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If mankind were offspring of isothermal lines and topography, we might arrive at a just criticism of Sierra Nevada people by that cheap and rapid method so much in vogue nowadays among physical geographers. Their practice of dragooning the free-agent with wet and dry bulb thermometers would help us to predict the future of Sierra society but little more securely than Madam Saint John, who also deals in coming events. I fear we have no better than the old way of developing what lies ahead logically from yesterday and to-day, adding large measure of sympathy with human aspiration and faith in divine help.
Why all sorts and conditions of men from every race upon the planet wanted gold, and twenty years ago came here to win it, I shall not concern myself to ask. Nor can I formulate very accurately the proportions of good, bad, and indifferent dramatis personae upon whom the golden curtain of ’49 rolled up.
No venerated landmark or sacred restraint held those men in check. There were no precedents for the acting, no play-book, no prompter, no audience. “Anglo-Saxondom’s idee” reigned supreme, developing a plot of riotous situation, and inconceivably sudden change. Wit and intellect wrought a condition the most ambitious savages might regard with baffled envy. History would not, if she could, parallel the state of society here from ’49 to ‘55, nor can we imagine to what height of horror it might have reached had the Sierra drainage held unlimited gold. Those were lively days. The penniless ’49er still looks back to them with bleared eyes as the one period of his life. “Dust” was plenty and to be had, if not for digging, at the modest price of a bullet.
To prove the soil’s fertility he tells you proudly how, in those years, wild oats on every hill grew tall enough to be tied across your saddle-bow. This irony of nature has passed away, but the cursed plant ripens its hundrefold in life and manner.
No one familiar with society as it then was feels the least surprise that Mr. Bret Harte should deal so largely in morbid anatomy, or appear to search painfully for a single noble trait to redeem the common bad. Yet not universal bad, for there were not wanting a few strong Christian men who, amid all, kept their eyes on the one model, leading lives blameless, if obscure.
Broadly, through all kinds and conditions, shone the virtue of generous, if not self-denying, hospitality. A sort of open-handed fraternity banded together the honest miners; they were shoulder to shoulder in common quest of gold, in united effort to make the “camp” lively. The “fraternity” too often emulated that of Cain, or wore a ghastly likeness to the Commune. That those desperadoes, who, through the long chain of mining towns, outnumbered respectable men, had so generally the fixed habit of killing one another should rather be written down to their credit; that they never married to hand down lawless traits seems their crowning virtue.
For a few years the solemn pines looked down on a mad carnival of godless license, a pandemonium in whose picturesque delirium human character crumbled and vanished like dead leaves.
It was stirring and gay, but Melpomene’s pathetic face was always under that laughing mask of comedy.
This is the unpromising origin of our Sierra civilization. It may be instructive to note some early steps of improvement: a protest, first silent, then loud, which went up against disorder and crime; and later, the inauguration of justice, in form, if not in reality.
There occurs to me an incident illustrating these first essays in civil law; it is vouched for by my friend, an unwilling actor in the affair.
Exactly why horse-stealing should have been so early recognized as a heinous sin it is not easy to discover; however that might be, murderers continued to notch the number of their victims on neatly kept hilts of pistols or knives, in comparative security, long after the horse thief began to meet his hempen fate.
Early in the fifties, on a still, hot summer’s afternoon, a certain man, in a camp of the northern mines which shall be nameless, having tracked his two donkeys and one horse a half-mile, and discovering that a man’s track with spur-marks followed them, came back to town and told “the boys,” who loitered about a popular saloon, that in his opinion “some Mexican had stole the animals.”
Such news as this naturally demanded drinks all around. “Do you know, gentlemen,” said one who assumed leadership, “that just naturally to shoot these Greasers ain’t the best way. Give ‘em a fair jury trial, and rope ‘em up with all the majesty of law. That’s the cure.”
Such words of moderation were well received, and they drank again to “Here’s hoping we ketch that Greaser.”
As they loafed back to the veranda a Mexican walked over the hill brow, jingling his spurs pleasantly in accord with a whistled waltz.
The advocate for law said in undertone, “That’s the cuss.”
A rush, a struggle, and the Mexican, bound hand and foot, lay on his back in the bar-room. The camp turned out to a man.
Happily, such cries as “String him up!” “Burn the doggoned ‘lubricator’!” and other equally pleasant phrases fell unheeded upon his Spanish ear.
A jury, upon which they forced my friend, was quickly gathered in the street, and, despite refusals to serve, the crowd hurried them in behind the bar.
A brief statement of the case was made by the ci-devant advocate, and they shoved the jury into a commodious poker-room, where were seats grouped about neat, green tables. The noise outside in the bar-room by and by died away into complete silence, but from afar down the cañon came confused sounds as of disorderly cheering.
They came nearer, and again the light-hearted noise of human laughter mingled with clinking glasses around the bar.
A low knock at the jury door; the lock burst in, and a dozen smiling fellows asked the verdict.
A foreman promptly answered, “Not guilty.”
With volleyed oaths, and ominous laying of hands on pistol hilts, the boys slammed the door with, “You’ll have to do better than that!”
In half an hour the advocate gently opened the door again.
“Your opinion, gentlemen?”
“Correct! You can come out. We hung him an hour ago.”
The jury took theirs “neat”; and when, after a few minutes, the pleasant village returned to its former tranquillity, it was “allowed” at more than one saloon that “Mexicans’ll know enough to let white men’s stock alone after this.” One and another exchanged the belief that this sort of thing was more sensible than “’nipping’ ‘em on sight.”
When, before sunset, the bar-keeper concluded to sweep some dust out of his poker-room back-door, he felt a momentary surprise at finding the missing horse dozing under the shadow of an oak, and the two lost donkeys serenely masticating playing-cards, of which many bushels lay in a dusty pile. He was reminded then that the animals had been there all day.
During three or four years the battle between good and bad became more and more determined, until all positive characters arrayed themselves either for or against public order.
At length, on a sudden, the party for right organized those august mobs, the Vigilance Committees, and quickly began to festoon their more depraved fellow-men from tree to tree. Rogues of sufficient shrewdness got themselves enrolled in the vigilance ranks, and were soon unable to tell themselves from the most virtuous. Those quiet oaks, whose hundreds of sunny years had been spent in lengthening out glorious branches, now found themselves playing the part of public gibbet.
Let it be distinctly understood that I am not passing criticism on the San Francisco organization, which I have never investigated, but on “Committees” in the mountain towns, with whose performance I am familiar.
The Vigilants quickly put out of existence a majority of the worst desperadoes, and by their swift, merciless action struck such terror to the rest that ever after the right has mainly controlled affairs.
This was, perhaps, well. With characteristic promptness they laid down their power, and gave California over to the constituted authorities. This was magnificent. They deserve the commendation due to success. They have, however, such a frank, honest way of singing their praise, such eternal, undisguised and virtuous self-laudation over the whole matter, that no one else need interrupt them with fainter notes.
Although this generation has written its indorsement in full upon the transaction, it may be doubted if history (how long is it before dispassionate candor speaks?) will trace an altogether favorable verdict upon her pages. Possibly, to fulfil the golden round of duty it is needful to do right in the right way, and success may not be proven the eternal test of merit.
That the Vigilance Committees grasped the moral power is undeniable; that they used it for the public salvation is equally true; but the best advocates are far from showing that with skill and moderation they might not have thrown their weight into the scale with law, and conquered, by means of legislature, judge, and jury, a peace wholly free from the stain of lawless blood.
An impartial future may possibly grant the plenary inspiration of Vigilance Committees. Perhaps that better choice was in truth denied them; it may be the hour demanded a sudden blow of self-defence. Whether better or best, the act has not left unmixed blessing, although it now seems as if the lawlessness, which even till these later years has from time to time manifested itself, is gradually and surely dying out. Yet to-day, as I write, State troops are encamped at Amador, to suppress a spirit which has taken law in its own hand.
With the gradual decline of gold product, something like social equilibrium asserted itself. By 1860 California had made the vast, inspiring stride from barbarism to vulgarity.
In failing gold-industry, and the gradual abandonment of placer-ground to Chinamen, there is abundant pathos. You see it in a hundred towns and camps where empty buildings in disrepair stand in rows; no nailing up of blinds or closing of doors hides the vacancy. The cheap squalor of Chinese streets adds misery to the scene, besides scenting a pure mountain air with odors of complete wretchedness. Pigs prowl the streets. Every deserted cabin knows a story of brave, manly effort ended in bitter failure, and the lingering, stranded men have a melancholy look as of faint fish the ebb has left to die.
I recall one town into which our party rode at evening. A single family alone remained, too desperately poor to leave their home; all the other buildings—church, post-office, the half-dozen saloons, and many dwellings—standing with wide-open doors, their cloth walls and ceilings torn down to make squaws’ petticoats.
If our horses in the great, deserted livery stable were as comfortable as we, who each made his bed on a billiard table, they did well.
With this slow decay the venturous, both good and bad, have drifted off to other mining countries, leaving most often small cause to regret them.
Pathos and comedy so tenderly blent can rarely be found as here. Enterprise has shrunken away from its old belongings; a feeble rill of trade trickles down the broad channel of former affluence. Those few ’49ers who linger ought to be gently preserved for historic specimens, as we used to care for that cannon-ball in the Boston bricks, or whatever might remind this youthful country of a past. They are altogether harmless now, possessing the peculiar charm of lions with drawn teeth.
Behold this old-school relic, a type known as the real Virginia gentleman, as of a mild summer twilight he walks along the quiet street, clad in black broad-cloth and spotless linen, a heavy cane hanging by its curved handle from his wrist. He pauses by the “s’loon,” receiving respectful salutation from a mild company of bummers who hold him in awe, and call him nothing less than “Judge.” They omit their habitual sugar-and-water, and are at pains to swallow as stiff a glass and as “neat” as their hero.
The Judge is reminded of livelier days by certain unhealed bullet-holes in ceiling and wall, and recounts for the hundredth time, in chaste language, the whole affair; and in particular how three-fingered Jack blew the top of Alabam’s head off, and that stopped it all.
“We buried the six,” the Judge continues, “side and side, and it wasn’t a week before two of us found old Jack and his partner on the same limb, and they made eight graves. The ball that made that hole went through my hat, and I travelled after that for awhile, till the thing sort of blew over.
“Ah! boys,” he winds up, in tones tremulous with tearful regret, “you fellows will never see such lively times as we of the early days.”
His tall figure passes on with uncertain gait, stopping at garden fences here and there to execute one or two old-school compliments for the ladies who are spending their evenings under vine-draped porches; and when he takes an easy-chair by invitation, and begins a story laid in the spring of ‘50, the Judge is conscious in his heart that the full saloon veranda is looking and saying, “The wimmun always did like him.”
The ’49 rough, too, still stays in almost every camp. He evaded rope by joining the “Vigilants,” and has become a safe and fangless wolf in sheep’s clothing. He found early that he could sponge and swindle a larger amount from any given community than could be plundered, to say nothing of the advantages of personal security. But now all these characters are, God be thanked! few and widely scattered. Our present census enrolls a safe, honest, reputable population, who respect law and personal rights, and who, besides, look into the future with a sense of responsibility and resolve.
It is very much the habit of newly arrived people to link the past and present too closely in their estimate of the existing status. That dreadful nightmare of early years is unfortunately, not to say cruelly, mixed up with to-day. I think this must in great measure account for the virtuous horror of that saintly army of travellers who write about California, taking pains to open fire (at sublimely long range) with their very hottest shot upon the devoted dwellers here. Such bombardment in large pica, with all the added severity of double-leading, does not interrupt the Sierra tranquillity; they marry and are given in marriage, as in the days of Noah, regardless of explosions of many literary batteries. Nor is this peaceful state altogether because the projectiles fall short. There are people here who read, and read thoroughly. Can we think them hyper-sensitive if surprised when, after opening heart and doors to scribbling visitors, they find themselves held up to ridicule or execration in unimpeachable English and tasteful typography?
An equally false impression is spread by that considerable class of men whose courage and energy were not enough to win in open contest there, and who publicly shake off dust from departing feet, go East in ballast, and make a virtue of burning their ships, forgetful that for one waterlogged craft a hundred stanch keels will furrow the Golden Gate.
Between the cruelly superficial criticism of most Eastern writers and dark predictions from those smug prophets, the physical geographers, Californians have nothing left them but their own conscious power; not the poorest reliance in practical business, like building futures, one should say.
I am not going to deny that even yet there flickers up now and then a lingering flame of that ’49 Inferno. If I did, the lively and picturesque auto-da-fé of “Austrian George,” the other day, would be moved to amend me.
We must admit the facts. California people are not living in a tranquil, healthy, social régime. They are provincial,—never, however, in a local way, but by reason of limited thought. Aspirations for wealth and ease rise conspicuously above any thirst for intellectual culture and moral peace. Energy and a glorious audacity are their leading traits.
To the charge of light-hearted gayety, so freely trumpeted by graver home critics, I plead them guilty. There is nowhere that dull, weary expression and rayless sedateness of face we of New England are fonder of ascribing to our tender conscience than to east winds. So, too, are wanting difficulties of bronchia and lungs, which might inferentially be symptoms of original sin.
Is Californian cheerfulness due to widespread moral levity, or to perpetual sunshine and green salads through the round year tempting weak human nature to smile?
I believe it climatic, and humbly offer my tribute to the thermometer-man, who among many ventures has this time probably stumbled upon truth.
Let us not grieve because the writers and lecturers have not found Californian society all their ideals demanded, for (saving always the dry-bulb readers of past and future) their dictum is confined to existing conditions. Have they forgotten that these are less potent factors in development than the impulse, that what a man is, is of far less consequence than what he is becoming?
Show these gloomy critics a bare stretch of vulgar Sierra earth, and they will tell you how barren, how valueless it is, ignorant that the art of any Californian can banish every grain of sand into the Pacific’s bottom, and gather a residuum of solid gold. Out of the race of men whom they have in the same shallow way called common, I believe Time shall separate a noble race.
Travelling to-day in foot-hill Sierras, one may see the old, rude scars of mining; trenches yawn, disordered heaps cumber the ground, yet they are no longer bare. Time, with friendly rain, and wind, and flood, slowly, surely, levels all, and a compassionate cover of innocent verdure weaves fresh and cool from mile to mile. While Nature thus gently heals the humble Earth, God, who is also Nature, moulds and changes Man.
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