Thursday, January 2, 2014

Digging for Gold at the Library: California life

(by Gina Bardi, Reference Librarian)

Frontispiece, "Entrance to the Golden Gate"

We have a fabulous collection of first hand voyage accounts.  We have shelves and shelves of memoirs written by all manner of people from old salt captains to sea sick passengers. Most of these describe voyages across seas and taper off once land is reached. But maritime activities extend to the shore as well. For every ship that sails and touches land, the story of those passengers and crew continues. San Francisco was a port city and its shores reached far inland. In that vein, One of my new favorite gems isn’t written by a sailor or a passenger (although he was a passenger at times) rather a minister who came to San Francisco in September of 1849, a man by the name of William Taylor.

Taylor writes eloquently of the San Francisco waterfront and all the human drama that took place there. He speaks with newly arrived captains to hear news of their voyages and he describes witnessing the suffering of shipwreck victims. He also visits hospitals, shanties and mining camps and recounts his adventures in weighty paragraphs full of flourishes. Indeed he has a flair for the dramatic, but what I find charming are the small details.  He reveals the colorful minutia of a world long forgotten.

For instance, here’s a passage describing the arrival of a steamer carrying mail and passenger:
When the signal flag on telegraph hill, announcing the arrival of a steamer, was thrown to the breeze, there was a general rush, and before the arrival gun was fired the wharf was crowded…to the number sometimes of three to five thousand…
The fact is, that men by the hundreds assembled through social sympathy to witness the happy greeting of men and their wives who had not seen each other for years, accompanied by dancing and shouting for joy, embracing, kissing, laughing, and crying…the disappointment of those whose wives did not arrive at the time expected was almost like a thunder shock… Another friend of mine had his family coming out in that splendid clipper ship, the “Queen of the Seas.” When she was due, I was told he prepared a great feast and invited two hundred guests to celebrate the occasion of his wife’s arrival. When he boarded the ship his little daughter met him, and pointed to a box which lay in a boat on the hurricane deck, securely folded in tarpaulin, and said to him, “There’s mother!” She had been a corpse for three months. (215-216)

Of course not all of the stories are as sad as that one.  Here’s a humorous one describing the fare paid on riverboats carrying passengers to Sacramento,
The fare alone from San Francisco to Sacramento City was thirty dollars [That’s approximately 800 bucks today!]  … Captain Gleason, as one of the owners of the steamer M’Kim, that plied between the two cities named, offered a free passage to all regular ministers…at any rate it became a custom with the owners and agents of steamboats running on the Sacramento and San Joaquin River to give all regular ministers a free ticket…They subsequently thought that the privilege was abused; that preachers multiplied too fast for the wants of the country; in other words, that many who were not pastors…took advantage of it. It was said for example that a man took passage on a Sacramento boat for himself and a lot of mules.  When the Captain demanded his fare, he replied, “O, I’m a preacher, sir.” “Indeed!” said the captain, and pointing to the mules inquired, “and are these preachers, too?”  The fellow had to “walk up to the captain’s office and settle.” (114-115)
Some are neither sad nor humorous but rather phobia inducing (Warning- for anyone who has a fear of rats, I beg you to skip the next part). He writes of the rats which permeated every part of the streets and wharves saying, “I have seen them swimming in the bay, from ship to ship, and when pursued they would dive and swim under water like minks” (47). We often speak of the “forests of masts” in the bay during the Gold Rush, but sounds more like a forest of rats to me.

There are many more personal observations and anecdotes throughout the book. It’s well worth a look. What’s that? Can’t get into the library to see this? Well, libraries have thoughtfully digitized versions for you, full text searchable.  Enjoy!  Oh and back up in paragraph 1, I mentioned the many first hand voyage accounts we have.  Here’s a brief list curated by Ted Miles.

Taylor, William. California Life Illustrated. New York: Carlton & Porter, 1858. Book.  

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