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


Marysville, Cal., Sep. 2, 1859.

Since my last, I have traversed the rich valley of San Josť, looking through some of its choicer gardens and orchards, and stopping at Santa Clara, Warm Spring, Old Mission, San Leandro (county seat of Alameda), and Oakland, returning to San Francisco, and coming thence by steamboat to Sacramento and by a much smaller boat up to this city, which I reached last evening, in season to listen to the annual address, by Mr. Rhodes of Oroville, at the agricultural fair, and to break my own voice for a time in attempting to follow him in some off-hand remarks. The edifice erected by the public spirit of Marysville for the fairs which are to be held here annually, and at which all northern California is invited to compete for very liberal premiums, is quite spacious and admirably adapted to all its purposes except that of public speaking; and herein is collected the finest show of fruits and vegetables I ever saw at anything but a state fair. Indian corn not less than twenty feet high; squashes like brass kettles and water-melons of the size of buckets, are but average samples of the wonderful productiveness of the Sacramento and Yuba valleys, while the peaches, plums, pears, grapes, apples, etc., could hardly be surpassed anywhere. The show of animals is not extensive, but is very fine in the departments of horses and horned cattle, though lamentably meager in every other respect. The most interesting feature of this show was its young stock-calves and colts scarcely more than a year old, equal in weight and size, while far superior in form and symmetry, to average horses and bulls of ripe maturity. With generous fare and usage, I am confident that steers and heifers two years old in California will equal in size and development those a year older in our northern states, and that California colts of three years will be fully equal to eastern colts of like blood and breeding a good year older—an immense advantage to the breeder on the Pacific. I am reliably assured that steers a year old, never fed but on wild grass, and never sheltered, have here dressed six hundred pounds of fine beef. Undoubtedly, California is one of the cheapest and best stock-growing countries in the world—and will be, after these great, slovenly ranches shall have been broken up into neat, modest farms, and when the cattle shall be fed at least three months in each year on roots, hay and sorghum, or other green fodder.

Marysville is the chief town of northern California, and disputes the claim of Stockton to rank third among the cities of the state. Unlike Stockton, it is quite compactly built, mainly of brick. Its population is probably a little over fifteen thousand; and it expects to be soon connected by railroad with Sacramento and San Francisco, which will give a new and strong impulse to its already rapid growth. Located at the junction of the Yuba and Feather Rivers, just above their union with the Sacramento, and at the head of steam boat navigation in the direction of the northern mines, it needs but the railroad connections aforesaid to render it a formidable rival to Sacramento herself. The census of 1870 will probably find its population exceeding fifty thousand.

The valleys of the rivers first named are exceedingly deep and fertile, and their productiveness in this vicinity almost surpasses belief, I visited in the suburbs this morning, gardens, vineyards, orchards, of rarely equaled fruitfulness. The orchard of Mr. Briggs, for example, covers a hundred and sixty acres, all in young fruit, probably one-half peaches. He has had a squad of thirty or forty men picking and boxing peaches for the last month, yet his fruit by the cart-load ripens and rots ungathered. The wagons which convey it to the mines have their regular stations and relays of horses like mail-stages, and are thus pulled sixty miles up rough mountain-passes, per day, where twenty-five miles would be a heavy day’s work for any one team. But he is not sending to the mines only, but by steamboat to Sacramento and San Francisco as well. His sales last year, I am told, amounted to $90,000; his net income was not less than $40,000. And this was realized mainly from peaches, apricots and nectarines; his apples and pears have barely begun to bear; his cherries will yield their first crop next year. There are of course heavier fruit-growers in California than Mr. Briggs, but he may be taken as a fair sample of the class. Their sales will doubtless be made at lower and still lower prices; they are now a little higher than those realized for similar fruit grown in New-Jersey; they were once many times higher than now; but, though their prices steadily decrease, their incomes do not, because their harvests continued to be augmented by at least twenty-five per cent. per annum.

Let me give one other instance of successful fruit-growing, in another district: Mr. Fallon, the Mayor of San Josť, has a fine garden, in which are some ten or twelve old pear-trees—relies of the Spanish era and of the Jesuit missions. The trees being thrifty but the fruit indifferent, Mr. F. had them pretty thoroughly grafted with the Bartlett variety, and the second year thereafter gathered from one tree, one thousand pounds of Bartlett pears, which he sold for two hundred dollars, or twenty cents per pound. The other trees similarly treated, bore him six to seven hundred pounds each of that large, delicious fruit, which he sold at the same price. And, every year since, these trees have borne large yields of these capital pears. I dare not hope for equal success in the east, but surely the expedient of grafting fine, large varieties on our now worthless pears, at the same time bounteously enriching the soil beneath them, ought to be more generally adopted than it has yet been.

Just a word now on grain. California is still a young state, whose industry and enterprise are largely devoted to mining; yet she grows the bread of her half a million well-fed inhabitants on less than a fortieth part of her arable soil, and will this year have some to spare. I am confident her wheat-crop of 1859 is over four millions of bushels, and I think it exceeds twenty-five bushels for each acre sown. To-day, its price in San Francisco is below a dollar per bushel, and it is not likely to rise very soon. Though grown, harvested and threshed by the help of labor which costs her farmers from thirty to forty dollars per month, beside board, it is still mainly grown at a profit; and so of a very large breadth of barley, grown here instead of oats as food for working horses and cattle. Though wheat is probably the fullest, I judge that barley is the surest of any grain-crop grown in the state. It has never failed to any serious extent.

Indian corn is not extensively grown; only the Russian River and one or two other small valleys are generally supposed well adapted to it. And yet, I never saw larger nor better corn growing than stands to-day right here on the Yuba—not a few acres merely, but hundreds of acres in a body. I judge that nearly all the intervales throughout the state would produce good corn, if well treated. On the hill-sides, irrigation may be necessary, but not in the valleys. None has been resorted to here; yet the yield of shelled grain will range between seventy-five and a hundred bushels per acre. And this is no solitary instance. Back of Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, Mr. Hobart, a good farmer from Massachusetts, showed me acres of heavy corn which he planted last May, after the rains had ceased and the dry season fairly set in, since which no hoe nor plow has been put into the field; yet the soil remains light and porous, while there are very few weeds. Not one drop of water has been applied to this farm; yet here are not only corn, but potatoes, beets, etc., with any number of young fruit-trees, all green and thriving, by virtue of subsoiling and repeated plowings last spring. The ground (sward) was broken up early in the winter, and cross-plowed whenever weeds showed their heads, until planting-time; and this discipline, aided by the drouth, has prevented their starting during the summer. Such thorough preparation for a crop costs something; but, this once made, the crop needs here only to be planted and harvested. Such farming pays.

The fig-tree grows in these valleys side by side with the apple; ripe figs are now gathered daily from nearly all the old Mexican gardens. The olive grows finely in Southern California, and I believe the orange and lemon as well. But the grape bids fair to become a staple throughout the state. Almost every farmer, who feels sure of his foot-hold on the land he cultivates, either has his vineyard already planted, or is preparing to plant one, while most of those who have planted are extending from year to year. I have looked through many of these vineyards, without finding one that is not thrifty—one that, if two years planted, is not now loaded with fruit. The profusion and weight of the clusters is marvelous to the fresh beholder. I will not attempt to give figures; but it is my deliberate judgment that grapes may be grown here as cheaply as wheat or corn, pound for pound, and that wine will ultimately be made here at a cost per gallon not exceeding that of whisky in Illinois or Ohio. Wine will, doubtless, constitute a heavy export of California within a very few years. So, I think, will choice timber, should the wages of labor even fall here so as to approximate our Eastern standards. At present, I estimate the average cost of labor in California at just about double the rates paid for such labor in the Middle states; which, with wheat and beef at New York prices, or lower, and clothing little higher in a climate which requires little fuel, ought to make the condition of the effective worker here a very fair one. Such I consider it to be; while I am assured by practical men that a fall of even twenty-five per cent. in wages would incite a large and prompt extension of mining, farming, etc., affording employment to additional thousands of laborers. Should fair, average day-labor ever fall here to a dollar per day, I think the demand for it in mining would very speedily be doubled, and soon quadrupled. I do not imply that such reduction is either desirable or probable; but I can see why the owners of large estates or of mining claims should strongly desire an ample and incessant immigration. This is plain enough; while it is not so obvious, though I deem it equally true, that an immigration of one hundred thousand effective workers per annum, would be readily absorbed by California, and would add steadily and immensely to her prosperity and wealth.

Yet I cannot conclude this survey without alluding once more to the deplorable confusion and uncertainty of land titles, which has been, and still is the master-scourge of this state. The vicious Spanish-Mexican system of granting lands by the mere will of some provincial governor or municipal chief without limitation as to area, or precise delineation of boundaries, here develops and matures its most pernicious fruits. Your title may be ever so good, and yet your farm be taken from under you by a new survey, proving that said title does not cover your tract, or covers it but partially. Hence, many refuse or neglect to improve the lands they occupy, lest some title adverse to theirs be established, and they legally ousted, or compelled to pay heavily for their own improvements. And, in addition to the genuine Spanish or Mexican grants, which the government and courts must confirm and uphold, there are fictitious and fraudulent grants—some of them only trumped up to be bought off, and often operating to create anarchy, and protract litigation between settlers and the real owners. Then there are, doubtless, squatters, who refuse to recognize and respect valid titles, and waste in futile litigation the money that might make the lands they occupy indisputably their own. I blame no party exclusively, while I entreat the state and federal governments and courts to do their utmost to settle the titles to lands in this state beyond controversy, at the earliest possible day. Were the titles to lands in California to-day as clear as in Ohio or Iowa, nothing could check the impetus with which California would bound forward in a career of unparalleled thrift and growth. It were far better for the state and her people that those titles were wrongly settled, than that they should remain as now. I met to-day an intelligent farmer, who has had three different farms in this state, and has lost them successively by adjudication adverse to his title. I would earnestly implore grantees and squatters to avoid litigation wherever that is possible, and arrest it as soon as possible, eschewing appeals, save in flagrant cases, and meeting each other half-way in settlement as often as may be. The present cost of litigation, enormous as it is, is among the lesser evil consequences of this general anarchy as to land-titles.

Should these ever be settled, it will probably be found advisable to legislate for the speedy breaking up and distribution of the great estates now held under good titles by a few individuals. There will never be good common schools on, nor about these great domains, which will mainly be inhabited by needy and thriftless tenants, or dependents of the landlords. An annual tax of a few cents per acre, the proceeds to be devoted to the erection of school-houses, and the opening of roads through these princely estates, would go far to effect the desired end. But, whether by this, or by some other means, the beneficent end of making the cultivators of the soil their own landlords must somehow be attained—the sooner the better, so that it be done justly and legally. In the course of several hundred miles’s travel through the best settled portions of this state, I remember having seen but two school-houses outside of the cities and villages, while the churches are still more uniformly restricted to the centers of population. Whenever the land-titles shall have been settled, and the arable lands have become legally and fairly the property of their cultivators, all this will be speedily and happily changed.

I believe, too, that the time is at hand when some modification of the present mining laws will be demanded and conceded. Hitherto, the operators will pick and pan have been masters of the state, and have ruled it, like other aristocracies, with a sharp eye to their own supposed interests. To dig up a man’s fenced garden, or dig down his house, in quest of gold, is the legal privilege of any miner who does not even pretend to have any rights in the premises but such as the presumed existence of gold thereon gives him. Of course, the law contemplates payment for damages sustained; but suppose the digger is pecuniarily irresponsible, and digs down your house without finding any more gold than he spends in the quest, what are you to do about it? Such laws, I trust, cannot stand. I am sure they should not.

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