Voyage to California (30) – John Jackson Lewis – January to March, 1851

(1) John Jackson Lewis, (2) Edith May (Lewis) Rider, (3) Marian Faith (Rider) Irwin, (4) Marian Dunlap (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 travelling  from New York to visit his older brother William in San Jose.


The steamer held up last night, for a time, to avoid passing the entrance to the harbor of San Diego in the dark.  Arrived at San Diego about 7 o’clock.  The passengers were not permitted to land, the object in stopping, being to deliver the U.  S. mail and obtain some provisions.  The Bay of San Diego looked very beautiful in the stillness and brightness of a quiet, bright, Sabbath morning.  Numerous whales were spouting lazily about the entrance, and a multitude of seagulls were hovering above the ship, or floating on the smooth surface of the bay.  There were but few houses near where the steamer stopped, the principal town being at another and distant part of the bay.  The attempt to fire the cannon on entering the harbor  resulted in a “flash in the pan” and it is reported that on examining the weapon afterwards, it was found to be well shotted with grape.  It is probably that no harm would have resulted from a discharge but the experiment was an unwise one.  The scanty supply, at breakfast created general dissatisfaction; complaint was made to the Captain.  The cook and butcher overhauled, and the result was, the butcher was ordered to furnish pork steak and the cook to prepare it until all were satisfied.  This and a fresh supply of potatoes from San Diego restored the equality of the hungry ones.  Lights were prohibited in the steerage after bedtime, consequently, there was no more gambling.  The voyage was resumed about 10 o’clock A.M.


The monte bank was not opened last night, but gambling with cards was substituted, and continued until 3 o’clock this morning.  The opponent of the banker then discovered, or professed to have discovered, that the other had cards concealed in his bosom, to be used as occasion required.  He instantly seized the handkerchief of money, but the banker scraped it out of his hands upon the cabin floor, and secured all he could find of it.  The unfortunate young man was very wroth, but he received little sympathy from his fellow passengers, and was obliged to bear his loss as best he could.  The result of this row was a complaint to the mate, and to day a notice appeared that no lights would be permitted in the steerage after 9 o’clock, without the permission of the captain.  The mate says the gambling shall be stopped.

For fear of passing San Diego in the darkness, the steamer lay to for two or three hours, but when daylight appeared, proceeded, and arrived in San Diego at 8 o’clock.  The attempt to fire the cannon was made while we were at breakfast, but owing to the powder having taken some moisture, produced nothing more than a fizzing at the touch- hole.  One of the passengers sarcastically suggested that they were short of powder too, and didn’t put enough in to make a loud report.  To understand this sarcasm it is necessary to know that the potatoes had given out, that we are stinted in our supply of water, that when mush or duff comes on the table, there is never enough for all, that there are rarely cups of any kind sufficient to allow all tea or coffee, and some 4 or 5 are always left un-supplied with knives or forks.  Sometimes some would find a knife and no fork at their plate, and others a fork and no knife, while others might congratulate themselves on their good fortune if they succeeded in obtaining a spoon to eat the meat and potatoes with.  While the potatoes lasted, we have them, hard bread, and beef roasted or fired at almost every meal.  In addition to these we frequently had codfish or shad for breakfast, boiled rice for dinner, and cold salt pork for supper.  Twice a week mush for breakfast and duff for dinner was the rule, and occasionally we had pork steak for breakfast and roast pork for dinner.  Coffee for breakfast and tea for supper, with sugar plenty to sweeten it with, was an everyday rule, and the table was plentifully supplied with molasses at every meal. This sounds like fare sufficient for reasonable men, but as I have before intimated, there were some drawbacks.  The bread was good of its kind, but it comes in flat, hard cakes, without rising or shortening, is not half as good as crackers, and I soon became very tired of it.  The beef was always the rough parts of the beef, very poor, and frequently very tough.  The rice was always exceedingly dirty, and full of husks.  The coffee and tea were frequently very poor, and made of water that wouldn’t have been hurt by straining or filtering, and served up in tin cups that needed scouring pretty badly.  The potatoes were pretty good, and luckily were boiled with the skins on; it kept the dirt on the outside.  The water that we had to drink was kept in an iron tank, and whenever the sea was rough, became stirred up so as to be colored pretty deeply with iron rust.  The mush and pork did not show dirt, and were very good, what there was of them.  Duff is a kind of light flour pudding, pretty well filled with dried currants.  Having never met with the article before, I was no judge of the quality, but one of my companions assured me that it was poorly made.  Our table accommodates about 30 persons at a time, and there are about 70 steerage passengers.  This morning, mush and pork steak was the chief attraction.  My seat was at one end of the table.  I secured a reasonable portion of mush, but the dish of pork steak only reached within about 6 feet of me, when the steak disappeared as if by magic.  There were but two common-sized dishes of steak furnished for 30 men, so I concluded, perforce, to contend myself with mush and molasses.  By the time the third table was set, neither mush nor steak could be obtained, and some of the hungry ones proceeded to make complaint to the head steward and purser.  The mate attempted to talk to the steerage cook, but received only abusive language in return.  The captain was called, the cook received a scolding, the butcher was ordered to furnish plenty of steak and the cook to cook it immediately, and a number of us soon sat down to a second breakfast, and had pork steak in abundance.  The unusual abundance at dinner was very gratifying, nor have we suffered from scarcity since.  It may be mentioned here that an additional supply of potatoes was obtained at San Diego.

The vessel only stopped at San Diego to leave the mail, and we were not permitted to land.  The bay is small but quite handsome, and had a curious sand-bank which forms a natural breakwater.  The town contains about 15 buildings, dwelling houses and sheds all counted.  They looked very bare and exposed to the sun, without a solitary tree to make a particle of shade.  3 small vessels lay at anchor near the town.  Whales were quite numerous at the entrance of the harbor, and birds that I suppose to be sea gulls were very numerous in the bay.  Altogether the scene was one of considerable beauty.  We left the place at 10 o’clock, and proceeded up the coast.  During the afternoon we passed several mountains, crested with snow, the first that we have seen.  Owing to illness among the steerage passengers, the lights were not extinguished as we expected, but the gambling was not attempted, and a watch was set by the mate, and kept up throughout the night.

Tomorrow, another post entitled My Ancestors. This one is about my great-grandfather, Alfred Beck Guion. He was the ninth child and fifth son of Elijah and Clara Maria de los Dolores Marina de Beck Guion. He was also the father of Grandpa.

Slight change of schedule – the post about Alfred Beck Guion will be posted next Sunday. Tomorrow, I’ll be posting pictures of Elijah Guion and Clara Maria de los Dolores de Beck Guion.

On Monday, I’ll spend a week posting sections of the Reminiscences of Alfred D Guion, Grandpa’s memories of his early life.

Judy Guion


3 thoughts on “Voyage to California (30) – John Jackson Lewis – January to March, 1851

  1. Reblogged this on Musings of a Penpusher and commented:
    The early travellers certainly had amazing appetites. I guess the pangs of hunger make all men (and women) bold.

  2. Those early travellers certainly had amazing appetites. I guess the pangs of hunger make all men (and women) bold.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.