If you were an American coming to California in the 1840s, where did you go to find a job? If you were a hunter or trapper or cowboy, like many of the men in that first emigrant train, you went to Sutter. If that wasn’t what you wanted, but were willing to try your hand at just about anything else, you went to villages like San Jose or Monterey (they could hardly be called cities), and looked for someone to hire you to do, well, what?
In Dawson’s case, first he helped build a distillery. Then he cut shingles. Next he got an offer to clerk at a store. That must have sounded easier than wood-cutting.
I helped Bowen start his distillery, and then he, not needing me longer, proposed to furnish me tools and provisions and I to make shingles on the halves. I accepted the proposition and went to work. Selecting a medium-sized tree, I felled it and worked it up; then another—making altogether forty thousand shingles.
The trees were too think for a cross-cut saw to reach through, and I would have to cut in part way with an ax. I was bothered to keep a partner, as most of the redwood sawyers preferred drinking at the still-house to working, and I did most of the work by myself.
(These sawyers were “mostly runaway sailors, and were generally of a low class.”)
While I was working away at my shingles I received a letter by hand from a man by the name of Job F. Dye, in Monterey, requesting me to come there and keep store for him. I was undecided . . . Would he take me when he saw me? I was nearly naked; what clothes I had were soiled and ragged, as I could hire no washing or mending done, and had tried myself but made a failure.
He decided to give it a try; he was tired of the lonely life of making shingles on his own. He went to Monterey, met Mr. Dye, “a plain, honorable Kentuckian.” Dye had a store at Santa Cruz, and he needed a man with some education to run it for him.
I soon struck a trade with him at twenty dollars per month, cash. When the bargain was closed, Mr. Dye told me to select any ready-made clothing in the stock that I needed, and charge it to myself. This I did immediately, and then I felt a new man. And when I went to supper and had bread, tea, and vegetables, and, best of all, a neat, lively lady at the head of the table, I felt more so. My diet for about a year had been meat alone, except two or three times when I had eaten a few tortillas.
Civilization at last!
Dawson stayed at this job for about a year, and much of his time was taken up with overseeing men who cut and hauled lumber for sale. His greatest trouble, he said, “was to keep from selling to slow-paying customers, and to collect from them when sold to; for very little honor was to be found in either natives or foreigners.”
(Just a note: In these recollections of early California, natives means the Mexican Californians, not Indians, and foreigners means Americans and Europeans.)