could have sold any quantity of calico, domestic, thread, needles and such articles. We parted with all we could spare, and got the money for them. Again, at the Pimos villages we traded off little things and got wheat and corn enough to feed on occassionally when grass is scarce. We are now eating watermelons and beans that we got from the Yuma Indians for little strips of red flannel that were left from my drawers.”

This letter was written where the old “Trappers’ Trail” crossed the New River. The location was given the name of Camp Salvation by Lieut. Cave Couts. Harris says of it:

“We are over the worst part of the desert, and are at a half-way place where there is plenty of water and first-rate grass. We have been here two days, and have gathered grass which we are making into hay to do us through the next sixty miles.”

Here he refers again to his ingenious vehicle: “Our boat-wagon has been the greatest little thing on the road. We crossed ourselves, and two companies which were with us, at the Pecos and the Rio Grande, and we crossed the Colorado in a short time. While waiting for the wind to lull so as to cross our wagon tops, Cornelius and I crossed a company of Mexicans – and got $60 in silver for it. If we had been of a mind to stop there and charge emigrants, we could have made plenty of money. Lieut. Couts offered we $75 for my boat, and if he could have furnished me with a suitable wagon body to replace it I would have let him have it.”

Once more he refers to the successful progress of the expedition: “I don’t suppose there are half-a-dozen parties started but have lost more or less of their animals, many all of them, by poverty, Indians or carelessness. Ours are all here, and all in fine condition. Most of the way we have come through with a small company of eight or ten persons a day or two in advance of the main train, and while others have had their animals stolen ours have passed with impunity through the Comanches, Apaches, Pimas, Maricopas and Yumans.”

He concludes this letter with a defense of the leisurely progress: “I am perfectly satisfied there cannot be found any better land route to California than the way we came. To be sure we have been some time coming, but we have travelled in company with an ox team, and laid by six weeks unnecessarily on the Rio Grande. Not knowing what was before us, we have consequently travelled with more caution and greater disadvantage than those coming after us will do, they having a good report of watering-places and grass. Ox teams have come through, but they would have done better if those driving them had been satisfied never to go over fifteen miles in a day. Frequently they push their teams to keep pace with mules and thus kill off their oxen.”

The next letter was begun January 12, 1850, at “Mission of San Gabriel near Los Angeles, Cala.”, but was not mailed until March 4th., from San Diego. It was written like the others, on two sheets of paper, down and across, and cost the sender eighty cents postage. From internal evidence in this letter, it seems likely that several letters written since the previous communication from Camp Salvation had gone astray — probably no farther “than the breeches pocket”, as Harris expressed it, of those to whom he entrusted them. With this in mind apparently, he gives a summary of the trip from the Colorado River to Los Angeles in the long letter sent from San Diego. He also returns to the factors that had made the trip so exceptionally successful.

“We had no difficulty whatsoever on the whole trip,” he writes. “We got plenty of grapes, apples, peaches and green corn at Paso, and then again at Santa Cruz. Between Santa Cruz and Tucson we were passing through deserted ranches almost every day where there were large peach orchards hanging full of ripe fruit. We lived on peach cobbler for a long time. When the peaches were gone oranges came in. We were never any length of time without vegetables of some kind.”

Nor were the animals neglected. “At Camp Salvation,” he continues, “we found abundance of best grass and some mesquite beans. We remained here until the third day and dried plenty of grass. After putting it up in small bundles we jammed it into sacks, sewed it in blankets, and stowed our wagons full. By taking a little trouble to procure feed for our animals, and traveling in this slow way, we brought our animals through the dessert without their ever feeling the want of food. They were just as good as ever after a little rest, whereas those who did not take these precautions lost many animals. It was really sickening to see the dead beasts scattered along the road. For over 150 miles we were hardly ever out of sight of a carcass, and at the watering-places it was almost impossible to remain for the stench.”

And so, with references to his wife, to the slaves and even to his horse, Lew Harris’ observant and informative letters come to a close.

Of his wife, he writes on the Colorado River: “Jenny’s health has been excellent, and, strange to say, she has made most of the way so far on horse-back. Although the wagon is fixed very pleasant she prefers the saddle unless the sun is too hot.”

In one passage, he gives his horse credit for assistance with the larder: “Lizzie and I helped kill four or five fat fellows, so that we are supplied with beef sufficient to last through on the road.”

Among other references to the slaves he writes: “Bob and Jane send their best to all the negroes. Write to them and encourage them in their good ways.”

A last quotation from one of the earlier letters will show that the practical leader of this remarkably successful “Gold Road” journey had another, and less utilitarian side to his nature: “It was a magnificent sight to see the long train of wagons and pack-mules winding their way through the pass by moonlight, the rocks almost overhanging them on either side and towering up for hundreds of feet into the sky.”

The last letter of the series, dated June 21, 1850, in “Sacramento City”, relates (as might well have been expected) the swift steps the energetic and sagacious emigrant was taking towards success. He has already gone into business with his uncle, started a boardinghouse with his wife in charge, and set Negro Bob to hauling flour to the mines.

Forty-three years later, on June 12, 1893, Lewis Harris died in the home of his son in San Diego, only a short distance from the exact spot where he had posted one of his memorable travel letters on a Spring day in 1850. His son, Capt. Lew B. Harris Jr., was a graduate of West Point and a well-known civil engineer, in addition to being prominent in local yachting circles. It was he whose navigation of the schooner Lurline to victory in the Honolulu Race of 1912, is still one of the classics of local yachting history.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: An authority on local books and writers, Wilmer B. Shields is Secretary of the San Diego History Center, Chairman of its Library Committee, and Secretary of the Historical Shrine Foundation