Read CHAPTER V - THE PIONEER MEN AND WOMEN of The Life of Bret Harte With Some Account of the California Pioneers , free online book, by Henry Childs Merwin, on

When Bret Harte first became famous he was accused of misrepresenting Pioneer society. A California writer of great ability no less a person than Professor Royce, the eminent philosopher once spoke of the “perverse romanticism” of his tales; and after Mr. Harte’s death these accusations, if they may be called such, were renewed in San Francisco with some bitterness. It is strange that Californians themselves should have been so anxious to strip from their State the distinction which Bret Harte conferred upon it, so anxious to prove that its heroic age never existed, that life in California has always been just as commonplace, respectable and uninteresting as it is anywhere else in the world.

But, be this as it may, the diaries, letters and narratives written by Pioneers themselves, and, most important of all, the daily newspapers published in San Francisco and elsewhere from 1849 to 1855, fully corroborate Bret Harte’s assertion that he described only what actually occurred. “The author has frequently been asked,” he wrote, “if such and such incidents were real, if he had ever met such and such characters. To this he must return the one answer, that in only a single instance was he conscious of drawing purely from his imagination and fancy for a character and a logical succession of incidents drawn therefrom. A few weeks after his story was published, he received a letter, authentically signed, correcting some of the minor details of his facts, and inclosing as corroborative evidence a slip from an old newspaper, wherein the main incident of his supposed fanciful creation was recorded with a largeness of statement that far transcended his powers of imagination.” Even that bizarre character, the old Frenchman in A Ship of ’49, was taken absolutely from the life, except that the real man was of English birth. His peculiarities, mental and physical, his dress, his wig, his residence in the old ship were all just as they are described by Bret Harte.

This is not to say that everybody in California was a romantic person, or that life there was simply a succession of startling incidents. Ordinary people were doing ordinary things on the Pacific Slope, just as they did during the worst horrors of the French Revolution. But the exceptional persons that Bret Harte described really existed; and, moreover, they existed in such proportion as to give character and tone to the whole community.

The fact is that Bret Harte only skimmed the cream from the surface. To use his own words again, “The faith, courage, vigor, youth, and capacity for adventure necessary to this emigration produced a body of men as strongly distinctive as were the companions of Jason.”

They were picked men placed in extraordinary circumstances, and how could that combination fail to result in extraordinary characters, deeds, events, and situations! The Forty-Niners, and those who came in the early Fifties, were such men as enlist in the first years of a war. They were young men. Never, since Mediaeval days when men began life at twenty and commonly ended it long before sixty, was there so youthful a society. A man of fifty with a gray beard was pointed out in the streets of San Francisco as a curiosity. In the convention to organize the State which met at Monterey, in September, 1849, there were forty-eight delegates, of whom only four were fifty years or more; fifteen were under thirty years of age; twenty-three were between thirty and forty. These were the venerable men of the community, selected to make the laws of the new commonwealth. A company of California emigrants that left Virginia in 1852 consisted wholly of boys under twenty.

The Pioneers were far above the average in vigor and enterprise, and in education as well. One ship, the “Edward Everett,” sailed from Boston in January, 1849, with one hundred and fifty young men on board who owned both ship and cargo; and the distinguished gentleman for whom they had named their ship gave them a case full of books to beguile the tedium of the voyage around Cape Horn. William Grey, who wrote an interesting account of California life, sailed from New York with a ship-load of emigrants. He describes them as a “fine-looking and well-educated body of men, all young”; and he gives a similar description of the passengers on three other ships that came into the port of Rio Janeiro while he was there. He adds that on his ship there were only three bad characters, a butcher from Washington Market and his two sons. They all perished within a year of their arrival in California. The father died while drunk, one of the sons was hanged, and the other was killed in a street row.

The Pioneers were handsome men. They were tall men. Of the two hundred grown men in the town of Suisun, twenty-one stood over six feet high. Many of the Pioneers were persons for whom a career is not easily found in a conservative, sophisticated society; who, in such a society, fail to be successful as much because of their virtues as of their defects; men who lack that combination of cunning and ferocity which leads most directly to the acquisition of wealth; magnanimous, free-handed, and brave, but unthrifty and incapable of monotonous toil; archaic men, not quite broken in to the modern ideal of drudging at one task for six days in the week and fifty weeks in the year. Who does not know the type! The hero of novels, the idol of mothers, the alternate hope and despair of fathers, the truest of friends, the most ideal and romantic, but perhaps not the most constant of lovers.

From the Western and Southwestern States there came across the Plains a different type. These men were Pioneers already by inheritance and tradition, somewhat ignorant, slow and rough, but of boundless courage and industry, stoical as Indians, independent and self-reliant. Most of Bret Harte’s tragic characters, such as Tennessee’s Partner, Madison Wayne, and the Bell-Ringer of Angel’s, were of this class.

Many of these emigrants, especially those who crossed the Mountains before the discovery of gold, were trappers and hunters, stalwart, bearded men, clad in coats of buffalo hide, with faces deeply tanned and wrinkled by long exposure to wind and weather. Perhaps the best known among them was “old Greenwood,” a tall, raw-boned, muscular man, who at the age of eighty-three was still vigorous and active. For thirty years he made his home among the Crow Indians, and he had taken to wife a squaw who bore him four handsome sons. His dress was of tanned buckskin, and one observer, more squeamish than the ordinary Pioneer, noted the seeming fact that it had never been removed since first he put it on. His heroic calibre may be estimated from the fact that he was capable of eating ten pounds of meat a day. This man used to boast that he had killed more than a hundred Indians with his own hand. But all that killing had been done in fair fight; and when a cowardly massacre of seven Indians, captured in a raid led by Greenwood’s sons, took place near Sacramento in 1849, one of many such acts, the Greenwood family did their best to save the victims. After the deed had been done, “Old Greenwood,” an eye-witness relates, “raved around his cabin, tossed his arms aloft with violent denunciation, and, stooping down, gathered the dust in his palms, and sprinkled it on his head, swearing that he was innocent of their blood.”

Another hero of the Pacific Slope in those large, early days was Peg-leg Smith. He derived his nickname from a remarkable incident. While out on the Plains with a wagon-load of supplies, Smith plain Smith at that time was accidentally thrown from his seat, and the heavy wheel passed over his leg below the knee, crushing it so that amputation became necessary. There was no surgeon within hundreds of miles; but if the amputation were not performed, it was plain that mortification and death would soon result. In this emergency, Smith hacked out a rude saw from a butcher’s knife which he had with him, built a fire and heated an iron bolt that he took from the wagon, and then, with his hunting knife and his improvised saw, cut off his own leg. This done, he drew the flesh down over the wound, and seared it with the hot iron to prevent bleeding. He recovered, procured a wooden leg, and lived to take part in many succeeding adventures.

We owe California primarily to these hunters, trappers and adventurous farmers who crossed the Mountains on their own account, or, later, as members of Fremont’s band:

Stern men, with empires in their brains.

They firmly believed that it was the “manifest destiny” of the United States to spread over the Continent; and this conviction was not only a patriotic, but in some sense a religious one. They were mainly descendants of the Puritans, and as such had imbibed Old Testament ideas which justified and sanctioned their dreams of conquest. We have seen how the venerable Greenwood covered his head with dust as a symbolic act. The Reverend Mr. Colton records a significant remark made to him by a Pioneer, seventy-six years old, who had four sons in Fremont’s company, and who himself joined the Volunteers raised in California. “I asked him if he had no compunction in taking up arms against the native inhabitants, the moment of his arrival. He said he had Scripture example for it. The Israelites took the promised land of the East by arms, and the Americans must take the promised land of the West in the same way.”

And Mr. Colton adds: “I find this kind of parallel running in the imagination of all the emigrants. They seem to look upon this beautiful land as their own Canaan, and the motley race around them as the Hittites, the Hivites and Jebusites whom they are to drive out."

But, it need hardly be said, the Biblical argument upon which they relied was in the nature of an afterthought the justification, rather than the cause of their actions. What really moved them, although they did not know it, was that primeval instinct of expansion, based upon conscious superiority of race, to which have been due all the great empires of the past.

Many of these people were deeply religious in a Gothic manner, and Bret Harte has touched lightly upon this aspect of their natures, especially in the case of Mr. Joshua Rylands. “Mr. Joshua Rylands had, according to the vocabulary of his class, ‘found grace’ at the age of sixteen, while still in the spiritual state of ‘original sin,’ and the political one of Missouri.... When, after the Western fashion, the time came for him to forsake his father’s farm, and seek a new ‘quarter section’ on some more remote frontier, he carried into the secluded, lonely, half-monkish celibacy of pioneer life which has been the foundation of so much strong Western character more than the usual religious feeling.”

Exactly the same kind of man is described in that once famous story, Mr. Eggleston’s “Circuit-Rider”; and it is still found in the mountains of Kentucky, where the maintenance of ferocious feuds and a constant readiness to kill one’s enemies at sight are regarded as not inconsistent with a sincere profession of the Christian religion.

The reader of Bret Harte’s stories will remember how often the expression “Pike County” or “Piker” occurs; and this use is strictly historical. As a very intelligent Pioneer expressed it, “We recognize in California but two types of the Republican character, the Yankee and the Missourian. The latter term was first used to represent the entire population of the West; but Pike County superseded, first the name of the State, and soon that of the whole West.”

How did this come about? Pike County, Missouri, was named for Lieutenant Zebulon Montgomery Pike, the discoverer of Pike’s Peak, and the officer who was sent by the United States Government to explore the upper part of the Mississippi River. He was killed in the War of 1812. The territory was first settled in 1811 by emigrants from Virginia, Kentucky and Louisiana; and it was incorporated as a county in 1818. It borders on the Mississippi River, about forty miles north of St. Louis; and its whole area is only sixty square miles. It was and is an agricultural county, and in 1850 the population amounted to only thirteen thousand, six hundred and nine persons, of whom about half were negroes, mostly slaves. The climate is healthy, and the soil, especially on the prairies, is very fertile, being a rich, deep loam.

Pike County, it will thus be seen, is but a small part, both numerically and geographically, of that vast Western territory which contributed to the California emigration; and it owes its prominence among the Pioneers chiefly to a copy of doggerel verses. In 1849, Captain McPike, a leading resident of the County, organized a band of two hundred Argonauts who crossed the Plains. Among them was an ox-driver named Joe Bowers, who soon made a reputation in the company as a humorist, as an “original,” as a “greenhorn,” and as a “good fellow” generally. Joe Bowers was poor, he was in love, he was seeking a fortune in order that he might lay it at the feet of his sweetheart; and the whole company became his confidants and sympathizers.

Another member of the party was a certain Frank Swift, who afterward attained some reputation as a journalist; and one evening, as they were all sitting around the camp-fire, Swift recited, or rather sang to a popular air, several stanzas of a poem about Joe Bowers, which he had composed during the days journey. It caught the fancy of the company at once, and soon every member was singing it. The poem grew night by night, and long before they reached their destination it had become a ballad of exasperating length. The poet, looking forward in a fine frenzy, describes the girl as proving faithless to Joe Bowers and marrying a red-haired butcher. This bad news comes from Joes brother Ike in a letter which also states the culminating fact of the tragedy, as the following lines reveal:

It told me more than that,
Oh! it’s enough to make me swear.
It said Sally had a baby,
And the baby had red hair!

Upon their arrival in California, the two hundred men who composed this party dispersed in all directions, and carried the ballad with them. It was heard everywhere in the mines, and in 1856 it was printed in a cheap form in San Francisco, and was sung by Johnson’s minstrels at a hall known as the Old Melodeon. Joe Bowers thus became the type of the unsophisticated Western miner, and Pike County became the symbol of the West. Crude as the verses are they are sung to this day in the County which gave them birth, and “Joe Bowers” is still a familiar name in Missouri, if not in the West generally.

This ballad which came across the Plains had its counterpart in a much better song produced by Jonathan Nichols, a Pioneer who sailed on the bark Eliza from Salem, Massachusetts, in December, 1848. The first stanza is as follows:

TUNE, Oh! Susanna. (Key of G.)

I came from Salem city,
With my washbowl on my knee,
I’m going to California,
The gold dust for to see.
It rained all night the day I left,
The weather, it was dry,
The sun so hot I froze to death,
Oh! brothers, don’t you cry,
Oh! California,
That’s the land for me!
I’m going to Sacramento
With my washbowl on my knee.

Under the title of the “California Song” these verses soon became the common property of every ship sailing from Atlantic ports for San Francisco, and later they were heard in the mines almost as frequently as “Joe Bowers.” But, as hope diminished and homesickness increased, both ballads so an old miner relates gave place to “Home, Sweet Home,” “Olé Virginny,” and other sad ditties.

Pike County seems to have had a natural tendency to burst into poetry. In the story called Devil’s Ford, Bret Harte gives us two lines from a poem otherwise unknown to fame,

“’Oh, my name it is Johnny from Pike,
I’m hell on a spree or a strike.’”

In the story of The New Assistant at Pine Clearing School, three big boys from Pike County explained to the schoolmistress their ideas upon the subject of education, as follows: “‘We ain’t hankerin’ much for grammar and dictionary hogwash, and we don’t want no Boston parts o’ speech rung in on us the first thing in the mo’nin’. We reckon to do our sums and our figgerin’, and our sale and barter, and our interest tables and weights and measures when the time comes, and our geograffy when it’s on, and our readin’ and writin’ and the American Constitution in regular hours, and then we calkillate to git up and git afore the po’try and the Boston airs and graces come round.’”

The “Sacramento Transcript,” of June 11, 1850, tells a story about a minister from Pike County which has a similar ring. “A miner took sick and died at a bar that was turning out very rich washings. As he happened to be a favorite in the camp, it was determined to have a general turn-out at his burial. An old Pike County preacher was engaged to officiate, but he thought it proper to moisten his clay a little before his solemn duty. The parson being a favorite, and the grocery near by, he partook with one and another before the services began, until his underpinning became quite unsteady. Presently it was announced that the last sad rites were about to be concluded, and our clerical friend advanced rather unsteadily to perform the functions of his office. After an exordium worthy of his best days, the crowd knelt around the grave, but as he was praying with fervency one of the party discovered some of the shining metal in the dirt thrown from the grave, and up he jumped and started for his pan, followed by the crowd. The minister, opening his eyes in wonder and seeing the game, cried out for a share; his claim was recognized and reserved for him until he should get sober. In the mean time, another hole was dug for the dead man, that did not furnish a like temptation to disturb his grave, and he was hurriedly deposited without further ceremony.”

Bret Harte’s best and noblest character, Tennessee’s Partner, might have been from Pike County, he was of that kind; and Morse, the hero of the story called In the Tules, certainly was:

The stranger stared curiously at him. After a pause he said with a half-pitying, half-humorous smile:

“‘Pike aren’t you?’

Whether Morse did or did not know that this current California slang for a denizen of the bucolic West implied a certain contempt, he replied simply:

“‘I’m from Pike County, Mizzouri.’”

To the same effect is the historian: “To be catalogued as from Pike County seems to express a little more churlishness, a little more rudeness, a greater reserve when courtesy or hospitality is called for than I ever found in the Western character at home."

The type thus indicated was a very marked one, and was often spoken of with astonishment by more sophisticated Pioneers. Some of these Missouri men had never seen two houses together, until they came to California, so that even a little village in the mines appeared to them as a marvel of civilization and luxury. Their dress was home-made and by no means new or clean. Over their shoulders they wore strips of cotton or cloth as suspenders, and their coats were tight-waisted, long-tailed surtouts such as were fashionable in the eighteenth century. Their inseparable companion was a long-barrelled rifle, with which they could “draw a bead” on a deer or a squirrel or the white of an Indian’s eye with equal coolness and certainty of killing.

Bayard Taylor describes the same type as he met it in the ship which carried him from New Orleans to Panama in ’49. “Long, loosely-jointed men, with large hands, and awkward feet and limbs; their faces long and sallow; their hair long, straight and black; their expression one of settled melancholy. The corners of their mouths curved downward, and their upper lips were drawn tightly over their lower ones, thus giving to their faces that look of ferocity which is peculiar to Indians. These men chewed tobacco incessantly, drank copiously, were heavily armed with knives and pistols, and breathed defiance to all foreigners."

These long, sallow-faced men were probably sufferers from that fever and ague, or malaria, as we now call it, which was rife in all the “bottom lands” of the Western States; and the greater part of Pike County was included in that category. Much, indeed, of the emigration from Missouri and Illinois to California was inspired less by the love of gold than by the desire to escape from disease. Bret Harte, in many places, speaks of these fever-ridden Westerners, especially in An Apostle of the Tules, where he describes a camp-meeting, attended chiefly by “the rheumatic Parkinsons, from Green Springs; the ophthalmic Filgees, from Alder Creek; the ague-stricken Harveys, from Martinez Bend; and the feeble-limbed Steptons, from Sugar Mill.” “These,” he adds, “might in their combined families have suggested a hospital, rather than any other social assemblage.”

But these sickly or ague-smitten people formed only a small part of the Pioneers. The greater number represented the youth and strength of both the Western and Eastern States. In 1852, an interior newspaper called the “San Andreas Independent” declared, “We have a population made up from the most energetic of the civilized earth’s population”; and the boast was true.

Moreover, the Pioneers who reached California had been winnowed and sifted by the hardships and privations which beset both the land and the sea route. Thousands of the weaker among them had succumbed to starvation or disease, and their bones were whitening the Plains or lying in the vast depths of the Pacific Ocean. There was scarcely a village in the West or South, or even in New England, which did not mourn the loss of some brave young gold-seeker whose unknown fate was a matter of speculation for years afterward.

The length of the voyage from Atlantic ports to San Francisco was from four to five months, but most of the Pioneers who came by sea avoided the passage around Cape Horn, and crossed the Isthmus of Nicaragua, or, more commonly, of Panama. This, in either case, was a much shorter route; but it added the horrors of pestilence and fever, and of possible robbery and murder, to the ordinary dangers of the sea. All the blacklegs, it was noticed, took the shorter route, deeming themselves, no doubt, incapable of sustaining the prolonged ennui of a voyage around the Cape. Passengers who crossed the Isthmus of Panama disembarked at Chagres, a port so unhealthy that policies of life insurance contained a clause to the effect that if the insured remained there more than one night, his policy would be void. Chagres enjoyed the distinction of being the dirtiest place in the world. The inhabitants were almost all negroes, and one Pioneer declared that a flock of buzzards would present a favorable comparison with them.

From Chagres there was, first, a voyage of seventy-five miles up the river of the same name to Gorgona, or to Cruces, five miles farther. This was accomplished in dugouts propelled by the native Indians. Thence to Panama the Pioneers travelled on foot, or on mule-back, over a narrow, winding bridle-path through the mountains, so overhung by trees and dense tropical growths that in many places it was dark even at mid-day.

This was the opportunity of the Indian muleteer, and more than one gold-seeker never emerged from the gloomy depths of that winding trail. Originally, it was the work of the Indians; but the Spaniards who used the path in the sixteenth century had improved it, and in many places had secured the banks with stones. Now, however, the trail had fallen into decay, and in spots was almost impassable. But the tracks worn in the soft, calcareous rock by the many iron-shod hoofs which had passed over it, still remained; and the mule that bore the American seeking gold in California placed his feet in the very holes which had been made by his predecessors, painfully bearing the silver of Peru on its way to enrich the grandees of Spain.

Bad as the journey across the Isthmus was or might be, the enforced delay at Panama was worse. The number of passengers far exceeded the capacity of the vessels sailing from that port to San Francisco, and those who waited at Panama were in constant danger of cholera, of the equally dreaded Panama fever, and sometimes of smallpox. The heat was almost unbearable, and the blacks were a source of annoyance, and even of danger. “There is not in the whole world,” remarked a contemporary San Francisco paper, “a more infamous collection of villains than the Jamaica negroes who are congregated at Panama and Chagres.”

In their eagerness to get away from Panama, some Pioneers paid in advance for transportation in old rotten hulks which were never expected or intended to reach San Francisco, but which, springing a leak or being otherwise disabled, would put into some port in Lower California where the passengers would be left without the means of continuing their journey, and frequently without money.

Both on the voyage from Panama and also on the long route around Cape Horn, ship-captains often saved their good provisions for the California market, and fed their passengers on nauseous “lobscouse” and “dunderfunk.” Scurvy and other diseases resulted. An appeal to the United States consul at Rio Janeiro, when the ship touched there, was sometimes effectual, and in other cases the passengers took matters into their own hands and disciplined a rapacious captain or deposed a drunken one. In view of these uprisings, some New York skippers declined to take command of ships about to sail for California, supposing that passengers who could do such an unheard-of thing as to rebel against the master of a vessel must be a race of pirates. Great pains were taken to secure a crew of determined men for these ships, and a plentiful supply of muskets, handcuffs and shackles was always put on board. But such precautions proved to be ridiculously unnecessary. There was no case in which the Pioneers usurped authority on shipboard without sufficient cause; and in no case was an emigrant brought to trial on reaching San Francisco.

In the various ports at which they stopped much was to be seen of foreign peoples and customs; and not infrequently the Pioneers had an opportunity to show their mettle. At Santa Catharina, for example, a port on the lower coast of Brazil, a young American was murdered by a Spaniard. The authorities were inclined to treat the matter with great indifference; but there happened to be in the harbor two ship-loads of passengers en route for San Francisco, and these men threatened to seize the fortress and demolish it if justice was not done. Thereupon the murderer was tried and hung. Many South Americans in the various ports along the coast got their first correct notion of the people of the United States from these chance encounters with sea-going Pioneers.

Still more, of course, was the overland journey an education in self-reliance, in that resourcefulness which distinguishes the American, and in that courage which was so often needed and so abundantly displayed in the early mining days. Independence in the State of Missouri was a favorite starting-point, and from this place there were two routes, the southern one being by way of Santa Fe, and the northern route following the Oregon Trail to Fort Hall, and thence ascending the course of the Humboldt River to its rise in the Sierra Nevadas.

At Fort Hall some large companies which had travelled from the Mississippi River, and even from States east of that, separated, one half going to Oregon, the other turning westward to California; and thus were broken many ties of love and friendship which had been formed in the close intimacy of the long journey, especially between the younger members of the company. Old diaries and letters reveal suggestions of romance if not of tragedy in these separations, and in the choice which the emigrant maiden was sometimes forced to make between the conflicting claims of her lover and her parents.

In the year 1850 fifty thousand crossed the Plains. In 1851 immigration fell off because even at that early date there was a business “depression,” almost a “panic” in California, but in 1852 it increased again, and the Plains became a thoroughfare, dotted so far as the eye could see with long trains of white-covered wagons, moving slowly through the dust. In one day a party from Virginia passed thirty-two wagons, and during a stop in the afternoon five hundred overtook them. In after years the course of these wagons could easily be traced by the alien vegetation which marked it. Wherever the heavy wheels had broken the tough prairie sod there sprang up, from the Missouri to the Sierras, a narrow belt of flowering plants and familiar door-yard weeds, silent witnesses of the great migration which had passed that way. Multitudes of horsemen accompanied the wagons, and other multitudes plodded along on foot. Banners were flying here and there, and the whole appearance was that of an army on the march. At night camp-fires gleamed for miles through the darkness, and if the company were not exhausted the music of a violin or a banjo floated out on the still air of the prairies. But the fatigue of the march, supplemented by the arduous labors of camping out, was usually sufficient to send the travellers to bed at the earliest possible moment.

The food consisted chiefly of salt pork or bacon, varied when that was possible with buffalo meat or venison, beans, baked dough called bread, and flapjacks. The last, always associated with mining life in California, were made by mixing flour and water into a sort of batter, seasoning with salt, adding a little saleratus or cooking soda, and frying the mixture in a pan greased with fat. Men ate enormously on these journeys. Four hundred pounds of sugar lasted four Pioneers only ninety days. This inordinate appetite and the quantity of salt meat eaten frequently resulted in scurvy, from which there were some deaths. Another cause of illness was the use of milk from cows driven along with the wagon-trains, and made feverish by heat and fatigue.

Many of the emigrants, especially those who undertook the journey in ’49 or ’50, were insufficiently equipped, and little aware of the difficulties and dangers which awaited them. Death in many forms hovered over those heavy, creaking, canvas-covered wagons the “prairie-schooners,” which, drawn sometimes by horses, sometimes by oxen, sometimes by mules, jolted slowly and laboriously over two thousand miles and more of plain and mountain, death from disease, from want of water, from starvation, from Indians, and, in crossing the Sierras, from raging snow-storms and intense cold. Rivers had to be forded, deserts crossed and a thousand accidents and annoyances encountered.

Some men made the long journey on foot, even from points east of the Mississippi River. One gray-haired Pioneer walked all the way from Michigan with a pack on his back. Another enthusiast obtained some notoriety among the emigrants of 1850 by trundling a wheelbarrow, laden with his goods, from Illinois to Salt Lake City.

Bret Harte, as we have seen, reached California by sea, and there is no record of any journey by ox-cart that he made; and yet in A Waif of the Plains he describes such a journey with a particularity which seems almost impossible for one who knew it only by hearsay. Thus, among many other details, he speaks of “a chalky taste of dust on the mouth and lips, a gritty sense of earth on the fingers, and an all-pervading heat and smell of cattle.” And in the same description occurs one of those minute touches for which he is remarkable: “The hoofs of the draught-oxen, occasionally striking in the dust with a dull report, sent little puffs like smoke on either side of the track.”

Often the cattle would break loose at night and disappear on the vast Plains, and men in search of them were sometimes lost, and died of starvation or were killed by Indians. Simply for the sake of better grazing oxen have been known to retrace their steps at night for twenty-five miles.

The opportunities for selfishness, for petulance, for obstinacy, for resentment were almost innumerable. Cooking and washing were the labors which, in the absence of women, proved most vexatious to the emigrants. “Of all miserable work,” said one, “washing is the worst, and no man who crossed the Plains will ever find fault again with his wife for scolding on a washing day.” All the Pioneers who have related their experiences on the overland journey speak of the bad effect on men’s tempers. “The perpetual vexations and hardships keep the nerves in a state of great irritability. The trip is a sort of magic mirror, exposing every man’s qualities of heart, vicious or amiable."

The shooting affairs which occurred among the emigrants were usually the result of some sudden provocation, following upon a long course of irritation between the persons concerned. Those who crossed the Plains in the summer of 1853, or afterward, might have passed a grave with this inscription:


And, a day’s journey further, they would have noticed another grave thus inscribed:


This murder, to call it such, was the consequence of some insult offered to Bolsby by the other. Bolsby was forthwith tried by the company, and condemned to be shot the next morning at sunrise. He had been married only about a year before, and had left his wife and child at their home in Kentucky. For the remainder of the day he travelled with the others, and the short hours of the summer night which followed were spent by him in writing to his wife and to his father and mother. Of all the great multitude, scattered over the wide earth, who passed that particular night in sleepless agony of mind, perhaps none was more to be pitied. When morning came he dressed himself neatly in his wedding suit, and was led out to execution. With rare magnanimity, he acknowledged that his sentence was a just one, and said that he had so written to his family, and that he had been treated with consideration; but he declared that if the thing were to happen again, he would kill Beal as before. He then knelt on his blanket, gave the signal for shooting, and fell dead, pierced by six bullets.

The misfortunes of the Donner party began with a homicide. This is the party whose sufferings are described by Bret Harte without exaggeration in Gabriel Conroy. It included robbers, cannibals, murderers and heroes; and one interesting aspect of its experience is the superior endurance, both moral and physical, shown by the women. In the small detachment which, as a forlorn hope, tried to cross the Mountains in winter without provisions, and succeeded, there were twelve men and five women. Of the twelve men five died, of the five women none died!

Indians were often encountered on the Great Plains and in the valleys of the Colorado and Rio Grande. They were well-disposed, at first, and soon acquired some familiarity with the ordinary forms of speech used by the Pioneers. Thus one traveller reports the following friendly salutation from a member of the Snake Tribe:

“How de do Whoa haw! G d d n you!”

On another occasion when a party of Pioneers were inquiring of some Indians about a certain camping-ground ahead of them, they were assured that there would be “plenty of grass there for the whoa haws, but no water for the g d d ns.”

Later, however, owing chiefly to unprovoked attacks by emigrants, the Indians became hostile and dangerous. Many Pioneers were robbed and some were killed by them. The Western Indian was a figure at once grotesque and terrible; and Bret Harte’s description of him, as he appeared to the emigrant boy lost on the Plains, gives the reader such a pleasant thrill of horror as he may not have experienced since Robinson Crusoe made his awful discovery of a human footprint in the sand.

“He awoke with a start. A moving figure had suddenly uplifted itself between him and the horizon!... A human figure, but so dishevelled, so fantastic, and yet so mean and puerile in its extravagance that it seemed the outcome of a childish dream. It was a mounted figure, yet so ludicrously disproportionate to the pony it bestrode, whose slim legs were stiffly buried in the dust in a breathless halt, that it might have been a straggler from some vulgar wandering circus. A tall hat, crownless and brimless, a castaway of civilization, surmounted by a turkey’s feather, was on its head; over its shoulders hung a dirty tattered blanket that scarcely covered the two painted legs which seemed clothed in soiled yellow hose. In one hand it held a gun; the other was bent above its eyes in eager scrutiny of some distant point.... Presently, with a dozen quick noiseless strides of the pony’s legs, the apparition moved to the right, its gaze still fixed on that mysterious part of the horizon. There was no mistaking it now! The painted Hebraic face, the large curved nose, the bony cheek, the broad mouth, the shadowed eyes, the straight long matted locks! It was an Indian!"

There were some cases of captivity among the Indians the details of which recall the similar occurrences in New England in the seventeenth century. Perhaps the most remarkable case was that of Olive Oatman, a young girl from Illinois, who was carried off by one tribe of Indians, was sold later to another, nearly died of starvation, and, finally, after a lapse of six years, was recovered safe and sound. Her brother, a boy of twelve, was beaten with clubs by the Indians, and left for dead with the bodies of his father and mother; but he revived, and succeeded in making his way back for a distance of seventy miles, when he met a party of Pima Indians, who treated him with kindness. Forty-five miles of that lonely journey lay through a desert where no water could be obtained.

Abner Nott’s daughter, Rosey, the attractive heiress of the Pontiac, was made of the same heroic stuff. “The Rosey ez I knows,” said her father, “is a little gal whose voice was as steady with Injuns yellin’ round her nest in the leaves on Sweetwater ez in her purty cabin up yonder.” Lanty Foster, too, was of “that same pioneer blood that had never nourished cravens or degenerates, ... whose father’s rifle had been levelled across her cradle, to cover the stealthy Indian who prowled outside.”

It was from these Western and Southwestern emigrants that Bret Harte’s nobler kind of woman, and, in most cases, of man also was drawn. The “great West” furnished his heroic characters, California was only their accidental and temporary abiding-place. These people were of the muscular, farm type, with such health and such nerves as result from an out-door life, from simple, even coarse food, from early hours and abundant sleep.

The Pioneer women did indeed lack education and inherited refinement, as Bret Harte himself occasionally points out. “She brushed the green moss from his sleeve with some towelling, and although this operation brought her so near to him that her breath as soft and warm as the Southwest trades stirred his hair, it was evident that this contiguity was only frontier familiarity, as far removed from conscious coquetry as it was perhaps from educated delicacy."

And yet it is very easy to exaggerate this defect. In most respects the wholesomeness, the democratic sincerity and dignity of Bret Harte’s women, and of his men as well, give them the substantial benefits of gentle blood. Thus he says of one of his characters, “He had that innate respect for the secrets of others which is as inseparable from simplicity as it is from high breeding;” and this remark might have been put in a much more general form. In fact, the essential similarity between simplicity and high breeding runs through the whole nature of Bret Harte’s Pioneers, and perhaps, moreover, explains some obscure points in his own life.

Be this as it may, the defects of Bret Harte’s heroines relate rather to the ornamental than to the indispensable part of life, whereas the qualities in which they excel are those fundamental feminine qualities upon which, in the last analysis, is founded the greatness of nations. A sophisticated reader would be almost sure to underestimate them. Even that English critic who was perhaps his greatest admirer, makes the remark, literally true, but nevertheless misleading, that Bret Harte “did not create a perfectly noble, superior, commanding woman.” No, but he created, or at least sketched, more than one woman of a very noble type. What type of woman is most valuable to the world? Surely that which is fitted to become the mother of heroes; and to that type Bret Harte’s best women belong. They have courage, tenderness, sympathy, the power of self-sacrifice; they have even that strain of fierceness which seems to be inseparable in man or beast from the capacity for deep affection. They have the independence, the innocent audacity, the clear common-sense, the resourcefulness, typical of the American woman, and they have, besides, a depth of feeling which is rather primeval than American, which certainly is not a part of the typical American woman as we know her in the Eastern States.

Perhaps the final test of nobility in man or woman is the capacity to value something, be it honor, affection, or what you will, be it almost anything, but to value something more than life itself; and this is the characteristic of Bret Harte’s heroines. They are as ready to die for love as Juliet was, and along with this abandon they have the coolness, the independence, the practical faculty, which belong to their time and race, but which were not a part of woman’s nature in the age that produced Shakspere’s “unlessoned girl.”

Bret Harte’s heroines have a strong family resemblance to those of both Tourgueneff and Thomas Hardy. In each case the women obey the instinct of love as unreservedly as men of an archaic type obey the instinct of fighting. There is no question with them of material advantage, of wealth, position, or even reputation. Such considerations, so familiar to women of the world, never enter their minds. They love as nature prompts, and having once given their love, they give themselves and everything that they have along with it. There is a magnificent forgetfulness of self about them. This is the way of nature. Nature never counts the cost, never hoards her treasures, but pours them out, to live or die as the case may be, with a profusion which makes the human by-stander economical, poverty-stricken man stand aghast. In Russia this type of woman is frequently found, as Tourgueneff, and to a lesser degree Tolstoi, found her among the upper classes, which have retained a pristine quality long since bred out of the corresponding classes in England and in the United States. For women of the same type in England, Thomas Hardy is forced to look lower down in the social scale; and this probably accounts for the fact that his heroines are seldom drawn from the upper classes.

Women of this kind sometimes fail in point of chastity, but it is a failure due to impulse and affection, not to mere frivolity or sensuality. After all, chastity is only one of the virtues that women owe to themselves and to the race. The chaste woman who coldly marries for money is, as a rule, morally inferior to the unchaste woman who gives up everything for love.

It is to be observed, however, that Bret Harte’s women do not need this defence, for his heroines, with the single exception of the faithful Miggles, are virtuous. The only loose women in Bret Harte’s stories are the obviously bad women, the female “villains” of the play, and they are by no means numerous. Joan, in The Argonauts of North Liberty, the wives of Brown of Calaveras and The Bell-Ringer of Angel’s, respectively, the cold-blooded Mrs. Decker, and Mrs. Burroughs, the pretty, murderous, feline little woman in A Mercury of the Foot-Hills these very nearly exhaust the list. On the other hand, in Thomas Hardy and Tourgueneff, to say nothing of lesser novelists, it is often the heroine herself who falls from virtue. Too much can hardly be made of the moral superiority of Bret Harte’s stories in this respect. It is due, not simply to his own taste and preference, but to the actual state of society in California, which, in this respect as in all others, he faithfully portrayed. The city of San Francisco might have told a different story; but in the mining and agricultural parts of the State the standard of feminine virtue was high. Perhaps this was due, in part at least, to the chivalry of the men reacting upon the women, to that feeling which Bret Harte himself called “the Western-American fetich of the sanctity of sex,” and, again, “the innate Far-Western reverence for women.”

In all European societies, and now, to a lesser degree, in the cities of the United States, every man is, generally speaking, the enemy of every young and good-looking woman, as much as the hunter is the enemy of his game. How vast is the difference between this attitude of men to women and that which Bret Harte describes! The California men, as he says somewhere, “thought it dishonorable and a proof of incompetency to rise by their wives’ superior fortune.” They married for love and nothing else, and their love took the form of reverence.

The complement of this feeling, on the woman’s side, is a maternal, protecting affection, perhaps the noblest passion of which women are capable; and this is the kind of love that Bret Harte’s heroines invariably show. No mother could have watched over her child more tenderly than Cressy over her sweetheart. The cry that came from the lips of the Rose of Tuolumne when she flew to the rescue of her bleeding lover was “the cry of a mother over her stricken babe, of a tigress over her mangled cub.”

Bret Harte’s heroines are almost all of the robust type. A companion picture to the Rose is that of Jinny in the story When the Waters Were Up at “Jules’." “Certainly she was graceful! Her tall, lithe, but beautifully moulded figure, even in its characteristic Southwestern indolence, fell into poses as picturesque as they were unconscious. She lifted the big molasses can from its shelf on the rafters with the attitude of a Greek water-bearer. She upheaved the heavy flour sack to the same secure shelf with the upraised palm of an Egyptian caryatid.”

Trinidad Joe’s daughter, too, was large-limbed, with blue eyes, black brows and white teeth. It was of her that the Doctor said, “If she spoke rustic Greek instead of bad English, and wore a cestus instead of an ill-fitting corset, you’d swear she was a goddess.”

Something more, however, goes to the making of a handsome woman than mere health and muscle. Bret Harte often speaks of the sudden appearance of beauty and refinement among the Western and Southwestern people. Kitty, for example, as the Reader will remember, “was slight, graceful, and self-contained, and moved beside her stumpy commonplace father and her faded commonplace mother, in the dining-room of the Boomville hotel, like some distinguished alien.” In A Vision of the Fountain, Bret Harte, half humorously, suggested an explanation. He speaks of the hero as “a singularly handsome young fellow with one of those ideal faces and figures sometimes seen in Western frontier villages, attributable to no ancestor, but evolved possibly from novels and books devoured by ancestresses in the long, solitary winter evenings of their lonely cabins on the frontier."

It seems more likely, however, that a fortunate environment is the main cause of beauty, a life free from care or annoyance; a deep sense of security; that feeling of self-respect which is produced by the respect of others, and, finally, surroundings which have either the beauty of art or the beauty of nature. These are the very advantages which, with many superficial differences, no doubt, are enjoyed alike by the daughters of frontiersmen and by the daughters of a nobility. On the other hand, they are the very advantages with which the middle class in cities, the cockney class, is almost always obliged to dispense, and that class is conspicuously deficient in beauty. Perhaps no one thing is more conducive to beauty than the absence of those hideous creations known as “social superiors.” Imagine a society in which it would be impossible to make anybody understand what is meant by the word “snob”! And yet such was, and to a considerable extent still is, the society of the Far West and of rural New England.

Bret Harte himself glanced at this subject in describing the Blue-Grass Penelope. “Beautiful she was, but the power of that beauty was limited by being equally shared with her few neighbors. There were small, narrow, arched feet besides her own that trod the uncarpeted floors of outlying cabins with equal grace and dignity; bright, clearly opened eyes that were equally capable of looking unabashed upon princes and potentates, as a few later did, and the heiress of the County judge read her own beauty without envy in the frank glances and unlowered crest of the blacksmith’s daughter.”

No less obvious is the connection of repose with beauty. Beauty springs up naturally among people who know the luxury of repose, and yet are vigorous enough to escape the dangers of sloth. Salomy Jane was lazy as well as handsome, and when we first catch a glimpse of her she is leaning against a door-post, engaged in the restful occupation of chewing gum. The same repose, amounting indeed to indolence, formed the chief charm of Mr. MacGlowrie’s Widow.

Whether or not the landscape plays a part in the production of womanly beauty is a question more open to dispute. Not many persons feel this influence, but, as experience will show, the proportion of country people who feel it is greater than that of city people, although they have considerably less to say upon the subject. The wide, open spaces, the distant horizon, the gathering of storms, the changing green of Spring and Summer, the scarlet and gold of Autumn, the vast expanse of spotless snow glistening in Midwinter, these things must be seen by the countryman, his eyes cannot escape them, and in some cases they will be felt as well as seen. Whoever has travelled a New England country road upon a frosty, moonless night in late October, and has observed the Northern Lights casting a pale, cold radiance through the leafless trees, will surely detect some difference between that method of illumination and a kerosene lantern.

A New England farmer whose home commanded a noble view of mountain, lake and forest was blessed with two daughters noted for their beauty. They grew up and married, but both died young; and many years afterward he was heard to say, as he looked dreamily out from his doorway, “I have often thought that the reason why my girls became beautiful women was that from their earliest childhood they always had this scene before their eyes.” And yet he had never read Wordsworth or Ruskin!

Bret Harte’s heroines enjoyed all the advantages just enumerated as being conducive to beauty, and they escaped contamination from civilization. They were close to nature, and as primitive in their love-affairs as the heroines of Shakspere. “Who ever loved that loved not at first sight!” John Ashe’s betrothed and Ridgeway Dent had known each other a matter of two hours or so, before they exchanged that immortal kiss which nearly cost the lives of both. Two brief meetings, and one of those in the dark, sufficed to win for the brave and clever young deputy sheriff the affections of Lanty Foster. In A Jack and Jill of the Sierras, a handsome girl from the East tumbles over a precipice, and falls upon the recumbent hero, part way down, with such violence as to stun him. This is hardly romantic, but the dangerous and difficult ascent which they make together furnishes the required opportunity. Ten minutes of contiguity suffice, and so well is the girl’s character indicated by a few masterly strokes, that the reader feels no surprise at the result.

And yet there is nothing that savors of coarseness, much less of levity, in these abrupt romances. When Bret Harte’s heroes and heroines meet, it is the coming together of two souls that recognize and attract each other. It is like a stroke of lightning, and is accepted with a primeval simplicity and un-selfconsciousness. The impression is as deep as it is sudden.

What said Juliet of the anonymous young man whom she had known something less than an hour?

“Go, ask his name: if he be married
My grave is like to be my wedding bed.”

So felt Liberty Jones when she exclaimed to Dr. Ruysdael, “I’ll go with you or I’ll die!”

It is this sincerity that sanctifies the rapidity and frankness of Bret Harte’s love-affairs. Genuine passion takes no account of time, and supplies by one instinctive rush of feeling the experience of years. Given the right persons, time becomes as long and as short as eternity. Thus it was with the two lovers who met and parted at midnight on the hilltop. “There they stood alone. There was no sound or motion in earth or woods or heaven. They might have been the one man and woman for whom this goodly earth that lay at their feet, rimmed with the deepest azure, was created. And seeing this they turned toward each other with a sudden instinct, and their hands met, and then their lips in one long kiss.”

But this same perfect understanding may be arrived at in a crowd as well as in solitude. Cressy and the Schoolmaster were mutually aware of each other’s presence at the dance before they had exchanged a look, and when their eyes met it was in “an isolation as supreme as if they had been alone.”

Could any country in the world except our own produce a Cressy! She has all the beauty, much of the refinement, and all the subtle perceptions of a girl belonging to the most sophisticated race and class; and underneath she has the strong, primordial, spontaneous qualities, the wholesome instincts, the courage, the steadfastness of that Pioneer people, that religious, fighting, much-enduring people to whom she belonged.

Cressy is the true child of her father; and there is nothing finer in all Bret Harte than his description of this rough backwoodsman, ferocious in his boundary warfare, and yet full of vague aspirations for his daughter, conscious of his own deficiencies, and oppressed with that melancholy which haunts the man who has outgrown the ideals and conventions of his youth. Hiram McKinstry, compared with the masterful Yuba Bill, the picturesque Hamlin, or the majestic Starbottle, is not an imposing figure; but to have divined him was a greater feat of sympathetic imagination than to have created the others.

It is characteristic, too, of Bret Harte that it is Cressy’s father who is represented as acutely conscious of his own defects in education; whereas her mother remains true to the ancestral type, deeply distrusting her husband’s and her daughter’s innovations. Mrs. McKinstry, as the Reader will remember, “looked upon her daughter’s studies and her husband’s interest in them as weaknesses that might in course of time produce infirmity of homicidal purpose and become enervating of eye and trigger finger.... ’The old man’s worrits hev sorter shook out a little of his sand,’ she had explained.”

Mr. McKinstry, on the other hand, had almost as much devotion to “Kam” as Matthew Arnold had to Culture, and meant very nearly the same thing by it. Thus he said to the Schoolmaster: “’I should be a powerful sight more kam if I knowed that when I was away huntin’ stock or fightin’ stakes with them Harrisons that she was a-settin’ in school with the other children and the birds and the bees, listenin’ to them and to you. Mebbe there’s been a little too many scrimmages goin’ on round the ranch sence she’s been a child; mebbe she orter know sunthin’ more of a man than a feller who sparks her and fights for her.’

“The master was silent. Had this selfish, savage, and literally red-handed frontier brawler been moved by some dumb instinct of the power of gentleness to understand his daughter’s needs better than he?”

Alas that no genius has arisen to write the epic of the West, as Hawthorne and Mary Wilkins and Miss Jewett have written the epic of New England! Bret Harte’s stories of the Western people are true and striking, but his limitations prevented him from giving much more than sketches of them. They are not presented with that fullness which is necessary to make a figure in fiction impress itself upon the popular imagination, and become familiar even to people who have never read the book in which it is contained. Cressy, like the other heroines of Bret Harte, flits across the scene a few times, and we see her no more. Mrs. McKinstry is drawn only in outline; and yet she is a strong, tragic figure, of a type now extinct, or nearly so, as powerful and more sane than Meg Merrilies, and far more worthy of a permanent place in literature.