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Up and Down California in 1860-1864;
The Journal of William H. Brewer:
Book 1, Chapter 4
STARTING NORTHWARD

The San Fernando Valley—San Buenaventura—Carpinteria.

Camp No. 13, Sycamore Canyon,
San Fernando Valley.
Sunday, February 17, 1861.

Our course before leaving Los Angeles the last time had been from San Pedro on the coast to the Temescal Range about eighty miles east. Either a plain or a valley runs this whole distance, with high, steep, rugged, barren mountains on one or both sides, nowhere covered with timber or of any value for agricultural purposes. These mountains so far as yet examined are mostly of porous granite, or other porous rock which absorbs most of the water that falls on them. The streams that run off in places follow narrow canyons or gorges down their sides, and as soon as they strike the plain or valley spread out wide and generally sink. These “washes” or dry beds are often two or three miles wide, covered with bowlders and sand, supporting only a vegetation of stunted shrubs, from five to ten feet high.

It is surprising how large a stream will soon sink. The Santa Ana River, 150 or 200 yards wide and nearly up to the bellies of the mules, sinks in a few miles after leaving the mountains, leaving only dry drifting sand in its bed. In this way a man may travel a great distance and see no water, yet cross the beds of streams every little while, beds sometimes a mile wide, over which the streams in high water shift their courses, sometimes following one channel, sometimes another. Already, only the middle of February, we have to follow up the canyons into the base of the mountains to find water for camp. We are now about a mile or a mile and a half up a stream; here is water but below only sand.

This is one of the proposed routes for a Pacific railroad, yet from San Pedro to Temescal, eighty miles, to even fence the road, would take all the available timber from a strip ten miles wide, five miles each side of the road, unless a brush fence was made. Of course there are places where there is some timber, but I have asked each of our men if they thought a strip ten miles wide would do it, and they think not, and the thing grows worse as we go farther, for here we can get timber from the north but it costs enormously to get it inland. Fence posts of redwood, split four by six inches and about seven feet long, cost there fifty cents each; what must they cost a hundred miles farther on!

The Temescal region is so barren as to be practically useless, and will ever support only a very sparse population, and this whole country will only be used for stock raising on large ranches. In a few places, of limited extent compared with the whole, will be lovely fertile spots where there is water, but the agricultural capabilities of the region are small.1

Even here the San Fernando Valley looks fertile, yet you could take a patch in the middle of a hundred or a hundred and fifty thousand acres, where it does not touch the hills, where there would be no water for over half of the year. Hence the land is owned in large ranches, and those only in the more favored places. On these ranches, as there are no fences, the cattle are half wild, and require many horses to keep them and tend them. A ranch with a thousand head of cattle will have a hundred horses. The natives here are lazy enough, but are slowly giving way before the Americans, with whom they do not assimilate.

There is a knotty political question here which causes no fuss now; but make southern California a slave state and people it with southerners, and it may become complicated. Our treaty on obtaining this region guaranteed to the Mexican citizens all the privileges of American citizens on entering this republic. Mexico recognized Indians, negroes, etc., as citizens under certain circumstances, so there are actually negroes citizens of the United States.

Now to my journal. On Monday, February 11, we left Los Angeles and came on about twelve miles and camped in the Cahuenga Pass, where the Overland road passes through the Sierra Santa Monica, there a range of hills about 1,600 feet high. It is not much of a pass. We stopped there until Wednesday morning, then entered the San Fernando Valley. We went along the north side of the Sierra Santa Monica, at its base, and camped here, some twenty-five miles from Los Angeles. We intended to leave here Friday morning, but on starting, had not gone three rods when a wheel of the wagon broke down. We had to unload, camp again and send the wagon to Los Angeles for repairs. Here we are yet, but the wagon got back late last night and we will move on in the morning. We have reduced our load, and having two extra mules, we “pack” them; that is, place loads on their backs—blankets, bags of barley, carpetbags, etc.

Camp 15, near Triunfo Ranch.
Sunday, February 24.

On Monday, February 18, we crossed the valley to the north side, a stretch of about ten miles across a plain, a part of it almost desert for want of water, the rest covered with grass. It all belongs to the San Fernando Mission, under old Spanish grants. On the north side of the valley there is a great chain of hills—mountains, I should say.2 The rocks are all broken up, and rise in ridges, some of them two thousand feet or more above the plain, the broken edges of the strata forming lines of rock or high precipices in places, visible for many miles. We camped in a quiet canyon at the base.

Tuesday, February 19, we sent the wagon again to Los Angeles to take in Ashburner, get letters, etc. Ashburner has given out, and the Professor called him from the field to work in the laboratory. He cannot stand camp life. He got the scurvy a year and a half ago while on geological excursions in Newfoundland, and it broke out again in camp, and we feared it would use him up. I advised Professor Whitney to send him to the city some weeks ago. I think there is no danger now, as he was much better before he left, but he has not at all been able to stem the hard work of the field.

This increases my labors some, as he has made all the mathematical calculations; some of them I must make now. I have practiced Guirado in making observations with the barometer, and shall teach Averill soon to compute them; this will lessen the work for me again.

Wednesday, February 20, I started back in the hills alone, got into a wild rocky canyon and followed up it for three or four hours—I don’t know how many miles. The stream made its way through the red sandstone rock, which often rose in high precipices—a lovely walk. At last I climbed a high ridge, some two thousand feet above camp. Here a stratum of rock comes out filled with large shells in fine preservation. It rises in a ridge, ending in a precipice to the north. In places these fossil shells had been weathered out in immense numbers. The ridge was strewn with them, as thick as any seabeach I have ever seen, and in as good preservation—oyster shells by the cartload, clam shells, in fact many species. They have not lost their character as shells yet, that is, they have not turned to stone. The shell of lime was as when fresh, and the scar where the muscle was attached was as plain as if it had stood the weather but a few years. Some were worn by the waves. Oyster shells had grown together in that old ocean as now, and the pebbles of the beach were bored into by shells as I see them here on the coast now.

I cannot describe my feelings as I stood on that ridge, that shore of an ancient ocean. How lonely and desolate! Who shall tell how many centuries, how many decades of centuries, have elapsed since these rocks resounded to the roar of breakers, and these animals sported in their foam? I picked up a bone, cemented in the rock with the shells. A feeling of awe came over me. Around me rose rugged mountains; no human being was within miles of me to break the silence. And then I felt overwhelmed with the magnitude of the work ahead of me. I was at work alone in the field work of this great state, a territory larger than all New England and New York, complicated in its geology.

But the real soon roused me from reveries—I must get back. I was alone, far from camp—grizzlies might come out as the moon came up, for the weather was warm. I made my way back into the canyon, and at dark arrived at camp, tired enough. Peter brought back from Los Angeles a pile of letters, and after supper how I devoured them!

Friday, February 22, I started to examine a peak a few miles to the north. Averill and Mike (our cook) went with me. I carried a barometer. Averill shot an eagle with his revolver. It measured fifty inches from tip to tip. He was a savage fellow, and as he was not killed entirely, he fought most vigorously. We had a difficult climb. My companions both showed signs of giving out and finally stopped at the foot of the last slope we had to rise. I went on alone, but they finally followed and succeeded. The peak was 2,700 feet above camp, or some 3,800 feet above the sea. We had a glorious view from this point and collected some more fossils on our way back. We celebrated Washington’s birthday, in the evening, with a glass of toddy.

Saturday, February 23, we raised camp and started on our course. We had an accident or two in crossing the plain, but came on. On getting into the hills, in coming down a very steep one, that wheel began to crack again. We went on cautiously a mile or so and found a good place to camp, a small running stream and some trees for wood. Here we are now, about three miles from Triunfo Ranch.3 Good grass around. Our animals are now gaining. We have had to feed barley up to this time, but I hope that the grass will soon be big enough. It is good here. We had in Sycamore Canyon a week ago thermometer from 70° to 80° (once 86°) for several days. It is every day nearly up to 60°. Think of that for February! What must June, July, and August be! Whew!

Tuesday, February 26.

Yesterday I visited the country southeast of camp and had a hard climb over rocky and precipitous hills. We rode to the foot, about four miles, and there left our mules. We came upon four fine, large deer, almost within pistol shot—graceful and beautiful animals. This makes eleven deer I have seen this month.

We intended to move on this morning, but before day it began to rain hard, and rained at intervals all the morning. It cleared up at noon, however, and we will move in the morning. Peter has repaired the weak wagon wheel with that universal plaster for ailing implements, rawhide, and says it will now go. We will try it. I had no idea of the many uses to which rawhides are put here. I was in a house on a ranch, where a rawhide was spread before the beds as a carpet or mat. Bridle-reins and ropes or lassos (riatas) are made, fences are tied—everything is done with rawhide.

It is a clear, cold evening, all the men are smoking around the fire except me; my fingers are cold and I must go out too. I wish I could be in “The States” this and next week—exciting times! Next week must tell what the South will do on Lincoln’s inauguration. We get the political news pretty well; we have got New York papers nearly every steamer and will get them again on reaching San Luis Obispo, if not before. I hope to be at Santa Barbara in ten days.

Camp 18, Carpinteria.
March 5.

A week has passed since I wrote anything to anybody. Wednesday, February 27, we raised camp and went about eighteen miles, first passing the lovely Triunfo Ranch, a large grassy valley surrounded by high hills. Then we crossed a high rocky ridge and descended a hill about five or six hundred feet. It was terribly steep, but Peter managed the wagon with a skill to be praised—all down safely. We then struck west a few miles, in a valley, and by a stream near Cayeguas Ranch. Here we stopped over one day and gathered some fine fossils. A hill was as full of large clam shells, barnacles, conch shells, oyster shells, etc., as any modern beach—much more so than the beach of the Pacific here now.

Friday, March 1, we came on to San Buenaventura, on the seacoast. Soon after leaving Cayeguas we entered the plain, which there lies along the sea, and crossed it to the sea about twenty miles. It is a fine grassy plain, with here and there a gentle green knoll, with a few dry creeks or alkaline ponds, and one fine stream, the Santa Clara River, running through it. We stopped for an hour on its bank and rested our mules, lunched and refreshed ourselves in a grove of cottonwoods which came nearer to a forest than anything I have yet seen here. We forded the river and came on. At San Buenaventura the hills come up to the sea, the plain ceases, but a fine stream comes down from a pretty valley, green, grassy, and rich.

Here is the old Mission San Buenaventura, once rich, now poor.4 A little dirty village of a few inhabitants, mostly Indian, but with some Spanish-Mexican and American. The houses are of adobe, the roofs of red tiles, and all dirty enough. A fine old church stands, the extensive garden now in ruins, but with a few palm trees and many figs and olives—the old padres’ garden. Ruined buildings, two or three old fountains with lions and horses sculptured on them, now dry and ruined, told of former luxury. An old threshing floor stood, a circular wall of stones laid up in mortar, about forty or fifty feet in diameter, the wall about four or five feet high, where they used to put in wheat and drive in wild horses to thresh it.

Saturday we roamed over the hills, went down to the beach, took a bath in the surf—decidedly refreshing, but cold. The roar of the breakers hushed us to sleep at night and was the first sound heard in the morning.

Sunday we strolled down to the beach in the morning and made the discovery of multitudes of cockles (small clams) in the sand. Soon we were all digging with our fingers; we got so many in a few minutes that they are not eaten yet. After a feast on raw clams, we went into town to Mass.

The church was precisely like the others seen here, only in better condition. A description of it will do almost as well for Los Angeles or San Gabriel. The walls are very thick, built of adobes; the ceiling is of timber and boards laid across, painted; the walls are painted rudely in pilasters, festoons, etc.; the floor is of large square bricks. The room was a parallelogram in shape, three times as long as broad, probably 120 or 130 feet long, ceiling high, with two entrances, one at the end, one at the middle of one side. Over the end and main door is a small wooden gallery for the singers; opposite the door is the altar decked with tinsel and silver, a few old images standing in various places about the altar and about side shrines—once brilliant with paint, tinsel, and gilding, now faded, dingy, and dilapidated. A few pictures hang on the walls, some really quite good, but dingy, their gilded frames worm-eaten and tarnished. All speaks of decline, decay.

At the altar was an Italian priest, saying Mass. Kneeling, sitting, or standing on the floor, was the congregation of about fifty women and half as many men, reverent, devout, and attentive. The effect was very picturesque. The women, sitting or kneeling, had shawls over their heads, hanging down behind and held or pinned beneath the chin, as is the custom here—some black, but most of very gay colors. A few children were among them; here a babe in arms—black hair, blacker sparkling eyes, and dark skin—peeping over some mother’s shoulder; there a little girl, just learning to cross herself and read her prayers, beside her mother or larger sister. Most of them were Indians, but there were a few Spanish or other whites. Some of the half-breeds were really pretty. Some of the men wore moccasins, leggins, and Indian costume, others the Spanish or common. The women wore frocks, some with many flounces, while a few hoops and flat hats told of inroads of modern fashion in this place. The women were better looking as a set than those at the Indian villages or missions before visited. Several Indians visited our camp, quite intelligent looking fellows. All the Indians here are much blacker than those in the East, and with flatter noses and less intelligent faces.

After Mass we went back to camp, a mile from town, but Guirado stayed with some friends during the afternoon and came back telling of spirited horse races—six horses changed owners by betting—billiards, dancing, and a fight—common accompaniments of a Spanish Sunday. What things we purchased there we paid a most exorbitant price for, except cigarritos, the only cheap thing found in the place.

Yesterday, Monday, March 4, we came on here, about eighteen miles. The road followed the seacoast; high bluffs or cliffs rose from the shore all the way. Sometimes we rode on the sand close to the water, sometimes over sand-hills, half knee-deep, sometimes over a little flat beck with deep, steep gulches, and, worse than all the rest, over big bowlders for a mile or two—bowlders piled thick together as only the sea can pile them. This was too much for our invalid wagon wheel; it showed signs of giving in. We stopped in this fine valley—good grass and wood, but poor water.

Tuesday Evening, March 5.

Last night as we were sitting around our cheerful camp fire, the sound of a cannon came booming on the still night air, above the roar of the surf. How it startled us, for it told of the arrival of the steamer at Santa Barbara, eight miles distant, probably with the Professor, or if not with him, with letters and funds.

This last was an important item. He left four weeks ago, leaving with me but three hundred dollars. Several bills which had been left unpaid and our unexpected break-downs reduced this. I sent for more by Ashburner when he went up two weeks ago, for when the wagon returned from Los Angeles I was horrified to find that our treasurer had paid out all but about twelve or fifteen dollars.

This afternoon Guirado returned, brought letters, but no Professor, and what was worse, no funds. I counted up and found $3.25 in the treasury and $3.00 in private hands—total, $6.25. Five men in camp, two weeks before another steamer, flour all gone, jerked beef ditto, onions ditto, potatoes ditto—long ago—have forgotten how some of them looked—bacon, small chunk, and even beans only a meager, lonely few left in the last corner of the sack. We have lived poorly the last two weeks, looking forward for better fare on reaching Santa Barbara; decidedly a poor prospect ahead! I shall stay here one day more, then go to Santa Barbara and try to make a raise of fifty or a hundred dollars by an order on Professor Whitney to sell to someone, by borrowing, or otherwise. Can’t tell exactly how, but I will make it go in some way or another.

Rode along the beach a few miles today through the fog, visited some rocks of interest, frightened a large seal off from some rocks, saw thousands of gulls, geese, cranes, and other sea birds. After dinner at four o’clock, took a fine bath in the surf.

NOTES

1. Brewer overlooked the possibilities of irrigation and of the importation of water by long aqueducts, developments which have completely transformed this region.

2. The Santa Susana Mountains.

3. This spot was visited January 13, 1770, by Portolá’s party on the return from the expedition to San Francisco Bay, and was named on that occasion El Triunfo del Dulcísimo Nombre de Jesús (Fray Francisco Palóu, Historical Memoirs of New California. ed. Herbert Eugene Bolton [1926]. II, 254-255). It is interesting to follow the course of the Portolá expedition of 1769-70 over much of this same ground through the medium of Doctor Bolton’s translation of Palóu’s Noticias.

4. This mission named in honor of the Doctor Seráfico San Buenaventura (Giovanni Fidanga, 1221-74), was founded by Junipero Serra in 1782. The name of the locality has been shortened to Ventura.


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