Three Years in California by J. D. Borthwick.
It is a little singular that, whilst the discovery of gold in California and Australia has given occasion to some of the most romantic incidents that ever occurred, there should be so little literature upon the subject. Mr. Borthwick's book goes a long way to supply this defect as regards California. It does not claim to touch upon the graver matters connected with the discovery of gold. It is a picture of the state of society which the author saw at the diggings, and, though a bad habit has long and extensively prevailed of making such publications opportunities for the display of vulgarity and fine writing, the present work is a most creditable exception to the general rule. Mr. Borthwick writes without a shadow of vanity, flippancy, or vulgarity; and for that very reason he is very graphic and exceedingly amusing.
Our author went to California in the beginning of 1851, viá Panama. His passage was very uncomfortable. Reaching Panama after a good many rough experiences, he took a passage for California in a barque carrying about forty passengers. “Some were respectable men, others were precious vagabonds.” The principal amusement of the passengers consisted in making a drunken old Englishman swear, which they greatly enjoyed, because “the English style of cursing and swearing is very different from that which prevails in the States.” There was nothing to eat but salt pork and musty flour; and, in case of illness, there was no doctor, except an ignorant old horse-dealer who treated fever by making his patients sick with horse drugs.
San Francisco, which they reached at last, stands at the head of a noble harbour twelve miles wide and forty or fifty long. The Sacramento River, which is navigable for large vessels through 200 miles of its course, up to the city of the same name, falls into the harbour. Before the discovery of gold, the place was a mere collection of two or three small houses, resorted to by whalers and cruisers as a watering-station. In 1851, when Mr. Borthwick first visited it, it presented all the strange anomalies which were afterwards exhibited in Melbourne. There were wonderful hotels, “decorated in a style of barbaric splendour,” with immense mirrors, marvellous gilding, chandeliers, and gold and china ornaments, which were used by gentlemen dressed in ragged old flannel shirts and patchwork pantaloons. Every one lived in a fever of excitement. Money was lent and houses rented by the month, and indeed no one seemed to look forward for a longer period. English, French, Chinese, and Mexicans jostled each other in every direction. There were innumerable gambling booths, gaily furnished, with banks of 5,000 or 10,000 dollars, at which monte, faro, roulette, and rouge-et-noir were played. They were the fashionable evening resorts of the population, and were frequented by many men who never staked a dollar on the cards. “Drinks" were even more in favour in San Francisco than in the United States. The system by which they are regulated is a characteristic one. People live so fast, and give themselves so little time to eat their meals, that they get into the habit of continually running into bar-rooms for a minute, to get a dram, for the sake of the temporary stimulus. Arms were carried so universally, and “musses,” or rows, were so common, that placards announcing masquerades used to contain such clauses as, “No weapons allowed,” “A strong police will be in attendance.” If any one denied having arms he was searched before being admitted; but the great majority of the company gave up their revolvers and bowie-knives, just as in England people give up canes or umbrellas.
After remaining some time in San Francisco, Mr. Borthwick went up to the diggings by steamer. The steamers on the Sacramento were not only of the same kind with those which have been so frequently described as navigating the rivers in the United States, but were the same identical boats, having made the passage from the States by the Straits of Magellan. The extraordinary audacity of such a feat can only be estimated by reflecting that these boats resembled nothing so much as a two-storied house or Noah's Ark, that no underwriter would insure them, and that they were sent to a place where any accident to their machinery would have made them utterly useless, as there was no possibility of repairing them in California. Only one, however, of these vessels was lost. The rest arrived safely at their destination, and in such numbers that though at first they made enormous profits, competition soon compelled them to carry passengers from San Francisco to Sacramento–200 miles in ten hours: a dollar-a-head, in a country where nobody ever changes a shilling.
From Sacramento, to Hangtown—so called from the exertions of Judge Lynch, but officially known as Placerville—Mr. Borthwick travelled by a stage-coach, which traversed the sixty miles in about eight hours. Hangtown is a colony of diggers. The mines were formerly almost the richest in the country—gold used to be picked out of the rocks with bowie-knives. At the time of Mr. Borthwick's visit, the gold had to be washed out of the dirt by means of “long-toms,” or troughs, with a sort of sieve at one end, and a hose at the other, which pours a constant supply of water over the earth to be washed. Society was here, as elsewhere in the diggings, in an extremely primitive state. Its tranquillity rested on a very liberal interpretation of the right of self-defense. Every man wore a pistol or knife, and many wore both; but Lynch-law had been so vigorously administered, that they were hardly ever used wantonly. The rule was, that if one man made a motion towards drawing a pistol, the other might instantly shoot him dead, and that if the shot was wanton, he should be immediately hung. This simple and effective machinery quite put a stop to bravado.
Mr. Borthwick worked at the Hangtown diggings for some time, in company with some squatters from New South Wales. “Claims” are chosen by parties of men who go out “prospecting”—that is, they dig down to the peculiar kind of soil which contains the gold, and which in the language of the mines is called “pay-dirt,” and wash out a panful to judge of the richness of the mine. An experienced miner can make a very close guess from such an experiment. The diggers near the towns live on beefsteaks and tea, and if they come from Australia, dampers—or if from the States, bread or pancakes. If a man hired himself out, he got five dollars a-day all over the diggings. If he worked “on his own hook,” he might expect to make a good deal more, perhaps as much as eight; but in that case he was almost sure to spend so much time in “prospecting,” that it was Mr. Borthwick's opinion that a man would make a good bargain by hiring himself out for the whole year.
There were of course people of all nations at the mines, and no better opportunity could have been afforded for the study of national character. The Americans and English, who were always mixed up together, took the lead in all undertakings requiring self-reliance and energy. They would set off “prospecting” quite alone, and work on without amusement or idleness, till their object was accomplished, in any part of the mines. The Americans were especially remarkable for their powers of combination. A certain number of men would unite to work out a claim, and carry on all their arrangements with as much method as if they were a regularly constituted corporation. Whenever a question arose affecting the general interest, the eight or nine members of the society would hold a meeting, and pass resolutions, which were obeyed with the most perfect and unhesitating discipline. There were a great many of the roughest kind of backwoodsmen from the Western States at the diggings. Mr. Borthwick says that this life was a sort of education to them, and that on their return they were infinitely more polished than when they went out. They were large men, skilful with axes and rifles, but, oddly enough, neither strong nor hardy. Mr. Borthwick tells us that they were the sickliest of all the miners.
The French mustered very strong in some parts of the diggings. Characteristically enough, they never knew a word of any other language than their own; and whenever they found any one who knew a little French, kept asking him to interpret. Hence the obtained the nickname of “Keskydees” (qu'est ce qu'il dit). They had a great genius for “fixing things up,” or making themselves comfortable; but they had neither the individual resolution, nor the power of combination, which distinguished the Americans and English. They were always in large numbers, and generally squabbling; besides which, they took far more pleasure than the other miners. The Mexicans were numerous, but were too lazy to dig, though not ashamed to steal. The Germans were more laborious than the French. All foreigners from the continent of Europe were classed under, the two heads of “Eyetalians” and “Dutchmen,” or, as they were called, “for the sake of euphony, Damned Dutchmen.” The Chinese were the most curious specimens of humanity. They came in numbers to California, but they were very bad workmen, working but little, and inefficiently. They had to put up with very inferior diggings, and could be hired for a dollar a-day when other labourers cost five dollars. They contributed very little to the wealth of the country, and formed a community amongst themselves, which had little to do with the rest of society. Many of the richer Chinese had apparently a mysterious influence over their poorer brethren, by means of which, in the midst of all the temptations of freedom and high wages, they contrived to assert and maintain rights over their labour which existed among no other class in the diggings.
The legal institutions of the diggings were very singular. Judge Lynch sat at nisi prius as well as in the Crown Court. When a difficulty arose about any rights in relation to watercourses, boundaries, &c., a jury was summoned, which decided at once and without appeal, both on the fact and the law; and if new laws were wanted, a meeting was called, which voted them at once. We should recommend Mr. Ewart and those who agree with him in doubting the efficacy of the punishment of death, to study Mr. Borthwick's evidence on the subject. He says that nothing had such an effect on the ruffians—the very élite of the scoundrelism of the world—who filled California, as the prospect of instant death in case of their detection in any considerable crime; and he speaks in the strongest terms of approval of the influence of Lynch-law in general, and the proceedings of the Vigilance Committee in particular.
Great part of Mr. Borthwick's book is taken up by notes of a tour through various parts of the mining districts. His experiences are extremely amusing, but there is a certain uniformity about them. Everywhere he found rough shanties for inns, in which were the wildest of all conceivable guests. There were soldiers who had served under General Scott—bear-hunters, whose wrath, and probably their revolvers also, were only averted from sceptics by the apology, “I wasn't laafin' at you, I was laafin' at the bar”—German doctors, who prided themselves in out Heroding Herod in the matter of dirt and raggedness—wandering conjurors, and as many nondescripts as would have filled Noah's Ark. Mr. Borthwick was also present at a fight between a bull and a bear, and at a bull-fight proper got up by the Mexicans. His book ends with a description of San Francisco as it appeared when he left it. It was then quite a different city from what it had been a short time before (Mr. Borthwick is rather sparing of his dates). It had increased with wonderful rapidity, and had become, comparatively speaking, a civilized and orderly place.
Mr. Borthwick seems to be constitutionally disposed to look at the bright side of things, and gives a far more favourable account of the population and general condition of California than the common opinions upon the subject would have led us to anticipate. He appears to have liked the climate and the occupation, and to have found that the state of society was highly favourable to the free development of whatever sterling virtues a man might possess.
Saturday Review, March 7, 1857.