Site  by Lynne Landwehr © 2004






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First-Person Historical Narratives:

From Edwin Bryant's
What I Saw in California,
Being the Journal of a Tour
...in the Years 1846, 1847
(published 1848)

[Note: Before his tour of duty with Fremont in California, Edwin Bryant was a journalist in the East.  His training and experience as a reporter are reflected in his vivid observations of a turbulent time in the state's history.] 

Excerpt from Chapter XXXI

December 14 [from San Miguel to San Luis Obispo]—The battalion commenced its march on foot and in a heavy rain.  The mud is very deep, and we have been compelled to wade several streams of considerable depth, being swollen by the recent rains.  At one o’clock a halt was ordered, and beef slaughtered and cooked for dinner.  The march was resumed late in the afternoon, and the plain surrounding the mission of San Luis Obispo was reached in the pitchy darkness of the night, a family in the cañada having been taken prisoners by the advance party to prevent them giving the alarm.  The battalion was so disposed as to surround the mission and take prisoners all contained within it.  The place was entered in great confusion, on account of the darkness, about nine o’clock.  There was no military force at the mission, and the few inhabitants were greatly alarmed, as may well be supposed, by this sudden invasion.  They made no resistance, and were all taken prisoners except one or two, who managed to escape and fled in great terror, no one knew where or how.  It being ascertained that Tortoria Pico, a man who has figured conspicuously in most of the Californian revolutions, was in the neighborhood, a party was dispatched immediately to the place, and he was brought in a prisoner.  The night was rainy and boisterous, and the soldiers were quartered to the best advantage in the miserable mud houses, and no acts of violence or outrage of any kind were committed.

The men composing the California battalion, as I have before stated, have been drawn from many sources, and are roughly clad, and weather-beaten in their exterior appearance; but I feel it but justice here to state my belief, that no military party ever passed through an enemy’s country and observed the same strict regard for the rights of its population.  I never heard of an outrage, or even a trespass, being committed by one of the American volunteers during our entire march.  Every American appeared to understand perfectly the duty which he owed to himself and others in this respect, and the deportment of the battalion might be cited as a model for imitation.  Distance 18 miles.

Chapter XXXII

Tremendous Rain; Mission of San Luis Obispo; Gardens; Various fruits; Farm; Cactus Tuna; Calinche; Pumpkins; Trial of Tortoria Pico; Procession of women; Pico’s pardon; Leave San Luis; Surf of the Pacific; Captain Dana; Tempestuous night

December 15—The rain fell in cataracts the entire day.  The small streams which flow from the mountains through, and water the valley of, San Luis Obispo, are swollen by the deluge of water from the clouds into foaming unfordable torrents.  In order not to trespass upon the population at the mission, in their miserable abodes of mud, the church was opened, and a large number of the soldiers were quartered in it.

A guard, however, was set day and night, over the chancel and all other property contained in the building, to prevent its being injured or disturbed.  The decorations of the church are much the same as I have before described.  The edifice is large, and the interior in good repair.  The floor is paved with square bricks.  I noticed a common hand-organ in the church, which played the airs we usually hear from organ-grinders in the street.  

Besides the main large buildings  connected with the church, there are standing, and partially occupied, several small squares of adobe houses, belonging to this mission.  The heaps of mud and crumbling walls outside of these, are evidence that the place was once of much greater extent, and probably one of the most opulent and prosperous establishments of the kind in the country.  The lands surrounding the mission are finely situated for cultivation and irrigation if necessary.  There are several large gardens, enclosed by high and substantial walls, which now contain a great variety of fruit-trees and shrubbery.  I noticed the orange, fig, palm, olive, and grape.  There are also large enclosures hedged in by the prickly-pear (cactus), which grows to an enormous size, and makes an impervious barrier against man or beast.  The stalks of some of these plants are of the thickness of a man’s body, and grow to the height of fifteen feet.  A juicy fruit is produced by the prickly-pear, named tuna, from which a beverage is sometimes made called calinche.  It has a pleasant flavor, as has also the fruit, which, when ripe, is blood-red.  A small quantity of pounded wheat was found here, which, being purchased, was served out to the troops, about a pound to the man.  Frijoles and pumpkins were also obtained, delicacies of no common order.

December 16:  A court-martial was convened this morning for the trial of Pico, the principal prisoner, on the charge, I understood, of the forfeiture of his parole which had been taken on a former occasion.  The sentence of the court was, that he should be shot or hung, I do not know which.  A rumor is current among the population here, that there has been an engagement between a party of Americans and Californians, near Los Angeles, in which the former were defeated with the loss of thirty men killed.

December 17:  Cool, with a hazy sky.  While standing in one of the corridors this morning, a procession of females passed by me, headed by a lady of fine appearance and dressed with remarkable taste and neatness, compared with those who followed her.  Their rebosos concealed the faces of most of them, except the leader, whose beautiful features, I dare say, she thought (and justly) required no concealment.  They proceeded to the quarters of Colonel Fremont, and their object, I understood, was to petition for the reprieve or pardon of Pico, who had been condemned to death by the court-martial yesterday.  Their intercession was successful, as no execution took place, and in a short time all the prisoners were discharged, and the order to saddle up and march given.  We resumed our march at ten o’clock, and encamped just before sunset in a small but picturesque and fertile valley timbered with oak, so near the coast that the roar of the surf breaking against the shore could be heard distinctly.  Distance, 7 miles.

December 18:  Clear, with a delightful temperature.  Before the sun rose, the grass was covered with a white frost.  The day throughout has been calm and beautiful.  A march of four miles brought us to the shore of a small indentation in the coast of the pacific, where vessels can anchor, and boats can land when the wind is not too fresh.  The surf is now rolling and foaming with prodigious energy—breaking upon the beach in long lines one behind the other, and striking the shore like cataracts.  The hills and plains are verdant with a carpet of fresh grass, and the scattered live-oaks on all sides appearing like orchards of fruit-trees, give to the country an old and cultivated aspect.  The mountains bench away on our left, the low hills rising in gentle conical forms, beyond which are the more elevated and precipitous peaks covered with snow.  We encamped about three o’clock near the rancho of Captain Dana, in a large and handsome valley well watered by an arroyo.

Captain Dana is a native of Massachusetts, and has resided in this country about thirty years.  He is known and esteemed throughout California for his intelligence and private virtues, and his unbounded generosity and hospitality.  I purchased here a few loaves of wheat bread, and distributed them among the men belonging to our company as far as they would go, a luxury which they have not indulged in since the commencement of the march.  Distance 15 miles.

December 19:  The night was cold and tempestuous, with a slight fall of rain.  The clouds broke away after sunrise, and the day became warm and pleasant.  We continued our march up the valley and encamped near its head.  The table-land and hills are generally gravelly, but appear to be productive of fine grass.  The soil of the bottom is of the richest and most productive composition.  We crossed in the course of the day a wide flat plain, upon which were grazing large herds of broodmares (manadas) and cattle.  In the distance, they resembled large armies approaching us.  The peaks of the elevated mountains in sight are covered with snow.  A large number of horses gave out, strayed, and were left behind to-day, estimated at one hundred.  The men came into camp brining their saddles on their backs, and some of them arriving late in the evening.  Distance 18 miles.

December 20:  Parties were sent back this morning to gather up horses and baggage left on the march yesterday, and it was one o’clock before the rear-guard, waiting for the return of those, left camp.  The main body made a short march and encamped early, in a small hollow near the rancho of Mr. Faxon [Foxen], through which flows an arroyo, the surrounding hills being timbered with evergreen oaks.  The men amused themselves during the afternoon in target-shooting.  Many of the battalion are fine marksmen with the rifle, and the average of shots could not easily be surpassed.  The camp spread over an undulating surface of half a mile in diameter, and at night, when the fires were lighted, illuminating the grove, with its drapery of drooping Spanish moss, it presented a most picturesque appearance.  Distance 3 miles.


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