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Sunday, February 08, 2004

Flood sweeps away investment

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

Wilson family then obliged to start life all over again

My last column talked about Luzena Stanley Wilson and Mason Wilson’s overland journey to California. The information is based on Luzena’s memoirs and the research by Fern Henry in her new book “My Checkered Life: Luzena Stanley Wilson in Early California.”

After a five-month-long, arduous journey across the plains, desert and the Sierra Nevada, the Wilson family finally reached Sacramento on Sept. 30, 1849.

Since April of that year, Sacramento had grown from 150 inhabitants to between 2,000 to 5,000. Within the next month, November 1849, the numbers would increase to 10,000. Most people lived in tents and open campsites, with few other accommodations available. Sanitary conditions and other services were rudimentary at best.

Within days of their arrival, the Wilson’s sold their oxen on the open market for $600 and bought part of a building at the corner of today’s K and Sixth streets. In their two rooms, a “general living room” and a kitchen, they operated the “Trumbow Hotel.”

Luzena’s description recalled the grim realities of these boarding houses and hotels, mirroring similar accounts of other pioneers: “I thought I had already grown accustomed to the queer scenes around me, but that first glimpse into a Sacramento hotel was a picture which only loss of memory can efface.

“Imagine a long room, dimly lit-by dripping tallow candles stuck into whisky bottles, with bunks built from floor to ceiling on either side. A bar with rows of bottles and glasses was in one corner, and two or three miners were drinking; the barkeeper dressed in half sailor, half vaquero fashion, with a blue shirt rolled far back at the collar to display the snowy linen beneath, and his waist encircled by a flaming scarlet sash, was in commanding tones subduing their noisy demands, for the barkeeper, next to the stage-driver, was in the early days the most important man in camp.

“In the opposite corner of the room, some men were having a wordy dispute over a game of cards; a cracked fiddle was, under the manipulation of rather clumsy fingers, furnishing music for some half dozen others to dance to the tune of ‘Moneymusk.’ One young man was reading a letter by a sputtering candle, and tears rolling down his yet unbearded face told of the homesickness in his heart.

“Some of the men lay sick in their bunks, some lay asleep, and out from another bunk, upon this curious mingling of merriment and sadness stared the white face of a corpse ...”

It was a harsh society during those first couple of years, each person fighting for survival, yet surprisingly without many incidents of real crime.

Luzena attracted much notice as one of the small number of women who had made the overland trip. Within days, she realized how highly sought after her skills were. Homesick miners were prepared to pay handsomely for home-cooked food, and Luzena quickly set up her cooking establishment.

“It was a motley crowd that gathered every day at my table,” she remembered, “but always at my coming, the loud voices were hushed, the swearing ceased, the quarrels stopped and respect were as readily and heartily tendered me as if I had been a queen. I was a queen. Any woman who had a womanly heart, who spoke a kindly, sympathetic word to the lonely, homesick men, was a queen ...”

Most food items had to be imported, shipped from the East Coast around the horn. Variety was limited to flour, beans, salted pork, yams, and other, similar staples. Fresh items like milk, fruit or vegetables sold for exorbitant prices, all paid in gold and gold dust.

Much of the shipped provisions were in bad shape by the time they reached California. Luzena described in her memoirs how “The butter was brown from age and had spent a year on the way out to California. I once endeavored to freshen some of this butter by washing it first in chloride of lime, and afterwards churning it with fresh milk. I improved it in a measure, for it became white, but still retained its strength. It was, however, such a superior article to the original “Boston” butter, that my boarders ate it as a luxury.”

She still had her “mulley” cow and “I sold what little milk was left from my children’s meals for the enormous price of a dollar a pint. Many a sick man has come to me for a little porridge, half milk, half water, and thickened with flour, and paid me a dollar and a half a bowl full.”

Within two months, Luzena and Mason had nearly doubled the original purchase price of their hotel. They decided to sell it for $1,000, moved down K Street back into a canvas tent house and invested their money into barley, at 15 cents a pound, a profitable commodity.

The very next day, it began to rain, the beginning of a long and rainy winter. “We slept with a cotton umbrella, a veritable pioneer, spread over our heads to keep off the water. For days it rained incessantly; the streets ran full of water. Men and animals struggled through a sea of mud. We wrung out our blankets every morning, and warmed them by the fire - they never had time to dry. The canvas roof seemed like a sieve, and water dropped on us through every crevice.”

Worse was to come. Warm weather melted the Sierra snow pack early and on Jan. 9, 1850, “the familiar clang of the Crier’s bell was heard down the street, and as he galloped past, the cry, ‘The levee’s broke’ fell on our ears.”

A temporary sandbag barrier against the American River had given way, flooding Sacramento within an hour, washing away campsites and canvas houses. Luzena and Mason were able to retreat to their previously owned hotel, moving up floor by floor to avoid the rising flood.

“The place where we had taken refuge was one long room, a half story with a window at each side; and here for several days lived forty people,” Luzena recalled. “For provisions, we caught sacks of onions or boxes of anything which went floating by, or fished up with boat-hooks whatever we could ... Those were days of terror and fear, for at every minute we expected to follow the zinc house we saw float away on the flood.”

Another pioneer, Stephen Massett, summed it up in a more humorous way: “Those people who were lucky enough to own a house lived and slept on the roof - cooked on the roof - made calls on the roof - drank on the roof - prayed on the roof - laughed and joked on the roof - sang on the roof - took a bath on the roof - cursed the gold fields on the roof - wished they were back in New York on the roof - got married on the roof - wrote letters on the roof - and thought they’d never get off the roof!”

It took 17 days before the Wilson family could leave their refuge. By then, the waters had destroyed their barley investment. With all their possessions gone, except the mulley cow, which miraculously survived, they had to start over again.

My next column will continue Luzena and Mason Wilson’s story from

Fern Henry’s, “My Checkered Life: Luzenia Stanley Wilson in Early California. Her Overland Journey plus Pioneer Life in Vacaville, Sacramento & Nevada City,” Carl Mautz Publishing, 2003, is available at the Vacaville Museum Gift Store, from Carl Mautz Publisher, or can be ordered through any book dealer.