Luzena Goes into Business

After two or three days Luzena and Mason Wilson sold their oxen for six hundred dollars and bought a hotel. Whatever you may picture as a hotel in 1849 Sacramento, your imagination exceeds the reality.

The hotel we bought consisted of two rooms, the kitchen, which was my special province, and the general living room, the first room I had entered in Sacramento. I thought I had already grown accustomed to the queer scenes around me, but that first glimpse into a Sacramento hotel was a picture which only loss of memory can efface. Imagine a long room, dimly lighted by dripping tallow candles stuck into whisky bottles, with bunks built from floor to ceiling on either side.

Illustration from Overland to California by William G. Johnston. Thanks, Internet Archive!

How much of this hotel was framed, and how much was mere canvas, Luzena does not say. What she calls the “living room” was the “everything” room: bedroom, dining room, parlor, and tavern.

A bar with rows of bottles and glasses was in one corner, and two or three miners were drinking; the barkeeper dressed in half sailor, half vaquero fashion, with a blue shirt rolled far back at the collar to display the snowy linen beneath, and his waist encircled by a flaming scarlet sash, was in commanding tones subduing their noisy demands, for the barkeeper, next to the stage-driver, was in early days the most important man in camp. In the opposite corner of the room some men were having a wordy dispute over a game of cards; a cracked fiddle was, under the manipulation of rather clumsy fingers, furnishing music for some half dozen others to dance to the tune of “Moneymusk”.

“Monymusk” (the usual spelling), is a Scottish reel. That “cracked fiddle” played by “clumsy fingers” probably didn’t sound as good as this version.

One young man was reading a letter by a sputtering candle, and the tears rolling down his yet unbearded face told of the homesickness in his heart. Some of the men lay sick in their bunks, some lay asleep, and out from another bunk, upon this curious mingling of merriment and sadness stared the white face of a corpse. They had forgotten even to cover the still features with the edge of a blanket, and he lay there, in his rigid calmness, a silent unheeded witness to the acquired insensibility of the early settlers. What was one dead man, more or less! Nobody missed him. They would bury him tomorrow to make room for a new applicant for his bunk. The music and the dancing, the card-playing,
drinking, and swearing went on unchecked by the hideous presence of Death. His face
grew too familiar in those days to be a terror.

Luzena Stanley Wilson, ’49er; memories recalled years later for her daughter Correnah Wilson Wright.

A young man lays dead in his bunk and the drinking, dancing, and card-playing continue without heed. The fiddle plays on, “unchecked by the hideous presence of Death.” It was the first, but not the last corpse that Luzena would see.

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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