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Abner H. Francis to Frederick Douglass, July 1851


Sketches from California.

Number I.

San Francisco, July, 1851.

F. Douglass: Dear Friend:—In my knee sketches to you, I left you on the Caribbian Sea, a few hours sail from Chagres. The Steamer Prometheus anchored 1½ miles of Chagres on Sunday morning, June 22d, at 5 o'clock. There being no wharfs at this place, our Steamer was soon surrounded with the natives in their small boats, to convey passengers to the Town at the established price of $2 per head. The Natives are colored, and speak but little else save Spanish.—The ancient appearance of this old Spanish Town shows itself as you pass in under the time worn Fort Lorenzo, taken in 1950 by Spanish Buccaneers, built of dark brown stone, elevated high in air, evidencing its formidable appearance to all intruders. Some marks are yet seen of the past, as you see stationed on the various platforms, Spanish Officers in their peculiar dress, representing those scenes of early times, so excitingly set forth in the history of this doomed country. It would be vain to attempt a description of life in this distressed looking Town. At the first view you behold several hundred houses, built principally with poles and thatched roofs, representing the top of a New Jersey sugar loaf grain stack, covered with Turkey Buzzards, which are domesticated like door fowls. You are subject to a fine for killing one of them. It is difficult for me to conceive what they subsisted upon prior to the California Emigration, from the fact that the whole business of the place rests on accommodating and conveying passengers up the


River. Chagres is undoubtedly an unhealthy place, but not bearing the marks of it to the extent I supposed from the apperance of the people. Neither did I witness any evidence of that reckless bloodthirsty spirit so often represented. A party of nineteen, myself included, left the same day for Gorgona, and Cru[c]es in a small boat, manned by four natives. The River being high, it occupied three days to go 60 miles. Were it not for the uncomfortable position under which we were placed by sleeping in our open boats, the voyage up this river might safely be termed the most pleasant of my journey from Buffalo to this City. The picturesque view in ascending this River I have not powers to describe. The River reminds me of the Mohawk in its windings. It appears like passing into some fairy land. The shores on either side are lined with trees, shrubbery, and wild fruit of the tropics, lemons, oranges, banannas, cocoanuts, palm, and callabash trees. They you see a species of the mangrove tree, with complicated roots, producing an eternal labyrinth. Parrots were there, apparently mocking the fantastic appearance of our motley crew. Monkeys chattered and grimaced, looking like fiends from Pandemonium. Now and then a reptile would slide down the slimy banks into the water, or an alligator would lay basking on the borders of the stream, ready to seize any incautious object as it approached. There are many small villages and plantations on this river: yet American industry is not here. In regard to dress they pay but little attention; many think it most comfortable to wear no clothing. There is no sabbath recognized here except for


pleasure, such as card playing, cock fighting, fandangoes, &c., &c. It is now what is called the rainy season. I have experienced no heat equal to what I have felt at home in July and August. Traveling in this country is very expensive. All that you can get on the river to eat or drink is a cup of bad coffee or tea, no milk, bad ham and bad bread, no vegetables $1 per meal. I reached Gorgona in the afternoon, and found it a miserable gambling, thieving, God-forsaken place. I soon left for Cruces, six miles above, from which point the majority prefered to start across the Isthmus, (more properly speaking, [Alps] of New Grenada). We arrived at Cruces in the early part of the evening. The natives on the day I arrived had a great parade, and were closing it up with drinking, fandangoes, gambling, fighting, and every thing conceivably wicked. Three or four hundred Americans had also arrived bound to and from the El Dorado. They, if possible, exceeded the natives in all that is disrespectable.—Here I was compelled to stay the night.—Some 25 or 30 obtained the loft of a shanty and permission to lay on the floor for 50 cents apiece. It rocked like a cradle. With grasped weapons, we tried to sleep amid the noise of Bacchanalians beneath and around us.— Morning came. Baggage entered for about fifty in the Express office, to be sent on by the mule train at $8 per hundred, and off we started in good cheer to walk the balance of the distance, twenty-five miles, which separates the two great waters, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As we pursued our journey, more intricate and terrible was the scene before us. At first you might be cheered by a beautiful


stream making its way across our path, (looking ahead like a beautiful macadamised road) inviting the thirsty traveller to partake and be comforted, while the next curve would open before you a steep ascent. The timid beholder at once would be struck with awe inconceivable. Here, by placing your feet in the footsteps of the mules, where they have by centuries of traveling worn holes in the rock as complete as the chisel of the Artist could make them, step by step the weary traveler must ascend. This reminded me of the company in advance of Bonapart, cutting holes in the ice that the army might reach some pass of the Alpine regions. After we had reached the summit, we looked down a descent, equally terrible, and witnessed, as if by some convulsion of nature, rocks of almost every conceivable size, thrown in all directions, looking as if utterly impossible for man or beast to pass over it. Down here you must plunge, tumble, or roll, till you reach the base; then you may be treated to half a mile or more of red mud from one to three feet deep, into which you must enter or die. Judge then the effect on one not accustomed to severe hardships, to effect this pass in one day, (which for your safety ought to be accomplished.) There are four or five stopping places, but you can get no nourishment fit to partake. I found myself unable to perform the journey, and offered $10 for a mule to carry me five miles, but to no effect so that six miles from Panama a few of the company joined me and we put up for night.—The proprietor was a fine looking old Spaniard, standing six feet and weighing about 240 pound, with a forehead bespeaking intelligence, and eye donoting kindness but determination. I felt at once that I could rely


upon him. His partner was a white young man from Massachusetts. Every look betrayed the traitor and assassin. Some peculiar conduct through the night served to warrant this conclusion; but our party was strong, and each man sleeping upon his weapons. I found the old gentleman quite intelligent and a politician. Through an interpreter, I conversed much with him, told him I was an American and opposed to American Slavery. He arose and took my hand, and with a hearty shake exclaimed, "Bueno Bueno"—"good, good;" that on the coming 4th of July their country would be entirely free. It seems that in New Grenada the relic of servitude exists which at the coming 4th is entirely abolished. He wished that the friends of freedom in America would soon witness the same results. The wife of the old gentleman was quite a young senoreta. She played upon the guitar and sung some pieces, in which I was enabled to accompany her. In this way the early part of the evening was spent quite agreeably, to me at least, for I fancied myself Mungo Park, faint and weary among strangers. By touching the weak spot of a Spaniard (flattering him) the old gentleman felt just as I did myself in the morning, loth to part. Nevertheless I hope I have left forever that mountain pass. In the morning we pursued our journey six miles to Panama. The last six miles were the best of the journey. When four miles from Panama, we met four desperate looking fellows, armed to the teeth, (Americans). About one hour after they passed us they blackened their faces, and meeting two men, Jews, shot one through the arm


and robbed them. Had not our party been twice their number, and many carrying their weapons in their hands, we should no doubt have shared the same fate. I arrived in Panama about 10 o'clock, June 25th. There is but little to attract the attention of an American in this city. It contains a population from eight to ten thousand. The public buildings, churches, and all else beside, seem running rapidly to decay. That degrading system of Priest craft, holds undisputed sway. Therefore you see a large number of Padres, Priests, living in luxury, strolling around the streets, attending cock and bull fights, drinking, &c., &c. To see gentlemen in their long robes and unwieldy hats, resembling those worn by the Americans in their continental service, thus spending their days, as examples of christian piety, almoners of the race, to my mind is horrible; although I have no doubt they will comport favorably by the side of thousands of American christian teachers. They had quite a fantastic parade one day while I was in the city of Panama.

A. H. Francis.



Sketches from California.

Number III.

San Francisco, July, 1851.

A few miles out from Mazatlan, opposite Cape St. Lucas and near the Gulf of California the weather changed, the thermometer lowering from one hundred to sixty-five and sixty so that we had to change from thin to thick clothing, with the additional garment (the overcoat). At half past three o'clock on the morning of the 22d, about eighty miles from San Diego, California, we were aroused from our slumber by the [ring] of the stop[illegible], and the surge upon the rocks. All was consternation. I calmly dressed myself and looked out from one side of the ship, and seeing land [illegible] supposed we were [illegible] harbor, and had struck a rock. I soon beheld a [illegible] rock, about three hundred feet high, and almost perpendicular, far, far away from the main shore, against which we had [illegible]. By several efforts, and the providence of God, we backed off without sustaining [much] injury, the men to the pumps kept the water down until we reached San Diego. The circumstances of the case, and the evident truth that the officers on deck were either drunk or asleep certainly make it a miracle that we all had not instantly met a watery grave.—For thirty hours the ship took in from five to six hundred gallons of water a minute. We lay at this port some three days to repair the damage. This place is the great miltary station of the American troops in California. The climate here is delightful, perhaps surpassing that of any other locality in California. The objectional feature to the great portion of this country is the climate. The soil is but little adapted for farming, [illegible]posing not one eighth of its soil, in consequence of its mountanous position, can [ever be cultivated]. Th[illegible] at most there are but three or three and a half months in the year that they have any rain. The rainy season [commences] about November and ends


in February. This past year in San Diego they had but one [illegible] rain. Consequently, vegatation will always be varying. Potatoes are four to five dollars a bushel[!] onions the same, [flour] from sixteen to twenty dollars a barrel, butter one dollar per pound, milk fifty cents per [gallon], chickens, from three to four dollars a pair. This was the range of prices at San Diego, and I find them varying very little from this througout the journey of six hundred miles to San Francisco. On the 30th of July, reached Monterey, the old capital of California, and ninety miles from San Francisco. The locality is a good one for a city [illegible] harbor, and unusual good land for farming and grazing (for this country). Yankee enterprise is showing itself throughout this [wide] region, bringing into active operation all the heretofore hidden treasures which ignorance and indolence had for centuries [illegible] up. On the 31st, we entered the grand harbor of their great City of San Francisco. I am [given to repetition here to make the expression strong].—Less than four years ago all was a barren desolate wilderness, wherein were congregated from seventy to eighty thousand people of nearly all nations, kindred, and tongues under heavens, wearing their native costumes, [illegible] their own way, pursuing their various avocations. While the large bay for miles is lined with a thousand sail, representing the various nations to which they belong. Truly, San Francisco is one of the great wonders of the world. Although it must be expected, in a mixed community like this, that crime walks abroad, it is far from holding that universal sway, that strangers abroad would anticipate. Those who frequent the haunts of vice and infamy must, of course reap the rewards of their doings.


There are thousands of other channels where the well disposed can congregate with profit. Honest industry is well rewarded. The voice of prayer and praise cheering the heart of true believers, can be heard at the corners of the street, on the sabbath, and in the churches dedicated to the service of Almighty God. I attended the Presbyterian church on the sabbath, and was much gratified by meeting with none of that spirit of caste too often practiced at home. The two great fires which within the last six months have destroyed some thousands of houses, and millions of dollars worth of property, have crippled, for a time, the business of the city. Yet San Francisco must ever be to the Pacific, what New York is to the Atlantic.

August the fifth, in company with my brother, I took passage on the spacious steamer Columbia for Oregon city. It certainly is a feature worthy of remark in American enterprise, that so many first class steamers and such magnificent accomodations [(]competing with our Atantic steamers), should so soon be found traversing the water of this [illegible] settled and far off country, on the shores of the Pacific and along the banks of the Columbia river. I changed steamers at Astoria and therefore close in order to send this by return of mail. You shall hear from me again.

Yours as ever,

A. H. Francis.


Francis, Abner Hunt (1813-1872)




Abner H. Francis to Frederick Douglass. PLSr: Frederick Douglass' Paper, 16, 23, 30 October 1851. Describes, in three parts, trip to California via Panama.


This document was calendared in the published volume and has not been published in full before.


Frederick Douglass' Paper



Publication Status



Frederick Douglass' Paper