Voyage to California (43b) – John Jackson Lewis – Description of the San Jose Valley

This is the second  section (of three) of a letter from John Jackson Lewis  to Edward, dated May 8th, 1851, describing the San Jose Valley and what he can see from his brother William’s farm. This sketch was made by John Jackson Lewis and enclosed with the letter.


Between us and the coast range the view across the plain is uninterrupted, saved by occasional patches of oak timber, the nearest of them distant from 2 to 5 miles.  Some distance up the valley where the ground begins to rise, there is a large body of timber, but in general, timber is very scarce on the plain except immediately along the streams. Three weeks ago the plain in front of us was covered for miles with yellow daisy in full bloom, now the flowers are chiefly gone, and the seed vessels mingled with the dying grass have changed its color to a kind of mixed green and brown, while between that and the low hills at the base of the mountain there is an extensive plain now covered with mustard in full bloom.  These mountains at this distance present the appearance of a mighty bank of hills commencing with small ones and rising gradually until they reach the height of 3600 feet above the level of the ocean.  They are mostly destitute of timber, but some of them are thinly timbered to their very summit, and in some places solitary trees stand out in bold relief between us and the horizon.  In many places dark lines of timber, indicating the courses of the mountain streams, wind their serpentine courses down the sides of the mountains, sometimes losing themselves behind the hills, and again emerging from their retreat, until they reach the valley.  The hills nearest us generally present a rounded appearance, gradually becoming more precipitous and abrupt as they approach the mountains, and are mostly covered with wild oats, but in some places considerable patches of bright yellow have made their appearance within a week or two; these I supposed to be mustard.  These hills are continually changing in color, and I understand will continue to change through the summer.  In the spring some of them were covered with wild oats that escaped the fires last summer, while others that the fires had cleared were green with the young oats.  Through the summer we shall have the various changes produced by the different stages of growth, and also those produced by the fires which almost invariably clear off a portion of this valley annually; but of these when I witness them.  I often look at these mountains and long to scale their rugged sides, to stand on the summit of the loftiest, and enjoy the prospect that I know would lie before me, a prominent feature of which would probably be the great Sierra.  On the side of the house next to the Santa Cruz Mountains, the first object that meets the eye is a tract of perhaps 100 acres of mustard in full bloom, between us and the creek.  Beyond the mustard the line of trees that mark the course of the Coyote half a mile distant, meets the eye.  From the rise in the ground to the creek and the falling away on the other side, the plain itself is hidden from our view; but immediately opposite to us, where the trees along the Coyote admit of seeing between them, a dense body of timber and thicket along a branch of the Guadalupe, distant a mile from the Coyote, completely cuts off any further view of the low lands. One or two miles up the valley, the hills, which are called low, but which one finds pretty high and steep when he undertakes to climb them, commence.  These or the one I was on, consist of a hard gravelly soil, with a very scanty vegetation.  Some of them have a few small, stunted live oaks and a species of the horse chestnut upon them, but generally they are destitute even of these, while high above the hill and wood, frowns the dark mass of the Santa Cruz Mountains.  These are clothed with Redwood or Cedar, to their summits, gives them a dark, gloomy appearance.  On looking towards them, my first impression is still, nearly always, that a tremendously black thundercloud is rising in that quarter.  There is a high peaked among them, which S. Day, Wm.  and myself would all like to visit, and we may possibly do it if a slack time ever comes to us.  From it we could probably see far out on the Pacific, and get a fine view of the Bay, the valley of San Jose, the Coast Range etc. etc., ad infinitum, and I don’t know much else.  This peak, I suppose, is not more than 20 or 25 miles distant. Wm.  and I have projected a ride over the mountains to Santa Cruz, where Mrs. Farnham resides, but when we shall get it accomplished is uncertain.

On Sunday, the first part of a two-part tribute to My Ancestors, Lad and Marian Guion, my Mom and Dad.

Starting on Monday, a week of letters written in 1943. Plans are solidifying quickly for Lad and Marian. 

Judy Guion



6 thoughts on “Voyage to California (43b) – John Jackson Lewis – Description of the San Jose Valley

  1. Reblogged this on Musings of a Penpusher and commented:
    Fascinating glimpses of real family history

  2. It makes fascinating reading that really comes alive.

    • Judy Guion says:

      Maureen – John Jackson had a sharp eye and was able to show us what he was seeing with his words. I’m glad you are enjoying the stories from John Jackson Lewis.

  3. I love how he describes the changing colors of the mountains. It shows a real appreciation of the land.

    • Judy Guion says:

      Liz – That is for sure. You do not need to have visited California to “see” what it is like. John Jackson Lewis has done a great job im painting a picture for us.

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