What I Saw in California

Edwin Bryant, 1846

Some decades ago I came across What I Saw in California by Edwin Bryant and was immediately intrigued with the opportunity to see what California was like in 1846, before the Gold Rush started filling the state with people.  Since reading I’ve used Bryant’s quote about Donner Summit (you’ll have to keep reading to find it) in presentations, brochures, and newsletters.  He sometimes had a way with language. I also wrote a review many years ago for another publication but with changes in computers, operating systems, and software, I cannot find it.  So I found myself re-reading the book for The Heirloom.

By 1846 people had been exploring the West for some time and wagon trains had been coming to California for a few years.  By 1846 Roller Pass was in use (see our 11/11, 4/12, and 2/12 Heirlooms). The U.S was at war with Mexico.  California was a foreign country but would become officially part of the U.S. in two years at the treaty signing.  1846 was the year of the Donners.

Bryant left  Independence, Missouri as part of a wagon train but a month later left the train with some friends and mules. By the end of August they had reached California, way ahead of the wagon train.

In California he joined the volunteers in the revolt against Mexico.  In 1847 he was appointed alcalde of San Francisco by General Kearney.  He returned east in 1847. 

The book comes from Bryant’s journal and describes the overland journey with interesting descriptions and sometimes advice “ox teams seem to be esteemed as preferable” in case you might want to make the trip.  A yoke of oxen (two oxen) cost $21.67 so you can see the cost is negligible.

The reader learns the politics and prejudices of the times like why one would want to go to California two years before the Gold Rush.  To convey that Bryant tells the story about a man living in California. He shortened the story and I’ll shorten it more.

The man was 250 years old but because the climate was good in California he was in perfect health.  Having had so much life he was ready for a new experience but no matter how hard he tried and prayed he could not die.  He wanted to commit suicide but the padres told him that was the road to damnation.  Someone suggested that he make his will and leave California.  The man took up the suggestion, went away, got sick, and died.

The man’s will required that the body be returned to California for burial which it was.  You can guess the rest: the man was restored to life – such is the salubrious climate of California.

Bryant describes travel across the continent: the food, frustrations of travel, oxen, Indian villages and interactions with Indians, trappers, people returning from Oregon and California, other emigrant groups, medicine on the trail, buffalo, scenery, and storms.  Bryant’s group was actually joined by the Donners.

The book is much like a diary and in that is the weakness.  The telling can be tedious as it reports from day-to-day.  Today life moves at a faster pace and we want things to happen faster than 19th century readers wanted.

That said, even though relating day-to-day activities is tedious, the more flowery 19th Century language can be a treat.

“The white topped wagons, and the men and animals belonging to them, winding slowly over the hill-tops and through the hollows, are the only relief to the motionless torpor and tomblike stillness of the landscape.  A lovelier scene was never gazed upon, nor one of more profound solitude.” pg 38

“The perfume exhaled from its petals and enriching the “desert air,” addressed a language to the heart more thrilling than the plaintive and impassioned accents from the inspire voice of music or poesy.” pg 48

After Bryant and his friends gave up the wagon by adopting mule travel they left the train and made much faster progress.  They could often 30 miles a day while the wagon trains could make 8-10 miles a day.  So at the end of August Bryant and his friends reached California and Donner Lake.  There they found Moses Schallenburger’s cabin.  Moses was the 17 year old boy who’d spent the winter at Donner Lake two years before.  He was from the first wagon train to reach California with wagons, The Stephens Murphy Townsend Party.  It is for him that Schallenburger Ridge, the ridge on the south side of Donner Lake is named.    Of course the cabin would used in a few months by part of the Donner Party.  By the time the group reached Sacramento and Sutter’s Fort Bryant reckoned he’d traveled 2091 miles.

Bryant arrived in California in time for the Bear Flag Revolt and the second half of his book describes his travels in California.  He met the famous personages of the Day: John Sutter (and we see a typical dinner menu), General Kearney, General Vallejo, John Marsh,  Livermore, and people for whom San Francisco streets are named: Larkin, Stockton, and Leidesdorff for example.  He also met Caleb Greenwood, by then 83, the man who’d guided the Stephens Party to California.

Bryant signed up with the  California Battalion and traveled with the army to Los Angeles.  In he travels he learned about California and he relates information about the geography, Indians, whites, political and military structure, the Spanish, etc.  In his travels he covered a good part of the state.

Interesting asides are pages of contemporary reports about the Donner Party tragedy in the report of “A suffering emigrant on the California Mountains,”  proclamations, the peace decree, and military reports about the Bear Flag Revolt.

At the end Bryant enumerates the virtues of California that will make it prosperous:  minerals, agriculture, husbandry, climate, water, power, and timber.  He was right.

Some Selected Quotes

California Climate
“For salubrity I do not think there is an climate in the world superior to that of the coast of California.  I was in the country nearly a y ear, exposed much of the time to great hardships and privation, sleeping, for the most part, in the open air, and never felt while there the first pang of disease, or the slightest indication of bad health.” pg 451-2

The Sierra at Donner Lake and Donner Summit
The Alps, so celebrated in history, and by all traveler and admirers of mountain landscape, cannot, I am satisfied, present scenery more wild, more rugged more grand, more romantic, and more enchantingly picturesque and beautiful, than that which surround this lake [Donner Lake], of which the lake itself composes a part.”  pg 228

“The Sublime altitude of the  mountains, their granite and barren heads piercing the sky; the umbrageous foliage of the tall pines and cedars deepening in verdure and density as the forest approaches the more gentle and grass slopes along the banks of the lake, the limpid and tranquil surface of which daguerreotypes distinctly every object, from the moss-covered rocks laved by its waves to the bald and inaccessible summit of the Sierra – the scenic object.”  pg 230

Contemplating get up to Donner Pass
Standing at the bottom and looking upwards at the perpendicular, and in some places, impending granite cliff, the observer, without any further knowledge on the subject, would doubt if man or beast had ever made good a passage over them.  But we knew that man and horse, oxen and wagon, women and children, had crossed this formidable and apparently impassable barrier erected by Nature between the desert and the fertile districts of the coast of ht Pacific. pg 230

In good heart, therefore, we commenced the steep ascent, leaping our animals from crag to crag, and climbing in places nearly perpendicular precipices of smooth granite rocks.  One of our mules in this ascent, heavily packed, fell backwards twice, and rolled downwards, until her descent was interrupted b a projecting rock.  We thought, each time, that her career of duty and usefulness had terminated; and that her bones would bleach among the barren rocks of the mountains.  But she revived from the stunning and bruising effects of her backward somersets;  and with great exertions on our own part in assisting her, she reached with us the summit of the Pass.”  pg. 231

From the Top
“The view from the crest of the Sierra to the east, is inexpressibly comprehensive, grand and picturesque.  After congratulating ourselves upon the safe achievement of our morning feat, and breathing our mules a few minutes, we proceeded on our journey.  A mile brought us to a small dimple on the top of the mountain, in the centre of which is a miniature lake, surrounded by green grass.”  pg 231

Summit Valley
“Descending the rocky ravine a few miles, we emerged from it and emerged a beautiful level valley, some four or five miles in length from east to west, and about two miles in breadth. A narrow, sluggish stream runs through this valley, the water of which are of considerable depth, and the banks steep and miry.  A luxuriant growth of grasses, of excellent quality, covered the entire valley with the richest verdure.  Flowers were in bloom; and although late in August, the vegetation presented all the tenderness and freshness of May.  This valley has been named by emigrants “Uber Valley;” and the stream which runs through it, … sometimes pronounced Juba…”  pg 232

Traveling Along the Route from Donner Pass
“As we left the valley we crossed a high undulating country, timbered with pines, firs, and cedars, whose symmetrical proportions and rich foliage, with the bright green moss clothing their branches, would baffle the skill and coloring of the most artistical painter, to represent them faithful on canvass. This country is watered by a connected chain of seven small lakes, between which, and surrounded by the beautiful and fair=like groves I have mentioned, there are several green grassy lawns and opening, which lend to the scenery a charm and a fascination more like that which the imagination ascribes to the effete of enchantment, or the creations of a beautiful dream, than the presentation of reality….” pg 232