Every so often there are a few things rattling around inside the mind that have spent a long time being strangers to each other, then find out there are First Cousins. They sit down and swap stories of the same family, but from different points of view. Then one of them takes out the long lost family album…
I knew the story of Captain Ahab and Moby Dick. (Who in the west doesn’t? It being nearly iconic in our culture now; even showing up as a metaphor in a Start Trek movie).
http://www.online-literature.com/melville/mobydick/ (Including an audio book version)
I’ve been to Sutter’s Fort more times than I can count and every school kid in California has to learn about it (and that bit of history). Usually in about 4th grade along with the Missions history.
I knew that California had been Spanish, that the Mexicans had taken it (for about 25 years) and largely let things run down (or actively broke down and sold off the Mission properties).
And I was very aware that California is a land of alternating drought and floods, rather like Australia in that, and with some droughts lasting long and being very dry.
I also knew that the Russians had been here; but mysteriously packed up and left. Selling out for a promise of some wheat. While the Americans came early, then didn’t do much of anything until gold was found. Ignoring one of the most beautiful and productive places on the planet seemed a bit “odd”, but I’d not ‘connected the dots’…
So just why DID all the various folks who had thought of laying claim to California largely not bother? We’ve been under the flags of Britain, Mexico, Spain (both the Royal Standard and the Cross of Burgundy), Russia (several), Argentina, Republic of California, United States of America, and at various times some French and Swiss folks thought of claiming the place. Yet not much happened until Sutter found Gold.
I’d wondered a little about ‘why’ but had usually just assumed “folks were probably busy with all the other land in the midwest, or something.” I’ve learned that the “or something” usually means I ought to examine my assumptions… but life doesn’t give enough time to examine them all. So some sit on the shelf.
Every so often a happy accident answers one of the “why?” bits on the shelf… Patience rewarded, sloth scores one point.
There was an early explorer of the Pacific Coast (and a lot of other places). We got about 20 seconds on him in some grammar school year. Enough that I recognized the name when I saw it this time; but not enough to remember much else.
Lt. Charles Wilkes.
Turns out that he likely served as the model for Ahab in some ways.
Charles Wilkes begins first American survey of Puget Sound on May 11, 1841.
HistoryLink.org Essay 5232 :
On May 11, 1841, the U.S. Navy ships Vincennes and Porpoise, commanded by Lt. Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), drop anchor in southern Puget Sound, near the mouth of Sequalitchew Creek and the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Fort Nisqually. Wilkes’ crew proceeds to chart Puget Sound and name numerous landmarks, including Elliott Bay. This United States Exploring Expedition marks America’s first formal entry into Puget Sound waters.
Wilkes was an ambitious and autocratic officer who took command of the United States Exploring Expedition in 1838 with the aim of circumnavigating the globe and charting Antarctica and the Pacific Coast of North America. By the time he returned to Norfolk, Virginia, in 1842, his fleet of six ships had dwindled to two.
Upon his return to the East Coast, word of Wilkes’ harsh discipline and personal arrogance earned him public rebuke and inspired Herman Melville’s most famous character, Captain Ahab. Only 100 copies of the expedition report were published, but they helped to establish Oregon and Puget Sound as new prizes for America’s manifest destiny.
Despite his accomplishments, Wilkes acquired a reputation as sometimes arrogant and capricious. This may have been partly due to his open conflict with Gideon Welles, who was the Secretary of the Navy. Secretary Welles recommended that Wilkes had been too old to receive the rank of commodore under the act then governing promotions. Wilkes wrote a scathing letter to Welles in response. This controversy ended in his court-martial in 1864. He was found guilty of disobedience of orders, insubordination, and other specifications. He was sentenced to public reprimand and suspension for three years. However, President Lincoln reduced the suspension to one year and the balance of charges were dropped. On July 25, 1866, he was promoted to the rank of rear admiral on the retired list.
Some historians speculate that Wilkes’ obsessive behavior and harsh code of shipboard discipline shaped Herman Melville’s characterization of Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. Such speculation is not mentioned in the U.S. Naval historical archives.
In addition to his contribution to U.S. Naval history and scientific study in his official Narrative of the Exploration Squadron (6 volumes), Wilkes wrote his autobiography.
Wilkes died in Washington, D. C. on February 8, 1877 at the rank of Rear Admiral. In August 1909, the United States moved his remains to Arlington National Cemetery. His gravestone says “he discovered the Ant-arctic continent”.
Interesting fellow… So court martialed twice(!) and retires as an Admiral. Hmmm….
My kind of guy ;-)
So what reminded me of this guy who explored a lot of the Pacific Coast and per his gravestone “discovered the Ant-arctic continent”?
The Drought of 1841
I’d been looking at some of the links posted by Ulric Lyons h/t and got to thinking. If 1837ish was such a bad crop failure year in China and Europe, what was known about California during that Solar Minimum time? What was in store for ME if things repeated here?
That lead to an interesting (if somewhat short) article:
How a drought changed California?
Hmmm…. As we’ve been a mite dry this year, that “might matter”…
How a drought year changed the course of California history
By GAYE LeBARON
PRESS DEMOCRAT COLUMIST
Several years before the Mexican War, before the discovery of gold, before California became a state, Lt. Charles Wilkes of the United States Navy, one of the more interesting characters in the dramas of early California, sailed into San Francisco Bay to assess the prospects of the Pacific Coast for the U.S. government.
He was astonishingly unimpressed.
There was no land suitable for agriculture anywhere around the pueblo of Sonoma, he wrote in his report. And the Sacramento Valley was no more than a “barren wasteland.”
Wilkes, you see, had the bad luck to arrive in California in the year 1841, which was a drought year in this area of such significant proportions as to change the course of history.
I raise this issue now because it looks like the course of history may wobble, or at least bend a bit, in subsequent months. We’ve had rain, but the experts tell us that 2009, like 1841 and a dozen or more years since, will be recorded as another drought year.
It was also a pivotal year for Mexican California, with not only the United States but France, Great Britain and the last of the Russian occupiers poking around, taking notes to help their governments decide whether — or when — to make their move.
So Wilkes shows up, looks around, and pronounces the place pretty crummy and not worth the effort.
About the same time the Russians sell out to Sutter (taking a promissory note on his fort) and leave. Sutter has a few years of crop failure (so can’t deliver the contracted payment that was a boat load of wheat). Yet the Russians don’t even bother trying to collect the debt. My guess is they figures “Hell, if even the wheat isn’t growing, what’s the point? Want a fort in the middle of nowhere with no water and no wheat?”.
So it really does look like that drought had a profound effect on things. On the one hand, it got the Russians to leave. I’d always wondered why they didn’t see the potential of the place. On the other hand, they had the Americans stay out (so the Mexicans could take over for their few years). Perhaps we could have avoided the whole history of war with Mexico over California but for that? Though it likely would have caused Spain to want to hang on to their part and been less willing to just say “oh, never mind” to Mexico.
Still, it is a hinge point of history; and the drought had folks “staying away in droves” until gold was found and the ’49ers put their stamp on the place.
One source said that 100 copies of the journal were printed. In prior times one would be lucky to find a copy on some musty library shelf under lock and key on the other side of the continent. Now? Well, it’s on line… A VERY large book (seems he liked to write… and name things…) so I did a key word search on California. It starts on page 301:
A fascinating read.
Here he is talking about places being worthless and dead empty that are now worth $Billions and with about 4 Million people just in the San Francisco Bay Area. Just to look at ‘places I know’ through the eyes of someone seeing them pristine (or nearly so) is a startling contrast.
The text is not amenable to ‘cut / paste’, so I’m going to retype a few passages. But please, do read some of it. The effect is remarkable.
Also of note: Some things never change! One of his laments is about the laid back attitude of Californios. Well duh!
If you could make a decent living doing ‘not much’ while having a lot of beach and siesta time, would you see the advantage to working on a ship headed to the AntArctic? At one point he comments with a bit of derision about the tendency for the place to be populated with deserters from all manner of ships from all countries; and that any ship that comes tends to lose a few crew. Ok, I have my choice of Ahab or “California Dreaming”? That’s a clear “no brainer” ;-)
The Vincennes arrived at San Francisco on the 14th of August, 1841, and anchored off Yerba Buena. As soon as the ship was anchored, an officer was dispatched on shore to call upon the authorities; but none of any description were to be found. The only magistrate, an alcalde, was absent. The frequency of revolutions in this country had caused a great change since the visit of Captain Beechey.
On approaching the neighborhood of San Francisco, the country has by no means an inviting aspect. To the north it rises in a lofty range, whose highest point is known as the Table Hill, and forms the iron-bound coast from Punto de los Rayes to the mouth of the harbor.
To the south, there is an extended sandy beach, behind which rises the sandy hills of San Bruno, to a moderate height. There are no symptoms of cultivation, nor is the land on either side fit for it; for in the former direction is is mountainous, in the latter sandy, and in both barren.
In that era, the bay was San Francisco and the city that is now called San Francisco was named Yerba Buena.
Arriving in the summer in a drought year, the place would be fairly barren and brown. California is green in winter, brown in summer.
He then goes on to list the various buildings and such in Yerba Buena:
The town, as is stated, is not calculated to produce a favorable impression on a stranger. The buildings may be counted and consists of a large frame building, occupied by the agent of the Hudson Bay Company, a store, kept by Mr. Spears, an American, a billiard-room and bar, a poop cabin of a ship set up as a dwelling by Captain Hinckley, a blacksmith’s shop, and some outbuildings. These, though few in number, are also far between. With these I must not forget to enumerate an old dilapidated adobe building, which has a conspicuous position on top of the hill overlooking the anchorage. When we add to this the sterile soil and hills of bare rock, it will be seen that Yerba Buena and the country around it are any thing but beautiful. This description holds good when the tide is high, but at low water it has for a foreground an extensive mud flat, which does not add to the beauty of the view.
After passing through the entrance we were scarcely able to distinguish the presidio; and had it not been for the solitary flag-staff, we could not have ascertained it’s situation. From this staff; no flag floated; the building was deserted, the walls had fallen to decay, the guns were dismounted, and everything around it lay in quiet. We were not even saluted by the stentorian lungs of some soldier, so common in Spanish places, even after all political power as well as military and civil rule has fled. I afterward learned that the Presidio was still a garrison in name, and that it had not been wholly abandoned; but the remnant of the troops stationed there consisted of no more than an officer and one soldier. At Yerba Buena there was a similar absence of all authority.
At the time of our visit, the country all together presented a singular appearance. Instead of a lively green hue, it had generally a tint of a light straw-colour, showing an extreme want of moisture. The drought had continued for 11 months; the cattle were dying the the fields; and the first view of California was not calculated to make a favourable impression either of its beauty or fertility.
He does go on to comment favorably on places like Monterey and to state that Sacramento looks productive. He notes that the coastal areas can be colder in summer than in winter (due to onshore winds and fog) and is not all negative. But you get the sense of it. That the place is largely empty, anyone who wanted it can take it, but why bother?…
He was not fond of California wine (which was already being produced). Generally commenting on the amount of wealth that could be had if the locals were to get off their bottoms and do something…
The cultivation of the grape increases yearly, but is not sufficient for the supply of the country; as large quantities of foreign wines and liquors are imported which pay an enormous duty; and although California may not boast of its dense population, every intelligent person I met with agreed that it consumed more spirits in proportion than any other part of the world.
I guess some things never change ;-)
The salmon fishery, if attended to, would be a source of considerable profit, yet I was told that the Californians never seemed disposed to attempt to take them. The general opinion is, that they are too indolent to bestir themselves. and they naturally choose the employment which gives them the least trouble. Above everything, the rearing of cattle requires the least labour in this country, for it is only necessary to provide keepers and have their cattle marked.
As respects trade, it may be said that there is scarcely any, for it is so interrupted, and so much under the influence of the governor and the officers of the customs, that those attempting to carry on any under the forms common elsewhere, would probably find it a losing business. Foreigners, however, contrive to evade this by keeping their vessels at anchor and selling a large portion of their cargoes from on board. Great partiality is shown to those of them who have a full understanding with his excellency the governor; and from what I was given to understand, if this be not secured, the traders are liable to extractions and vexations without number.
Yup. Sounds like California Traditions have been around forever. “Amazon” or “Ship board” both looking to avoid “extractions and vexations without number”…
Talking about when they had reached Sacramento ( New Helvetia ):
On the 25th, the boats left New Helvetia. It was discovered previous to departing that 4 men had deserted from their party. This is a common circumstance in this port, and very few vessels visit it without losing some portion of their crews. The dissolute habits of the people form such strong temptations for sailors, that few can resist them.
OK, so you come to California. It is warm. The folks are mostly having a siesta. You’ve got a mix of Spanish, Mexican, Indian, American, British, and a few Swiss and German and whatever. They don’t care much who is from where. They are having a party, with more “spirits” than anyone else; and don’t bother with salmon ’cause they have beef on the BBQ to excess… And their morals are ‘dissolute’ so a sailor is not likely to wake up alone the next day.
That, or Capt. Ahab… Decisions decisions…
Yup, some things about California never do change ;-)
Those notes will likely suck down several days worth of time in the coming weeks. How long will elapse depends on how much Q.C. assessment I need to do on the local grape products and barley malt production… and how dissolute I’m feeling. Hey, have to keep up the traditions! I’ve got a hundred and fifty years, at least, of history riding on my shoulders!
At the same time, it does look like we get a pretty strong drought when a grand minimum solar configuration is going on. OK, so I can put off fixing the roof for another year ;-)
But for a strong drought and a solar sleepy time, we might have had a Russian Czar hanging on to the north half of California and on up into Oregon / Washington / Alaska; and a Spain that thought it worth the effort to keep Mexico and California (and perhaps all of the Desert Southwest?) as part of their turf.
Instead we had some wars and ‘tough times’ back in the Crown Europe areas, dumping some dry dusty places with indolent people, and the USA deciding to leave it alone too. Damn, if only Sutter had not found that gold… We’d have a California that didn’t care much what the rest of the world did, that spends more time on parties than on work, and that didn’t care who shacked up with whom as long as they both liked the idea. A California with loads of salmon and beef, prepared in all ways possible from Mexican to Swiss… washed down with wine and beer… and a party on the beach every weekend.
Oh, wait! We do… Guess it doesn’t really matter what flag flies over the place. We’re just going to do what we do… Sun, song, BBQ and drink, dissolute and happy…
Captain: “Don’t you know there is a drought!”
Sailor: “Right Sir! No water to drink! Wine then…”