Old Block’s Sketch Book
90 pages 1856 reprinted, 1947
In his Sketch Book Old Block, Alonzo Delano, relates some of his many experiences crossing the continent by wagon train in 1849 and then living in California and some of the stories he heard. The stories, some done with humor, provide insight into life in mid 19th Century California.
The book is truly a sketch book. There are many sketches done by a friend of Old Block but most of the “sketching” is done in prose. For example, the first little story is an invitation to his cabin, “The string is out at the door – you need not knock – just pull the string, the latch will raise and the door open. Come in – sit down on that three-legged stool...” He describes his cabin and furnishings in detail and the how he and his partners built it and lived in it.
Later stories tell about miners, emigrants on the trail or new to California, daily life, etc. The vignettes are humorous or full of pathos. They are about people in dire straits like the family whose mules died in a snowstorm and left them stranded, or the woman trying to shelter her baby from the storm under a tree while her husband went looking for food and shelter. The stories are also about Old Block’s outlook on life. Work hard and succeed. People will help each other. Liquor and gambling are bad. A boat captain heard the baby, above, crying and rescued them and the husband. Later the family becomes economically successful in California. The family whose mules died was rescued by others coming along the trail after them, and had previously been helped when two fellows coming along going for help for another group, stopped to give the family the last of their food. According to Old Block these were true stories.
The speech is done in the vernacular. A humorous example is Old Block’s friend, Old Swamp. Swamp described how he proposed to his wife, Betsy… I’m dead in love with you, and if you’ll only go in cohoot with me in the cabin fixins and plantation ground, I’ll give up coon huntin’, gal huntin’, and all other huntin,’ except happiness huntin,’ and you and me will settle down for life, like two tame turkeys over a pig-sty. Will you go the caper?”
One particular interesting story was “Sunday at Home.” Old Block describes a family getting ready for Sunday church. It does not sound far off from a family today except that no one is holding cellphones or video game controllers. Then, surprise, the initial vignette is about a family in New England. The story then moves on to “Sunday in the Mines.” Rather than wearing Sunday Best, Old Block says he had not used a mirror in three months and described he beard, matted locks, “old worn out hat,” “greasy buckskin coat, wrinkled and dirty with unmentionables ditto; my toes peeping out into daylight from my old dilapidated shoes, like frogs from the scum of a pond…” He moves on to describe California and his mining camp. “The morning is always beautiful in California… Not a cloud is to be seen, and it seems as ‘Our Father who are Heaven,’ was smiling on this fair portion of man’s heritage, to bless him – if he is willing to bless himself.”
The description of the mining camp is full of interesting detail. There are people gathering in the camp on this Sunday too, but in the California mining camp they are not gathering for church like back east. They are gathering at gambling saloons for their one day off per week. It is the only day they can trade gold, their week’s efforts, for money. All the stores are open and Sunday is the best day for sales. Fiddles, banjos, tambourines, bones and a piano are all making music. People who are not gambling and drinking are visiting, playing billiards or ten-pins, or taking a “social glass.” The attitude Old Block says, is “If we get drunk, it’s nobody’s business.”
Having described some of the mining camp scene Old Block then offers some advice, save money for when you might NEED (his capital letters) it, send it home to the family. But then he interrupts his lesson for some new entertainment that just started, a fight, “What refinement, what delicacy, what a charming picture to present…” He describes the cheers of the crowd and “the poor drunken fools, with their blood flowing freely, are rolling and tumbling in the dirt like brutes, beating and bruising each other like infuriated demons…” Sarcastically Old Block says, “we are so much ahead of the ‘old folks at home,’ in fact, we never knew anything of life till we came to California.” Old Blocks notes a family on the way to church among all the other goings on, “They are old fogies, who are trying to teach their children old fashioned notions of propriety, and who are opposed to bringing them up according to the new code of morals” (those of the California mining camps).
You don’t read things like that just every day nowadays.