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An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)


San Jose, Cal., Aug. 27, 1859.

The state of California may be roughly characterized as two ranges of mountains—a large and a small one—with a great valley between them, and a narrow, irregular counterpart separating the smaller from the Pacific ocean. If we add to these a small strip of arid, but fertile coast, and a broad sandy desert behind it, lying south-west of California proper, and likely one day to be politically severed from it, we have a sufficiently accurate outline of the topography of the golden state.

Such a region, stretching from north latitude 32° 30' up to latitude 42°, and rising from the Pacific ocean up to perpetually snow-covered peaks fifteen thousand feet high, can hardly be said to have a climate. Aside from the Alpine crests of the Sierra, and the sultry deserts below the Mohave and Santa Barbara, California embodies almost every gradation of climate, from the semi-arctic to the semi-tropical. There are green, fertile valleys in the Sierra which only begin to be well grassed when the herbage of the great valley is drying up, and from which the cattle are driven by snows as early as the first of October—long before grass begins to start afresh on the banks of the Sacramento. There are other valleys upon and near the sea-coast, wherein frost and snow are strangers, rarely seen, and vanishing, with the night that gave them being. Generally, however, we may say of the state, that it has a mild, dry, breezy, healthy climate, better than that of Italy; in that the sultry, scorching blasts from African deserts have here no counterpart. Save in the higher mountains, or in the extreme north-east, snow never lies, the earth never freezes, and winter is but a milder, greener, longer spring, throughout which cattle pick up their own living far more easily and safely than in summer.

The climate of the valleys may be said to be created, as that of the mountains is modified, by the influence of the Pacific ocean. Sea-breezes from the south-west in winter, from the north-west in summer, maintain an equilibrium of temperature amazing to New Englanders. San Francisco—situated on the great bay formed by the passage of tie blended waters of the Sacramento and the San Joaquin—the former draining the western slope of the Sierra Nevada from the north, as the latter does from the south—is thus, as it were, in the throat of the bellows through which the damp gales from the Pacific are constantly rushing to cool the parched slopes, or warm the snow-clad heights of the interior. I presume there was never a day without a breeze at San Francisco—generally, a pretty stiff one. The sea-breeze is always damp, often chilly, and rolls up clouds which hide the sun for a part, at least, of most days. Though ice seldom forms, and snow never lies in her streets, San Francisco must be regarded as a cold place by most of her visitors and unacclimated summer denizens. I presume a hot day was never known there, and no night in which a pair of good woollen blankets were not esteemed a shelter and a comfort by all but extremely hot-blooded people. Thick flannels and warm woollen outer-garments are worn throughout the year by all who have, or can get them. In short, San Francisco is in climate what London would be with her summer rains transformed into stiff and almost constant breezes.

The soil of California is almost uniformly good. The valleys and ravines rejoice in a generous depth of dark, vegetable mould, usually mingled with, or resting on clay; while the less precipitous hill-sides are covered by a light reddish clayey loam of good quality, asking only adequate moisture to render it amply productive. Bring a stream of water almost anywhere, save on the naked granite, and you incite a luxuriant vegetation.

Yet the traveler who first looks down on the valleys and lower hill-sides of California in mid-summer is generally disappointed by the all but universal deadness. Some hardy weeds, a little sour, coarse grass along the few still living water-courses, some small, far between gardens and orchards rendered green and thrifty by irrigation, form striking exceptions to the general paralysis of all the less inspiring manifestations of vegetable life. High up in the mountains, he has found green valleys whereon the snow doubtless lingered till late in June, leaving the soil saturated like a wet sponge for a month later; and there are swampy meadows whereon the coarse grass grows thick to a height of several feet; while beds of delicate flowering-plants, sheltered by the tall forests, maintain their vitality on the mountain-slopes till late in August; but he passes out of the region of evergreens into that of oaks as he descends to a level of some three thousand feet above the ocean, and green valleys, luxuriant meadows, and mountain-glades of flowering-plants still living, salute him no longer. The oaks gradually become sparse and scattered; their dark foliage contrasts strongly with the dun, dead, herbage beneath and between them; as he descends to the plains, the oaks vanish or become like angels’ visits, while a broad expanse of dried-up pasture-range vies with occasional strips of wheat or barley stubble in evincing the protracted fierceness of the summer drouth. His vision sweeps over miles after miles of stubble and range whereon no sign of vegetable life—not even a green weed—is presented; he sees seven-eighths of the water-courses absolutely, intensely dry; while the residue are reduced from rivers to scanty brooks, from brooks to tiny rivulets; and he murmurs to himself—“Is this the American Italy? It looks more like a Sahara or Gobi.”

Yet this, like most hasty judgments, is a very unsound one. These slopes, these vales, now so dead and cheerless, are but resting from their annual and ever successful efforts to contribute bountifully to the sustenance and comfort of man. Summer is their season of torpor, as winter is our’s. Dead as these wheat-fields now appear, the stubble is thick and stout, and its indications are more than justified by the harvest they have this year yielded. The California State Register gives the following as the officially returned wheat-yield of the state for the last three years:

Years.     Total Acres in Wheat.     Total Product.

Giving as the aggregate of three years’ growth of wheat, 10,653,185 bushels from 522,975 acres, or more than twenty bushels per acre. I am confident that the aggregate yield of the Atlantic states for those same three years did not exceed ten bushels per seeded acre. The average yield of barley throughout the state, according to these returns, is about twenty-five bushels, and of oats something over thirty bushels, per seeded acre. I know the majority will say “These are but moderate crops;” and so they may be, if compared with what might be grown, and in particular instances are grown; but if compared with the actual average yield of small grain throughout the Atlantic states, they are large indeed.

California—though very little of her soil produces good crops of* [* Yet the returns of 1858 give a yield of 620,323 bushels from 12,978 acres, or forty-eight bushels per acre where grown. But it can only be grown to profit in limited localities.] Indian corn, owing to the coolness of her summer nights and the want of seasonable rains— now grows her own bread, and may easily grow far more. Estimating her population at half a million, her last year’s crop exceeded seven bushels per head, which is an ample allowance; and this year’s crop is still better, with a larger area sown.

But, while only 756,734 acres in all of the soil of this state were cultivated last year (which still shows an in crease on any former year), there were 1,159,813 acres of inclosed land—with of course a much larger area of uninclosed-devoted to grazing. Cattle-growing was the chief employment of the Californians of other days; and cattle-growing next after mining, is the chief business of the Californians of 1859. There are comparatively few farms yet established, while ranches abound on every side. A corral, into which to drive his wild herd when use or security is in question, and a field or two in which to pasture his milch cows and working cattle, are often all of the ranche that is inclosed; the herd is simply branded with the owner’s mark and turned out to range where they will, being looked after occasionally by a mounted ranchero, whose horse is trained to dexterity in running among or around them. Stables for horses I have seen; but such a thing as an honest, straight-out barn has not blessed my eyes in connection with any farm since I left civilized Kansas—if even there. A Californian would as soon think of cutting hay for the sustenance of his family as for that of his herd. In fact, winter is, after spring, his cattle’s best season—that in which they can best take care of themselves with regard to food. From August to November is their hardest time. But the herbage which rendered the hills and plains one vast flower-garden in spring is, though dead and dry as tinder, still nutritious; its myriad flowers have given place to seeds which have the qualities of grain; and, if the range be broad enough, cattle which have nought to do but forage, contrive to eke out a pretty fair living. But it were absurd to suppose that a single crop of dead herbage can afford, acre for acre, equal nourishment with the constantly renewed grasses of an eastern pasture; and many herds suffer from want of consideration of this fact. As ranches are multiplied and herds increased, a change of system becomes inevitable. The cattle-grower must fence off a portion of his range and sow it to Indian corn, to sorghum, to turnips, beets, and carrots, wherewith to supply the deficiency of his summer and fall feed. Then he can keep a much larger herd than is now profitable if possible, and may double his annual product of cheese or butter. At present, I judge this product to be smaller per cow or per acre in California than in almost any other s’Late, except what is made in the high valleys of the Sierra Nevada.

Fruit, however, is destined to be the ultimate glory of California. Nowhere else on earth is it produced so readily or so bountifully. Such pears, peaches, apricots, nectarines, etc., as load the trees of this valley, and of nearly every valley in the state which has had any chance to produce them, would stagger the faith of nine-tenths of my readers. Peach-trees only six years set, which have borne four large burdens of fruit while growing luxuriantly each year, are quite common. Apple-trees, but three years set, yet showing at least a bushel of large, fair fruit, are abundant. I have seen peach-trees four or five years from the states which have all the fruit they can stagger under, yet have grown three feet of new wood over this load during the current season. Dwarf-pears, just stuck into the black loam, and nowise fertilized or cultivated, but covered with fruit the year after they were set, and thenceforward bearing larger and larger yields with each succeeding summer, are seen in almost every tolerably cared-for fruit-patch. I cannot discover an instance in which any fruit-tree, having borne largely one year, consults its dignity or its ease by standing still or growing wood only the next year, as is common our way. I have seen green-gages and other plum-trees so thickly set with fruit that I am sure the plums would far outweigh the trees, leaves and all. And not one borer, curculio, caterpillar, apple-worm, or other nuisance of that large and undelightful family, appears to be known in all this region. Under a hundred fruit-trees, you will not see one bulb which has prematurely fallen—a victim to this destructive brood.

Of grapes, it is hardly yet time to speak so sanguinely as many do; for years will be required to render certain their exemption from the diseases and the devastators known to other lands of the vine. But it is certain that some kinds of grapes have been grown around the old Jesuit Missions for generations, with little care and much success; while it does not appear that the more delicate varieties recently introduced are less thrifty or more subject to attack than their Spanish predecessors, and vine-yards are being multiplied and expanded in almost every farming neighborhood; single vines and patches of choice varieties are shooting up in almost every garden throughout the mining regions; and there can be little doubt that California is already better supplied with the grape than any other state of the Union. That she is destined soon to become largely and profitably engaged in the manufacture and exportation of wine, is a current belief here, which I am at once unable and disinclined to controvert.

That California is richest of all the American states in timber, as well as in minerals, I consider certain, though the forests of Oregon are doubtless stately and vast. Even the Coast Range between this valley and Santa Cruz on the south-west, is covered by magnificent red-wood—some of the trees sixteen feet through, and fifty in circumference. In soil, I cannot consider her equal to Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, or Minnesota; though the ready markets afforded by her mines to her farms probably render this one of the most inviting states to the enterprising, energetic husbandman. But it must be considered that not half the soil of California can ever be deemed arable; the larger area being covered by mountains, ravines, deserts, etc. In fact, when one-fourth of the entire state shall have been plowed and reduced to tillage, I judge that the residue might better be left to grow timber and grass. Steep, rocky hill-sides on which no rain falls from June to November, can never be tilled to much profit.

This persistent summer drouth is not an unmixed evil. It is a guaranty against many insects, and against rust, even in the heaviest grain. Grain and hay are got in at far less cost and in much better average condition here than they can be where the summers are not cloudless and rainless. Weeds are far less persistent and pestilent here than at the east; while the air is so uniformly dry and bracing, and the days so generally tempered by a fresh breeze, that the human frame maintains its elasticity in spite of severe and continued exertion. I was never before in a region where so much could be accomplished to the hand in summer as just here.

And yet—and yet—my early prejudices in favor of a refreshing shower occasionally are not fully overcome. I dislike to look for miles across so rich and beautiful a valley as this of San Josť, and see paralysis and death the rule, greenness and life the exception. I dislike to see cattle picking at the dry, brown herbage, and can’t help thinking they would like a field of sweet, green clover, or thick blue grass, a good deal better. This may be a mistake on my part; but, if so, it is one that does credit to their discernment and taste. And I like to see a garden planted in well-grounded reliance on the rains of heaven—not dependent for its very existence on the “saki,” or artificial brook, which I am always glad to see flowing into a field, no matter on which side of the Rocky Mountains. I believe firmly in irrigation; but I prefer land that there is some credit in irrigating, to that which must be irrigated, or it might better have lain unplowed and unsown.

Of course it is understood that irrigation is exceptional, even here. All the grains are grown here without irrigation; but the small grains are hurried up quite sharply by drouth, and in some instances blighted by it, and, at best, are doubtless, much lighter than they would be with a good, soaking rain early in June; while Indian corn, and most roots and vegetables are only, in favored localities, grown to perfection without artificial watering. Hence, it is supposed that every garden throughout the state, save a part of those near the coast, and within the immediate influence of the damp sea-breeze, must have its stream of water, or it comes to nothing, and various devices are employed to procure the needful fluid. Of these, I like Artesian wells far best; and they are already numerous, especially in this valley. But ordinary wells, surmounted by windmills, which press every casual breeze into the service, and are often pumping up a good stream of water while the owner and all hands are asleep, are much more common, and are found to answer very well; while some keep their little gardens in fair condition by simply drawing water, bucket after bucket, in the old, hard way. In the valleys, and perhaps in the hill-sides as well, it is generally held that the vine requires no irrigation, after being set two years; and the better opinion seems to be, that fruit-trees, after two years’ watering, do better without. I have not yet satisfied myself as to the feasibility of superseding irrigation by deep plowing, though my strong conviction is, that every orchard and garden should be thoroughly dug up and pulverized, to a depth of three, if not four feet; and that those so treated, would thereafter need little, if any, artificial watering. I hope to learn further on this point.

Let me close this too long letter with a grateful acknowledgment to an emigrant—M. Sheals, I read his name—who found my trunk by the Three Crossings of Sweetwater (not in the stream, as I supposed it was) and brought it along over three hundred miles to Salt Lake City, where he delivered it to the California Stage Company, which forwarded it to me. Mr. Sheals writes that he found it in, or beside the road broken open; but, as I do not miss any papers of consequence, I presume nothing of much value to me was taken from it. How it came in the road—the half-mile between the station, whence we started that morning, and the place where I missed it, having been twice ridden over in quest of it within half an hour after its loss—I have not yet been able to conjecture, and I will thank whoever can, to shied even a ray of light on the subject. If Mr. Sheals will favor me with his address, he will add sensibly to the debt I already owe him.

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