Voyage to California (9) – by 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.


Started at daylight, and stopped to breakfast at an old scow, that had been fastened, high and dry on the bank, and converted into an eating house. In the course of the morning, several of us took a walk of several miles on shore. In the course of the walk, saw an alligator, also several well-beaten paths made by ants. (?) Lizards from 6 in. to 1 foot in length were numerous. During the day we saw a few monkeys, some iguanas (?), and numerous parrots and paraquets. Before reaching Gorgona passed a ________ banana plantation, ¼ of a mile in length, reaching Gorgona at 3 o’clock. At G is a fine circular beach, covered with gravel. G is situated on a hill, and commands a fine view of the hills and valleys around. Hotels and eating houses, of course, are sufficiently abundant. I contracted to have my baggage conveyed to Panama for 8$ per hundred, took a bath in the Chagres River, and took lodgings at an American hotel.


Started at daylight and proceeded up the river. Our stopping place this morning was an old scow that had probably been landed on the bank during high water, and then dragged to its present position and labeled “Hotel”. I here procured a cup of coffee to make my crackers, dried beef and cakes go down better. I helped myself pretty liberally to sweetening, and succeeded in making it quite palatable. We saw two or three monkeys on the trees in the woods in the course of the morning, and they were the first and only wild ones I have seen in the course of the journey. The boatmen say they have been frightened away from the immediate vicinity of the river by the constant travel upon it. We also saw a few iguanas along the river’s edge; they are ugly reptiles, something between a lizard and an alligator. A lizard about 10 inches or a foot in length is quite numerous along the edge of the water. They are very quick in their motions. I had three walks on shore today; one across a bend in the river; the other two were taken with a view to lighten the boat in order to facilitate the passage over some rapids. The first walk extended to a distance I suppose, of some three or four miles, and in the course of it I was so fortunate as to obtain a glimpse of a real, live, wild alligator. He was in a quiet, secluded spot in a kind of gulch or bayou, away from the river a short distance. I saw part of his head, back, and tail, above the water, but he sank almost immediately, and I saw him no more. Large paths made by ants were quite numerous in the course of this walk. They are very much such paths as sheep make through the bushes at home, except that the surface is even, and the tracks not perceptible to the naked eye. The ants that make them are not larger than the common large black ant of Chester County. At one place where we designed walking, the water was so shallow that the boat could not go close enough to land us, so the captain took us, one at a time, on his back, and landed us dry shod. A short time before reaching Gorgona, we passed a banana plantation about one quarter of a mile in length; how far back it extended I could not tell, in consequence of the height of the river banks. The banana is a large, strong looking plant, with a stalk about as thick as a man’s thigh, rising to the height of eight or nine feet, surmounted by the leaves and fruit all clustered together. The leaf is some 2 or 2 ½ feet in length by 8 or 11 inches in width, and the fruit, as we saw it, about the size of a large Pennock apple, the shape of a pair with the stem at the large end, and of a purple color. We reached Gorgona about 3 o’clock, and I paid two of the natives two times each for carrying my trunks up to a hotel. Finding Transportation Company to send their baggage across, I concluded to send mine the same way. I accordingly took it to the office and had it weighed. The charge was eight cents per lb. and mine amounted to $13.36, half to be paid at the office, balance on delivery in Panama. After getting the contract completed, I returned to the hotel and got my dinner, for which I paid $0.75. Some of the company started off this evening, intending to walk to the first public house, distant some six or eight miles. I and two others, wishing to go with our baggage, concluded to stay till morning. I took a bath in the Chagres River and retired to rest in an airy apartment, in which sleeping accommodations were arranged very much like berths on ship board. For the first time since leaving New York, I had a place to sleep that was stationary, and I slept very comfortably. The town of Gorgona is situated upon a hill, and commands a very pretty little view of a valley and the hills beyond it, and of a circular bend of the river at the foot of the hill. It is said to be one of the healthiest places on the Isthmus. We were told by a resident there, that there were but two deaths from cholera there during the prevalence of that disease in the country. A fire occurred there about two weeks since, which destroyed a number of buildings, but it is still quite an extensive place for this country. There are two or three hotels kept by Americans, and they are thronged with customers. The food furnished is rough but substantial: charges $0.75 a meal; $0.50 for a nights lodging.


7 thoughts on “Voyage to California (9) – by John Jackson Lewis – January to March, 1851

  1. M.B. Henry says:

    What an adventure! Neat glimpse into a very bygone era!

  2. So many great images in the account! My favorite is the captain carrying the passengers on his back to keep their feet dry.

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