At that time Sutter was on the Sacramento, and wanted colonists; but I, with ten or twelve others who were in a hurry to get into employment, decided to try the Spanish settlements south of us, and after a day or two’s stay at Marsh’s, set off. Marsh told us that we might meet with difficulties on account of having no passports from our government, and advised us to leave our guns behind. This all did but me.
Marsh told them of the hospitality of the Mexican rancheros, and gave them a letter of introduction to the next ranch. They found that by showing up at any ranch and signaling that they were hungry they could get a meal of beef. There was very little else to eat. When they came near San Jose they were apprehended by a squad of soldiers who escorted them to the “calaboose, or jail.” They were rescued by an American named Tom Bowen, who persuaded the alcalde to liberate them and who looked after them until they could get passports from M. G. Vallejo, the military commander. Dawson describes San Jose as a sleepy little town of about 150 residents, with meandering streets and houses with next to no furniture.
Dawson was offered a job by Bowen to work at a distillery he was setting up to make rum from “Sandwich Island molasses.” They first went to Mission San Jose to get his passport. The distance was only twelve miles, but Monte, Dawson’s horse, was so weak that it took all day to get there.
Poor old Monte, worn out from his trek from Missouri, and starving from the lack of grass in drought-ridden California, kept laying down on the trail until at last Dawson dismounted, took the saddle on his shoulders, and led Monte by the bridle. They came to the house of Alexander Forbes, the English Consul, who provided Monte with a pile of wheat straw to eat, and offered to send him along with some of his horses up in the hills where there was grass. Leaving Monte in his care, Dawson went on to the distillery.
At the distillery I found, in the way of provisions, a sack containing beans and wheat, and a cake of tallow; and finding plenty of deer close by, I fared very well. The distillery was located in a grove of redwoods, west of San Jose.
It didn’t take much to fare very well in old California.
California was not what Nicholas Dawson expected, but he found his experience fascinating. In his narrative he describes the ranchos, the cattle and horses, and how everyone rode everywhere “perhaps only to cross a street.” He explains how the hide and tallow trade worked. He enjoys a fandango (“the only dancing I ever did in my life”) and describes deer and geese grazing among the cattle, and grizzly bears crossing the roads. He observes a bull and bear fight:
The issue of this fight was very doubtful, depending altogether on which put in the first blow. If Bruin got the bull’s nose with his paw, he won; if the bull got his horns in Bruin’s carcass first, he won.
It was a strange new world for the young man from the States.