Barefooted to the Gold-Fields
July 1, 1963
Gold! Gold in California! The cry was everywhere.
In January 1849, throngs of men crowded New York City streets and hotels. They were professional men — doctors, lawyers, clergymen; they were tradesmen, farmers, skilled and unskilled laborers. Some came from other parts of New York State; from New England towns and farms; from nearby cities along the Atlantic Coast.1
These were the first gold-seekers, the argonauts, on their way to California. They were young, in their twenties and thirties. Dr. Jacob Stillman was thirty; his shipmate, Mark Hopkins, was thirty-five. The argonauts adopted their own distinctive “California” outfit, characterized by broad “California” hats made of reddish brown felt, loose rough coats that reached down to their knees, and high boots.
They were a walking arsenal; they wore bowie knives, pistols, rifles, and they had prepared themselves for every possible emergency except for the fate of not returning home loaded down with gold.
By the end of January, ninety ships had left New York and other eastern ports with eight thousand passengers. Seventy more ships were preparing for departure, all destined for Panama, where they would discharge their passengers and return to their home ports.
At Panama, eastern gold-seekers would compete with others arriving from New Orleans, for space on any vessels that were available — some of them little better than rotting hulks.2 Such a ship was the one-hundred-ton Dolphin. She was leaky, her rigging was old and rotten, and when she finally limped into Mazatlan, Mexico, her owners quickly sold her to other gold-seekers looking for any kind of passage up the coast to California.
Six barrels, and two canoes on deck were filled with water and covered. Jerked beef, beans, rice, and pumpkins were stored below deck. However, when the new owners discovered they could not raise enough money to pay for the schooner, Captain Winslow purchased her with the understanding that the passengers were to pay their passage fare to him.
Sixty-eight men, including officers and crew, were stowed away in the schooner. Among the passengers were young men who in later years would become substantial and leading citizens of California: James McClatchy, editor of the Sacramento Bee; Lewis H. Bonistell, of Hodge & Company; Alonzo Green of Green & Markley; Gideon Reynolds, of Kelty & Reynolds, Santa Clara; Charles Brown, Santa Cruz; John McAllis, Smartsville; J. B. Whitcomb, San Francisco; John W. Griffith with Niles & Company, and Samuel P. Crane of Sacramento. Griffith kept a journal during the ordeal of the subsequent trek to San Diego; Crane later wrote a manuscript from memory.
On April 15, the Dolphin sailed out of Mazatlan. Captain Winslow stood off to the westward with the intention of making his longitude, then standing in for San Francisco on one tack.
For twenty-five days they sailed, making a thousand miles; their six barrels of water were now reduced to two. They broke open the canoes, which had been covered, and discovered that the fresh water had turned bitter, nauseating, and unfit for drinking or cooking.
Captain Winslow immediately decided to head for San Diego; but the passengers, now on a daily allowance of one pint of water, lost confidence. It seemed more than doubtful that they could reach land at all, unless they got a favorable slant of wind, but Captain Winslow was firm in his decision to reach San Diego; the passengers then mutinied, deposed him, and put the mate, Rossiter, in command.
The course of the Dolphin was changed to the nearest land in Baja California; the remaining amount of fresh water was put under guard. Except for rice and beans, the food was gone, and sea water was used for cooking.
After ten miserable days they sighted an island and landed, but after four hours of searching, they found no sign of water.3 The next day the schooner reached the main land. For seven days she coasted along, men landing again and again in their vain search for fresh water. By this time they estimated they were about three hundred miles south of San Diego.
The Dolphin now was leaking so badly that all hands, passengers and crew, had to take their turn at the pump. After a few days of this, forty-eight decided to leave the overloaded schooner and take their chances on land. Those who remained on board, seasick and starving, were left with four days’ ration of water.
On May 28, the men left their ship under the protection of a point of rocks, and landed, one boatload at a time. Robert J. Melville, John R. Clark, James H. Clark, and Samuel P. Crane were in the first boat. As each boat landed, it was swamped in the surf; but the soaked men were warmed by a fire and immediately scattered in different directions looking for water. They found none, and there was no time to be lost. Each man had only one bottle of the bitter water from the schooner. That same evening they walked on until it was too dark to go any further.
The next morning they set out, hoping to cross a trail shown on a chart. At mid-day, when the heat became oppressive, they began to throw away supplies.
About four o’clock in the afternoon, they came to a small canyon where the rocks were damp. They dug but found no water; they licked the moist rocks until their lips and mustaches were covered with mud. A bull dog, which belonged to Houghton, began to paw the ground about fifty yards away and by his persistence attracted the attention of the men. Quickly one of the men began to dig with a small spade, and at four feet they discovered good, cold water. Canteens were filled and the stragglers were called in. The men rejoiced, cooked rice, and rested at the tiny oasis for one day.
That day they lost their shoes. Having trampled in the adobe mud around the small well, they washed their boots and placed them in the sun to dry, and the heat reduced the leather almost to powder. From now on they would be barefoot.4
Griffith says in his journal, “The whole country has the appearance of having been blackened by volcanic fires.
“We came to a very high mountain, which it seemed necessary that we must cross. As we came nearer, we found a deep ravine interposed, and into this we must go. It seemed an almost hopeless undertaking; we had to get down by holding on to whatever we could and by jumping from rock to rock. When part of the way down, we saw a stream of water. In their eagerness to reach it, many of the men threw away their baggage to lighten their loads – blankets, shirts; some even dumped their rice on the ground, which others in our party, more provident or more destitute, picked up. Every ounce of supplies was a pound to us, weak from hunger, from seasickness on shipboard, and from the oppressive heat of this country. Our trail could be traced by the articles we were throwing away.
“How great was our disappointment on reaching the bottom of the canyon to find the water brackish and unfit to drink!
“Here we consulted. We rid ourselves of more possessions. We continued climbing over high hills and down into deep ravines; even with nothing to encumber us, our trek was no easy thing. Some picked up what others threw away, but after carrying them awhile, were glad to drop them.
“I hesitated before I decided to discard two cherished possessions that my wife had given me: her daguerreotype and a Bible. One of the men, Gray, picked up the Bible, carried it for several days, and was about to leave it when I took it again.
“Late in the afternoon we found prints of horseshoes in the sand. All of us were in good spirits at this sign of a settlement. Our advance party camped at sundown on a bluff above a ravine where we found good water. At nine o’clock that evening, after the rest of the party arrived, we held a grand counsel. Many were of the opinion that we were near an Indian village. Others thought that the horseshoe prints were imaginary and that the tracks were made by wild animals.
“The next morning a reconnoitering party set out and hurried back with the report that they had found the trail which led us out of the ravine and toward the northwest. We had lost a day searching for it over marshy ground. Our feet were wet. My joints were attacked with rheumatism. With a staff I managed to keep going, but I could not keep up with the others. For several nights I camped alone.
“We came to a stream of pure water from which we drank freely, but our food was almost gone.
“We killed and ate rattlesnakes. Someone managed to shoot a small bird, which furnished a few with soup.
“Although we were following the trail, some of the men wanted to lie down and die; there was nothing but death behind us; there was no hope where we were. But there was no use in crying. Nothing was left but to move on and encourage those who were faint and ill.
“It was hot. I was so lame that I lay under the shade of a large cactus tree to cook my last rice. James H. Clark came along. I wanted him to leave so that I could eat alone, but he would not go.
“Finally I said, ‘Jim, I have some rice.’
“You never saw a poor fellow’s face light up as his did. After we ate, we tried to catch up with the main party. We rested; then I continued alone.
“I upset my flask and had no water. I cut open the Turk’s-head cactus with my hatchet and ate the pulp, which reminded me of watermelon. My only food now was the fruit of the prickly pear. My mouth and hands were full of its fine thorns, but the fruit was nutritious.
“Near sundown one of the men saw a horse. We could not catch him, so we drove him down into a ravine where there was water and shot him. We skinned the wretched, worn-out creature and ate enough of the flesh to satisfy our hunger. We cured some meat by roasting it on coals.
“Finding the old horse, which had evidently been driven away to die, saved the life of Houghton’s bull dog. The only reason we had not eaten him before was that his master was so attached to the dog that he shared with him his short rations of food and water.
“Sunday, June 3rd. The next morning some of the men were ill from overeating horse flesh. Melville became very ill. We had to leave him behind with John R. Clark and Samuel Crane. We had no medicine, but we gave them a little rice and ammunition and promised to return with relief as soon as we could.
“The strongest and best walkers had to push on. My haversack was full of horse meat. We killed rattlesnakes, one with ten rattles, and made soup. We walked about ten miles.
“Monday, 4th. Arose before daybreak. Pushed on. Ate prickly pears. Crossed a high mountain. Climbed down a ravine, found water, wild plums and nuts. As we go north the country looks better.
“But this day has been my worst day of travel. I am so lame I can hardly move, but I persevere. I could not eat my horse flesh so I gave all of it away. I eat only the prickly pear. We carry all the water we can, not knowing when we shall find water again.
“That night I camped in a ravine alone, every one else having gone on ahead. I slept and dreamed that I heard guns and the ringing of bells. I awoke chilled through. The moon was shining beautifully. I followed the trail by the light of the moon, hurrying as well as I could to overcome the benumbing effects of the cold. I had illusions of lights. But then the lights grew plainer and seemed to be moving.
“A man shouted, ‘Grif! Is that you?’
“The men had found an old adobe. Some were wrapped in blankets on the floor, snoring soundly or resting. Over a fireplace a few were roasting ears of corn, reluctantly given to them by a party of Mexicans they met on the trail.
“We were in the Valley of San Fernando near the ruins of the mission. The guns and bells I heard were not a dream. My friends had fired their guns and rung the mission bells to express their joy and to call in the scattered stragglers.
“We were about twelve leagues from El Rosario. At two o’clock we continued our journey, crossed a high mountain, and at ten o’clock camped in beautiful moonlight.
“Tuesday, June 5th. — The Mexicans who gave my friends the corn have joined our party. We crossed another mountain, struck into a ravine, then came out into a valley. We were tired, sore-footed, hardly able to move along. We stopped at the hut of an Indian. He made us some mush that tasted like earth. We devoured it, felt rested and refreshed.
“Rosario seemed so near and yet so far. About 4 p.m. we arrived. Some of our party, who reached the village earlier, had a dinner ready of beans and corn bread. It was the best dinner I ever ate. It was my first meal in twenty days. That night we killed a beef, ate some of the meat for supper, and slept under fig and apple trees near the bank of a river.
“Wednesday, 6th. — Breakfasted on meat and tortillas. Barbecued ribs for dinner. Had some more of that good corn cake. The men are friendly; the women are good-looking.
“Some of our party have started on for San Diego. We have sent horses to aid Melville and the others with him. It seems as if we can never get enough to eat. We are enjoying our rest, and our feet are getting well.
“Thursday, 7th. — Some of our company have crossed the river and camped. The valley is beautiful. The coast is five miles distant. Those in our party who preceded us bought all the horses that could be spared. I offered a woman a dollar for a peck of pinola. She turned down the money but wanted my shirt. I had two on so I gave her one.
“Saturday, 9th. — Crossed the river. Followed up a ravine until we came to a table land; crossed it and camped near the ocean. After resting, I thought I would take a look around. I saw a range of mountains about twenty or thirty miles away, from whence I knew there must come a stream of water. It would naturally flow to the ocean. When I predicted this source of water, some of the men laughed. My feelings were hurt. Picking up my baggage, I walked toward the mountains for about two miles when I came to a beautiful stream of water.
“I asked myself, ‘Shall I make my breakfast here while the others remain parched?’
“I walked the two miles back to tell the men about the stream. I expected them to greet the good news with shouts of joy.
“Instead, they said, ‘It’s a damned lie!’
“I left them, and later Mac joined me at the stream. Then the rest of the party came. They looked sheepish; and well they might. It was no easy task for me to walk four extra miles, after having traveled since daylight, tired, hungry, footsore, to give them news that water was near, and then be abused for it!
“In the afternoon we followed the beach. Soon we could see in the distance two vessels lying in under the shore. About sunset we discovered the ships to be our schooner, the Dolphin, and the Paradiso, of Genoa. Nearly all hands were ashore. Captain Rossiter advised that the Dolphin was leaking badly.
“Monday, 11th. — Nearly the entire party have continued by land — destination San Francisco, six hundred fifty miles. They are unable to buy horses and are on foot. The Paradiso sailed this morning with some of the passengers from the Dolphin.”
Other passengers remained with the Dolphin, including the suffering Melville, who was carried on board and given care.
The land party followed the coast, sometimes over spurs of mountains. They were treated with kindness by natives, who gave them food. Animals were provided for those whose feet were so infected with cactus thorns and bruised by sharp rocks that they could no longer walk. On June 24, fifteen days after sighting the Dolphin and the Paradiso, the land party reached San Diego. They were hungry, ragged, destitute; but when they saw the Stars and Stripes flying above a military encampment, they cheered with a “hearty good will.”
The Dolphin worked her way to within sixty miles of Monterey, where some of the men landed for wood, water, and beef. When she put to sea again, however, strong winds drove her so far back to the south that those on board abandoned all hope of ever reaching San Francisco; they bore away for San Diego and arrived in port with the schooner practically in a sinking condition.
Robert Melville did not survive the ordeal; he died the day before the Dolphin reached San Diego, and was buried here. The Dolphin was condemned and sold in San Diego. The proceeds were divided among the passengers and crew, who then continued their barefoot trek to San Francisco.
1. N. Y. Tribune, Jan. 26, 1849: “The class of our citizens which is leaving us for El Dorado is of the better sort … The rowdies, whom we could well spare, cannot, as a general thing, fit themselves for so long A voyage.”
2. Bancroft, H. H.; Hist. of Calif., Vol. VI; San Francisco, 1888: “. . . rotten hulks that presented themselves … it is only necessary to instance the … Dolphin…”
3. Possibly Santa Margarita Island, Magdalena Bay. A week later they estimated their position as 300 miles (probably nautical) from San Diego. This would have put them in the vicinity of San Bartolome Bay, about 30 miles below Cedros Island. Hugh Quigley places the landing at “Ceros” or “Cerros”, 400 miles from San Diego — an obvious error in distance, if Cedros Island is meant. Other possibilities might be San Roque or Asuncion, slightly further to the south. (Ed.)
4. Quigley, Hugh: The Irish Race in California, And On the Pacific Coast; San Francisco, 1878.
The account of the journey to San Diego in 1849 is adapted from J. D. B. Stillman’s Seeking the Golden Fleece; San Francisco, 1876.
Identity of the schooner Dolphin is obscure. Of the 26 vessels of that name listed in Wm. Armstrong Fairburn’s monumental work, Merchant Sail (Center Lowell, Me., 1945-55), only one comes close to fitting the specifications a schooner of 123 tons, built at Newcastle, Me., in 1790. (Ed.)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Helen Gohres, who tracked down the story of the famous barrel organ brought here by Captain Vancouver (January Quarterly), reveals in this issue that San Diego was not entirely by-passed by the Argonauts of ’49!