Honey Talks About Edwin Bryant’s California

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July 1, 2015 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 



By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste)


Giant Redwoods of California by Alfred Bierstadt,
courtesy Berkshire Museum

Edwin Bryant’s What I Saw in California grabs you by the lapels and pulls you into the past. When Bryant crossed the country with a wagon train in 1846, San Francisco had 200 residents and 1500 lived in Los Angeles – then the capital of California. With no true roads to follow, no food eat except after a while beef when it could be found or sometimes milk, once in a while, frijoles and chili, tortured by flea infestations, Bryant journeyed through the a foreign country that was gorgeous, hostile and dangerous, inhabited by people whose names now are on road signs on our freeways.

Bryant (1805-1869) was a Kentucky newspaper editor, born in Pelham, Massachusetts. His father was frequently imprisoned for debt, and his uncle Bezabiel Bryant raised him in Bedford, New York, which is in Westchester County, an area north of the Bronx, until he was an adolescent. He studied medicine with another uncle, Dr. Peter Bryant. Dr. Bryant was the father of William Cullen Bryant, nine years older than Edwin.

Edwin founded the Providence, Rhode Island newspaper the Literary Cadet in 1826, after attending Brown University, so Edwin was a medical apprentice when he was perhaps fifteen and his famous cousin was twenty-four. William Cullen Bryant passed the Massachusetts Bar in 1815, when he was nineteen and Edwin was ten. William published his Thanatopsis in 1817, and he wrote it in 1811, when he (William) was seventeen and Edwin was eleven. Richard Henry Dana, Sr., then associate editor at the North American Review, (which first published that poem) wrote, “No one, on this side of the Atlantic, is capable of writing such verses.”

Bryant became editor of the Lexington Intelligencer in 1834 and spent the next decade at the newspaper, and then its owner until he sold it. He wrote frequent editorials, including editorials supporting the anti-Catholic nativism movement and a series of racist attacks on Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson for his interracial relationship with Julia Chinn, an Octoroon slave, and his two mixed-race daughters. Johnson acknowledged his daughters as his children, giving them his surname, which upset his constituents apparently more than the common law relationship.

Edwin Bryant’s book was to become a popular guide for emigrants, including the Argonauts after the discovery of gold in New Helvetia, which was in what is now Sacramento. His writing far surpasses his famous cousin’s tepid nature poetry.

Edwin Bryant starts his journey with a healthy sense of humor but eventually that wears off in the hellish and terrifying journey across 1840s America. After a few pages, his voice becomes the voice of a friend, someone we have known for some time. That voice turns journalistic, an objective insider’s reporter of Lt. Colonel Fremont’s march through California.
His racism and jingoism – both common to Americans at the time – are jarring. Someone that well educated, that intelligent, and sometimes that funny, should not have been such a blind idiot. He never addresses the contradictions in his thinking in What I Saw in California.

On the other hand, his deep biases are fundamental to understanding Americans’ subsequent plundering of this state’s natural resources and their blindness to any way of thinking that was not the one they were born with, and to understand the profound ignorance that encompassed American treatment of California’s native people and subsequent white treatment of the former Mexican landowners.

Crossing the plains, Bryant encountered starving, wretched Indians who beg and try to steal. The Indians wore cast-off clothing of white people. They were a ruined people. Bryant’s explanation is that the Indians were at fault, having driven off the buffalo. Actually, the buffalo almost became extinct in the nineteenth century from a combination of American over-slaughter and bovine disease contracted from American cattle. The American government broke all of the treaties, not the Indians.

At one point in his travel across the continent, he encountered an old man sitting erect on a horse. The old man gestures for him to go away and to leave him alone. Nonetheless, Bryant approaches him. Again through gestures, the old man explained that the white people have killed all the men in his family and taken away the women and children, and again he demanded that Bryant leave him alone. Bryant then left without having learned anything from the experience.

On reaching the Sierra Nevada Mountains in August 1846, Bryant wrote:

“The mountains are covered with a thick growth of tall and symmetrical timber. Among the varieties of trees I noticed the yellow and white-pine, the fir, the common red cedar, and the Chinese arbor vitoe. Many of the first and cedars are two hundred feet in height, with a diameter at the trunk of six or eight feet, beautifully tapering to a point. Nothing could be more agreeable to us than the sight and the shade of these stately giants of the forest, piercing the sky with their tall and arrow-straight forms.”

After he descended the mountains, starving — money for the most part useless because of the barter economy — Bryant and his companions found an extensive land sparsely settled by Mexican citizens, Indians, and some Americans who have become Mexican citizens in order to be able to own property. The Spanish missions were crumbling and abandoned. One American has purchased a mission and its surrounding land and the cattle on the land for $300.

In September 1846, after resting at Sutter’s Fort, which was built and maintained through Indian labor, Bryant saw the Sacramento River:

“The Sacramento river, at this point, is a stream nearly half a mile in width. The tide rises and falls some two or three feet. The water is perfectly limpid and fresh. The river is said to be navigable for craft of one hundred tons burden, at all seasons, a hundred miles above this place. In the season of high waters, from January to July, it is navigable a much greater distance….It is fringed with timber, chiefly oak and sycamore. Grapevines and a variety of shrubbery ornament its banks, and give a most charming effect when smiling upon its placid and limpid current. I never saw a more beautiful stream. In the rainy season, and in the spring, when the snows on the mountains are melting, it overflows its banks in many places. It abounds in fish, the most valuable of which is the salmon. These salmon are the largest and the fattest I have ever seen. I have seen salmon taken from the Sacramento five feet in length. All of its tributaries are equally rich in the finny tribe. American enterprise will soon develop the wealth contained in these streams, which hitherto has been entirely neglected.”

No one neglected the streams before the Americans arrived. Bears and people ate the fish in them. People traveled in reed boats down them. American enterprise would develop the wealth by overusing the water in irrigation and for real estate development and would contaminate the water with mining, industry and agricultural pollutants.

By the time Bryant reached California, it was in the period H.H. Bancroft called the Pastoral Era. The mission land use system had ended about 14 years before Bryant’s arrival.
The mission system in New Spain arose in part from the Crown’s need to control Spain’s ever-expanding holdings in the New World. The government — with the cooperation of the Church — established a network of missions with the goal of converting the native people to Christianity. To become Spanish citizens and productive inhabitants, the native people learned Spanish and vocational skills along with Christian teachings.

Those who settled the 21 missions, beginning in 1769, introduced European fruits, vegetables, cattle, horses, ranching and technology. The friars used several methods to recruit converts, which often included forced resettlement and corporal punishment, and the Spanish did not consider the natives’ own civilized and disciplined cultures, developed over at least 8,000 years in California, legitimate. The death toll was horrendous, although mostly the result of introduced agricultural illnesses. The mortality rate was so high that the padres had to rely on increasing conversions. Large-scale military expeditions caught escaped neophytes. In 1852, Hugo Reid wrote about the San Gabriel Mission near Los Angeles:

“On one occasion they went as far as the present Rancho del Chino, where they tied and whipped every man, woman and child in the lodge, and drove part of them back…. On the road they did the same with those of the lodge at San Jose. On arriving home the men were instructed to throw their bows and arrows at the feet of the priest, and make due submission. The infants were then baptized, as were also all children under eight years of age; the former were left with their mothers, but the latter kept apart from all communication with their parents. The consequence was, first, the women consented to the rite and received it, for the love they bore their children; and finally the males gave way for the purpose of enjoying once more the society of wife and family. Marriage was then performed, and so this contaminated race, in their own sight and that of their kindred, became followers of Christ.”

Between 1834 and 1836, the Mexican government confiscated California mission properties and exiled the Franciscan friars. The missions were secularized–broken up and their property sold or given away to private citizens. When Bryant arrives, he sees mission buildings and lands fallen into disrepair.

By 1846, when Bryant arrived in California, mission land and cattle had passed into the hands of eight hundred private landowners called rancheros. The rancheros controlled eight million acres of land, in units ranging in size from 4,500 to 50,000 acres. The ranchos, which mainly produced hides for the world leather market, relied heavily on Indian labor. The death rate of the Native Americans who worked on the ranchos was twice that of southern slaves.

In spite of the fact that all of the weaving, the pottery, the leather work, the candle making, the food preparation, the irrigation, the building, and all other work on the ranchos had been done by the Indians – he is aware of that – he determines that the Indians are stupid and incapable of reason, “dull,” and also dirty. He does not believe they can be taught to think.

The Indians caused, he contends, all the fleas in the country because they lived in filth.

He points out that the rancho buildings are clean and orderly and had no flea infestation, without noting that Indians were the ones to clean those structures. In actuality, however, flea infestation remained a problem into the American period. Nineteenth century settlers of Santa Cruz County used bars of soap to smash the fleas that tortured them. They pressed leaves of the Bay Laurel under their mattresses. Present day dermatologists believe fleas are more of a nuisance in California than anywhere else in the United States, especially in drought periods.

Bryant does not for a moment reflect on the possibility that a people enslaved for about 80 years, robbed of their land and their culture, might appear dull, and be dirty.
Bryant refers to the intelligence, charm and passion in the dark eyes of “white” Californian senoras and senoritas, barely noticing they have quite dark skin and are actually not “white.”
The author stops at Robert Livermore’s house. Livermore had become a Mexican citizen, and his wife was a Californian, that is, a woman born in California of Latin descent, acquired property through her and settled on a ranch in 1840, six years before Bryant and the other members of his bedraggled, filthy, lice-ridden party dragged themselves to his door. Bryant wrote:

“After our mules and baggage had been cared for, we were introduced to the principal room in the house, which consisted of a number of small adobe buildings, erected apparently at different times, and connected together. Here we found chairs, and for the first time in California, saw a side-board wet out with glass tumblers, and chinaware. A decanter of aguardiente, a bowl of loaf sugar, and a pitcher of cold water from the spring, were set before us; and being duly honored, had a most reviving influence upon our spirits as well as our corporeal energies. Suspended from the walls of the room were numerous coarse engravings, highly colored with green, blue and crimson paints, representing the Virgin Mary, and many of the saints. These engravings are held in great veneration by the devout Catholics of this country. In the corners of the room were two comfortable- looking beds, with clean white sheets and pillow-cases, a sight with which my eyes have not been greeted for many months.
“The table was soon set out, and covered with a linen cloth of snowy whiteness, upon which were placed dishes of stewed beef, seasoned with Chile Colorado, frijjoles, and a plentiful supply of tortillas, with an excellent cup of tea, to the merits of which we did ample justice….”

The City of Livermore, in Alameda County, was formerly Livermores and Livermore Ranch.

At one point in his California travels — months after the emigrants arrived at their destination in what is now Brentwood in Contra Costa County – Bryant and his companions are unable to cross a river. He encounters several native men, and they on the spot build a waterproof, buoyant little boat out of reeds, which carries his group across the river. He also notes that the natives create waterproof baskets, in which they cook their acorn and seed mush. He does not remark on the intelligent technology of people who used native plants that ranchero and American cattle had not consumed. Towards the end of his journey, he joins Fremont’s army on its march through the state. The men capture an Indian, gather neighboring Indians to watch, and shoot him. The man dies with composure and dignity, and Edwin Bryant writes that he does not want to witness anything like that again.

The charlatan “Dr.” John Marsh whose adobe in Brentwood, just east of Clayton – soon to become a state park — became the terminus of the emigrant trail because Marsh encouraged American emigration as it would further enrich him. Marsh, in Bryant’s writing of his encounter, brushes off the loss of some of his cattle and horses to those fictional “wild Indians,” and Bryant swallows the story.

John Marsh, the first permanent North American settler in Contra Costa County built his ranch headquarters on land early Spanish travelers called “Medanos” or sand dunes derived from the sand hills located on the northern boundary of the San Joaquin River. Fray Narcisco Duran noted the name of the place on his trip to the Delta in 1817 and corrupted the name to Meganos.
John Marsh and his eastern Contra Costa neighbors were so plagued by cattle rustlers and horse thieves that they formed their own rough and ready justice system. During the late 1840s and early 1850s the law was far away in Martinez. Here in the dangerous frontier at the edge of the unsettled San Joaquin Valley, those caught stealing by the ranchers were given a taste of sudden justice by “judge rope” or shot on the spot. Eventually the hard riding, fast shooting James Kirker and his band of fearsome renegade Delaware Indians were hired to defend the ranchos. The swarms of squatters and rustlers were only mildly deterred. As one was eliminated, others moved in to take his place. Kirker scalped thieves and/or Indians, whichever came his way, and the broad highway from Clayton to Pittsburg – Kirker Pass Road — is named in his honor.

“Doctor” Marsh did not have a medical degree. He had attended Harvard, gotten thrown out as a result of bad behavior, got back in and graduated with a degree that was written in Latin, but it was not a medical degree. Most of the people he met in Los Angeles either could not read at all or, if they could, did not read Latin, so he said his diploma was a medical degree and practiced medicine on the strength of his bachelor’s degree. By then his pregnant mistress had died trying to find him, and he had given away their surviving son. Marsh made enemies in Los Angeles and so moved to Contra Costa County. John Bidwell said of him, “John Marsh is the meanest man I have ever met.” He often did not pay his workers, and several of his vaqueros eventually ambushed and murdered him. He got rich from sharp practices and thievery, and he had to hire east coast Indians to protect his wealth from other, less successful thieves.

Although Bryant was traveling in another country, he and his compatriots believe California is theirs, and that the Californians fighting for their country engage in “insurrection.” His vision for the beautiful land, with its streams filled with salmon, its rivers and plains and mountains, is to bring in more “Anglo Saxon” Americans and transform nature into machinery for production of income, and he believes this is what will happen.

In 1846, a number of American immigrants rebelled against Mexico because Mexican law did not allow them to own property unless they became American citizens and briefly created a California republic in northern California, raising a flag with a bear over the town of Sonoma and imprisoning some Californians. John C. Fremont, ostensibly present in California for mapping and exploration, instead invaded California and waged war against its Mexican residents.

The author, for just a moment, questions the point of Fremont’s army, and what it is they fight for – there are no battles, just starving soldiers and volunteers, just dying horses, executions – and he believes they fight for Texas. Not one man is adequately provisioned in Lt. Col. Fremont’s army. Some don’t have shoes, many don’t have hats, only a few of them have coats. Except when a Californian offers them food, or when they take it, or an Indian feeds them, they eat only beef: ten pounds of beef per person per day.

On December 27, 1846, Fremont and the California Battalion in their march south to Los Angeles raised the American flag over Santa Barbara without a military battle. They continued to the San Fernando Mission where Fremont learned that the combined army of Commodore Robert Stockton and Brigadier General Stephen Kearny had taken Los Angeles without resistance.

Consequently, Fremont, Pio Pico and others entered the abandoned Feliz family rancho building on the San Fernando Valley (near today’s Universal City) and agreed to articles of capitulation. The treaty had no legal effect because Fremont was not supposed to be waging war in a foreign country to begin with, and the Mexican signatories had no authority to sign the document. Fremont later faced court martial for his treasonous violations of federal law – Bryant testified at his trial – but astonishingly Fremont is remembered as an American hero.

The author includes correspondence from military leaders about the war to gain California and the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga. These letters — written with the intention of commending the soldiers and officers for their courage invading another country and aiming canons and shooting people protecting their homes and families — indicate many more Californians died than Americans. They suggest the Californians fought with lances rather than with guns, and that those Americans who were shot either accidently shot themselves or each other.

Bryant became wealthy thanks to real estate profits, book royalties and lecture tours. He settled in the literary colony of Pewee Valley, Kentucky.
He made a final trip to California in poor health by train in June 1869. In December 1869, back in Kentucky, he jumped out of a window to his death.


Edwin Bryant, What I Saw in California, free digital download: https://archive.org/details/whatisawincalif00unkngoog.

Thomas L. Clark, “Introduction,” in Edwin Bryant’s What I Saw in California, University of Nebraska Press (1985)

http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=3&psid=540. Digital history of the secularization of California missions.

Phil Valdez, Jr. provided the information on Fray Narcisco Duran’s expedition through the area now known as Brentwood, where “Doctor” John Marsh built his adobe on what is now known as Marsh Creek. He obtained his information from the Diary of Fray Narcisco Duran, a publication of the Academy of Pacific Coast History, University of California Berkeley, 1911. The book is available at the Bancroft library.


Campo de Cahuenga, scene of the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga, January 13, 1847. 3919 Lankershim Boulevard, Studio City, California. The original adobe structure was demolished in 1900. The City of Los Angeles provided funds for its restoration in 1923.


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