Voyage to California (35) – 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.


(March 6th) This morning, feeling a desire to devour some fish, I went out to the market, bought some, cleaned them, and cooked them for breakfast.  After breakfast, took a walk around the beach toward the Golden Gate.  The hills in the vicinity of the city are laid off in lots, and a number of them fenced in, some with houses upon them in the ground partially cultivated, in gardens; others had sheep and goats pasturing in them.  I found a number of wildflowers, among them the flag, yellow violet, and buttercups.  Among the scenes partaking of the ludicrous, witnessed today, was a mule on the plaza chewing on an old boot leg.  The expression on his countenance was very serious.

(March 7th) This morning I strolled through the fish and game markets.  The former is well supplied, with sturgeon and a variety of small fish.  The latter with elk, deer, ducks, geese, brant, and quail etc. Among the game was one raccoon.  In conversation about the size of trees in this part of the world, I was informed that there were trees in the Humboldt 99’ in circumference, and one that had been burned out inside, until the cavity was 21’ in diameter.  In the afternoon I engaged passage to San Jose in the “Surprise”, a small craft of 25 tons, Captain West commanding, took my trunks onboard, and left San Francisco about 4 o’clock.  The wind blew strong, and the bay was somewhat rough, but the little vessel danced merrily over the waters, and the motion was rather agreeable than otherwise.  I retired to sleep in the hold of the vessel, and had a little experience of the rats and fleas of California.

Extracts from a letter dated San Jose – 3 Mo.12 (March 12th)

(3rd. Mo. 6th)

(March 6th) I endeavored to learn something about the means of conveyance to San Jose.  There is a daily line by stage direct to the Capital, charge $20, the two lines of steamboats running on alternate days, (first days excepted) to Alviso, connecting there with stages to this place; charge all the way through $16.  Opportunities by sailboats to Alviso are quite frequent.  Finding that I could get passage on one of these, which the captain said was to sail the next day, for $4, and that freight from Alviso to San Jose was but 50 cnts. per 100 lbs.,  I chose this latter method of getting here.  The intervening time was spent in walks about the city and suburbs, conversations with its inhabitants etc.  San Francisco is rapidly advancing in civilization and refinement.  The streets are nearly all graded and planked, with good sidewalks, generally of plank, but occasionally of brick or flat square stones.  As nature has given little but hills to build upon, American enterprise exhibits itself in making use of the bay.  Piles have been driven, and wharfs and buildings erected on them, to a distance of half a mile from the water’s edge.  One called Long Wharf I was told extends a mile beyond high water mark.  They now use the dirt removed in grading the streets, to fill up between the piles, and by thus cutting away the hills on one side of the city, and filling up on the other, are creating a plain, with but very moderate elevations and depressions, on which a handsome city is rising with a rapidity entirely unprecedented.  The streets are wide, and kept tolerably clear of rubbish, the houses, many of them, substantial and elegant, iron, brick, and frame, is abundantly supplied with game, such as deer, elk, ducks and geese of several species, curlew, quails, and fish of various kinds, among which sturgeon and most splendid salmon were conspicuous.  There was also a plenty of good beef, pork, mutton and veal.  Potatoes are tolerably abundant, and I saw cabbage, onions, beets, carrots, and radishes, tho’ not in large quantities.  The three last mentioned were selling at 2 bits or 25 cts.,  a very small bunch of very small vegetables.  Cabbages were 2 bits a head, for a bunch of leaves that we would think had hardly begun to head.  Potatoes I heard were 4 c. per lb., but whether that was for the Sandwich Island or Californian potatoes I cannot tell.  There is generally, I am told, considerable difference, the latter being much superior.  I saw one grizzly bear and one raccoon also in the market.  At one of the stalls where game is sold, they have the stuffed skin of what they call the Californian lion, an animal larger than the panther, but considerably like it in shape, of a light brown, or rather yellowish brown color, and more properly, I should think, a species of panther than lion.

Tomorrow, I’ll begin a wek of letters written in 1943.  Lad is in California and planning a furlough to Trumbull. Dan has been shipped overseas but Grandpa doesn’t know where he is or where he will be stationed, Ced is still in Alaska, Dick is in Brazil and Dave is home in Trumbull, still attending Bassick High School.

Judy Guion


7 thoughts on “Voyage to California (35) – John Jackson Lewis – January to March, 1851

  1. VeraMaureen Jenner says:

    Fascinating to read someone’s first hand experiences of what has become one of the world’s most iconic cities when it was indeed in its infancy. Already human encroachment upon nature and the natural world is manifest in the buildings and what is for sale to those who made those early journeys.

    Doubtless they were brave to face so much of what was unknown, but looking at what it has all become, I sometimes wonder if humans inflicted too much upon, and exploited too quickly, the abundance of such a beautiful country in order to satisfy the human urge to seek the means of making a fortune.

    Nonetheless, this continues to be the most fascinating means of glimpsing history as it was being made, and revealing secrets hitherto completely hidden and only guessed at in films or fiction. This IS the stuff of history, and these letters are well worth archiving in a museum of worth. Thank you so very much for sharing.

  2. Mrs. P says:

    This one is quite interesting for the both of us…you, because it was so close to your mom’s and Alviso is in walking distance to my house in San Jose…I’ve read some of their history and it’s quite interesting. Sailing on the bay…quite windy and wild at times…what an adventure, though his reasoning was more economic.

  3. Valerie says:

    So interesting to read about the alterations to the landscape, and the reclaimed land in San Francisco.
    Of course, that land did not fare so well in the 1906 earthquake, as it was subject to liquefaction and instability.
    But they could not have known that in the mid-nineteenth century.

    • Judy Guion says:

      Valerie – So very true, but also consistent with alterations to the landscape by man. There are many times when what man has done created drawbacks and catastrophes. Not everyone looks ahead to the future impact.

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