Voyage to California (7) – John Jackson Lewis – January to March, 1851

(1) John Jackson Lewis, (2) Edith May (Lewis) Rider, (3) Marian Faith (Rider) Irwin, (4) Marian Dunlop (Irwin) Guion, (5) Judith Anne Guion.

The following are transcriptions of John Jackson Lewis’s diary and journal of his voyage to California in 1851. He was going from New York to visit his older brother William in San Jose.


(Feb.)  7th.  Arrived at Chagres at 1:30 P.M., and were quickly surrounded by small boats from the shore. Engaged a passage in one for $1 and set out. The old Fort, the tropical vegetation, the little fleet of boats and canoes of many different sizes, shapes and structure, the different kinds of people who propel them, the curious little town and the crowds who thronged the shore, all conspired to make the scene at landing novel, picturesque, and beautiful. Procured a passage to Gorgona, and after considerable delay, got started up the river. Night was closing in when we set off, so that but little could be seen, but the stillness of the night, the noises of various insects, and the very motion of the boat, so different from the rolling of the steamer, made the traveling quite pleasant. We arrived at Gatun about 8 miles from Chagres, and stopped for the night. Gatun is a village composed of a few straggling huts built after the fashion of the country, that is, cane, thatched with palm leaves. We passengers, 9 in number, and the captain of the boat, all slept on board, storing ourselves away among the baggage as best we could. On first landing from the steamer today and attempting to walk on shore, I felt as if the ground was in motion under me, and it was not without some difficulty that I could walk steadily.


7th.The coast was visible on our left from an early hour this morning; before noon it was visible directly ahead, & at half past one, the rattling of the chain cable and the report of the ship’s cannon, announced that our journeying in the Cherokee * , for this time at least, was ended. The view from the deck of the Cherokee was quite a pleasant one. To our left, at a distance of 8 miles, the buildings of the Panama Railroad Company were plainly visible. In front was a rocky, precipitous coast, crowned by the old deserted castle. A little to the right of the castle, the new town of Chagres, with the shipping in front of it, was discernible. Still farther to the right, the coast stretched away in a line of hills covered with vegetation. The anchor had hardly been cast before boats were seen coming off from shore, and in a short time we had several along side. The first boat that reached us was from one of the steamers, of which there were four lying at anchor at no great distance. It contained some of the officers of the boat, who came over, I suppose, to exchange salutations with the officers of the Cherokee. Our business was with those who came from shore, and a driving of bargains quickly commenced with them. I don’t know that anything was gained, however, by bargaining, for the only prices I heard asked were those which were finally paid. (The Ships Company paid one dollar towards putting us ashore, and it cost us one dollar more each, making a charge of two dollars per man for being rowed about 1 mile.) Six of us had joined together for the passage of the Isthmus, and after considerable delay, we, with a number of others and our baggage, were at length placed in one of the boats. Getting into the boats from the vessel was rather a delicate operation. The ship was anchored about a mile from the shore, where the waves were high enough to keep it constantly in motion, and of course knocked a small boat about a good deal worse, so that in spite of the men in it holding onto a rope letdown for the purpose, one minute it would be up almost against the ship’s side, and the rebound of the wave would send it 6 or 8 feet from it. A little care was therefore necessary to see that the boat was under us and not somewhere else when we stepped off the ladder. We at length left the ship’s side, however, with nothing worse than an occasional shower of spray from the waves that struck the vessel, and once away from it, the trouble with the waves was over: the boat rode them finally, and the light, easy motion, after the heavy role of the ship, was quite exhilarating. In a short time we entered the Chagres River, passed the old castle, situated on its right bank, and came in full view of both the old and new Chagres, one to the right, the other on the left bank of the river. There was a number of small vessels, which I suppose had entered the river at high tide, lying moored at the shore, and a large number of whale boats, common boats, flat-bottomed boats, canoes, hollow logs and all sorts of nondescript water vehicles, tied fast or moving about in various directions. Some were manned by men who probably once passed for white; others by men of various shades, from the indisputably black to the Creole; and a few little canoes were floating about, navigated entirely by native señoritas. The new town of Chagres contains a number of frame sheds, termed hotels, eating houses etc., For the floors of which the proprietors have nobody to think but Mother Earth, and a considerable number of dwellings built after the fashion of the natives, i.e. cane, roofed with palm leaves. After considerable time spent in bargaining, and taking three more into our original company of six, we finally made an arrangement with a boat man to land us and our baggage ([at Gorgona]. After making our bargain, getting our baggage on board, our company, together, ready to start, and paying half the fare, our captain vamoosed, under the plea of getting provisions for the voyage, and remained absent for what seemed to us a long time. At length, however, he came, and we pushed off, but now came a new trial of our patience. The captain said we had to go over to the old town of Chagres for his crew, (consisting of two men) to get their provisions, so there we went, and spent near another hour waiting for them; and it was after sundown when we finally started up the river. I must however, do the captain the justice to say that he has since been faithful to his promises, and prompt in starting after our stoppages, and his men have worked hard and consistently. Our men rowed us this evening a distance of 8 miles to Gatun, a little town of cane houses, here we stopped for the night. The lateness of the hour precluded the idea of taking a view of the town, so we soon set about making arrangements for sleeping in the boat. This was no very easy matter, there being nine of us and the captain, and our boat nearly half full of luggage. The difficulty of the undertaking was also increased by the arrivals of other boats until a late hour, and the exclamations of those in uneasy situations, both in our own boat and those alongside. There was a little dozing, but not much sleeping, done during the night, and the next morning, we were off again before daylight.

1245 tons, length 210.7 ft x beam 35.3 ft, wooden hull, side paddle wheels, three masts. Launched 12th Jun.1848 by William H.Webb, New York for the New York & Savannah SN Co. and sailed for Savannah on 3rd Oct.1848. Purchased by Howard & Aspinwall, she was used on their New York – Chagres Line from 13th Dec.1849. She burned at her dock at the foot of Warren Street, New York on 27th Aug.1853, scuttled and later re-floated, she did not re-enter the Chagres service and was owned by the United States Mail SS Co. in 1855.

This information was recorded in a comment from an earlier post about John Jackson Lewis’s Voyage to California, from a fellow Blogger, Mrs. P, (, who has a remarkable knack for finding things on the internet. I could never match her expertise.

Tomorrow, I’ll begin posting a week of letters written in 1943. Life is getting interesting for Lad in California.

Judy Guion

3 thoughts on “Voyage to California (7) – John Jackson Lewis – January to March, 1851

  1. Mrs. P says:

    He did an excellent job at describing what he saw. I. This link, under early history, you will see it described just this way. This is a fantastic record of a trip that would soon be outmoded by the railroad. Another priceless gem in your box of letters.

    Thanks for the shout out…just call me curious!ún

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