Home A - Z FAQ Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management

Next: California Final GleaningsContentsPrevious: California Resources

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


San Francisco, Sept. 4-5, 1859.

The entire area of this state is officially estimated as containing a fraction less than one hundred millions of acres; but, as this total includes bays as well as lakes, rivers, etc., the actual extent of unsubmerged land can hardly exceed ninety millions of acres, or rather more than nine times the area of New Hampshire or Vermont—perhaps twice the area of the state of New York. It is only a guess on my part, but one founded on considerable travel and observation, which makes not more than one-third of this extent-say thirty millions of acres-properly arable; the residue being either ruggedly mountainous, hopelessly desert, or absorbed in the tulé marshes which line the San Joaquin and perhaps some other rivers. The arable thirty millions of acres —nearly the area of all New England, except Maine are scarcely equaled in capacity of production by any like area on earth. They embrace the best vine-lands on this continent, to an extent of many millions of acres —an area capable of producing all the wine and all the raisins annually consumed on the globe. All the fruits of the temperate zone are grown here in great luxuriance and perfection, together with the fig, olive, etc., to which the lemon and orange may be added in the south. No other land on earth produces wheat, rye, and barley so largely with so little labor as the great majority of these thirty million acres; a portion of them are well adapted also to Indian corn. To stock-growing in an easy, slovenly, reckless way, this mild climate and fertile soil also lend themselves readily; yet I must believe that many more acres are required here to graze a thousand head of cattle than in New York or Kentucky, and that the capacities of California to furnish beef and milk in this poor fashion have been taxed very nearly to the utmost. Doubtless, four, six, or even ten times the present number of cattle will be fed here at some future day, but not wholly on the spontaneous growth of the valleys and hill-sides. Nay, I hear already that, as the wild oats and natural grasses are closely fed year after year, so as to preclude their seeding or prevent the seed falling to the earth and germinating, they gradually die out, and are supplanted by coarse, worthless weeds. Evidently—and I rejoice over the fact—the day of ranches, or broad unfenced domains over which the cattle of the owner range at will, protected only by his brand from indiscriminate appropriation, is passing away for ever. And it is high time. Though the range is yet many acres per head, and the feed ample for the greater part of the year, yet the cows of California give less milk to-day than a like number kept for milk on any other portion of the globe. The dry grass and stubble on which they subsist keep them in fair flesh, but furnish a scanty overplus for butter and cheese. Good butter is worth fifty cents and over per pound, and has generally at this season a white, insipid look, like that made in winter at the east. Cheese commands twenty-five cents per pound, and is seldom seen on hotel or private tables. Yet the production, though meager, is rapidly increasing; the little valleys opening directly on the Pacific, and thus kept green by its fogs and damp winds, in spite of the six months’ absence of rain, yielding it most abundantly. A cheese weighing seven hundred and fifty pounds, the product of a single dairy, is now here, on its way to the State Fair at Sacramento; the large store in which I saw it is full, from basement to attic, of California-made cheese. Yet California does not nearly supply her own wants, whether of cheese or butter, and never will until her dairymen shall dean it profitable to shelter their stock in winter and supply them with green fodder in later summer and fall. Whenever they shall generally devote one-quarter of their lands to growing Chilian clover, sowed corn, beets, parsnips and carrots, where-with to feed their cows from August to February, they will make twice or thrice their present product of butter and cheese, and prove theirs one of the best dairy regions on earth. But habits, especially bad ones, are stubborn things, and they will only come to this wisdom by degrees.

Whether California would be a better country if it had rain in Summer, I have already somewhat considered. That it would be more inviting and attractive in aspect, especially to those unaccustomed to such sterility through the latter half of each year, cannot be doubted. With such rain, its natural pasturage would suffice for twice its present number of cattle, while cultivation could be extended far up into the mountains, on lands now deemed arable only when irrigated. Yet, on the other hand, these dry summers have their advantages. By their aid, the most bountiful harvests of hay and grain are secured in the best order, and by means of the least possible labor. Weeds are not half so inveterate and troublesome here as in rainy countries. A given amount of labor accomplishes far more in any direction than at the east. The wise man may start on a journey, of business or pleasure, without consulting his barometer, and the fool without looking into his almanac. Nobody, save in winter or early spring, ever casts an apprehensive look at the skies; it may be cloudy or foggy, as it often is; but you know it cannot rain till next November, and lay your plans accordingly. I have passed large fields of standing wheat that have been dead-ripe for at least a month; they will shell some when cut, but the grain will be bright and plump as ever. All through the grain region, you see wheat that has been threshed and sacked, and piled up in the open field where it grew, to await the farmer’s convenience in taking it to market; and it may lie so for months without damage, unless from squirrels or gophers. Wheat is sown throughout the winter, though the earlier sown is the surer. Plowing commences with the rains, and sowing should follow as closely as may be. Very decent crops of “volunteer” grain are often grown, by simply harrowing in the seed shelled out and lost in the process of harvesting—sometimes even though the harrowing is omitted. But the ground squirrels are apt to intercept this process by filling the grain-fields with their holes, and eating up all the scattered grain and a good deal more. They are a great pest in many localities, and strychnine is freely and effectively employed to diminish their numbers.


I have estimated that barely one-third of the total area of unsubmerged California is perfectly arable: but it would be a great mistake to suppose the residue worthless. At least thirty millions of acres more are covered by rugged hills and mountains, mainly timbered—much of the timber being large and of the best quality. Yellow, pitch and sugar-pine—the pitch-pine being scarcely akin to its stunted and scrubby New-England namesake, but a tall and valuable tree—the sugar being nearly identical with our white-pine, save that its sap is saccharine —white-cedar, red-wood, spruce, balsam-fir—all these averaging at least twice the size of the trees in any forest I ever saw elsewhere, while the balsam is just the most shapely and graceful tree on earth—such are the forests which cover all but the snowy peaks of the mountains of California. Trees six to eight feet in diameter, are as common in the Sierra Nevada, and I hear in the coast range also, as those three to four feet in diameter are (or were) in the pine forests of New-York and New-England. Consider that these giants look down on the gold mines wherein a very large proportion of the most active population of this state must for ages be employed, while the agricultural districts lie just below them, and even the seaboard cities are but a day’s ride further, and the value of these forests becomes apparent. The day is not distant— there are those living who will see it—when what is now California will have a population of three to six millions; then eligible timber-lands in the Sierra will be worth more per acre than would now be paid for farms in the richest valleys near San Francisco.

The timber of the lower hills and plains is generally oak—short-bodied, wide-spreading, and of poor quality, save for fuel, being brush (easily broken, like a clay pipe-stem), and not durable. The more common variety looks like the white-oak found in New England pastures, but resembles it in looks only. Live-oak is next in abundance, and also a poor article. It has a smooth, dark bark, a short, crooked trunk, a profusion of good-for-nothing limbs, and small, deep green leaves, which defy the frosts of winter. The trunk is often barked by vandals for tanning, leaving the tree standing alive, but certain to die. Black and rock-oak are found in some of the mountain valleys, and seem to be of fair quality. Large cotton-wood and sycamore line some of the streams, but very sparingly. Her evergreens are the pride of California.

The gold mines are generally found among the foothills of the Sierra, or in the beds of the streams which traverse those hills. In many instances, hills now tower where rivers once ran—how long since, who may tell? Trees in a state of semi-petrifaction are dug out from under hundreds of feet of solid earth, which seems to have lain undisturbed for thousands of years. The beds of ancient lakes are covered by rugged heights; and, these beds being often anriferous, it is one of the arts of the miner to know just where to tunnel through the “rim rock” so as to strike what was the bottom of the lake, and thus extract its gold as cheaply as may be. Washing the beds of modern streams, which was the earliest and most profitable field of mining adventure, is now nearly at an end, or turned over to the Chinese, who are willing to work hard and steadily for much less than will satisfy the aspirations of a Yankee. There are still some creek-beds that will pay in winter, when water is abundant, that remain to be washed out; but, in the main, river-mining is at its last gasp. Very few dams are being or have recently been constructed to turn rivers from their beds and permit those beds to be sluiced out; and I doubt that this special department of mining ever paid its aggregate cost. The expense is serious; the product often moderate, and subject to many contingencies. Henceforth, dams will be constructed mainly to feed the canals or “ditches” whereby water is supplied to works that must otherwise be abandoned. Of these ditches, The State Register for 1859, has a list of several hundreds in number, amounting in the aggregate to five thousand seven hundred and twenty-six miles of artificial water-courses constructed wholly for mining purposes, at a total cost of $13,575,400, or about twice that of the original Erie Canal. The largest of these ditches is that of the Eureka Canal Company, leading water from the north fork of the Cosumnes River to Diamond Springs, two hundred and ninety miles, at a cost of eighty thousand dollars; but there are many far more expensive and important, being far larger and carried over a more difficult country. At the head of these stand the Mokelumne-Hill Canal, in Calaveras County, only sixty miles long, but costing six hundred thousand dollars, the Columbia and Stanislaus, in Tuolumne County, eighty miles long, which also cost six hundred thousand dollars, and the South Yuba Canal, in Nevada County, costing five hundred thousand dollars. Many larger enterprises than even these have been projected, but not yet carried out, because capitalists cannot be found willing to supply the needful cash. Thus, in Mariposas alone it has been estimated that an annual rental of ten millions of dollars would be paid for water, could enough of it be had at living rates. I merely guess that it could not be paid many years.

I do not suppose that the gold mines of California will ever be thorougly worked out—certainly not in the next thousand years; yet I do not anticipate any considerable increase in their annual production, because I deem fifty millions of dollars per annum as much as can be taken out at a profit, under existing circumstances. The early miners of California reaped what nature had been quietly sowing through countless thousands of years. Through the action of frost and fire, growth and decay, air and water, she had been slowly wearing down the primitive rocks in which the gold was originally deposited, washing away the lighter matter, and concentrating the gold thus gleaned from cubic miles of stubborn quartz and granite into a few cubic feet of earth at the bottom of her water-courses. Many a miner has thus taken out in a day gold which could not in weeks have been extracted from the rock where it first grew. Even the hills, in which it is now mainly found, can be washed down at one dollar or less per cubic yard, by the best hydraulic appliances. But when the miner is brought face to face with the rough granite, which he must drill, and blast, and tunnel for all the gold he gets, the case is bravely altered. He may make money here; he sometimes does; but I am sure that, up to this hour, not one quartz-mining enterprize in every four has paid its bare expenses; and, though there will be brilliant exceptions, I am confident that quartz-mining, as a whole, will not pay for many years to come. Either labor must be cheaper, or the process of quartz-mining far more economical and efficient, or the yield per ton much greater, before one undeniably auriferous quartz-vein in ten will pay the cost of working it. And, while I presume improvements will, from time to time, be made, I hear doubtingly the talk of sanguine inventors and operators of doubling the product of gold by this or that new amalgamator, or other device. So many of these contrivances have proved futile, or of little worth, that I wait. Chemical tests indicate that a portion of the gold actually contained in the vein-stone (especially if a sulphuret) is now obtained by the crushing and washing process; but how soon, or by what process, this proportion may be essentially increased, I do not know-who does? And, until it shall be, I must consider quartz-mining, with labor at the present rates, the poorest business now prosecuted in California. A few, who have struck pockets rather than veins of peculiarly rich quartz, are making a good thing of it, and their luck is in every one’s mouth; but of the hundreds who drive up long adits through dead rock, or sink costly shafts to strike a vein at the best point, and find it, after all, too poor to pay for working, little is said or thought, till the drop into the gulf of acknowledged bankruptcy, and pass away. I believe fewer quartz-veins are being worked to-day than were some years ago; I think fewer still will be worked a year hence, and thenceforward, until cheaper labor, or more effective processes shall have rendered quartz-mining a very different business And, until such change is effected, I apprehend that the annual gold product of California will not be essentially augmented.


The total population of Upper California (our California, in contradistinction to the peninsula still held by Mexico), was estimated, on the 1st of January, 1849, at twenty-six thousand; viz.: natives of the country (not including Indians) thirteen thousand; United States Americans, eight thousand; Europeans, five thousand. The aborigines were estimated, in 1856, by Colonel Henley, superintendent of Indian affairs, at sixty-five thousand. I deem this a gross exaggeration. Six Indian reservations have been officially established in different sections of the state, on which all the Indians have been gathered that could be; and these amount to barely seventeen thousand two hundred and five, according to the official returns, which, being the basis of requisitions on the government, are certain not to fall below the truth. I do not believe there are so many more Indians in the state; and, whatever may be the number, it is steadily and rapidly diminishing. These Indians are generally idle and depraved, while the white men who come in contact with them are often rascals and ruffians, who hold that Indians have “no rights that white men are bound to respect.” By these, the poor savages are intruded upon, hunted, abused, robbed, outraged, until they are themselves driven to acts of violence, when a “war” ensues, and they are butchered without mercy. If an honest census of the various tribes and bands be taken in 1860, their number will not be found to much exceed thirty thousand, which 1870 will find reduced to ten thousand. The native or Spanish Californians are already reduced in number since 1849, and are now mainly confined to the southern agricultural counties. I have not seen half a dozen of them in a month’s travel through the heart of the state.

The census of 1850 made the total population of California Indians not counted) ninety-two thousand five hundred and ninety-seven; but there were some counties from which no returns were received, which, it was estimated, would increase the aggregate to one hundred and seventeen thousand five hundred and thirty-eight. Only two years thereafter, a state census was taken, which increased the number to two hundred and sixty-four thousand four hundred and thirty-five—it having more than doubled (by immigration) in two years. Of this number, only twenty-two thousand one hundred and ninety-three were females-less than one-tenth of the whole; while the great majority were men in the vigorous prime of life. The state of public morals among a population so disproportioned, in a land far removed from the restraining influences of home and kindred, were better imagined than described.

To-day, the total population of the golden state (excluding Indians) is probably not less than half a million; the census of 1860 will doubtless give a still larger aggregate. Of these, I judge that some fifty thousand are Chinese, with about an equal number of Europeans or Mexicans, not including those who, by treaty or naturalization, have become American citizens. Of the half million, probably seventy-five thousand are under eighteen years of age, while perhaps an equal number are women and girls over eighteen, though I fear not. This would leave three hundred and fifty thousand men, including boys over eighteen, nearly all in the prime of life—vigorous, active, enterprising, and industrious. There are idlers, and drones here as elsewhere; but there probably was never before a community of half a million people capable of doing so much good work in a year as this population of California. The facts that they mine gold to the extent of fifty millions of dollars annually, while growing four millions of bushels of wheat, five millions of bushels of barley, with large amounts of other grains and an ample supply of vegetables and fruits for home consumption, would go far toward establishing the fact. But the industry of California produces important results which are not exhibited above. No part of the union is making more rapid strides in building, fencing, opening farms, setting fruit-trees, breeding stock, etc. The number of grape-vines alone was increased from 1,540,134 in 1856 to 3,954,548 last year, (of which 1,650,000 were in the southern county of Los Angeles alone.) The aggregate will be carried this year above 6,000,000. Los Angeles in 1857 produced 350,000 gallons of wine. Probably no other market on earth is so well supplied with fruit throughout the year as that of San Francisco—a city hardly yet ten years old. Strawberries are abundant here to-day, and are in season from April to December. Raspberries are ripe in May, and are now plentiful and perfect. Peaches are fresh from June to November. Grapes come in July, and are sold till December. All these and other fruits require preparation and outlay before they begin to make returns. The orchards and vineyards of California have cost millions of dollars, which are destined to return to their proprietors with interest in the course of a few years. As yet, there are probably more apple-trees in the state than there have been gathered bushels of apples up to this day.

The following are the latest school statistics of the state that I have been able to find:

Year.Com. Schools.Teachers*Pupils.

* This number of pupils was not in actual attendance on the schools, but is a return of all the children between four and eighteen years living in the cities or towns which had organized schools. The number who actually attended school for even a part of a term was of course much smaller.

Next after the deficiency of women shown to exist in the population of California, this “beggarly account” of schools is the darkest shade in the picture. I believe I have seen but two school-houses outside of cities or considerable villages in the course of my travels through the state. And, so long as ranches, of five hundred to many thousand acres each, stand in place of small, neat, well-cultivated farms, this deficiency, though it may be modified, will continue.

I have visited several of the common schools of San Francisco, and found them admirable in their appointments, under intelligent and vigilant supervision, and in a high state of efficiency. There may somewhere be better managed Seminaries than the High School, but I never entered their doors. Most of the smaller cities are taking hold of the subject in the right spirit, but under many disadvantages. Youth are too often kept away from school to earn money which their parents could do without, and many parents wait till they have improved their circumstances essentially before they think of educating their children. I was told in Marysville that many of the pupils of fourteen years and upward, in her schools, were just learning to read. There ought to be two thousand good common schools in operation this winter in California; but I fear there will not be six hundred. I entreat the early and earnest attention of her better citizens to her lamentable lack of schools. In no way can her energy and wealth be better employed than in multiplying and improving them.


I have endeavored so to arrange the facts embodied in my letters from this state as to furnish an answer to this question. I will here only sum up my conclusions:

1. California has still a great need of virtuous, educated, energetic women. One hundred thousand more of these would find homes and be useful here. Certainly, I would advise no woman to pitch into such a community devoid of the protection of relatives or trusted friends; but women who can teach, manage a dairy, keep house, etc., and do not fancy any useful work degrading, are still greatly needed here. House servants command twenty to thirty dollars per month; capable female workers in other capacities are paid in proportion. For a resolute, capable young woman, who has a married sister or trusted friend here, and who is not detained elsewhere by strong natural ties, I believe, there is no better country than this.

Good farmers, who have considerable means, but especially those who understand the dairy business, and have families who can and will tender them efficient help in it, can also do well here. The naked facts that, while wheat now sells for one dollar per bushel, butter brings fifty and cheese twenty-five cents per pound, are enough to show that dairy-farming is profitable. The best grazing country is found along the coast; but it is all good for those who understand it, and are willing to grow feed for a part of each year. Bees do far better here than elsewhere, are worth one hundred dollars per hive, and good property at that. Fruit-growing is still profitable; vine-growing will always be. I believe a young, energetic, intelligent farmer, with a good wife and two thousand dollars or over, can do as well in California as elsewhere, in spite of the horrible confusion of land-titles. Buy no tract of which the title is at all doubtful, unless you can buy all the conflicting claims, but pay higher for good land well located, and as to the ownership of which there is no dispute. Such may at all times be found; if settlers were willing to pay for this rather than buy uncertainties at lower rates, it would be far better for them.

I do not think it advisable for young men, or ally others, to come here expecting to “make their pile,” and return to the east. The chances for doing this, always doubtful, have nearly ceased to exist. No more merchants or clerks are wanted; and of those who come hereafter, nine-tenths will go back disappointed and impoverished, or stay here paupers. Goods are sold in California at as reasonable rates, all things considered, as in New England or New York, and there are quite sellers enough. The chances for “big strikes” in the mines are few, and greenhorns cannot share them. Mining is reduced to a business, and one, at best, no better, in the average, than other business. The men who dig the gold carry away but a small share of it. Better leave the chances of gold-digging to those who understand it.

As to labor for wages, it is generally well paid here —say from twenty-five to forty dollars per month, be side board, and for mechanics still higher. But employment is precarious, whether in the cities, or the mines, while the farmers are shy of hiring at high wages when wheat brings but one dollar per bushel. I cannot consider it worth any man’s while to risk the price of a passage hither for the chance of getting employment by the month. The experiment will usually cost all it comes to. If you come to California at all, come to stay; and nowhere else will you find a little money more desirable than here. Even one thousand dollars, well applied, may, with resolute industry and frugality. place you soon on the high road to independence.

But the steamship’s shrill pipe gives warning that I must be up and away. I had ardently hoped and expected to return by the Butterfield Overland Mail, via Los Angeles, Fort Yumas, Tucson, El Paso, etc., but this was not to be. These pestilent boils, which are the scourge of many overland comers to California, forbid it. I have no choice but to return by way of the Isthmus, for I can wait no longer. And so, as the good steamer Golden Age swings from her moorings, I wave to my many and generous friends in California—whose number I trust my visit has not tended to diminish—a fervent and hearty adieu!

Next: California Final GleaningsContentsPrevious: California Resources

Home A - Z FAQ Online Library Discussion Forum Muir Weather Maps About Search
Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management