What I Saw in California
By Edwin Bryant
Public Domain Books
California battalion Their appearance and costume List of the officers Commence our march to Los Angeles Appearance of the country in the vicinity of San Juan Slaughter of beeves Astonishing consumption of beef by the men Beautiful morning Ice Salinas river and valley Californian prisoners Horses giving out from fatigue Mission of San Miguel Sheep Mutton March on foot More prisoners taken Death of Mr. Stanley An execution Dark night Capture of the mission of San Luis Obispo Orderly conduct and good deportment of the California battalion.
November 30.–The battalion of mounted riflemen, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont, numbers, rank and file, including Indians, and servants, 428. With the exception of the exploring party, which left the United States with Colonel F., they are composed of volunteers from the American settlers, and the emigrants who have arrived in the country within a few weeks. The latter have generally furnished their own ammunition and other equipments for the expedition. Most of these are practised riflemen, men of undoubted courage, and capable of bearing any fatigue and privations endurable by veteran troops. The Indians are composed of a party of Walla-Wallas from Oregon, and a party of native Californians. Attached to the battalion are two pieces of artillery, under the command of Lieutenant McLane, of the navy. In the appearance of our small army there is presented but little of “the pomp and circumstance of glorious war.” There are no plumes nodding over brazen helmets, nor coats of broadcloth spangled with lace and buttons. A broad-brimmed low-crowned hat, a shirt of blue flannel, or buckskin, with pantaloons and mocassins of the same, all generally much the worse for wear, and smeared with mud and dust, make up the costume of the party, officers as well as men. A leathern girdle surrounds the waist, from which are suspended a bowie and a hunter’s knife, and sometimes a brace of pistols. These, with the rifle and holster-pistols, are the arms carried by officers and privates. A single bugle (and a sorry one it is) composes the band. Many an embryo Napoleon, in his own conceit, whose martial spirit has been excited to flaming intensity of heat by the peacock-plumage and gaudy trappings of our militia companies, when marching through the streets to the sound of drum, fife, and brass band, if he could have looked upon us, and then consulted the state of the military thermometer within him, would probably have discovered that the mercury of his heroism had fallen several degrees below zero. He might even have desired that we should not come
“Between the wind and his nobility.”
War, stripped of its pageantry, possesses but few of the attractions with which poetry and painting have embellished it. The following is a list of the officers composing the California Battalion:–Lieut.-colonel J.G. Fremont, commanding; A.H. Gillespie, major; P.B. Reading, paymaster; H. King, commissary; J.R. Snyder, quartermaster, since appointed a land-surveyor by Colonel Mason; Wm. H. Russell, ordnance officer; T. Talbot, lieutenant and adjutant; J.J. Myers, sergeant-major, appointed lieutenant in January, 1847.
Company A.–Richard Owens, captain; Wm. N. Loker, 1st lieutenant, appointed adjutant, Feb. 10th, 1847; B.M. Hudspeth, 2d lieutenant, appointed captain, Feb. 1847, Wm. Findlay, 2d lieutenant, appointed captain, Feb. 1847.
Company B.–Henry Ford, captain; Andrew Copeland, 1st lieutenant.
Company C.–Granville P. Swift, captain; Wm. Baldridge, 1st lieutenant; Wm. Hartgrove, 2d do.
Company D.–John Sears, captain; Wm. Bradshaw, 1st lieutenant.
Company E.–John Grigsby, captain; Archibald Jesse, 1st lieutenant.
Company F.–L.W. Hastings, captain (author of a work on California); Wornbough, 1st lieutenant; J.M. Hudspeth, 2d do.
Company G.–Thompson, captain; Davis 1st lieutenant; Rock, 2d do.
Company H.–R.T. Jacobs, captain; Edwin Bryant, 1st lieutenant (afterwards alcalde at San Francisco); Geo. M. Lippincott, 2d do., of New York.
Artillery Company.–Louis McLane, captain (afterwards major); John. K. Wilson, 1st lieutenant, appointed captain in January, 1847; Wm. Blackburn, 2d do. (now alcalde of Santa Cruz).
Officers on detached Service and doing Duty at the South.–S. Hensley, captain; S. Gibson, do. (lanced through the body at San Pascual); Miguel Pedrorena, do., Spaniard (appointed by Stockton); Stgo. Arguello, do., Californian (appointed by do.); Bell, do. (appointed by do.), old resident of California (Los Angeles); H. Rhenshaw, 1st lieutenant, (appointed by do.); A. Godey, do. (appointed by do.); Jas. Barton, do. (appointed by do.); L. Arguello, do., Californian (appointed by do.).
After a march of six or eight hours, up the valley of the arroyo, through a heavy rain, and mud so deep that several of our horses gave out from exhaustion, we encamped in a circular bottom, near a deserted adobe house. A caballada, of some 500 or 600 loose horses and mules is driven along with us, but many of them are miserable sore-backed skeletons, having been exhausted with hard usage and bad fare during the summer campaign. Besides these, we have a large number of pack-mules, upon which all our baggage and provisions are transported. Distance 10 miles.
We did not move on the 1st and 2d of December. There being no cattle in the vicinity of our camp, a party was sent back to the mission, on the morning of the 1st, who in the afternoon returned, driving before them about 100 head, most of them in good condition. After a sufficient number were slaughtered to supply the camp with meat for the day, the remainder were confined in a corral prepared for the purpose, to be driven along with us, and slaughtered from day to day. The rain has continued, with short intermissions, since we commenced our march on the 30th of November. The ground has become saturated with water, and the small branches are swollen into large streams. Notwithstanding these discomforts, the men are in good spirits, and enjoy themselves in singing, telling stories, and playing monte.
December 3.–The rain ceased falling about 8 o’clock this morning; and, the clouds breaking away, the sun cheered us once more with his pleasant beams. The battalion was formed into a hollow square, and, the order of the day being read, we resumed our march. Our progress, through the deep mud, was very slow. The horses were constantly giving out, and many were left behind. The young and tender grass upon which they feed affords but little nourishment, and hard labour soon exhausts them. We encamped on a low bluff, near the arroyo, timbered with evergreen oak. Distance 8 miles.
December 4.–I was ordered with a small party in advance this morning. Proceeding up the valley a few miles, we left it, crossing several steep hills sparsely timbered with oak, from which we descended into another small valley, down which we continued to the point of its termination, near some narrow and difficult mountain gorges. In exploring the gorges, we discovered the trail of a party of Californians, which had passed south several days before us, and found a horse which they had left in their march. This, doubtless, was a portion of the party which captured Mr. Larkin, and had the engagement between Monterey and St. Juan, on the 17th ult. The main body coming up, we encamped at three o’clock. The old grass around our camp is abundant; but having been so much washed by the rains, and consequently exhausted of its nutritious qualities, the animals refused to eat it. The country over which we have travelled to-day, and as far as I can see, is mountainous and broken, little of it being adapted to other agricultural purposes than grazing.
Thirteen beeves are slaughtered every afternoon for the consumption of the battalion. These beeves are generally of good size, and in fair condition. Other provisions being entirely exhausted, beef constitutes the only subsistence for the men, and most of the officers. Under these circumstances, the consumption of beef is astonishing. I do not know that I shall be believed when I state a fact, derived from observation and calculation, that the average consumption per man of fresh beef is at least ten pounds per day. Many of them, I believe, consume much more, and some of them less. Nor does this quantity appear to be injurious to health, or fully to satisfy the appetite. I have seen some of the men roast their meat and devour it by the fire from the hour of encamping until late bed-time. They would then sleep until one or two o’clock in the morning, when, the cravings of hunger being greater than the desire for repose, the same occupation would be resumed, and continued until the order was given to march. The Californian beef is generally fat, juicy, and tender, and surpasses in flavour any which I ever tasted elsewhere. Distance 10 miles.
December 5.–I rose before daylight. The moon shone brightly. The temperature was cold. The vapour in the atmosphere had congealed and fallen upon the ground in feathery flakes, covering it with a white semi-transparent veil, or crystal sheen, sparkling in the moonbeams. The smoke from the numerous camp-fires soon began to curl languidly up in graceful wreaths, settling upon the mountain summits. The scene was one for the pencil and brush of the artist; but, when the envious sun rose, he soon stripped Madam Earth of her gauzy holiday morning-gown, and exposed her every-day petticoat of mud.
Our march to-day has been one of great difficulty, through a deep brushy mountain gorge, through which it was almost impossible to force the field-pieces. In one place they were lowered with ropes down a steep and nearly perpendicular precipice of great height and depth. We encamped about three o’clock, P.M., in a small valley. Many of the horses gave out on the march, and were left behind by the men, who came straggling into camp until a late hour of the evening, bringing their saddles and baggage upon their shoulders. I noticed, while crossing an elevated ridge of hills, flakes of snow flying in the air, but melting before they reached the ground. The small spring-branch on which we encamped empties into the Salinas River. The country surrounding us is elevated and broken, and the soil sandy, with but little timber or grass upon it. Distance 12 miles.
December 6.–Morning clear and cool. Crossed an undulating country, destitute of timber and water, and encamped in a circular valley surrounded by elevated hills, through which flows a small tributary of the Salinas. The summits of the mountains in sight are covered with snow, but the temperature in the valleys is pleasant. Distance 15 miles.
December 7.–Ice, the first I have seen since entering California, formed in the branch, of the thickness of window-glass. We reached the valley of the Salinas about eleven o’clock A.M., and encamped for the day. The river Salinas (laid down in some maps as Rio San Buenaventura) rises in the mountains to the south, and has a course of some sixty or eighty miles, emptying into the Pacific about twelve miles north of Monterey. The valley, as it approaches the ocean, is broad and fertile, and there are many fine ranchos upon it. But, higher up, the stream becomes dry in the summer, and the soil of the valley is arid and sandy. The width of the stream at this point is about thirty yards. Its banks are skirted by narrow belts of small timber. A range of elevated mountains rises between this valley and the coast. A court-martial was held to-day, for the trial of sundry offenders. Distance 8 miles.
December 8.–Morning cool, clear, and pleasant. Two Californians were arrested by the rear-guard near a deserted rancho, and brought into camp. One of them turned out to be a person known to be friendly to the Americans. There has been but little variation in the soil or scenery. But few attempts appear to have been made to settle this portion of California. The thefts and hostilities of the Tular Indians are said to be one of the causes preventing its settlement. Distance 15 miles.
December 9.–The mornings are cool, but the middle of the day is too warm to ride comfortably with our coats on. Our march has been fatiguing and difficult, through several brushy ravines and over steep and elevated hills. Many horses gave out as usual, and were left, from inability to travel. Our caballada is diminishing rapidly. Distance 10 miles.
December 10.–Our march has been on the main beaten trail, dry and hard, and over a comparatively level country. We passed the mission of San Miguel about three o’clock, and encamped in a grove of large oak timber, three or four miles south of it. This mission is situated on the upper waters of the Salinas, in an extensive plain. Under the administration of the padres it was a wealthy establishment, and manufactures of various kinds were carried on. They raised immense numbers of sheep, the fleeces of which were manufactured by the Indians into blankets and coarse cloths. Their granaries were filled with an abundance of maize and frijoles, and their store-rooms with other necessaries of life, from the ranchos belonging to the mission lands in the vicinity. Now all the buildings, except the church and the principal range of houses contiguous, have fallen into ruins, and an Englishman, his wife, and one small child, with two or three Indian servants, are the sole inhabitants. The church is the largest I have seen in the country, and its interior is in good repair, although it has not probably been used for the purpose of public worship for many years. The Englishman professes to have purchased the mission and all the lands belonging to it for 300 dollars.
Our stock of cattle being exhausted, we feasted on Californian mutton, sheep being more abundant than cattle at this mission. The wool, I noticed, was coarse, but the mutton was of an excellent quality. The country over which we have travelled to-day shows the marks of long drought previous to the recent rains. The soil is sandy and gravelly, and the dead vegetation upon it is thin and stunted. About eighty of our horses are reported to have given out and been left behind. Distance 20 miles.
December 12.–To relieve our horses, which are constantly giving out from exhaustion, the grass being insufficient for their sustenance while performing labour, the entire battalion, officers and men, were ordered to march on foot, turning their horses, with the saddles and bridles upon them, into the general caballada, to be driven along by the horse-guard. The day has been drizzly, cold, and disagreeable. The country has a barren and naked appearance; but this, I believe, is attributable to the extreme drought that has prevailed in this region for one or two years past. We encamped near the rancho of a friendly Californian–the man who was taken prisoner the other day and set at large. An Indian, said to be the servant of Tortoria Pico, was captured here by the advance party. A letter was found upon him, but the contents of which I never learned. This being the first foot-march, there were, of course, many galled and blistered feet in the battalion. My servant obtained, with some difficulty, from the Indians at the rancho, a pint-cup of pinole, or parched corn-meal, and a quart or two of wheat, which, being boiled, furnished some variety in our viands at supper, fresh beef having been our only subsistence since the commencement of the march from San Juan. Distance 12 miles.
December 13.–A rainy disagreeable morning. Mr. Stanley, one of the volunteers, and one of the gentlemen who so kindly supplied us with provisions on Mary’s River, died last night. He has been suffering from an attack of typhoid fever since the commencement of our march, and unable most of the time to sit upon his horse. He was buried this morning in a small circular opening in the timber near our camp. The battalion was formed in a hollow square surrounding the grave which had been excavated for the final resting-place of our deceased friend and comrade. There was neither bier, nor coffin, nor pall–
“Not a drum was heard, nor a funeral note.”
The cold earth was heaped upon his mortal remains in silent solemnity, and the ashes of a braver or a better man will never repose in the lonely hills of California.
After the funeral the battalion was marched a short distance to witness another scene, not more mournful, but more harrowing than the last. The Indian captured at the rancho yesterday was condemned to die. He was brought from his place of confinement and tied to a tree. Here he stood some fifteen or twenty minutes, until the Indians from a neighbouring rancheria could be brought to witness the execution. A file of soldiers were then ordered to fire upon him. He fell upon his knees, and remained in that position several minutes without uttering a groan, and then sank upon the earth. No human being could have met his fate with more composure, or with stronger manifestations of courage. It was a scene such as I desire never to witness again.
A cold rain fell upon us during the entire day’s march. We encamped at four o’clock, P.M.; but the rain poured down in such torrents that it was impossible to light our camp-fires and keep them burning. This continued nearly the whole night, and I have rarely passed a night more uncomfortably. A scouting party brought in two additional prisoners this evening. Another returned, and reported the capture of a number of horses, and the destruction of a rancho by fire. Distance 12 miles.
December 14.–The battalion commenced its march on foot and in a heavy rain. The mud is very deep, and we have been compelled to wade several streams of considerable depth, being swollen by the recent rains. At one o’clock a halt was ordered, and beef slaughtered and cooked for dinner. The march was resumed late in the afternoon, and the plain surrounding the mission of San Luis Obispo was reached in the pitch darkness of the night, a family in the canada having been taken prisoners by the advance party to prevent them from giving the alarm. The battalion was so disposed as to surround the mission and take prisoners all contained within it. The place was entered in great confusion, on account of the darkness, about nine o’clock. There was no military force at the mission, and the few inhabitants were greatly alarmed, as may well be supposed, by this sudden invasion. They made no resistance, and were all taken prisoners except one or two, who managed to escape and fled in great terror, no one knew where or how. It being ascertained that Tortoria Pico, a man who has figured conspicuously in most of the Californian revolutions, was in the neighbourhood, a party was despatched immediately to the place, and he was brought in a prisoner. The night was rainy and boisterous, and the soldiers were quartered to the best advantage in the miserable mud houses, and no acts of violence or outrage of any kind were committed.
The men composing the Californian battalion, as I have before stated, have been drawn from many sources, and are roughly clad, and weather-beaten in their exterior appearance; but I feel it but justice here to state my belief, that no military party ever passed through an enemy’s country and observed the same strict regard for the rights of its population. I never heard of an outrage, or even a trespass being committed by one of the American volunteers during our entire march. Every American appeared to understand perfectly the duty which he owed to himself and others in this respect, and the deportment of the battalion might be cited as a model for imitation. Distance 18 miles.