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The Last of the California Rangers (1928) by Jill L. Cossley-Batt


Captain Howard arrived in San Francisco on July 4, 1849. The beautiful Golden Gate at that period was bordered on either side with picturesque hills, covered with pasture, where sheep roamed unguarded by dog or shepherd. On the mountains, looming in the distance, thousands of coniferous trees formed a great forest. What a difference between the great commercial city of to-day and the little Spanish town viewed by young Howard in the days of the gold rush!

There were a few good adobe houses, and one or two wooden buildings that rented at 3,500 piasters per annum. Tents and canvas blankets of every color formed an amphitheater. These housed a population of adventurers, vagabonds, bankrupts and refugees—interspersed with honest seekers of fortune. The streets were almost impassable, and rats played merrily in the rubbish scattered everywhere. People plodded along either in deep sand or in deep mud, according to the kind of weather, all bent on amassing riches—a goal which, for most of them, seemed just within reach, but invariably eluded them. All-night cafes, gambling houses and saloons were more numerous than dwelling houses. The saloons were open twenty-four hours of the day, and whisky ran as freely as water. People gambled, drank or slept, just as the mood happened to strike them.

Brawny Mexicans with broad sombreros, short embroidered jackets decorated with silver buttons, wide slashed buckskin trousers looped over with silver lace, long inlaid Spanish spurs jingling like little bells, strutted up and down like peacocks. They were mounted on fiery steeds that champed Spanish bits plated with silver, and that sported headstalls of braided hair, and embroidered, high-pommelled saddles with long tapaderos. In a haughty manner they would scan the Americans, and remark sarcastically, “More Gringoes!”

An occasional Chinaman with long pig-tail passed in and out of the narrow alleys, dressed in coarse blue linen smock, with bare feet (sometimes covered with Chinese slippers), wide trousers and native straw hat. He carried two large baskets suspended on a pole across his shoulders and filled with fruit and vegetables.

In the distance one gazed upon the old red-tiled mission, edged with Castilian roses, and encircled by one scent-tinted, bee-invaded garden. The bay was dotted with ships from all parts of the world, and from these sailing vessels hundreds of men and a few pretty girls poured into the town. They represented every variety of human nature, and were all making for the mines. The average age of the men was twenty-five, and the majority of them looked strong, full of ambition and adventure. Their flashing eyes proclaimed the courage and joy of youth. A large number of seafaring men also joined in the rush; after they had unloaded their cargoes, the gold fever overcame them, so the ships were forced to stand idle.

It did not take long for Captain Howard and his companions to dispose of their mules. They entered a restaurant, and who should they run into but Ned Burns and several of the men whom William had left behind at the Colorado! While the fleas took a few pieces out of their legs they gathered around the menu, which revealed to them the fact that they were in a wild Western town. It read as follows:

Roast Grizzly$1 a slice
Baked Beans$1 a plate
Eggs (uncertified)$1 each

At last they were in a country where there were no written laws, where men were free to run wild, and where the three great inevitable forces—time, death, and love—ruled supreme. Yet a thinking person could not fail to realize that the basis of future prosperity in this new country was the strong arm of the worker—plus the brains of the business man and the capitalist —united with law and order.

During his short stay in San Francisco, Captain Howard put up at a small hotel kept by a robust, rosy-faced Englishwoman. The price for room and board was one hundred and fifty dollars a week, and the price of sleep was to rub one’s legs and feet with alcohol, then let them dangle over the side of the bunk—for fleas were fast and numerous.

While residing at this hotel William met some French aristocracy. There were the Marquis of Franchlieu and the Count Sastonde Rousset de Boulban, a native of Avignon; but the most sensational character was the Marquis of Pindray. He was loquacious, dynamic and brazen, a popular demagog, with powers that might have made him a general or a great lord, altho at heart he was a bandit of the lowest order. After successful gambling-bouts he would walk boastfully up and down the streets dressed in fawn-colored trousers, wide-brimmed hat and heavy boots. Dangling from his belt could he seen a revolver and sword, sometimes rabbits and ducks, with deer-horns hung around his neck.

Some of the men went East to the San Joaquin mines; but Howard, accompanied by the five Easterners whom he had guided from Los Angeles, took the boat to Stockton. This place was the center of activities for the Southern mines. Before leaving San Francisco, they purchased mining equipment, paying fifteen dollars each for picks, shovels, pans, camping outfits, and eighty dollars for a rocker.

The boat trip from San Francisco to Stockton cost just ten dollars, and in spite of the many leaks, the vessel was packed with people of all kinds and nationalities. All the way across the bay and up the river, the one topic of conversation was gold. The peculiar names attached to some of the mines did not escape the ears of young William Howard. There were Whisky Bay, Hell’s Delight, Brandy Gulch, Blue Belly Ravine, and many others—names indicating the kind of environment one had to tolerate on such ventures.

When the vessel drew near to Stockton, every one was eager to get a good look at the splendid walls of the Sierras, which are four hundred miles long and two miles high. The long white line of ghostly peaks and the radiant colors of the different belts attracted much attention, for all knew that nuggets of gold were hidden in the distant foothills.

This town was crowded with thousands of young men, and much building was being done to accommodate the venturers. William’s curiosity led him on a general inspection, and it did not take him long to discover that it was a town where everything was run on the wide-open principle. It was a seething mass of enterprising nationalities, and one heard a jargon of many languages. There was the American in his flannel shirt, top-boots and sombrero; the Turk in his gay-colored pantaloons; the Hindu in his vermilion or white turban; the German with his large mustache; the Englishman with his little derby or high silk hat; the Portuguese (commonly known as Gees), quick-tempered Frenchman and Italian, and the Chinaman, then, as ever, untroubled by woman suffrage or the eight-hour law. The most fascinating figure was the dashing young Spaniard; he was so courteous, so passionate; romance was the wine of his life. One could easily see that business to him was a means or a necessity, not a pursuit.

The few pretty girls did not escape the eyes of the newcomers; amongst them were a few seņoritas with beautiful forms, delicate features, and dreamy eyes. They looked very charming and graceful in their white gowns, each with a single rose in her hair; while their movements quickly revealed to the onlooker that music to them was the breath of life.

Everything in this renowned mining town was run on extremely broad lines, for there were as many bars as there were gallons of whisky. The brilliantly lighted gambling dens, with their bad liquor, foul atmosphere, and black smoke, were filled with reckless spirits, whose heated brains were not allowed to cool. During the day they would earn thirty dollars, and at night would lose it gambling in one of these glittering palaces of mad and feverish mirth.

As a general rule, man does not leave hearth and family to seek adventure in foreign lands unless consumed of ambition, love of gold, science, or religious ardor; unless he has some duty to fulfil, some disaster to repair, some sin to hide, a rope to evade or a big love to forget. William J. Howard soon realized that he had landed in a human conglomeration filled with the spirit of youth and adventure, of ambition, crime and possibly heroism. Its members were divided into two different kinds; one kind was hardy, honest and earnest, filled with courage and conscience; the other, a horde of human leeches, ever ready to suck the blood of their fellow workers.

Due to lack of feminine home life, their primitive instincts ran rampant, and many indulged recklessly in drinking and gambling. Human nature was put to its severest test, and success in such an environment was the result of moral endurance and physical strength. Big money is often the ruination of a little soul; thus many a man in Stockton, after enduring starvation, blew out his brains as a result of quick gains. It was indeed a case of the survival of the fittest, and a young man had to cultivate a strong mind and body in order to retain the ideals which had been drilled into him by his parents, for moral courage, brute strength and luck counted more than education, clothes, or good looks.

Fully armed, young Howard, in the company of five men from the Eastern States, started walking toward the Mokelumne Hill mines. On the way he met and exchanged greetings with five placer-miners who were taking their hard-earned treasure to Stockton. They looked very picturesque in their dilapidated coats and vests, which had almost vanished, piece by piece. Their trousers were in ruins; the uppers and soles of their boots had parted company or disappeared altogether, and were replaced by pieces of nether garments. This gave the newcomers a glimpse of the hard times ahead of them.

On arrival at the mines, they were greeted by the old-timers, who patiently waited to play a joke or give incorrect information to the so-called greenhorns. Some were singing songs of thanks to Marshall and Sutter for discovering the precious metal; others were working quietly and arduously at their daily task; while an occasional Chinaman was heard to shout, “What you wantee catchee here?”

The majority of miners were dressed in shirts with pantaloons tucked in the tops of their boots. Their faces were practically covered with shaggy beards, and their uncut hair fell in tangled disorder over their shoulders. A pipe or cigaret filled the mouth, and around the waist was a strong leather belt, which held the frontiersman’s substitute for police and the law—two revolvers and a bowie knife. During mining exertions, these firearms were carefully laid on the ground near-by.

“Let’s cast lots for partners!” said one of the men in Howard’s group.

The significant half-dollar was tossed in the air, and William’s partner, thus chosen, proved to be a big, burly carpenter from New York, named Hank Reeves. Reeves soon constructed a cradle, but his disagreeable manner soon showed that he was displeased with his young partner, for William was thoroughly unsophisticated in the ways of mining. Another thing: the young Virginian was not used to working hard under the instructions of another. On the first day, Hank, after manipulating his pick-ax and spade, handed William a can and told him to fill it with water. All day long in the intense heat the young Virginian poured on the water and rocked the cradle, while Hank shoveled the gold-bearing dirt.

Many stories and old-time jokes were hourly related in good Castilian and other languages less comprehensible to Howard. Amid this babble it was quite evident that the miners were extremely cosmopolitan in sympathy, worked hard and minded their own business, while the element of chance in their quest for gold kept their ambition at the highest pitch, sustained their morale, and enhanced their endurance.

Eventually, the daily task made the young Virginian-born miner very nervous and thoroughly tired out. Being new to the work and without a tent, he had to spend the first night under a bush, and his alarm-clock the next morning was the hoarse cawing of the crows overhead.

About the middle of the second day, the labor of rocking the cradle—the crude instrument used to separate the gold from the dirt—got on his nerves to such an extent that he commenced to think out other means of getting gold. Observing that game was plentiful and meat selling at one dollar a pound, Howard concluded that hunting and selling game would be a much quicker way of making gold than mining. Filled with this new ambition, he could not contain himself, and impulsively said to his partner:

“Hank, I want to go and shoot a deer. See, meat is selling at a dollar a pound.”

“No, the Indians will kill you,” was Hank’s emphatic reply.

“I can speak Spanish,” William argued, “and they will not hurt me. If I can shoot a deer weighing seventy or eighty pounds, surely it is better than mining.”

In old-time mining camps, intelligence traveled fast by word of mouth; therefore it soon became generally known that William J. Howard had come from Texas. The majority of “Gringoes” were under the impression that men from Texas were a lot of desperadoes; so William did not hold a very high place in the estimation of Hank Reeves. The burly carpenter stopped shoveling, turned to William, and said in loud tones, “You’re a lazy coward! You are trying to get out of rocking the cradle!”

This was too much for young Howard; it touched his honor, and without warning he slapped Hank in the face. Hank grew furious at the idea of a Texan tenderfoot daring to hit him, so he landed William a sledge-hammer blow, which fractured his jaw and caused him to faint and fall to the ground. Then, taking advantage of his helpless condition, Hank sprang upon him and endeavored to finish him altogether. They were soon surrounded by miners, but not one offered assistance, for they all knew that the victim was from the Lone Star State.

At the critical moment, a certain Mr. Wilson, who, like thousands of others, had come to try his luck at the mines, seeing the helpless youth at the mercy of a man like Reeves, could not hold himself. He rushed forward, and in spite of the protests of the bystanders, pulled the heartless assailant, known as “Hank, the Bully,” off the wounded youth. On being relieved of Hank’s weight, Howard drew a pen-knife from his breast pocket. It was not a very formidable looking weapon, but when Reeves saw it he made off as fast as his legs could carry him, and in running stumbled and fell. William was soon upon him, and as he rolled over, gained his revenge by striking him in the forehead with the toy knife, and made a terrible gash.

Rising to his feet, Hank put his hand to his head, and whimpered, “I’ll bleed to death!”

The crowd yelled, “Get a rope and hang the Texas desperado!”

Mining camps in those days were a law unto themselves, and if a character did not stand the test he was left at the end of a rope. Under the circumstances, one fellow grabbed William by the arm, while another put a rope around his neck. Just as all hands were ready to pull it over a limb, a stern cry, “Stop!” rang through the air.

A tall man of commanding presence drew close to the scene. His name was Calhoun; he had come from South Carolina, and had been very friendly with William’s parents when they lived in Virginia. In a voice of authority he said:

“Let loose that boy. Is there a Justice of the Peace in the crowd?”

“I am an officer,” replied a serious-looking man; “pick a dozen men, and we will see who is to blame in this matter.”

One dozen men were quickly selected, and they decided to try the case by Missouri law. When the call for the presence of the defendant was given, Calhoun made a speech to the jury, and pointing to William, he said, “Does that boy look like a Texas desperado?”

After listening to the lad’s side of the case, the jury decided that William J. Howard was not to blame. He looked a mere boy compared to the average miner, and the rough treatment received at the hands of Hank Reeves had left him in a bruised and bleeding condition.

The miners at Mokelumne Hill lived in fear of the Indians and of the men from Texas. The latter fear was due to the fact that many ex-Mexicans from Texas, in common with other nationalities, had been attracted to California by the gold rush. The State had been settled originally, of course, by Spaniards and Mexicans,

Close call for young [William James] Howard

[click to enlarge]
“Got a rope and hang the Texas desperado!” yelled the infuriated miners.

and when it was acquired by the United States as one of the fruits of the Mexican War, many of the old-timers, as well as many of the new arrivals, were classed by the Americans as undesirable. These people, comparable to the population of Northern Mexico, had somewhat crude ideas of mining. They quickly discerned that the “Gringoes,” as they termed the Americans, were much better equipped in this regard, and capable of achieving far better results in the quest for the precious metal. Their jealousy was aroused accordingly, and it was extremely hazardous for an American to venture far from the mining camp unattended.

It being already public knowledge that young Howard had crossed the plains from Texas, his life, for this reason, was endangered. Mr. Wilson called him to one side and said: “Mr. Howard, here is a rifle. I advise you to get away from here as soon as possible, for the crowd is angry with you, and might attempt to kill you.”

William took the rifle thankfully and followed his benefactor’s advice, realizing that he would be safer among the Indians than with a lot of miners who misunderstood him.

Next: 8. Nursed by IndiansContentsPrevious: 6. Across Desert & Plain

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