Three Years in California

Published in England in 1857, this tale of time spent in San Francisco and in the mines is a detailed picture of life in 1850s California through the eyes of an Englishman (a racist who calls Mexicans lazy and greasy {p 61} while demeaning the Chinese {216 among many examples}, snipping that Jews did no manual labor {95}, and declaring that Indians should make way for their betters {236}). Fires were a constant danger in the combustible town of SF; gambling and drinking going on 24 hours a day; people would retreat to the Mission (then 2 miles outside of town) to get peace from the “universal human nature boiling over” in the city. Driving from San Jose (then the seat of government) to SF, “the country is smooth and open… but toward San Francisco it becomes more hilly and bleak. The soil is sandy; indeed, excepting a few spots here and there, it is nothing but sand, and there is hardly a tree ten feet high within as many miles of the city.”
The whole time I was reading it, I was grappling with the similarities between the original gold rush and what’s happening now (technology boom version 2). The resemblance is striking (har har!):
* Mostly dudes, women were scarce
* Worship of the almighty dollar (e.g. gold nugget) was encouraged
* Real estate speculation
* People paid for others to wait in line for them at the post office
* Out in the mining fields, lots of isolation; like the sea of techies sealed off with their headphones
* Miners were so out of it that special newspapers were drawn up containing the news of the previous fortnight – reborn today as RSS or Twitter feeds for those who can’t stay on top of the daily news.
* He describes a mad rush for food in a hotel, men pooling at the entrance of the dining hall waiting for the doors to be thrown open, the scramble & clatter & 50 men finishing their meal in 2 minutes. Similar to modern-day free food buffets for techies who pour the grub down their gullets then move back to the app mines.
* It’s all about working for yourself; “…when a man can make as much, or perhaps more, by working for himself, he has greater pleasure in doing so than in working for others.” (p 156)
* Those who don’t start their own company and work for others have “insufficient inventive energy to direct their own labour and render it profitable.” (p 157)
* “… the rising generation of California are supernaturally smart and precocious” (p 279)
* “… no country ever commenced its career with such an effective population, or with the same elements of wealth to work upon.” (p 311)
Of course, there are dissimilarities as well, the professional cook: “his wages were frequently higher than those paid to a miner.” (p 169) But then again:
“Rents were exorbitantly high… the population consisted chiefly of single men.” (p 37)
“San Francisco exhibited an immense amount of vitality compressed into a small compass, and a degree of earnestness was observable in every action of a man’s daily life. People lived more there in a week than they would in a year in most places.” (p 40)
“California was often said to be famous for three things – rats, fleas, and empty bottles; but old clothes might well have been added to the list.” (p 44)
“The few ladies who were already in San Francisco, very naturally avoided appearing in public…” (p 46)

Drinking was the great consolation for those who had not moral strength to bear up under their disappointments. Some men gradually obscured their intellects by increased habits of drinking, and equally gradually, reached the lowest stage of misery and want; while others went at it with more force, and drank themselves into delirium tremens before they knew where they were. This is a very common disease in California: there is something in the climate which superinduces it with less provocation than in other countries…
The American style of drinking is so different from that in fashion in the Old World, and forms such an important part of social intercourse, that it certainly deserves to be considered one of the peculiar institutions of the country. In England, a man reserves his drinking capacities to enhance the enjoyment of the great event of the day, and to increase the familiar feeling of repletion which he experiences while ruminating over it. Dinner divides his day into two separate existences, and drinking in the forenoon suggests the idea of a man slinking off into out-of-the-way, mysterious places, and boozily muddling himself in private with quart pots of ale or numerous glasses of brandy-and-water.
With Americans, however, the case is very different. Dinner with them forms no such comfortable epoch in their daily life: it brings not even the hour of rest which is allowed to the labouring man – but it is one of the necessities of human existence, and, as it precludes all other occupations for the time being, it is dispatched as quickly as possible. They do not drink during dinner, nor immediately afterwards. The most common excuse for declining the invitation of a friend to “take a drink,” is “Thank you, I’ve just dined.” They make the voyage through life under a full head of steam all the time; they live more in a given time than other people, and naturally have recourse to constant stimulants to make up for the want of intervals of abandon and repose.
(p 56-7)

Selling your spot in line at the post office for the equivalent of $500 of today’s money:

A man’s place in the line was his individual property, more or less valuable according to his distance from the window, and, like any other piece of property, it was bought and sold, and converted into cash. Those who had plenty of dollars to spare, but could not afford much time, could buy out some one who had already spent several hours in keeping his place. Ten or fifteen dollars were frequently paid for a good position, and some men went there early, and waited patiently, without any expectation of getting letters, but for the chance of turning their acquired advantage into cash. (p 69)

Not a reliable source for cultural material, Borthwick’s comment makes me wonder what existed of patriarchy in the native lands vs. what he was imposing with his own cultural heritage:

The branches {of a sugar pine} then spread straight out from the stem, drooping a good deal at the extremities from the weight of the immense cones which they bear. These are about a foot and a half long, and under each leaf is a seed the size of a cherry-stone, and which has a taste even sweeter than that of a filbert. The Indians are very fond of them, and make the squaws gather them for winter food. (p 154)

More ridiculousness from Borthwick in describing the lynching of a woman. There was some speculation in the margin about who this woman could be. My own investigation makes me believe Josefa Segovia was the woman in question, sexually assaulted by the miner and killing him in retribution. Of course, Borthwick claims the miner was killed for no reason. That “without provocation” makes me laugh so hard:

A Mexican woman one forenoon had, without provocation, stabbed a miner in the heart, killing him on the spot… The woman, an hour or two after she committed the murder, was formally tried by a jury of twelve, found guilty, and condemned to be hung that afternoon (182)

It’s amusing during these years of drought to read of Sacramento under-water:

Sacramento City was in as wretched a plight as a city can well be in. The only dry land to be seen was the top of the levee built along the bank of the river in front of the town; all the rest was water, out of which rose the houses, or at least the upper parts of them. The streets were all so many canals crowded by boats and barges carrying on the customary traffic… (p 228)

A tiresome joke about the SF climate:

The San Francisco summer, however, is the most disagreeable and trying season one can be subjected to. In the morning and forenoon it is generally beautifully bright and warm : one feels inclined to dress as one would in the tropics ; but this cannot be done with safety, for one has to be prepared for the sudden change in temperature which occurs nearly every day towards the afternoon, when there blows in off the sea a cold biting wind, chilling the very marrow in one’s bones. The cold is doubly felt after the heat of the fore part of the day, and to some constitutions such extreme variations of temperature within the twenty-four hours are no doubt very injurious, especially as the wind not unfrequently brings a damp fog along with it.
The climate is nevertheless generally considered salubrious, and is thought by some people to be one of the finest in the world. For my own part, I much prefer the summer weather of the mines, where the sky is always bright, and the warm temperature of the day becomes only comparatively cool at night, while the atmosphere is so dry, that the heat, however intense, is never oppressive, and so clear that everything within the range of vision is as clearly and distinctly seen as if one were looking upon a flat surface, and could equally examine each separate part of it, so satisfactory and so minute in detail is the view of the most distant objects.
Considering the very frequent use of pistols in San Francisco, it is a most providential circumstance that the climate is in a high degree favourable for the cure of gunshot wounds. These in general heal very rapidly, and many miraculous recoveries have taken place, effected by nature and the climate, after the surgeons, experienced as they are in that branch of practice, had exhausted their skill upon the patient. (p 231)