By Charles Ripley Sumner
(Editor’s Note) This charming letter, written by Charles Ripley Sumner to his niece, Alice Rainford, gives a fascinating account of his perilous journey to California in 1852. The letter was written in 1887, when Alice was 7 years old. Sumner at that time was in Del Mar, where he was homesteading land near the present Fair Grounds. Alice and her mother, soon afterwards, moved from Oakland to Del Mar. The original letter was recently given to the San Diego History Center by Miss Rainford, prominent San Diego florist and protege of Kate O. Sessions
For Alice Rainford—
The people who owned California, before the Americans captured it, were Mexicans. They talk the Spanish language. They found gold and silver here, but very little mining was done for a long time. Some Americans discovered gold, near Sacramento, and the great rush to California commenced. In the year 1852, thirty-five years ago, I was a young lad living in Boston, with my father, mother, brothers and sisters. We were a very happy family. Your mother, dear Alice, was a little girl at that time and went to school, as you do now. Your dear Aunt H. was also a little girl, and also a scholar. Aunt Margaret was older than either of us and was a married woman at that time. I was working in a store and learning how to sell goods. For two or three years there had been quite a rush to California. Some men I knew had gone. An old sea captain offered to take me to California, and I was wild with delight.
Father had a large family and was very indulgent to his children. But poor Mama cried often at the idea of Charley going so far away. But they finally consented. I made many promises never to forget the dear folks at home, and to send lots of money home, too, after I got to the land of gold.
I was to go to California by steamships a good deal like the Santa Rosa, only with the paddle wheels on the sides, as they built all the steamers in that way then. These steamers sailed from New York, which was almost two hundred miles from Boston. So I had to go to New York on the railroad cars. You can imagine how Mama cried, and how they all said “Goodbye,” “write often,” and so on. That night in the cars I cried too. It was my first night away from home, off on a long journey and no friendly faces about me but one, that of the old captain who was taking me to California. Poor old man! He died here a few years after, without seeing his wife or daughters after the day we left Boston. After a long, cold, bitter cold night, we arrived in New York. The steamship Daniel Webster was the one we were going in. I remember the streets of New York were covered with snow and ice and mud.
The river in which the vessel was lying was a mass of ice, so solid that men and women and even horses and wagons were going to and from it. The steamship was so packed in with ice that she could not go on the day that was advertised. A large gang of men was sent out to cut and saw a channel ahead of her so that she could go on her way, which she did on the second day. After she got clear of New York bay there was no more ice.
I forgot to tell you there were no railroads to California in those days, and none in California either. All, or most all, people who wanted to go to the land of gold went in steamers to Panama or Nicaragua. The Daniel Webster was going to Nicaragua, which you will find on the map. I was seasick for only half an hour, but, oh, how homesick I was! How many times I wished I was back in old South Boston! I thought of father and mother, brothers and sisters, and all of my friends and playmates. If I could have flown back I suppose I would have done so, and in case I had, how changed everything would have been. I do not suppose I should have started again. I would not have been here. None of your Aunts would have come out probably, and as for you, you would still be in one of those bright stars I can see out of the East window.
I did not fly back, but staid (sic) on the ship and she finally got to Nicaragua. It was the usual thing there, to get on little steamers which took you up the river some distance, till you arrive at Lake Nicaragua. The steamers were ready, and the rush commenced. Everyone wished to be first. Finally all were packed on three small boats. On the way up the river we could see large and small alligators swimming about with their cruel jaws wide open. Some of the passengers shot some of them. The little steamer I was on (about half the size of El Capitan) struck a snag or log in the river and soon sunk. But as the river was not very deep, we were in no danger. We were soon transferred to one of the other boats and proceeded on our journey up the river. Monkeys in the trees, plenty of them climbing about and chattering to each other, parrots, too, of all colors, and thousands of other birds, coconuts on trees, and bananas. Glorious sight!
When people have been at sea for several days as we had been, and especially when they come from the North in winter as we had, they are in raptures over the climate and weather such as we were enjoying then. Ten days before we had been suffering from the effects of snow, ice and cold! What a change! It was as hot as it is in Oakland in summer, and all around us were flowers and fruits and monkeys. I shall never forget those monkeys in the trees.
We soon arrived at Lake Nicaragua, a beautiful lake. We were here changed to a larger steamboat about the size of the Oakland. What a crowd. About 1400 passengers. But twas only a short distance across the lake. No wharf at the landing though. We had to go ashore in scows like those used for freight in San Pedro.
Now came a journey on land of about twelve or fourteen miles. Only a few mules were to be had, and I did not get one. An Indian agreed to take my roll of blankets and my valise over for one dollar, and I had all I could do to keep up with him. Up hill and down dale I had to trot to keep up with that Indian, for I was afraid if he got out of sight, I should never see my baggage again. I was so tired when I got to San Juan on the Pacific, that I had to lay down for an hour or more before I could even look about. This was the place to go on the steamship to San Francisco. No steamer (was) in sight. No wharf either. But a steamer came in two or three days. She was named the Independence, but she was so small she could not take all the passengers. I had to wait for another, and made myself useful in a little hotel for a few days, while waiting for another steamer. When I saw the Independence sail away, or steam away, with the good old Captain on her, I went off by myself and had a real good cry, the first tears I had shed since I left home sweet home. It did me good I guess, for I buckled on my armor and went back to town and went to work. I made myself so useful that the man who kept the little hotel wanted me to stay there and not go to California. But I would not consent. He offered to pay me more wages than I ever had received in my life, and strongly tempted me. But California was the golden land and I was bound to go there. After a stay of two weeks in that place, a steamship, called the North America, came in. I have said there was no wharf. The steamer was at anchor half a mile out in the bay, and small boats were pulled out to her and the passengers went in those boats. I had got acquainted with some of the boatmen and had learned to talk some of their language which was Spanish. I used to go in their boats and talk for them. By having an American with them, my friends did a good business and they paid me several dollars for my work. Finally, when most of the passengers were aboard, for it took half a day with so few boats, I went up on the ship myself. I had no ticket for California and only a little money. I climbed up on a rope like a sailor, and so got aboard. You ought to have seen me, my sleeves rolled up, my pants rolled above my knees, and dirty and sunburnt! I found the head steward and told him I wanted to go to California and would work on the ship to pay my passage. “All right, get your baggage and come right along.”
When the boatmen heard my story, that is, when I told them I was going to California on the North America, they seemed very sorry. They had become quite friendly and we were making money. But they quickly made for the shore and even helped me from the house to the boat with my little baggage. I secured a load of passengers for them which pleased them much. I think each passenger had to pay two dollars. Bidding them adieu, I went aboard the ship and reported to Mr. Alden, for that was the name of the Chief Steward. I will say here that he afterward kept a famous restaurant in San Francisco, and after that bought a ranch in Temescal which is now the Alden Tract. He died some years ago. He was the innocent cause of much trouble to me. I had agreed to work in his crew and according to law should have been shipped, as the sailors call it, and ought to have signed the Articles. I believe the Purser was sick. At all events, in the hurly-burly and rush and confusion, I did not sign the Articles. We left the little town far behind us that night. On the fourth night out I was aroused from my bunk about eleven o’clock at night by the pounding of the ship on a sandbar. At first there seemed to be no cause to be alarmed. Everybody rushed on deck though, and all tried to look for shore, or to see where we were. Not a thing could be seen but the ocean all around us. The moon had not come up yet. Men, women and children were gathered in groups and asking all sorts of questions. There was almost no wind and it was a fine starlit night. All this time we were backing or going ahead with the machinery, hoping to get her off the sandbar. Soon they launched a boat with some sailors in it. We watched them anxiously for it was an important question how far off from shore we were. The boat was out of sight very quickly, and it seemed hours before we could ascertain anything about her. But soon we saw a lantern in the hand of a man who must have gone ashore in that boat. It seemed to dance up and down on what turned out to be a sand beach. By this time we had got into the breakers with the steamer and the way she rolled was dreadful. Men and women were frightened almost out of their senses. I recollect one man, who had a wife and several children, who left them to take care of themselves, and was driven back to them by blows and threats from the other passengers.
Every time the swell struck the ship, she would give a heavy roll, and those who had not a strong hold on something would get hurt. Luckily no lives were lost and no limbs broken that I know of. After we became sure that the small boat had found shore we felt great relief. We could not tell the exact distance, but we felt sure the shore was not very far away. Every time the breakers hit the ship she went in a little closer.
(Recess for mince pie)
About midnight I believe, the moon came up, and though it made things look a little brighter, we could not see the land. No passengers went off the ship for some time, but finally the boats were all launched and all the passengers were taken off. For some reason I did not go with the passengers. I believe the sailors and officers of the ship were satisfied there was no danger in staying aboard. At all events, I did not go ashore till long after daylight. In those six hours she had been forced up so high on the beach that the water alongside was not deep. I climbed in to the paddle box and climbed down on the paddles which were imbedded in the sand, and jumped into the water probably up to my waist. Walking through the water to shore I joined the crowd who were making preparations for breakfast. By this time, the sailors had taken off from the ship a large quantity of food. Live cattle, hogs, sheep, and chickens in coops, had all been thrown into the surf and caught by the crowd on shore. All kinds of eatables had been taken ashore and there was no chance to suffer for food. Large sails had been taken from the ship and made into tents. Passengers and crew were divided up into messes. The best of order was the rule. We discovered that we had been wrecked about sixty miles south of Acapulco, a city of Mexico. Right where the tents were put up, a beautiful little river ran into the ocean. Beautiful, but with plenty of alligators in it, and soon the air resounded with the report of pistols, guns, etc. All care was gone. We were very comfortable. We ate and drank and slept and enjoyed ourselves as much as if we had purposely come there to camp for a season. On the first day, the Captain found a hacienda or ranch about three miles from the wreck. There he hired a Mexican to go to Acapulco with the news of the shipwreck. He was told to bring all the mules and horses within reach, for the use of the castaways. I suppose he rode as fast as possible, and yet it seems to me we camped there nearly two weeks. At all events, after some days, he returned bringing down quite a number of people, among whom were the Agent of the Company the ship belonged to, and the American Consul, Mr. Rice. Also came an immense number of mules and horses. I know I had one, and I remember how sore that saddle got before we reached Acapulco. The trip up must have occupied two days as we camped one night. The country was beautiful but the mountains were awful. At last we arrived in the beautiful city of Acapulco. We were divided around among the hotels and private houses, and everything was done for our comfort. Of course the first anxiety was to find out how soon we could go to the Golden land. We ascertained that steamers came in the port every week, and soon one did come in, but as she was already crowded, as most ships were in those days, very few of our number could go on her. During the next two months we lived at our ease and went about enjoying ourselves. I made friends with some boatmen (Mexican) and interpreted for them, and got big loads and made some money. All our expenses, though, were paid by the Government which always takes care of shipwrecked sailors, but passengers take care of themselves.
The Consul had to keep a list of the crew so that he could get the money from the Government to pay the hotels, etc. All the officers and sailors signed a paper or voucher as it is called, saying they had been to all this expense. When it came to my turn to sign, I was in a fix. I had not signed the Articles and my name did not appear on the ship’s books, not my fault to be sure, and so I turned to Mr. Alden. He quietly and privately told me to sign for another man who had the good fortune to go to San Francisco on the first ship. As he was my superior officer and I thought no harm could come of it, I did sign Fairplay’s name. Some one, out of stupidity or malice or mischief, told the Consul that Fairplay was gone and that someone was taking his place. I kept out of the way, and heard from a friend that Alden denied knowing anything of the whole matter, and said I was a fraud. The Consul sent a file of soldiers after me, but a friend warned me and I skipped off to a Mexican ranch about three miles from town. I cannot recollect much about the place. There were several women, young and old, and beautiful trees and flowers all around. I told my story the best I could in broken Spanish. I think now that all they understood was that I was one of the shipwrecked ones. The whole country knew of the ship. Anyhow, they took care of me for some days till I got tired and longed to see some familiar faces. So one morning before sunrise I went to Acapulco and down past the Custom House and found my boatmen friends. One of them procured my baggage and then took me to the boat. We pulled off from the shore and out in the lovely bay, lined with the beautiful palms which bear the coconuts. A steamer named the Constitution lay in the harbor, having arrived the night before. She was bound for Panama, away from California, but I cared not, so that I could get away from Acapulco. I had got in a bad scrape. Climbing up the ship’s side, I met the Captain and offered my services to go anywhere. “Shipwrecked on the North America—Certainly, boy, I’ll take you along.” Adios, Amigos, to the boatmen and I was safe. I leaned over the ship’s rail and looked at the castle or jail built of stone over two hundred years ago and saw the soldiers walking around, and felt glad I was on the briny ocean again. We had only a few passengers aboard, but had no steward in the steerage. I was put there at once and, boy as I was, soon brought order to that place. Before we reached Panama the passengers raised a little money as a present to me and the Captain was loud in my praise. On arriving at Panama he took me into the cabin and gave me a good position for the return trip to California.
When the Constitution arrived at Panama all hands busied themselves getting ready for the trip back to California. Soon, the passengers came aboard in small boats, and after all were on the steamer we started. She was a small steamship and of course was crowded, but we managed to get along. Many people had to sleep on beds made up on the tables and floors. We got quite short of water, so that before we reached the end of our journey we were obliged to use water as red as blood, from an old boiler badly rusted.
I was young, active and obliging and so I made much money on the trip, which took forty-two days. The trip was usually made in about twelve or fourteen. Before we got to San Diego we had broken the propeller so much that only two blades were left out of the four. We were so slow that we used all the coal up, and had to wait in San Diego for fifteen days while coal was coming down there from San Francisco for our use. While in San Diego during all those fifteen long days I had a good chance to see the San Diego of that day, and I assure you it was very different from San Diego of today. The coal ship finally arrived and after getting it aboard we started, and after a few days arrived in San Francisco. I believe we landed on May 26, 1852. I had been a long time getting to California, and many of my friends had given me up for lost. I had made on the voyage over $100. I sent home $60 as soon as the ship was fairly landed, and am glad to know that it did much good.
I found work right away at good wages, and lived in San Francisco for several months, afterwards making a trip to Panama in the Steamer Oregon. I afterwards went to Marysville. In 1854 I went to Sacramento and engaged in the steamboat business. I got married in Sacramento and my daughter Ada was born there. About the year 1863 I moved to San Francisco where my son Albert was born. While he was yet a boy we moved to Oakland and we have resided there ever since.
Hoping this account will interest my dear little Alice, I remain her loving uncle,
C. R. S.