GRANDMA BASCOM'S STORY
OF SAN JOSÉ IN '49
by M.H. Field
Source: Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine, Volume 9, No. 53, May 1887, pp. 543-551
"Run, honey, run for the cup of water," she said to one of the children; and then to us, "Come right in and rest a bit, won't you? It's powerful hot this morning. Do come and sit in the porch a little while, anyway. My! What a white baby! Let me take him while you get out," and she stretched her kind little grandmotherly arms towards him as if of course her invitation would be accepted. It was with real regret that her hospitality was declined, but she did not seem in the least repulsed.
"You haven't been in California, long, I reckon, or the baby would have more color in his pore little face," she went on, as he eagerly drank the water she handed him.
"Now, Annie, run and bring the pore dear a cup of milk, right off the top of the pan - cream will do him good - bring a cookie, too, Annie."
She put her checked gingham apron over her head for a sunshade, and passed the cup of creamy milk to the baby with, "There, drink that, you pore little Yankee."
"Ah, how good you are! And how sharp at guessing!" I said - my mother heart quite won. "You're from the South, I see."
"Oh, yes. Long and long ago we come from ole Kentuck. We're '49ers. We've seen California grow from its babyhood. I danced at the Annexation ball. Why it was just one great mustard patch from San Francisco to San José, when we came here; while the tears are yet shining in her eyes.
"My life has been the saddest of sad," she says, "and the gayest of gay."
"Why have you not written it?" I ask.
"O child, I've been too busy living it," she answers.
A few mornings since I ensconced Grandma Bascom in our easiest rocking chair, with a hassock under her little feet, and made ready for a whole long day of story telling.
"Yes, chile, yes," she began, "I'll tell you about the days of '49, and days farther back, too. You ask me questions, honey, and when I go rambling off you just call me back, for I am just like an old clock, I keep on striking till there 'aint any sense to it. I never did have much every-day sense anyway."
"Well," I said, "we'll begin then with what made your husband first think of coming to California, when he had such a lartge practive, and you had so much to keep you in your beautiful Kentucky home."
"Oh, it was a book set the Doctor wild about California - a book called 'What I Saw and Part of which I Was,' by Edwin Bryant. He was alcalde of San Francisco, and he wrote the book, and afterward traveled through the East lecturing about California. Doctor's health was poor - he has asthma all the time - and so he began to plan about going. At first I wouldn't hear a word to it. I loved my home and friends so much, and everything on the place was precious to me. My heart always was the biggest part of me; once some of these modern materialists were talking where I could hear 'em, and says I, 'Is body all there is to us, indeed" Well, then, you needn't pretend to think much of me - I haven't any body to speak of, but I've got a soul or there isn't anything to me!' - I loved the pore niggers on our plantation past telling, especially one of 'em - Louise; she was my children's nurse - we had grown up together, and I loved her just like a sister. I couldn't take her with me, for she had husband and children, and yet it seemed as if I couldn't live without her. Still, Doctor kept talking about going, and some of the neighbors and friends began to catch the California fever; but, it seemed so far off! There ain't no place in the workd begins to be as far off now as California was then. It was like going to the moon, and not having any telescope to look back with. I held out a long time that I wouldn't go, and then one night, after Doctor had looked pale and breathed hard for two or three days, I dreamed he was dead. It woke me up, and I sat up in bed and spoke to Doctor. 'I'll go,' I said.
"Why, chile, what are you talking about?" says he.
"'I'll go to California' says I.
"'Well, don't take it back in the morning,' says he.
And I didn't. I just went to work to get ready, but with a breaking heart. We sold our dear home and the poor black people. Of course we saw that they had good masters, but O, the agony of parting! Isn't it a comfort, chile, that when we have such trouble we can pray? For weeks we were packing and saying good-bye. I rode on horseback ten miles over a rought mountain road, alone, to say good-by to a dear sister of charity who had been a governess in my house. When we parted, we just clung to each other and cried, and then I would try to tear myself away but had to go back again and again for one more long embrace.
"It was the ninth of April, 1849, when at last we were ready to go, and there were a hundred in the company, most of them new acquaintances. Doctor's unmarried sister, older than he was, went with us, and nine families from our neighborhood. We had a wagon made in Louisville that cost four hundred dollars. It was as nice as a little house, and we lived in it all the way. We had three other wagons for provisions and stores. Doctor took his books, and surgical instruments, and medicines. Of our servants, just one good man went with us. His name was Willis. He was the most perfect gentleman I ever knew; he was so kind, and unselfish, and helpful, we loved him like a brother. We were to go to Louisville first. It was twenty-five miles away. All the neighbors went with us for miles, turning back one after another when they thought they could go no farther. For four miles we could see our dear house, it stood on such high ground. I kept looking back, like Mrs. Lot, and crying, crying, crying. They said I raised Salt River with my tears, and I don't know but I did. It was like tearing my heart in two.
"The dear Lord has always been uprooting me. He has never let me forget that I was only a pilgrim. It makes the last transplanting very easy - bless His holy name!
"We went on to Lexington, Missouri - that was our real starting place for the great journey. After that, there would be no more houses, nothing but the great plains between us and the Rocky Mountains. At Lexington we met the cholera. It was raging in the town, and we decided to camp a safe distance off, and get our final outfit of mules and oxen. Doctor bought four cows, so that we should have milk all the way. We had everything that could be thought of, and we tried to take every precaution about cholera; but it broke out in our camp after we started. Our dear old sister was sick just four hours and died. There came on a fearful rain storm. Willis got wet trying to help a poor family who could not keep up with us, and he died the same night. No words can tell our grief and desolation. No one else in our company died, but many were very sick. Our little Ray, three years old, nearly died. There were other poor sufferers like ourselves. We passed forty new made graves in the first two weeks of our journey.
"One trouble followed another - ain't it a mercy, child, that they don't all come together? After the cholera left us, I was taken down with erysipelas. I lay very sick for seven weeks; I lost all my hair and all my skin, but I lived through. So did my little Henry, who was as sick as I was. Ah! those hard times brought out the good side of human nature! We were all like one family. We just took care of each other and shared everything. Threre were nine babies under a year old in the company; everybody was willing to tend baby. Most of the children were well and good-natured. They had a good time, plenty to eat, and none of the cares and worries. My children were the most delicate of all, and they grew fat and improved all the way. There was a Mr. Phillips in the company who helped me wonderfully with the children. Laws, honey, a man can beat a woman taking care of babies, if only he is willing!
"It wasn't all sickness and trouble, however. We had a great deal of pleasure. We were all young enough to be full of hope and courage, and there was always something to laugh at. There was one maiden lady in the company, with her two brothers. She was determined to keep up her particular home ways. She had fifteen flower pots with house plants when we started, but she had to part with them in the desert. She had a looking glass and used it as regular a if she had been at home; we were all glad to borrow Miss Rebecca's looking glass sometimes - only I was such a fright, I hated the sight of myself. Miss Rebecca had a broom also, and whenever we camped she always swept a place and put down a piece of rag carpet. She would set her table regularly, and carried all the way her grandmother's silver tankard, with which she decorated her table. If there was a flower to be found, or even a bunch of grass, she always had a bouquet in that tankard. We all liked Miss Rebecca, and yet we nearly died laughing at her. My heart was broken with partings and sickness; death and danger encompassed us on every hand, but I could always see the rediculous side of things. So my life has been as I told you, very sad and very gay."
"We had books and games, and we traveled along very slowly from half a mile to nine miles a day. There was always an abundance of food, for Doctor was a good provider and had laid in ample stores of flour, bacon, beans, rice, sugar, jellies, and dried fruit. I learned how to cook and had all sorts of experiences. Once I made a plum pudding and tried to serve it with brandy flaming over it, as I had seen it done so often in by-gone days; somehow, I got my face too near, and the flame singed off my eyebrows. After that I was a beautiful object to behold, without either hair or eyebrows. I had no further use for Miss Rebecca's looking glass.
"There were some very droll people in the company. One lady's name was Eliza, and her husband always called her 'Eliza, deary, lovey, honey.' The effect was very funny. They had a duaghter named Josephina Edwina; I never was too sick or too sad to laugh over this sentimental name with all the lovey dovey attachments.
"A party of four men who were riding on horseback joined our company when we were on the plains. I overheard one of them say one night, 'Sir, I am a true laborer, earn that I eat, get that I wear.' So I called out,
"Who is quoting Shakespeare out here in the wilderness?'
"'What woman can there be out here who knows Shakespeare when she hears it?' said he. So after that we were great friends. He had once been a college professor in Edinburgh, Schotland, very learned in everything, and could talk seven languages, yet here he was jogging along to California on an old mule and looking like a scarecrow. His name was Jack Somerville. We always called him Professor Jack. He was the best and kindest of friends to us and our children for twelve long years. He came with us as far as the Sierras, and then went to the mines, but got sick there, and Doctor found him afterward in a hospital in San Francisco. He came with us then to San José and lived under our roof for a dozen years - poor fellow, if only he could have only let whickey alone! We named our dear California home 'Somerville Lodge' for him. It seems as if we could hardly have got across the plains without Professor Jack.
"Then there was the oldest man in the caravan, our own old neighbor, Uncle Wesley Dodson. We couldn't have got along without him. He could read the Bible and pray just like a regular preacher, and he led the meeting on Sunday - we always stopped and rested on Sundays; it was good for man and beast. We had funerals, too, when Uncle Wesley's tremulous voice sounded wonderful comforting. He was eighty years old almost, and his wife nearly seventy-five. They came to Califronia with their only son so as to stay by him. In the Black Hills a man strayed away from the company and was lost for four days. When he came back he was sick from eating wild berries; and in spite of all we could do for him he died. They buried him at night under a tree a little ways off from the road, and it was a solemn and wierd thing to see the funeral procession with old Uncle Wesley at the head, moving off in the moonlight. I shall never forget it. Early in the morning we had to be on our way. We could not wait for death or birth - yes, we had a birth, too. Poor 'Eliza, dearly, lovey, honey' had twin baby boys before we reached our journey's end. Mother and children got along well. It was just like the journey of life, ups and downs, sun and shade, birth and death.
"We crossed the Platte River on rafts. The water was high, and it was very dangerous, but while we were trembling for our lives, one old lady set up a terrible hue and cry about her best cap, her precious cap, which she was sure would be washed away down stream in its bandbox. One would have thought it was a child she was afraid of losing, to hear her scram. The cap was saved by heroic effort.
"The most frightful thing that happened to our own little flock was my poor little Dora's getting burned. There was some powder in a box that the men used to light fires with, and somehow a little boy dropped a lighted match in it. Little four year old Dora was standing watching him, and her face took the whole blaze. It was horrible - her agony and mine. Doctor was a mile back, but he heard our screams and came like lightning. At first it looked as if both her eyes wer put out, but we did up her face in cotton batting soaked in sweet-oil, and never took it off for three weeks. All that time we never knew whether her sight was gone or not. For three days and nights I neither ate nor slept, but just soothed the poor child as best I could. When the three weeks were gone, Doctor was going to take off the cotton, and I ran away and covered my eyes - I couldn't bear to look on. All at once I heard him say in a loud, cheerful voice, 'You can?', and I knew all was well. I hollered hallelujah then, like a darkey in camp meeting!
"We had a water barrel and never suffered with thirst but once; that was when we lost our barrel. Doctor gave a dollar for a pint of water that day.
"We came through the South Pass in the Rocky Mountains on the ninth of July, and I made ice-cream for the whole crowd of women and children, for we found a bed of ice in a sheltered place.
"At Chico we divided. Part of our company went to the mines. It was almost like the Kentucky parting. Some of our roughest traveling was in getting from Chico to Sacramento. We reached Sacramento the last day of October. Then we took a boat for San Francisco. Our fare was $132.00, and we were eight days getting to San Francisco. It rained and rained. I remember at Benicia we paid a dollar and a half for a candle. At San Francisco we had hoped to find a house all ready to be put together, which Doctor had bought in New York and ordered sent round the Horn. He had also sent in the same cargo a great lot of furniture and a year's supply of provisions, but they never came till the next April and then everything was spoiled but the house. We had also bought in San Francisco, through Mr. Bryant, two lots at $1700.00 each. The best we could do was to camp on them. The first night in San Francisco Mr. Bryant came to take supper with us, and Doctor to celebrate bought five dollars worth of potatoes. We ate them all for supper, and didn't eat so very many either!
"We had intended from the first to come to the Santa Clara Valley, for Doctor said wherever the Catholic Fathers had picked out a site must be a good location. The children and I stayed in the city while Doctor came on horseback to San José and bought a house for us. Then he came back and we started for San José with Professor Jack, while doctor stayed in the city to buy and ship furniture and provisions to us. We came to Alviso in the boat and paid another hundred and fifty-two dollars in fare just form me and the children. From Alviso we came to San José by the Pioneer Stage, through fearful mud and pouring rain, paying an 'ounce' each for fare. On the boat I got acquainted with two nice gentlemen, both ministers, whose names were Blakeslee and Brierley. They two were coming to San José, also a Mr. Knox.
"'We haven't any place to lay our heads when we get there,' one of them said.
"'Well, I've got a house,' said I, just as if I was in Kentucky, 'and if you can put up with what I'll have to, you can come with me and welcome.' So we were all driven right to my house on the corner of Second and San Fernando Streets. It was just dark and the tenth of December. The house had been bought of a Mrs. Matthews and she was still in the house. Doctor had paid $7000 for the house and two fifty vara lots. I expected to see at least a decent shelter; but O my! honey, it was just as one of the children said, 'most as good as our old Kentucky corn crib.' It had two rooms and a loft, which was climbed into by a kind of ladder. The roof was of shakes and let the rain right through, and the floor was of planks laid down with the smooth side up, and great cracks between that let the water run out - I was thankful for that! There was a chimney in the house, and fire place, but hardly a bit of fire, nor any wood. It was rather a forlorn place to come to and to bring visitors to, now wasn't it? Yet we had been through so much that the poorest shelter looked good to me, and besides it was our new home. We must make the best of it. Mrs. Matthews had a good supper for us on a table spread with a white cloth, and the children were overjoyed to see a real tablecloth once more.
"'Will you tell me where I can get some wood?' I said to Mrs. Matthews, thinking that a fire would be the best possible thing for us all.
"'You can buy a burro load in the morning," she answered. "I've used the last bit to get supper with." Well, the end of it was we took our supper and went to bed - not on our nice Kentucky feather beds, but on buffalo skins spread on the floor, and without any pillows. Mr. Knox and Mr. Blakeslee and Mr. Brierly climbed up into the loft and turned in as best they could. Mr. Knox was sick, too, but I could not even give him a cup of hot tea. I said to Mrs. Matthews that I wished I could heat a stone to put to his feet.
'Stone?' said she. 'There are no stones in this country.'
"We slept as if we were on downy beds, we were all so tired. The next morning I bough a burro load of wood for an 'ounce.' Everything cost an 'ounce.' I soon got used to it. Meat was seventy-five cents a pound. Butter a dollar a pound. Eggs three dollars a dozen. A chiken cost three dollars. Milk a dollar a quart. But their prices matched all around. Doctors charged five dollars for drawing a tooth, and other things in proportion. I don't know as it made any difference.
"I divided my mansion into four rooms, with curtains. Doctor came and brought us furniture and all the comforts money would buy. He paid $500 to get shingles on our roof. Mr. Blakeslee and Mr. Briarly stayed with us. We all seemed to get on well together. It was not till spring that Doctor found a black man who could cook. He paid $800 for him. Folks said he wouldn't stay - for, of course, he was free in California - but he did. He lived with us for four years. People began to ask if they couldn't stay with us for just a few days till they found some other home; and then somehow they stayed on. Everybody had to be hospitable. The legislature was in session, and the town was more than full. The first thing I knew I had thirteen boarders - senators, and representatives, and ministers, and teachers. Nobody who came would go away. I could always manage to make people feel at home, and they would all say that they would put up with anything, and help in all sorts of ways, if I would only let them stay.
It was as good as a play to see them help me. Mr. Leek (he was the enrolling clerk in the legislature) was a wonderful hand to make batter-cakes. We got up a reputation on batter-cakes, and our house was dubbed 'Slabjack Hall' by my boy Al. It stuck to us. Mr. Bradford, from Indiana, could brown coffee to perfection. Mr. Orr and Mr. McMullen always bought all the water; they were senators. I used to think they liked the job because there was a pretty girl in the house where they got the water. And that reminds me, several families got water from the same well. It was just a hole in the ground, about eight or ten feet deep, and no curb around it. Once a baby was creeping round on the ground, and fell into it. The mother saw it, and ran and jumped in after it. Then she scramed, and I ran out. There she was in the well, holding the baby upside down to get the water out of its lungs!
"'Throw me a rope!' she screamed, and I ran for a rope. Then she tied it around the baby and I drew it up. Meanwhile our cries brought men to the rescue, and they drew up the poor woman. We tried to keep the well covered over after that.
"It seemed impossible to get a cook. We even had a woman come down from San Francisco, but she didn't stay when she found we really expected her to cook. She said she was a niece of Amos Kendall's and wasn't going to cook for anybody. Professor Jack helped me steadily, and, as I said, everybody lent a hand. We had a very gay time over our meals, and everyboby [sic.] was willing to wash dishes and tend bady [sic.]. I used to go up to the legislature, and enjoy the fun there as much as they enjoyed my housekeeping.
The March of that winter was something to remember. People used to get swamped on the corner of First and Santa Clara streets. A little boy was drowned there. It was a regular trap for children.
"Oh, did I tell you I built the first church and the first schoolhouse in San José? I did. I built it all alone, with my own hands, and the only tool I had was a good stout needle! It was the famous 'Blue Tent' you have heard of. Mr. Blakeslee asked me if I could make it, and I told him of course I could. He bought the cloth and cut it out. It was of blue jean, and cost seventy-five cents a yard. The Presbyterian Church was organized in it, and Mr. Blakeslee had a school in it all winter.
"We had a good deal of party going, and gave entertainments, just as if we had elegant houses and all the conveniences. The Spanish people were some of them extemely stylish. The ladies had dresses as rich as silk and embroidery could make them, and in their long, low adobe houses there were rich carpets and silk curtains trimmed with gold lace. I went to the first wedding in one of these houses. Miss Pice married a Mr. Campbell. It was very grand, but the odd dresses and the odd dishes upset my dignity more than once.
"Governor and Mrs. McDougall lived in an adobe house on Market Street and they had a grand party there. I had a party too one day, and asked all the ladies of my acquaintance. Mrs. Brannon had given me six eggs, and I made an elegant cake, which I was going to pass around in fine style. I began with passing it to one of the Spanish ladies, and she took the whole cake at one swoop, wrapped it up in the skirt of her gorgeous silk dress, and said, "Mucha gracias.' I was never so surprised in my life, but there was nothing I could do. The rest of us had to go without cake that time.
"Cattle and horses ran about the streets, and there were no sidewalks. We had to just pick our way round as best we could. In the spring my piano came. It was sent by way of the Isthmus. It was the first piano in San José. It made a great sensation. Everybody came to see it and hear my little girl play. Indians and Spanish used to crowd around the doors and windows to hear the wonderful music, and many a white man too lingered and listened, because it reminded him of home. We moved into a better house in the spring, very near where the Methodist Church South now stands. We paid one hundred and twenty-five dollars a month for it. But when I look back it seems to me that I never had such an intellectual feast as in old 'Slapjack Hall.' The gentlemen who figured as cooks in my kitchen were the most intelligent and agreeable men you can imagine. They were all educated and smart, and they appeared just as much like gentlemen when they were cooking as when they were making speeches in the ligislature. I don't believe we ever again had such a choice set of folks under our roof here in San José. Doctor and I felt honored to entertain them, and yet they paid us twenty dollars a week for the privilege.
"Of course you know Gen. Frémont and his wife were here that winter, and I knew them both. Mrs. Frémont's sister, Mrs. Jones, and I were great friends. Yes, indeed, there never were finer people than my boarders and neighbors in '49. Let me see; there were the Cooks and Hoppes, and Cobbs and Joneses, the Brannans and Beldens, and Hensleys and Williams, the Braleys, the Hesters and Crosbys, Murphys, Dickinsons, Hendersons, Kingcaids, Campbells, Reeds, Houghtons, Tafts and Moodys. Then amongst the Spanish there were the Picos and the Suñols. Very likely I've forgotten a great many, just telling them off in this fashion, but I never forget them really. Many of the best citizens of San José now, with wives and children, yes, and grandchildren, were slim young fellows then, who had come to California to seek their fortunes. Fine, enterprising boys they were too. Some of them boarded with me. C.T. Ryland and P.O. Miner were inmates of "Slap-jack Hall," and Doctor Corey and the Reeds will remember it well.
"In 1852 we moved out on the Stockton Ranch, and bought our own farm in Santa Clara, on which we built our permanent home, 'Somerville Lodge;' I remember we paid our head carpenter sixteen dollars a day. The house cost us $10,000. It would not cost one thousand now. We bought seeds to plant a garden, and an ounce of onion seed cost an ounce of gold! We paid six dollars each for our fruit trees. A mule cost $300, a horse $400. But Doctor's services were just as high-priced, so we kept even.
"I was dreadfully homesick for two years, but the country improved very fast. The flowers and fruits were a continual source of wonder and pleasure, and I was too busy to be unhappy. Doctor's health was much better, and that alone was enough to pay us for the change.
"As I go about our broad, fine streets now, and see the grand houses and public buidings, I think of the old days of adobe houses and frog ponds, and I remember how much pleasure people took then in spite of discomforts, and I see how much worry and trouble they have now in spite of all the comforts, and I say happiness doesn't come from outside things, no, nor misery either. It is a matter of sprit, chile, now isn't it?
honey, did you want to ask me any questions? I declare I haven't
given you a single chance!"