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Up and Down California in 1860-1864;
The Journal of William H. Brewer:
Book 4, Chapter 8

Redwoods—Crescent City—Indian Wars—A November Storm—Driftwood—To San Francisco by Steamer—Population—Advantages of San Francisco—The Vigilance Committee—Adieu to 1863.

San Francisco, California.
December, 1863.

My last letter left me at Low Divide, the region of the principal copper mines of Del Norte County. We had rainy weather there a part of the time, which increased my discomforts—standing at night in a crowded barroom, with seats for half a dozen, while twenty or thirty wet, dirty men from the mines steamed around the hot stove. To go to bed was no relief. We slept on the floor upstairs, some twenty or twenty-five of us—they kept running in and out all night. The noise from below prevented sleep until late, and the last of the card players would be getting to bed in the morning after the first risers were up.

But all things must come to an end, and so must this. Saturday, November 7, I footed it four miles down the road to a little Dutch tavern, where I got the luxury of a clean bed and a clean table, yet had to sit with wet feet and cross feelings all the evening and listen to a drunken miner who was determined to enlighten me on the subject of geology.

I got to talking with our fat, clever little Dutch landlady, who was perfectly delighted to find that I had passed her father’s house, and must doubtless have seen it, in the Kingdom of Württemberg, and that, too, since she had left it. It made us good friends. I stopped there two days and looked at some copper mines near, which were unfortunately pure, unadulterated “wild cat.” It was a rather pretty place—I could hear the roar of the distant ocean all night long, and the sunsets over the hazy Pacific were beautiful.

From there I walked to Crescent City, sixteen miles. I descended from these barren hills, and soon a marvelous change in the vegetation came on the scene. I passed through a forest, called everywhere “The Redwoods,” a forest of redwood timber—and such forests the world probably does not show elsewhere.

As I have before told you, the redwood is a sort of gigantic cedar. It has foliage like the hemlock, and wood like coarse, poor red cedar. The forest is narrow, and mostly made up of gigantic trees—large groups of trees, each ten to fifteen feet in diameter, and over two hundred feet in height, the straight trunks rising a hundred feet without a limb. The bark is very thick and lies in great ridges, so that the trunks seem like gigantic fluted columns supporting the dense canopy of foliage overhead. They generally swell out at the bottom, so that a tree but ten feet in diameter at thirty feet high, will be fifteen or more at the ground. They grow so abundant that the sun cannot penetrate through the dense and deep mass of foliage above. A damp shady atmosphere pervades the forests, and luxuriant ferns and thick underwood often clothe the ground. Large trees fall, mosses and ferns grow over the prostrate trunks, trees spring up among them on the thick decaying bark. The wood is so durable that a century may elapse before the fallen giant decays and mingles with its mother earth. In the meantime, trees a century old have grown on it, their bases twelve to fifteen feet from the ground, sustained on great arches of roots that once encircled the prostrate log upon which they germinated. A man may ride on horseback under some of these great arches.

The wood is soft and brittle, like pine. Fire sometimes in the summer spreads through the woods. The thick bark protects the large trees, but the fire often gets into the wood and burns out the dry center, leaving a cavity as large as a small house. A reliable gentleman, Doctor Mason, told me that once caught in a storm he with his four companions sought shelter in one of these hollows. They built a fire, and the five men with their five horses passed the night in this novel shelter! I fully believe the story.

At times a number of trees start from the same base—an immense woody mass thirty to forty feet in diameter, with half a dozen huge trunks rising from this great gnarled base. Mosses accumulate in the hollows and nooks, bushes and ferns take root and grow parasitic among the trees to a great height, trailing lichens festoon from the branches and give a somber look to the dense shade. I saw in one place a tree six to eight inches in diameter that had taken root thirty or forty feet from the ground on the trunk of a larger tree, its roots twining like great serpents over the bark until they reached the ground.

The largest tree that I measured was fifty-eight feet in circumference, and looked three hundred feet high. It was perfectly symmetrical. Much larger trees are reported at various places along the coast. These trees belong to the same genus with the Big Tree of the Sierra. There are two species of the genus: one only in the Sierra, the other only near the sea—both of them grand wonders of the vegetable world. The amount of timber in one of these trees is almost incredible. A man will build a house and barn from one of them, fence a field, probably, in addition, and leave an immense mass of brush and logs as useless.

These forests have almost an oppressive effect upon the mind. A deep silence reigns; almost the only sound is that of some torrent coming down from the mountains, or the distant roar of the surf breaking upon the shore of the Pacific.

A restless genius who has seen much of the world and of adventure, but is yet poor, has conceived the idea of a speculation in one of these trees, which is rather novel. There is a large tree near Trinidad so near the water that he proposes to build a large boat of it and launch it—cut from a single tree, like a canoe, but modeled like a schooner. He says he can have a boat of twenty-four or twenty-five foot beam, and eighty to one hundred feet long, and have the sides, the bottom, and floor of the grand saloon of the natural wood, the interior being dug out of the solid tree. A great saloon fifteen to eighteen feet wide in the widest part, but tapering aft, and sixty or seventy feet long, would be fitted up in it. A vessel of over three hundred tons register, or near five hundred tons burden could thus be built! He proposes to take his novel craft to the larger seaports of the world and make a fortune by its exhibition. However, he will probably never have the means to carry it out.

Crescent City lies on a little plain of a few miles in extent that juts out from the hills into the sea. A little cove, but no harbor exists here. A town was built up here ten years ago, which grew rapidly, but like too many Californian towns it has passed its zenith of prosperity and is on its decline. Scarcely half of its houses are occupied; the rest are deserted, their windows broken, their looks dilapidated, giving a sad note to the place. A dense forest of tall firs and spruce once grew just back of the place, but this was killed by fire, and now the dead and blackened trunks, many of them over two hundred feet high, hundreds in number, stand like specters haunting the city. The main business street lies on the sandy beach, so close to the water that it has houses on but one side, and the water of extreme high tides comes up across the streets to the very stores, which look out on the lovely cove.

I met an old friend, a Mr. Pomeroy, at this place, and spent some very pleasant evenings with him and his wife. They are from Massachusetts. I stopped in the place twelve days, making excursions in every direction and looking at various coal and copper mines, but we had much rain, and often I was not out at all. One of these excursions carried me through the redwoods in two other places; I wish it had been oftener.

Quite a number of Indians live in the city, and not a few white men have squaws for their wives—a sad feature of the civilization of many of these back places. One sees as many half-breed children as he does pure bloods of either race. What is to become of these half-breeds, and what their situation is to be in the future society of various parts of this country, is a serious problem. It is a good American doctrine that a man not entirely white has few rights or privileges that a pure white is bound to respect, and as abuse and wrong has thus far failed to civilize and raise the Indian, it is, indeed, a serious problem.

The Indian wars now going on, and those which have been for the last three years in the counties of Klamath, Humboldt, and Mendocino, have most of their origin in this. It has for years been a regular business to steal Indian children and bring them down to the civilized parts of the state, even to San Francisco, and sell them—not as slaves, but as servants to be kept as long as possible. Mendocino County has been the scene of many of these stealings, and it is said that some of the kidnapers would often get the consent of the parents by shooting them to prevent opposition. This was one cause. Some feeling arose between the races, and doubtless the Indians stole cattle—at least the whites accused them of it, and retaliated fearfully.

About three years ago fragments of two or three tribes were at Trinity Bay, or Humboldt Bay. The warriors were out hunting and fishing farther north, while the women, children, and the old and infirm were left on an island near Eureka. Some “bold” whites saw a chance for an easy victory. They went in the night to this island and murdered the whole of these people! Women, children, infants at their mothers’ breasts, decrepit, infirm, and aged people were killed in cold blood and with the most revolting cruelty. Some of these squaws had white husbands, some of the children were half-breeds. Over a hundred were slain! The husbands, sons, and brothers of these victims swore eternal revenge, and fearfully have they gratified it. Men, women, and children have been alike murdered. They take no prisoners—their white foes took none. Desolated farms, the ashes of dwellings, and mutilated dead mask their track. They have nearly depopulated Klamath County and made life unsafe for near two hundred miles in the coast ranges.1

Of course, the innocent people suffer. And yet these hostile Indians are but very few—not two hundred are left. They are the desperadoes and outlaws from several tribes, with whom the friendly tribes have no dealings. Nothing short of their absolute extermination can bring peace, and it is a costly matter. They are well acquainted with all the intricacies of the mountains, they are brave to desperation, and live only to wreak their vengeance on the race that has wronged them. The three counties they infest are the only ones in the state we have not visited.

But in talking about these Indians I have again wandered from Crescent City. On Saturday night, November 14, a tremendous storm raged on this coast. It did immense damage to the shipping at San Francisco, and sank the ship that had on board the iron “monitor” sent out to protect the harbor. At Crescent City it was heaviest in the night, with the heaviest southeast wind the place has seen for ten years. There were no vessels to injure, but it did other damage. The wind blew down some unoccupied houses. It blew down a shed attached to the house where I was stopping and did damage there to the amount of about $200. The surf broke up so high that it brought driftwood and heavy logs up to the doors of the front buildings. I could not sleep all night—the breaking of the surf seemed almost like the booming of artillery. The wind partially ceased, but the surf was heavy all day Sunday, and the wind returned, but with less violence on Sunday night.

As before remarked, a flat stretches out into the sea here, about five or six miles wide and ten to fifteen miles long. It is mostly covered with very heavy timber and a tangled undergrowth of ferns and bushes, but here and there are openings where pretty farms abound. There are some lakes in here, beautiful sheets of water. I went out to one—with grassy swamps around it and rushes and reeds growing up in the shallow margin. Dense dark forests surrounded it. There were a few canoes tied up to the shore, and by two cabins that I passed were some really beautiful half-breed children. Myriads of ducks and geese and other waterfowl swarmed, and some white swans and pelicans enlightened the scene. These waterfowl, especially ducks, are very abundant. I saw a hunter, an Indian, coming in town with a horse loaded with them. He must have had a hundred. They cost only $1.50 per dozen, and I luxuriated on wild ducks all the time I stayed there.

The floods of two years ago brought down an immense amount of driftwood from all the rivers along the coast, and it was cast up along this part of the coast in quantities that stagger belief. It looked to me as if I saw enough in ten miles along the shore to make a million cords of wood. It is thrown up in great piles, often half a mile long, and the size of some of these logs is tremendous. I had the curiosity to measure over twenty. They were worn by the water and their bark gone, but it is not uncommon to see logs 150 feet long and 4 feet in diameter at the little end where the top is broken off. One I measured was 210 feet long and 3 1/2 feet at the little end, without the bark.

In the afternoon of Friday, November 20, unexpectedly, the steamship Oregon arrived from San Francisco, and suddenly the town was all astir. It did not leave until the afternoon of the next day, when we went aboard about 3 P.M. There is no dock—the steamer anchors two or three miles from the shore. Surfboats come up as close as possible. We got into a cart, which was drawn out by a horse to the boat. We clambered in and were rowed to the ship. This cost us two dollars. We were soon under way, and that evening I sat and listened to the purser tell stories of Utah. He spent eighteen months among the Mormons. We had a stiff breeze all night, and it was clear, but the ship rolled heavily. I slept well, however, although it has been three years since I have been on shipboard.

All day Sunday we ran down the coast. The wind was fair and we made fine headway. The coast ranges were in sight, some of the higher peaks covered with snow. A beautiful night set in, but the breeze was heavy. The moon was light and we ran so close to Punta de los Reyes that we could hear the barking of the innumerable seals and sea lions that thronged the rocks there. A Russian man-of-war had been wrecked there but a few days before.

We ran into the Golden Gate about midnight. It is a most beautiful entrance to a more beautiful harbor. The whole scene lay so lovely in the soft moonlight that I stayed on deck until we anchored in front of the city. Monday, November 23, we had a lovely morning. Another steamer lay at our wharf, so that we did not get ashore until nearly noon.

I found the men all back at the office except Gabb, who came a week later. Ashburner and King were just starting for the Mariposa Estate—they went that afternoon. I once more donned the habiliments of civilization and went and took rooms at a boarding house with the same landlady that I had last winter, who has moved to new and more comfortable, as well as more fashionable, quarters. I met many old friends, among them Mrs. Ashburner, had a most pleasant dinner, and thus again began civilized life, calling on Mrs. Whitney in the evening.

All hands are now very busy in the office, hurried the worst kind—the old monotonous life has set in and it is irksome enough. To leave the free open air for the confined office and bedroom, and the laborious outdoors work for writing, is a great change and is irksome.

San Francisco, California.
December 27.

San Francisco is not only the metropolis of the state, but in reality the most prosperous portion, growing the fastest, and the growth being healthy. Most of the interior towns of the state are at best growing but very slowly, and a large majority are actually decreasing in population. In fact, the state is. This will surprise you, but it is true, and arises from several causes.

First, the newly discovered mineral regions in Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, and Colorado get most of their roving, adventurous population from this state, where there are tens of thousands who have long hoped in vain to get suddenly rich, who have no ties to bind them to any spot, who love adventure and pursue it to each new region. This class, ever on the move, has furnished not less than 150,000 men to these other new regions, and the state is the loser in point of population. These all come from the mines, and the mining towns, as a consequence, decline as the placers become poorer and the population leaves.

Next, there is an enormous preponderance of males in the population—in some counties there are, on the average, eight men to one woman! Even in this city there are 20,000 more men than women. As a consequence, the natural increase of the population is far less than in a population normally constituted. The women, what there are of them, are prolific and fruitful to a satisfactory degree—there is no complaint on that score—it is their lack of numbers from which the population suffers.

These are the two principal causes that check the increase of population. Another, but smaller cause is found in the men who have made some money and return East to enjoy it.

But these causes, which have been at work at large in the state, have not checked San Francisco. Its growth has been rapid, it has grown as if by magic. Fifteen years ago two or three ranch houses and barren sand hills marked the spot; today it is a city of over 100,000 inhabitants, and growing fast.

Since I arrived here three years ago building has been going on at an almost incredible rate. I live now in a fine, large boarding house, with stores under it, on a growing and fashionable street. When I arrived streets were laid out there, through barren sand hills, with here and there a sort of shell of a house standing.

The first day of last January the first street railroad car started. There was, indeed, a sort of street railroad to the Mission Dolores, three miles distant, but not regular street cars. Today they run through all the streets, some of them running over three miles—there must be over a dozen miles of street railroads in active operation.

Here is a healthy climate. When the interior is scorching with intense heat in summer, this is cool with sea breezes. When, in winter, fathomless mud abounds in the interior, here are more pleasant days than elsewhere. Everyone who can lives here, at least a part of the year, and miners, when out of work or full of dust, come here to spend their money and enjoy themselves.

This is not only the great seaport of the state, but of the western coast of America—there is not another good harbor between Cape Horn and the Bering Straits, and this is not only a good one, but one of the very finest in the world—so this place must ever be of necessity the commercial metropolis of the Pacific—the New York of an immense region, not only of this state, but the center of commerce for the whole coast—all parts must pay tribute to it. Capitalists seeing this, invest their money here. They make it elsewhere in the state, perhaps—in mines or trade—but invest it here. Huge buildings have gone up this year, built with money made in Washoe, but invested here.

The place is in such easy communication by bay, rivers, and coast, to most of the rest of the state, and is so easy of access, that it is gradually absorbing the trade of the smaller interior towns, and it fattens on their decay. All these and other causes make the city what it is, and lead to such bright hopes of the future.

A part of the city is scattered over steep hills, but most of it is built on sand flats that stretch along the bay or are built out into it. The location is lovely. A range of hills six or eight miles wide separates us from the ocean. The city fronts east, and across the bay, which is here about six or seven miles wide, little villages are growing up. Oakland is the largest, and grows as Brooklyn does, only it is farther off and grows slower. A new railroad has just been opened along the west side of the bay to San Jose, fifty-six miles distant.

The city abounds in fine mansions, substantial buildings, palatial hotels, and all the accompaniments of a large city—the only thing strange is that it has grown in fifteen years.

It is the best-governed city in the United States—there is less rowdyism than in any other city I know of in America. This will surprise you. Previous to 1856 it was terrible—its fame for murder and robbery and violence spread over the world. It was even vastly worse governed than New York, by the vilest of all politicians. They held the elections, and by election frauds, double ballot boxes, etc., legally kept the power. Robbers were policemen and murderers were judges. The life of any respectable man who dared raise his voice against the iniquities of officers was endangered, and from the corruptions of the courts there was no redress. The most prominent citizens were shot in the streets.

At last the people rose in their might and formed the celebrated Vigilance Committee. This was composed of the best and most prominent citizens, who usurped the government, chose leaders, made courts, tried and executed or banished criminals, and enforced decrees with the bayonet and revolver. At the tap of the alarm bell all stores were closed, and ten thousand armed men were in the ranks to enforce justice, though not law. They publicly hung a few of the worst offenders and banished many of the less prominent ones. They held control of the city until election, when decent officers were elected. They appointed a committee to nominate officers for the government of the city—the ticket called the Citizens’ Ticket or People’s Ticket, the nominees being chosen from both political parties. No man of this committee could hold office. This goes on still. The committee is changed yearly, the old one nominating a new committee, all of business men, and they cannot nominate one of their own number to any office. How unlike the caucuses of the roughs in eastern cities.

Well, from that time the city has been well governed; roughs have tried to get the upper hand once or twice but have been most overwhelmingly defeated. Once, indeed, three or four men were nominated by the committee itself who were not good; an independent meeting was called, a new ticket was made out on which the regular nominees were retained if they were decent men, but rejected if not, and it carried the city. So much for the city government—it is not perfect, but compared with New York City it is as far ahead of that, as that is ahead of the Fiji Islands.

We will bid adieu to the year 1863, thankful for its mercies and penitent for its sins—and look with hope toward the new year which approaches. I have traveled 4,243 miles this year, making a total in the state, since I came, of: horseback (or mule) 6,560 miles; on foot 2,772; public conveyance 4,175—a total of 13,507 miles, or enough to reach more than halfway around the earth.



1. The massacre on Indian Island in Humboldt Bay took place on the night of February 25, 1860. There is an account of it in A. J. Bledsoe, Indian Wars of the Northwest (San Francisco, 1885), pp. 302-309. The Humboldt Times (Eureka, California) of March 3 also describes it and mentions attacks on other groups of Indians the same night. “The whole number killed at the different places on Saturday night,” says the Times, “cannot fall far below a hundred and fifty, including bucks, squaws and children.” The event acquires importance because of an indirect effect upon American literature. Bret Harte was at that time living in Humboldt and was employed on the Uniontown paper, the Northern Californian. “Harte was temporarily in charge of the paper, and he denounced the outrage in unmeasured terms. The better part of the community sustained him, but a violent minority resented his strictures and he was seriously threatened and in no little danger. Happily he escaped, but the incident resulted in his return to San Francisco.” (Charles A. Murdock, A Backward Glance at Eighty [San Francisco, 1921], p. 79.)

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management