John Steele’s Last California Adventure

On June 18, 1853, John Steele received a letter from an old friend, Edward D., who was studying at the University of Wisconsin (founded in 1848). Many of Steele’s friends had left the goldfields; he was feeling lonely and he wanted to further his education. It was time to go home. But his adventures in California were not yet over.

He bid farewell to Capitan Juan, the headman of the Indian village, and a few other friends. He took the stage to Sacramento and then a steamboat to San Francisco, where

. . . . an incident was added to my experience, which emphasized the adage, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” and other things. (p. 327)

He had been accompanied on both the stagecoach and the steamboat by a burly stranger who seemed to know that he had been for some time in the mines and was now going home. The man was friendly and suggested a hotel they could stay at, but Steele had already chosen the Atlantic Hotel near Long Wharf as his stopping place. The stranger agreed that it was a good place and followed him there. He also tried to get Steele to join him in a drink, but Steele refused. You may recall that he was a temperance man and did not drink alcohol.

Long Wharf, early 1850s. California History Room, California State Library.

The next day Steele went to buy his return ticket home.

It was early in the forenoon and on a thronged street when I again met the stranger. We recognized each other, and in passing he unawares crowded me against a door, which was on a level with the sidewalk, and with a sudden push thrust me inside.

Instead of the usual revolver, I carried two single shooters in a place prepared inside my coat; and with my right hand trying to prevent his shutting the outer door, with my left hand I cocked one, drew it, but just then saw another man, standing in a side door, and as I raised the pistol he disappeared and shut the door.

In an instant I drew the other pistol with my right hand, when the man who had pushed me in disappeared through a door on the opposite side and it was shut.

Bewildered, I stood for a moment with a cocked pistol in either hand, and on regaining presence of mind, saw that the room was only about six feet square, but containing three doors. Coming in from the street there was a door on the right and left, through which the men had disappeared. (p. 329)

Steele went back out the front door, and meeting a policeman, tried to get him to arrest the man who had assaulted him. The policeman brushed him off. So Steele went on his way, congratulating himself that he was still alive and “in possession of my liberty, passage and expense money.”

Steele had a few choice words for law enforcement (or the lack thereof) in San Francisco.

The city government at that time was entirely in the hands of the saloon element, gamblers, and thugs. Up to this time more than twelve hundred murders had been known and registered, and there were reasons to believe twice that number had been committed; and yet not a criminal had been brought to justice. Policemen, police courts, officers of all grade were implicated in crime, even to Judge Terry of the United States District Court. (p. 330)

It’s no wonder John Steele felt it necessary to carry two pistols to protect himself against thieves and murderers. He could have ended up a corpse in doorway.

George Northrup posing as a gold miner with tools and two pistols.

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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