Site  by Lynne Landwehr © 2001







From William H. Brewer's
Up and Down California
in 1860-64,

edited by Francis P. Farquhar.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966

[Note: The Whitney Geological Survey was mandated in 1860 by California legislation which called for "an accurate and complete Geological Survey of the State...proper maps and diagrams thereof, with a full and scientific description of its rocks, fossils, soils, and minerals, and of its botanical and zoological productions, together with specimens of the same."  

William H. Brewer was teaching agriculture and applied chemistry at Washington College in Pennsylvania when California State Geologist Josiah Dwight Whitney invited him to join the survey team.  During his four years in California applied his considerable powers of observation and analysis, and sent meticulous letters back to his brother Edgar on the East coast, detailing his observations and experiences.  These are the letters which form Brewer's "journal,"  and which 140 years later provide a firsthand glimpse of California in its still-early days.  

In his preface to the journal's 1930 edition, Editor Francis P. Farquhar wrote "In the many years since the field party of the California State Geological Survey set out with its mules and wagons over dusty roads and incredibly steep grades, enormous changes have come upon some portions of the scene.  Where these changes have obliterated all traces of earlier conditions, Brewer's vivid descriptions will serve to summon a vision of the past with all its picturesqueness and romance.  But there are some spots, a little off the main highways, where, even today, the reader of these letters will have little difficulty in identifying the landmarks and where he may, if he chooses, tread in the very footsteps of Brewer...and the other bearded and sunburned men whose story is told in these pages."  Those today who wish to tread the Coast Road through San Luis Obispo County in 1861 have only to turn to Chapter VI of the Berkeley edition of Brewer's journal.]

  Excerpt from Chapter VI

THE COAST ROAD:  Foxen's Ranch, A Wagon Wreck, San Luis Obispo, The Santa Lucia Mountains, On "The State of the Union."

 "Camp No. 24, Nipomo Ranch,
  Wednesday, April 10, [1861] 

"Monday, we went on to Camp No. 23, at Foxen's Ranch, about twelve miles. Foxen is an old Englishman who came to America a mere boy--came as a sailor to the western coast, was hunter and trapper, then married a Spanish wife and settled on a ranch. He has been in California over forty years. He was decidedly an original character. 

"We camped near his house, for there is only water at the ranches, at intervals of six to ten miles on an average. The hills we passed among during the day's ride were covered with pasture, or grass, with a great profusion of flowers. Sometimes we went along a valley with fine scattered trees. But the road was worse and our erring wagon wheel once more began to show signs of weakness and Pete mended it again with thongs of rawhide. I examined the region around and found many fossils, among them a portion of a fossil whale, dug up at the ranch, the bones very stony.  

"Tuesday, April 9, we came on here, to Nipomo Ranch, about twenty-two miles. Our road first wound through some valleys, then struck into the valley of Santa Maria River. This river is now entirely dry, not a drop of water, its valley a perfectly level plain, with the exception of an occasional terrace or old riverbank, about six or eight miles wide. We struck down and across this valley about ten or twelve miles, a most tedious ride. We were dry, but no water was met with for the twenty-two miles traveled except a sink-hole with stagnant, alkaline, dirty, stinking water. Our lunch of dry bread and drier cheese, which we ate as we rode along, was hardly "sumptuous."

"The ride was very tedious as we wound our slow way over the plains, here a drifting sand, there a partial pasture. Nothing relieved the eye; the senses tired with the level scene. The profusion of flowers, beautiful elsewhere, now tired us with their abundance and their sameness; wind filled the air with gray dust, sometimes shutting out the sight of the hills like drifting snow. Lovely green hills lay on each side at the distance of a few miles. Many cattle and horses were feeding on the hills or on the plain. Water every four to six miles in the side canyons was sufficient for them. They seemed mere specks on the plain--a herd of a thousand like a few flies on the floor.  This valley runs to the sea, and in that direction a mirage kept ahead of us in the hot air--a very good appearance of water, but not nearly so perfect as I saw on the plains in Bavaria.  

"How we hailed the first tree of shade we came to, a fine sycamore on the dry riverbank, with fine shade--the first we had seen for fourteen miles. We stopped a few minutes, then pushed on, crossed the dry bed of sand half a mile or more wide, and struck up a side canyon about two miles, to water, at this ranch. To be sure, the water is alkaline and stinks from the droppings of the many animals, but made into tea it is drinkable, and we can stand it if those who live here can. They, however, have a "spring," so called--a hole dug in the bank half a mile or more from here, where the water is cleaner. Bad water has affected the bowels of most of the party except me--I escape any material bad effects.  

"Today, Averill and I have been over the hills near here, exploring the geology  and botany, quite a ride and walk. We came once on a large coyote, or wolf, and got a pistol shot at him but did not hit him. He was a big fellow, and two more were seen near camp by the other men. A snake five or more feet long, but harmless, was killed near our tent just at dark.  

"I forgot to mention that I killed a rattlesnake at Camp 22. He was within a rod or two of the tent, a small one, of another species from the first. There are several species of rattlesnakes found in this state, but all are dangerous. This fellow had fangs sharp as needles. We examined them. When not irritated they are covered with skin, like the claw of a cat, but are erected when required for use. This fellow, like the last, did not show fight until after he was attacked.


"Camp No. 26, near San Luis Obispo.
  Sunday Morning, April 14.  

"We were at Nipomo Ranch when I last wrote. Thursday, April 11, we came on. After leaving Santa Barbara County the roads were again horrible--no road in fact, but a mere trail, like a cow path, hardly marked by the track of wheels, and often very obscure. We crossed gulches down almost straight on one side, then "ker-chug" in the bottom, then up as steep on the other. 

"Our wagon is like the Overland stages, square covered body, hung on straps or "thorough-braces," as they are called. It is too light for our purpose, although it stood the road, but that weak wheel groaned and complained at times, notwithstanding its rawhide supports. 

"We wound among hills, and at last at the Arroyo Grande, had a bad hill to descend. We had come a longer road because the "hill was easier" this way. Well, we got to the "easy" hill. It was about five or six hundred feet high, the sides at an angle of about thirty degrees, down which the road ran in "crooks"--now one side up, now the other. No work had been expended on it, so it was always very sidling, and very steep at the same time.  

"We chained both hind wheels, and for a time all went well. We had descended about one-third of the way, sliding, slipping, dragging, when, quick as a flash, over went the whole concern. Pete and Mike escaped from under the pile by a miracle of agility that would astonish a circus performer. Such a pile! The wagon caught when completely upside down, the wheels high in the air. The mules were tangled in the harness, one on his back, his mate standing over and astride him. One of  the wild leaders got loose, and was lassoed by Guirado a mile distant.

"We got up the mule, then attended to the wagon. I never before unloaded a load  from the bottom--carpetbags, instruments, tools, provisions, tent-ropes, botanical papers, etc. Two or three large boxes had been filled with rocks and fossils, each specimen carefully wrapped in paper and packed, now in one promiscuous pile. Frying pans, pails, basins, soap, etc., completed the picture.

"Michael had, at last camp, providently boiled a huge dish of applesauce for our supper that night. It, too, played its part in the confusion, and sundry very suggestive looking spots as a consequence adorned our carpetbags and furniture generally….

 "We unloaded, turned the wagon up again, found the top a total wreck with no insurance, but no other serious damage, loaded up a half, and camped at the foot of the hill on a pretty, grassy bottom by the finest stream of water we had seen for some time. After dark we sat by our cheerful fire and talked over the adventures of the day and laughed at our mishaps, troublesome though they were. I had the curiosity to go back to the hill the next day, when we packed down on our backs a part of the baggage, the wagon top, etc., and measured the angle. In one place for some distance the road descended at an angle of twenty-nine degrees ! Yet this is the "better" road to San Luis Obispo.

"Friday, April 12, I sent the wagon on here with a part of the load, about twelve miles. Mike and I remained. The wagon returned and we came on yesterday afternoon. The camp was in a pretty spot, on Mr. Branch's ranch. He is an American and has a ranch of eighty thousand acres , well stocked with many thousand choice cattle and horses, comparatively well watered, and fertile.  I explored the region around and called on him at his house. He lives quite stylishly for this county--that is, about half as well as a man would at home who owned a hundred-acre farm paid for.  

"The advance camp carried the tent, so Mike and I had to take the open air. Rolled in our blankets on the green sod, the stars above in the clearest sky, we slept better than if beds of down supported us and a canopy of silk covered us. I love to watch the stars in the open air as I go to sleep, and see them greet me if I awaken in the night. But the nights are cold here under this clear sky.

"The thermometer sinks generally forty or fifty degrees lower than it was by day--90 in the shade in the afternoon, and 38 or 40 at night. As a consequence, dew falls, very heavy, almost like rain, which is the most serious drawback in sleeping out. We put an India rubber or oilcloth over us, and the water flows from this like rain, yet it is not so bad as you would think.  

"We are camped about two miles from San Luis Obispo, and will remain here two or three weeks.  

"My health is excellent. The chaparral was so bad for pants that I bought three buckskins. Peter "smoked" them as the Indians do, and from them I have made a splendid pair of pants, which defy chaparral, are healthy for rattlesnakes and tarantulas, and please me much every way, except that they are not particularly ornamental--in fact, I would hardly attend a party East in them. The hot sun has given the color of well-smoked ham to my hands and face; my hair nearly came out, so I have it cut short, the longest scarcely half an inch long….  

"Camp at San Luis Obispo
   April 23. 

"San Luis Obispo town lies in a beautiful, green, grassy valley, about nine miles from the sea. A ridge of the Coast Range lies to the north, a continuous ridge, about three thousand feet high, with a single pass through it near town. The pass is about 1,500 or 1,800 feet high. This valley is more like a plain, from four to six miles wide and fifteen or twenty long, running northwest to the ocean. A range of hills lies to the south, separating it from the sea in that direction.

 "Through this plain rise many sharp peaks or "buttes"--rocky, conical, very steep hills, from a few feet to two thousand feet, mostly of volcanic origin, directly or indirectly. These buttes are a peculiar feature, their sharp, rugged outlines standing so clear against the sky, their sides sloping from thirty to fifty degrees, often with an average slope of forty to forty-five degrees! One near camp is beautifully rounded, about eight or nine hundred feet high, and perfectly green--scarcely a rock mars its beauty, yet the rock comes to the surface in many places. A string of these buttes, more than twenty in number, some almost as sharp as a steeple, extend in a line northwest to the sea, about twenty miles distant, one standing in the sea, the Morro Rock, rising like a pyramid from the waters. "We arrived on Saturday, April 13, in the afternoon. Sunday I remained in camp until the afternoon, when I went into town, about two miles.  The old church is much like the other missions, except that the ceiling is made of short but wide split boards, and these are alternately painted in different bright colors, probably an Indian fancy, but by no means pleasing to the taste of Americans. The town looks more South American or Spanish than even the others we have seen. It is a small, miserable place.

MissonSLOforCuestaParkArticle.jpg (249082 bytes) 

Mission San Luis Obispo as shown in
the October 1871
Overland Monthly,
ten years after Brewer's trip through the County.

 "Monday, April 15, we climbed a butte east of town, 1,200 to 1,500 feet high. A most lovely view we had from the top. The mountains to the north were covered with clouds at their summits, but their green sides, the great green plain to the south and west at our feet, the curious old town, the rugged buttes rising from this plain, the winding streams in it, all aided in making a lovely picture. A range of hills along the coast terminated the valley, but we were higher than they and could see the ocean beyond, covered with a fog near its surface, white, and tossed by the wind into huge billows.  

"That night fog again settled over the plain, as indeed it did every night during the week, but the fog cleared up sometime during the forenoon. The nights, however, were cold, wet, and disagreeable.  

"Tuesday we rode to the sea, and examined the coast hills. Wednesday we examined some of the buttes on the plain. Thursday we rode on to the summit of the pass, nine or ten miles, and visited the adjacent hills. Friday we visited a ranch ten miles distant, but as we expect to go there again I will defer description. We got somewhat wet by a rain that day, and rode the ten miles in wet clothes. Saturday was another wet day, but in the afternoon we examined and climbed a very rocky butte about four miles northwest of camp. A fog came on and shut out the view just as we reached the top….

"We had been waiting for better weather for climbing and measuring the Santa Lucia Mountains. As Monday, April 22, was a fine day, I got an early start, taking Guirado with me, and leaving Averill to observe barometer at camp--of course, carrying another barometer along with me. We rode about five miles to the base, left our mules, and climbed to the summit in four hours. For the first two thousand feet the way was up a very steep but perfectly grassy slope, covered with wild oats about a foot or foot and a half high, green as the greenest meadow. Then we struck a low chaparral. We gained the summit of the first ridge, but as usual a higher one rose farther toward the center of the chain, so we descended about five hundred feet, got on a transverse ridge, and in due time reached the highest peak. It was 2,605 feet above camp, or about 2,900 feet above the sea. The day was lovely, cool, and the air clear--not so clear as it often is here, but it would be called very clear at home. Objects twenty or twenty-five miles distant seemed as plain as they would through four or five miles of our air at home. For example, the breakers on the shore were perfectly distinct twenty miles distant !

"The view was very fine, finer than we shall have again soon. To the south we could see plain beyond plain, and hill beyond hill, although beyond the Cuyama Plain, thirty-five miles distant, things were indistinct through the dust from that plain. To the southwest and west lay all the lovely plain of San Luis Obispo, the buttes rising through it--over twenty were visible--brown pyramids on the emerald plain. Beyond were the coast hills, while beyond all was the blue Pacific, stretching away to the horizon. To the northwest was our chain of mountains; north, the valley of Santa Margarita and Salinas Valley, bordered with myriad hills, stretching away for sixty or seventy miles. We sat and contemplated the scene for over an hour before leaving.  

"Each mountain ascent has something peculiarly its own to distinguish it from the others. The feature of that day's trip was the unpoetic one of rolling rocks down the slope . Nature seemed to have made it for that--a smooth, grassy slope, with few obstructions on it, and plenty of rocks at the right place near the top. We could start them, they would go about six hundred to nine hundred feet at an angle of forty-five or fifty degrees, then roll down a slope of twenty-five to thirty degrees, going a mile from their starting place and falling probably nearly two thousand feet. Their velocity was incredible. As they would roll, large, angular fragments bounding in immense leaps through the air, they would whistle like cannon balls. We could hear them whistle half a mile ! Their leaps would surpass belief. After rolling many, I went down to the foot of the first slope to see them come by--Guirado starting them. Some came within thirty feet of me; their whistling exceeded my belief. They would leap through the air on meeting slight obstructions--pieces flying off would fly a hundred feet in the air, whistling like bullets. One stone of over a hundred pounds leaped close to me. I measured the leap; it was sixty feet ! Another, much larger, perhaps four hundred pounds, came thundering down, struck a flat stone bedded flat in the soil, which it crushed into a thousand pieces, then bounded one hundred feet , and then took its straight course down the slope.


"Sunday, April 28.

"I will answer some inquiries made in letters from home.

"First--as to whether we have "camp bedsteads?" No, by no means-- State officers can't afford such luxuries, only Uncle Sam's men can indulge in them. Each man has two pairs of heavy blankets, and an India-rubber sheet or oilcloth. The latter is spread on the ground, to keep us from the wet, and we sleep on that, rolled in our blankets. The colder the night the more we use above and the less below. When we sleep out in the open air we generally put an oilcloth or old coat over us to keep our blankets as dry as possible, for the dews are like rain these clear nights. One soon gets used to the ground, but it is often hard, and oftener rough with stones or cattle-tracks. This last is the most serious inconvenience. Often a great hummock or hollow is found just under one, and one must adapt himself to the ground. For pillows we use coats, saddlebags, or something of the kind--one learns to sleep on a hard pillow, only it makes the ears sore and bruised.  

"Second--tent. We first used two; the larger is discarded now. We use a Sibley tent, of government model, built after the style of an Indian "lodge," round, with one pole only, in the middle; and after our experience of blowing down in the rain we strengthened this with three guy ropes or stays. These latter are also handy to hang shirts on to dry, towels, etc. The canvas closes into a ring at the top, about two feet in diameter, which is suspended to the top of the pole by short ropes. This leaves a hole in the top for ventilation on hot days. It is closed by a hood or fly. 

"Third--the barometers. These are mountain barometers. The glass tube is enclosed in a tube of brass; the cistern is so arranged as to be closed with a screw, the air expelled, and the mercury made to fill the whole tube and cistern. This is then inverted, put in a wooden case, and this again in a leather case. This last is round, about three inches in diameter and three feet long, and is carried by a strap over the shoulder. They are admirably packed, but it requires much care to carry an instrument with so long a glass tube filled with mercury. We have, however, not broken one yet, except one of the thermometers attached, which burst with the heat. It was graduated to only 120, which is entirely insufficient for open-air use in this climate, where reliable men have told me that they have seen it 167 F. in the sun. We have lost two thermometers by leaving them where the sun would come on them; in a few minutes they would burst at 120 to 125 F. 

"Another week's labors have closed, and we have finished all that we have time to do here. Tuesday we intended to go about twelve miles for fossils, but our mules got away and too much of the day was spent in getting them to go then.  

"Wednesday, April 24, we went. The fossils occur on a ranch of Mr. Wilson, an Englishman. Our road lay down the valley of Osos, toward the sea, west of San Luis Obispo. Mr. Wilson has several ranches together, about 80,000 to 100,000 acres, keeps 20,000 head of cattle, 1,000 or 1,500 horses, etc., living in patriarchal style, monarch of all he surveys. His "farm" is about thirteen or fourteen miles long and nearly as wide. He seemed like a close-fisted old fellow, but treated us well. The fossils lay on a high hill. We could not get within two and a half miles of them with our wagon, so we camped by a brook. We packed the specimens down on mules.  

"In rough, broken hills, at about 1,800 feet elevation are these immense beds of fossil oysters. The shells are as numerous as in a modern oyster bed, all grown together, and of gigantic size, a foot to fifteen inches long, half as wide, and the thickest shell, sometimes five inches thick  

"As we stayed over night, we camped. We declined an invitation to stop with Mr. Wilson a mile distant, as a child died the day we arrived and was to be buried the next. We sat by our bright camp fire until the bright moon rose, then went to bed on the green grass, in our blankets. The wind blew up fresh from the sea a few miles distant. We could hear the breakers, although they were five or six miles off. It is glorious to watch the stars and moon before going to sleep, but unpoetical to turn in the night and bring yourself in contact with a portion of the blanket soaked with dew, and ugh , how cold! But I have always slept gloriously in the open air, whenever I have tried it.

"We returned Thursday evening. Friday we packed up our specimens, and Saturday (yesterday) took them to the landing for shipment. We had sixteen boxes, enough for quite a cabinet. 

"Last night a mail arrived bringing the first and scanty news of the attack on Fort Sumter. The eastern troubles have worried me much of late, although I have not written. We get papers often, a package nearly every steamer. I fear the prestige of the American name is passed away, not soon to return. We are doing  and reaping as monarchists have often told us we would do--put designing, immoral, wicked, and reckless men in office until they robbed us of our glory, corrupted the masses, and broke us in pieces for their gain. But four and five short years ago I often argued this could never be--at the very time that we were pampering the knaves that could do it. I hope and trust that we may yet be united, but the American Union can never exist in the hearts of the entire people again as we have fondly dreamed that it did. I have long been prepared for anything that southern politicians would try, demoralized as they have become, but I expected a much more conservative force there than has shown itself.  

"This state is eminently for Union. The people almost unanimously feel that all that California is she owes to her nationality. I don't know a single Secession paper here. Of course, there are many desperadoes who would do anything, hoping   to gain personally in any row that might arise, but the masses feel that their only safety is in the Union. Without protection, without mails, what would California be? A "Republic of the Pacific" is the sheerest nonsense. A republic of only about 900,000 inhabitants, less than a million, spread over a territory much larger than the original thirteen states, scattered, hostile Indians and worse Mormons on their borders--what would either sustain or protect such a country? And the people feel it.

"But bad men are in power here as well as elsewhere in the United States. I have heard good citizens say that there was but one honest officer in this county. Court adjourned one day last week because both judge and district attorney were too drunk to carry it on. It is a common thing to see the highest officials of this county drunk on the streets here in town, but this is a notoriously hard place. I assure you, we never go to sleep without having our revolvers handy.

"But the masses of the state are farther north. The whole south is sparsely populated, and will so remain so long as it is mostly divided into ranches so large that they are never spoken of by the acre, but always by the square league.  A has four leagues, B ten leagues, C twenty leagues, etc."

[Note: One square league equals 4,428.4 acres.]


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