Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
Seeking the Elephant, 1849. James Mason Hutchings’ Journal of his Overland Trek to California. Edited and Introduced by Shirley Sargent. Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1980. Illustrations. Index. 209 pages. $30.00.
Reviewed by Gary F. Kurutz, Chief of Special Collections for the California State Library and author of several articles on California history.
James Mason Hutchings stands out as one of California’s most colorful figures during the Gold Rush era. It is only fitting that his 1849 overland journal should at last be published. Reviews of this type sometimes start out by saying: “Ho-hum, another Forty-Niner diary. Is another one really necessary?” In the case of Seeking The Elephant, the answer is a resounding YES!
An Englishman by birth and carpenter by trade, Hutchings made his “pile” in California with a pen rather than the prospector’s wash pan. He is best remembered for his celebrated letter-sheet “The Miner’s Ten Commandments” and for editing and publishing the CALIFORNIA MAGAZINE, the first of its kind devoted to the glories of California. Hutchings also authored two memorable books: Scenes Of Wonder And Curiosity (1860) and In The Heart Of The Sierras (1866). As one of the first to realize the potential of Yosemite, he capitalized on the future tourist trade by opening the valley’s first hotel.
Because Hutchings ranks as one of California’s first significant men of letters, the publication of his journal offers an important insight into the events and scenery that shaped his literary career. Editor Shirley Sargent, the respected Yosemite historian, introduces the volume with a superb biographical sketch and explanation of how the original Hutchings’ manuscript journals came to light. Sargent organized this handsome volume into four sections: the voyage from England to New York in 1848; “Ho for California” and the overland trek to the diggings from New Orleans via the California Trail (May 16 to October 22, 1849); a list of 112 graves observed on the journey; and four letters from the mining towns (1849 to 1851).
Since the argonaut was a fine writer and keen observer, his detailed journal reads like a novel and succeeds in emotionally involving the reader. As a young man struck by an “irrepressible love of travel and adventure,” his daily account creates a compelling picture of the West. Graves, animal skeletons, abandoned wagons and baggage served as a grim reminder of the misery endured by those who went before him. His well-phrased observations of such natural wonders as Chimney Rock, the parched Humboldt Sink and snow-bound Sierras are stirring. Of particular interest is his sympathetic account of Salt Lake City and the sorrow experienced when he wrote, “tomorrow we leave civilization, pretty girls and pleasant memories.” Of course, this journal includes remarks on his traveling companions, irksome and thieving Indians and the thirst, cold, hunger and blisters that were the companions of every Forty-Niner. Hutchings was under no illusions when he philosophically wrote on August 28, “It’s a severe life, but then we are after gold.”
The editor terminates the journal on October 22, 1849 after Hutchings arrived in California and began his quest for riches. Evidently, the journal entries became sporadic and fragmented. According to Sargent, the entries indicate that he roamed the Mother Lode “prospecting for gold and writing material.” Clearly, the observant argonaut absorbed much as reflected by his later writings.
Sargent rounds out the adventures of this gold seeker by including four letters written to a friend in New Orleans from Placerville and Weaverville. In these delightful “epistles” Hutchings tells of extracting gold from “Mother Earth,” the high cost of provisions, and the violence that permeated the mining camps. As well, he gave advice to overland travelers and warned of the hardship and loneliness that awaited all argonauts.
As could be predicted, Sargent’s editing is first class. Thorough references to place names, people, trails, and events combined with the aforementioned introduction make this a solid contribution to the literature of the Gold Rush. The inclusion of a map would have been helpful. Otherwise, the book is beautifully designed in keeping with the high standards of Grant Dahlstrom and the Castle Press. The price of $30, however, may deter some of us who are still “seeking the elephant.”