Across the Isthmus of Panama with Mary Jane Megquier

Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane Megquier from San Francisco 1849-1856

Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane Megquier from San Francisco 1849-1856. 2nd edition. Edited and with an introduction by Polly Welts Kaufman.

Mary Jane Megquier, known to family and friends as Jennie, came with her husband to California in 1849, leaving her three children behind in Maine with relatives. At first the plan was only for her husband to go — many a man left wife and children behind when he headed for the goldfields. But at the last minute Jennie decided to go along. As she wrote to her daughter from New York, “they think some of taking me along with them, it is so expensive getting womens work they think it will pay well . . .”

Although she missed her children terribly, she thoroughly enjoyed the adventure of traveling to California and living in mining camps and San Francisco. “Women’s work” was hard, but the lively variety she found all around her more than made up for it.

Her letters home, written between 1849 and 1856, are one of the best portraits of life during the Gold Rush. I have read a number of covered wagon accounts of the overland journey, but this was the first time I read a first-hand account of traveling the Panama route. Crossing the isthmus was an uncomfortable and often dangerous undertaking, yet Jennie reveled in it, in spite of the heat, damp, insects, disease, bad food, and lack of comfort. She was no complainer.

Here is an excerpt in which she describes the journey up river from Chagres:

After waiting three or four hours we were stowed into a canoe (Mr. Calkin, Dr. [her husband] and myself) twenty feet long two feet wide with all our luggage which brought the top of the canoe very near the waters edge. We seated ourselves on our carpet bags on the bottom of the boat, if we attempted to alter our position we were sure to get wet feet, notwithstanding our close quarters the scenery was so delightful the banks covered with the most beautiful shrubbery and flowers, trees as large as our maple covered with flowers of every colour and hue, birds of all descriptions filled the air with music while the monkeys alligators and other animals varied the scene, that we were not conscious of fatigue.

Two natives pushed the boat with poles unless the water was too swift for them they would step out very deliberately and pull us along, Was it not a scene for a painter to see us tugged along by two miserable natives. There are ranchos every few miles where you can get a cup of miserable muddy coffee with hard bread of which we made dinner, then we doubled ourselves in as small compass as possible and started, under a broiling sun the thermometer at one hundred.

Arrived at our destination for the night about five o clock where we seated ourselves on the bank to watch the arrival of the canoes, before dark there were one hundred Americans on that small spot of ground all busy as bees making preparation for the night. Our part thought it best to have the natives cook their supper, it was rich to see us eating soup with our fingers, as knives, forks, spoons tables, chairs are among the things unknown, they have no floors, the pigs, dogs, cats ducks, hens, are all around your feet ready to catch the smallest crumb that may chance to fall.

As I was the only lady in the party they gave me a chance in their hut but a white lady was such a rare sight they were coming in to see me until we found we could get no sleep, we got up and spent the remainder of the night in open air, At four we took up our bed and walked, Would to God I could describe the scene. The birds singing monkeys screeching the Americans laughing and joking the natives grunting as they pushed us along through the rapids was enough to drive one mad with delight when we got tired sitting, we would jump out and walk to cut out the crooks which were many, we could never see more than ten rods, sometimes we would find that we were going northeast when our proper course was directly opposite.

At four in the evening we reached Gorgona, another miserable town, where you will find the French, New York and California Hotels, but you cannot get decent food, nor a bed to lie upon at either house. There is a church in town which is not as respectable as the meanest house you have in town . . .

More from Mary Jane next time.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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