California As I Saw It

If you find accounts of life in early California fascinating, as I do, then the Library of Congress has a treasure trove for you. California as I Saw It contains first-person narratives of life in early California, from 1849 to 1900.

This collection includes more than 180 accounts by men and women who came to California in its formative years. Some of the writers are well-known figures, like Jessie Benton Fremont, John Bidwell, and Richard Henry Dana, the author of Two Years Before the Mast. Many others are remembered only because they kept a diary or later wrote a memoir, like Luzena Stanley Wilson, and numerous male Forty-Niners.

You can find Luzena’s full account here, as well as some other people I have written about, such as Edward McIlhaney and H.H. Bancroft. Here is where you can read Sim Moak’s The Last of the Mill Creeks. Check out the list of collection items, or search by contributor. Every item can be read online or downloaded.



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The Further Adventures of Luzena Wilson


Luzena in later years, a shrewd woman by the looks of her

It’s been a while since I wrote about Luzena Stanley Wilson and her memoir about life in Gold Rush California, but I have been meaning to get back to it. Her recollections are full of striking detail about everyday life, just the kind of thing I want to know about.

So here is another excerpt from her memoir (not long after they arrived in Sacramento in 1849):

Half the inhabitants kept stores; a few barrels of flour, a sack or two of yams, a keg of molasses, a barrel of salt pork, another of corned beef (like redwood in texture) some gulls’ eggs from the Farallones, a sack of onions, a few picks and shovels, and a barrel of whisky, served for a stock in trade, while a board laid across the head of a barrel answered for a counter. On many counters were scales, for coin was rare, and all debts were paid in gold dust at sixteen dollars per ounce. In the absence of scales a pinch of dust was accepted as a dollar, and you may well imagine the size of the pinch very often varied from the real standard.

Just imagine corned beef “like redwood in texture.” It would take some chewing!

Nothing sold for less than a dollar; it was the smallest fractional currency. A dollar each for onions, a dollar each for eggs, beef a dollar a pound, whisky a dollar a drink, flour fifty dollars a barrel.

Free-Vintage-Chicken-Graphics-GraphicsFairyThis was when eggs in the States sold for 2 cents each and flour for about 10 cents a pound, with 196 pounds to a barrel. Think how valuable a flock of hens would be.

One morning an official of the town stopped at my fire, and said in his pompous way, “Madame, I want a good substantial breakfast, cooked by a woman.” I asked him what he would have, and he gave his order, “Two onions, two eggs, a beefsteak and a cup of coffee.” He ate it, thanked me, and gave me five dollars. The sum seems large now for such a meal, but then it was not much above cost, and if I had asked ten dollars he would have paid it.

Luzena saw that this was the way to earn a living, and she and her husband soon sold their oxen and bought a hotel — a small wooden building where she cooked from morning till night.

More about Luzena and her hotel to come.

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A Wholesale and Damnable Outrage

Another tidbit from the Pioneer Collection at the California State Library — a letter from Butte County Sheriff J.Q. Wilbur to John Bidwell:

Hamilton, Butte Co. Cal.  July 4, 1851

Dear Major—

I should like to come up this morning with Fry but having some very troublesome business on hand I shall not be able to come for some days. My health is tolerable good only, and I have soon to take the field against a band of outlaws at Bidwells Bar, who have been committing a wholesale and damnable outrage upon one of my deputies, Mr. Dodge.


Random old-time gunfight illustration

What was it? A shootout in the street? A brawl in the barroom?

I wish I could tell you what that band of outlaws was up to at Bidwell’s Bar, but I can find no other information. Newspaper accounts can be scanty for 1851.

But Deputy E. K. Dodge would go on to be elected sheriff himself in September of 1851, just two months later.

Sheriff Wilbur goes on to inquire about a lame mule. Then he takes up the subject of local politics (“This ticket will not give satisfaction to the Democratic Party, for they certainly have put forward our very weakest men“).

He closes:

I hope to see you at Ophir today.  Your friend, J.Q. Wilbur

Ophir being the old name for Oroville.

What a tantalizing letter! If we only knew more about that band of outlaws and their “wholesale and damnable outrage.”

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A Penmanship Copybook

A nice example of a penmanship copybook  is in the Pioneer Collection at the California State Library. The Pioneer Collection consists mostly of letters and oddments that don’t fit into other collections, or don’t rate their own separate collection.

DSCF5474This is a copybook that was given to Miss Anne Lamont by J. P. Blakely, presumably a teacher of penmanship, in 1849. Miss Lamont (who later became Mrs. Robert Brownlee) brought the book with her to California.

You can see what a show-off piece of work this title page is. This calligrapher really knows how to wield a pen!

The idea of a copybook was to present samples of handwriting, in various styles, for the student to copy. So a page might be headed by a bit of poetry, a suitable sentiment, or a series of long words that would test the student’s ability to keep an even, steady hand. The rest of the page would be left blank for the student to practice in.


This page shows a verse about the Penman’s art, with the top sample done by the teacher, and the copy by the student (followed by four more copies). Notice that this is printing, rather than cursive.


A very fancy example, suitable for titles. If you are having trouble reading it, it says “Penmanship commend.”


“Good manners, grace and truth are ornaments in youth.” A nice example of unornamented “running hand,” used for ordinary letter writing.

It was a treat to come across this example of the lost art of penmanship.


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“To the Hombre in Charge at Bidwell’s”

I went to the California State Library today. Here’s a little item from the John Bidwell Papers, which I find amusing:


It reads:

Lassen’s Ranch May 24, 1851

To the hombre in charge at Bidwell’s you will please deliver to the bearer a single barrel shott gun left with you by some of the hands of the steamer California and oblige yours G.H. Messersmith

I don’t know a lot about Mr. Messersmith, other than that he was an associate of Peter Lassen, he later ran the Tehama House Hotel, and became a county judge. I hope he got his shotgun back from the “hombre” at Bidwell’s.


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Who Was Humboldt and Why Are There So Many Things Named After Him?

California has a Humboldt County and so does Nevada. There is a Humboldt River and a Humboldt Bay and a Humboldt Current. At least eight towns in the United States are named for Humboldt. And then there is the Humboldt Wagon Road, a “current” interest of mine. Who was this Humboldt and what did he do to get his name all over North America?

It’s not because he explored North America. He never saw Humboldt County (either one) or the Humboldt River.

Alexander_von_Humboldt_-_1843Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was a Prussian naturalist and geographer. He explored Latin America extensively, and briefly visited the United States. meeting fellow natural philosopher (and President) Thomas Jefferson in 1804.

Having just bought the Louisiana Purchase, the U.S. government was eager to have the opinion, knowledge, and maps of the eminent explorer. Unfortunately, Humboldt couldn’t tell Jefferson much about the newly acquired territory, but they must have had some stimulating scientific and political discussions.


1804 Map of the Louisiana Territory. Note the non-existence of the Great Basin and the conflation of the Sierra Nevada with the Rocky Mountains.

So if he never explored North America, how did we get so many features named for him? (There’s a Humboldt Peak in Colorado too.) Blame John C. Fremont. In his day there was no more prestigious name you could bestow than that of the foremost scientist of the era. What had been called Mary’s River, Fremont renamed the Humboldt River.

When gold and silver were discovered in the Nevada Territory, the northwest quadrant of Nevada became known as the Humboldt Mining District, after the river. And when Bidwell in 1861 began planning a wagon road to take freight and passengers to the Humboldt Mining District, he called his road the Humboldt Wagon Road.

Baron von Humboldt was vastly prolific and influential in the 19th century, and is undeservedly obscure today. An excellent recent book about him is The Invention of Nature : the adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science, by Andrea Wulf.

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The Last Stage Stop on the Humboldt Road

I got to take a tour up the old Humboldt Road today, thanks to Dave Nopel and the Chico History Museum (and Respect the Walls and the Chico Heritage Association.) I had been along parts of it before (much of it is now Highway 32) but I have never been as far as Jonesville.

DSCF5346We started at the Junction (the intersection in downtown Chico where Park Avenue, Main, Broadway and 9th Street meet), where the Humboldt Road begins. Back in the day this was the hub of industry and transportation in Chico.


We drove up to the section of Old Humboldt Road, just off of Bruce Road, where you can conveniently see the ruts made by old iron-rimmed wagon wheels. Respect the Walls has done a great job of cleaning up this area.

From there we went to Forest Ranch. The toll booth for the road was located just before Forest Ranch. If you take a left turn off Hwy. 32 onto Forest Ranch Road you are driving along an old section of the Humboldt Road for a few miles, until it rejoins 32.

To get back on the old road from 32, turn right at the sign for Butte Meadows. We stopped for lunch at The Outpost in Butte Meadows (yum!) and then continued on the road a few more miles to Jonesville. There you can see the only remaining intact stagecoach stop on the Humboldt Road. A consortium of local residents is restoring it, and we were lucky enough to be invited inside. Our hostess, Barbara Mann, gave us some background on the building.


The front part of the building is two stories, and contained a parlor (or reception area) and seven small bedrooms. They are currently restoring the floor in the two downstairs bedrooms. Back of this is a one-story extension that contains a long dining room and a kitchen.


This is a beautiful setting, with a green grassy meadow surrounded by a conifer forest. Little Jones Creek runs nearby, on its way to join Butte Creek. You can easily understand why families built cabins here to escape the summer heat in the valley.

Not far from Jonesville the paving ends, but the gravel road continues to Lake Almanor, where it meets Highway 89. The original Humboldt Road crossed Big Meadows (now flooded to make Lake Almanor) and continued on to Susanville and the mining towns of Nevada.

Stay tuned and next time I’ll tell you why a road in California is named for a Prussian naturalist.


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