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A Physical, Political & Economic Description of California, and of the four then existing Routes of Travel via Nicaragua, Panama, Cape Horn & Overland to the Newly Admitted 31st State of the Union.


CALIFORNIA has recently become one of the United States. A part of the country was discovered as early as 1542, by a Spaniard named Cabrillo; and its northern section was visited for the first time by foreigners in 1578, when Sir Francis Drake, then at the head of an expedition from England, gave to this region the name of New Albion. The Spaniards Planted colonies upon its sea-coast in 1768, from which period, until 1836, the territory was a province of México. In the latter year a revolution occurred. The people, after having frequently compelled the Mexican governors and other officials to abandon their posts, declared themselves independent, and undertook to organize new political institutions. Several weak and ineffectual attempts to regain absolute control were made from time to time by the Mexicans, until the year 1846.

In July of that year, the port of Monterey, a central point on the Pacific coast of the state, was seized, in the name of the United States, by a naval force under Commodore Sloat, who at once unfurled the American flag, and established a provisional government. At that epoch, the administration of the affairs of the territory was in the hands of a civil governor and a military commandante, both natives of California, but holding commissions from the President of México.

In 1848, the discovery of a gold "placer" [A place where a glacial or alluvial deposit of sand or gravel containing eroded particles of valuable minerals is washed to extract its mineral content] at Columa (Sutter's Mills), and the ascertained reality of its extraordinary richness, followed immediately by further and equally surprising developments, startled the whole civilized world and a tide of emigration began to flow in from every quarter, with a rapidity and volume unparalleled in the history of nations. The population forthwith attained the required number for the formation of a distinct state. The inhabitants prepared and submitted to Congress the draught of a constitution; and in September, 1850, California was admitted into full membership as one of the United States.

Boundaries and Extent. – By the Constitution, adopted by the people of California in November, 1849, and by the act of Congress consequent thereon, the limits of California are established as follows: commencing at latitude 42 degrees north, and longitude 120 degrees west ; thence running South on said line of longitude until it intersects the 39th degree of north latitude; thence in a direct course south-easterly to the River Colorado; thence down the channel of said river to the boundary between México and the United States; thence along said boundary to the Pacific Ocean, and, into the same three English miles; thence north-westerly, in the direction of the Pacific coast, to the original parallel of 42 degrees; and, finally, along this line to the point of beginning. It lies between 32 and 42 degrees North latitude; and its extremes of longitude, owing to its angular position, embrace an extent of about 10 degrees, – its eastern point being at 114 degrees 30 minutes and the western at 124 degrees 30 minutes – although the average distance of the eastern boundary from the sea-coast, and, consequently, the average breadth of the state, is but 212 miles. Its length from north to south is 764 miles; estimated area, 188,500 square miles. It is bounded north by the Territory of Oregon, east by the Territory of Utah, south by Lower (Baja) California, and west by the Pacific Ocean.

Government. The chief magistrate (Governor) is elected for two years as is the Lieutenant Governor, who is ex officio president of the Senate. The legislature is composed of two branches – the Senate, consisting of not less than one third, nor more than one half of the number contained in the other house, elected by districts biennially ; and the Assembly, chosen annually, also by districts, to comprise not less than twenty-four nor more than thirty-six members, until the population shall amount to 100,000, when the minimum shall be thirty and the maximum eighty. The legislature convenes annually in January.

No lotteries can be granted, nor charters for banking purposes. The circulation of paper as money is prohibited. Corporations may be formed under general laws only. In legislative elections, the members vote viva voce. Loans of the state credit are indicated ; and state debts, exceeding a sum total of $300,000 cannot be contracted except in certain specified contingencies. The property of married women acquired before or after marriage, and a portion of the homesteads, or other estates of heads of families, an protected by law. The elective franchise is held by all white males twenty-one years of age who are citizens of the United States, or Mexicans choosing to become citizens under the Treaty of Queretaro, and have resided six months within the state. Indians and their descendents are allowed to vote in special cases

Judiciary. – The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and two associates, elected by the people for six years, and so classified that one shall retire every two years. District judges are chosen in like manner, for the same term of time ; and county judges are elected for four years. The Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction in cases involving a sum not less than two hundred dollars, in the settlement of certain legal questions, and in various criminal matters. The District Courts have power to try cases in law and equity, where the sum in dispute exceeds two hundred dollars. The county judges, assisted by two justices of the peace, hold Courts of Sessions in each county for criminal business. Clerks of courts, district attorneys, sheriffs, coroners, &c., are chosen by the people.

Finances. – The state debt in January, 1851, was $500,000, existing in the shape of bonds of $500 and $1000 each, and drawing interest at the rate of three per cent. a month. The means of meeting the public expenditure are derived chiefly from taxation. In 1850, the inhabitants of San Francisco and Sacramento were taxed at the rate of two to three per cent., principally, however, for municipal purposes. The state derives an income of $1,525,000 from the following sources; 1. A state tax of one half per cent. on $2,00,000,000, the estimated value of taxable property, amounting to $1,000,000; 2. A poll tax of $5 each on 50,000 inhabitants; and, 3. A miner's tax of $20 per month on 25,000 foreign miners, – the two latter items producing about half a million of dollars; – and, 4. Duties on sales at auction, estimated at $25,000. The whole expense of the state government in 1850, including interest on the public debt, was $700,000, deducting which from the computed receipts, a balance of $825,000 remained in the treasury.

Education. – The constitution provides for the establishment and support of a system of free schools, in which instruction shall be given at least three months in each year. A fund is to be created from various sources, the interest of which is to be inviolably applied to the maintenance of these institutions. This fund must soon become one of great magnitude ; for it is to consist of the proceeds of public lands ceded to the state for school purposes, and of the 500,000 acres of land granted to each new state by the general government, together with such percentage on sales of lands within the state as shall be allowed by Congress, and the avails of all estates left by persons dying without heirs. Certain lands are also set apart, the income of which is to be appropriated to the maintenance of a university.

Surface, Soil, &c. – The face of the country presents, perhaps, a greater variety of topographical features than may be found in any one territory of like magnitude upon the whole earth. Several ranges of huge and lofty mountains – many of their peaks of volcanic origin, ascending into the region of perpetual snow – extend through the central parts, and parallel with the sea-coast of the state, from its northern nearly to its southern extremity.

On the coast side of these ridges, as well as between them, the surface is greatly diversified, presenting many varieties of soil, thin and sandy in some localities, but in others abounding in the richest loam. Among the hilly regions, there are numerous valleys and plateaus, of different elevations, covered with a soil of good quality, which, wherever duly watered, is capable of being rendered highly productive. But these are frequently interspersed with large tracts of rough, broken, and apparently sterile territory, or intersected by deep and rocky ravines. Until within a very short period, the entire country, with the exception of a few widely separated spots, exhibited all the harsh and rugged characteristics of a yet unredeemed wilderness.

The elevated lands, at certain seasons, are usually either denuded of vegetation, or partially overspread with stunted trees and herbage. But in places that are sheltered, and having facilities for irrigation, fruits and garden, vegetables grow luxuriantly. Though few agricultural experiments on a large scale have yet been made, enough has been ascertained to show that the resources of the state which, in this respect, may be advantageously developed. Indeed, it is known that most of the cereal grains can be produced in quantities abundantly adequate to the wants of a numerous population. In most parts of the country, the vine, fig, olive, and other valuable plants, both of the temperate and torrid zones, may be cultivated with great success.

Springs of water abound in many districts; while in others, the earth, for leagues together, exposes a naked and arid surface, which is only relieved by the periodical rains. Some few extensive forests, comprising, occasionally, trees of enormous magnitude, were met with by recent United Sates exploring parties ; but large portions of the territory are very scantily wooded. This absence of trees, and the consequent want of moisture, and of shelter to the earth from the sun's heat is doubtless a grand obstacle in the way of agricultural improvement ; and years will probably elapse before any great measure of public attention will be directed to the subject. Among the forest-trees most common in California are the oak, ash, beech, birch, elm, plane, red cedar, and pine of almost every description. These abound more profusely near the Pacific shore, and in the vicinity of rivers communicating with that ocean, thus affording excellent opportunities for ship-building. Farther inland, beyond the first range of mountains, the timber is scattered over several counties, and is quite abundant around Bodaga, San Rafael, Sonoma, Santa Cruz, and a few other localities. The red wood, or soft cedar, is most frequently met with in those quarters. It often grows to the circumference of forty feet, and to a height of three hundred. Near Santa Cruz, there is one measuring seventeen feet in diameter.

Climate. – There is nearly, if not quite, as great a diversity of climate in California as of its geological features. The coast and its neighborhood are enveloped in cold mists, borne on the north-west winds, which prevail during most of the summer or dry season, with occasional intervals of more pleasant weather. At San Francisco, although the temperature frequently varies some 30 degrees in a single day, it is said that the mean temperature, in both winter and summer, is nearly equal. Other positions on the coast are more or less affected by the chilly winds and fogs from the point above indicated, in proportion to their relative geographical situations, the line of coast at the southern part of the state being less directly influenced by those causes than that at the northern.

In the winter, or rainy season, the prevailing winds are from the south-west, rendering the temperature much milder than in the same latitudes on the Atlantic side of the continent, climate assumes a very different phase. The sea winds of the spring, summer and early autumn, having deposited their freight of moisture upon the summits of the intercepting highlands (the "Cordilleras of California"), pass gently into the great valley of the Sacramento, carrying a grateful softness, with scarcely a remaining vapor to obscure the brightness of the skies. Proceeding still onward in an easterly direction, these prevailing winds climb the flanks of the lofty Sierra Nevada, and, on reaching its elevated peaks, are deprived by condensation of all watery particles that may yet linger among them. Thence they pass down into the broad basin, spreading eastward to an immense extent, with occasional mountainous interruptions. Here another change of climate is perceptible ; the air is exceedingly dry and hot throughout more than half the year, and the earth suffers accordingly. These variations occur sometimes within the distance of a few miles, corresponding generally with the abrupt changes observable upon the face of the country. A most delightful climate pervades the numerous valleys on the land side of the mountains, where they are protected from the rude ocean blasts.

Near the western border of the Sacramento valley, the extremes of temperature, between winter and summer, are very great, comprehending some 80 degrees Fahrenheit, viz., from 30 degrees to 110 degrees. A degree of heat almost as excessive, as the last indicated, is often felt in various parts of the mountain region; but this is here so peculiarly modified as to produce none of those injurious effects upon animal life which result from similar temperatures elsewhere. The rainy season, sometimes termed the winter, commences at the north in October or November, and progresses slowly to the south, reaching the centre of the state in December, and the southern boundary in January. The season has an average duration of about three months, but is longer and more pluvious at the north than at the south. The effect of all these atmospheric mutations upon human health must naturally be diverse, and not always congenial. The subject, however, has not yet been sufficiently investigated and analyzed to enable one to treat with accuracy upon the relations between those phenomena and the diseases incident to the localities where they respectively exist. That great scourge of modern times, the cholera, has visited some of the most populous settlements in the state; and other epidemics occur at different seasons, similar in character to those which visit other parts of the world exposed to like vicissitudes and agencies.

Rivers. – The waters of California partake of those varied peculiarities which mark its terrene surface and its atmospheric properties. The sea and its numerous contiguous bays and estuaries, the inland lakes, the rivers and their countless tributaries, are all subjects of speculative interest. They yield abundantly almost every description of fish found in like latitudes, besides many kinds which are either unknown or not common in other regions. Some of the rivers are navigable many miles from their mouths ; others flow over precipices and ledges, constituting falls or rapids, which the industry of man may hereafter convert into valuable mill sites. The sea-shores are prolific in marine plants, which, at some future day, will doubtless be applied to useful purposes. Immense quantities of kelp are thrown up by the waves – an article that now forms the most available material for the manufacture of iodine, and is also excellent as a compost for and soils, like those of this state. Lichens, in all their variety, spring profusely from the rocky strand along its entire extent, which, like the mosses of Iceland, and the carrageen of Ireland, will undoubtedly, in due time, be much prized for their nutritive and medical properties.

The coasts and inland watercourses swarm with wild fowl, some of which resemble the aquatic birds found on the eastern shores of the continent, and others seem peculiar to the tracts which they inhabit. The principal rivers, communicating with the Pacific, are the Sacramento and San Joaquin. These flow through almost the whole length of the great valley between the Sierra Nevada and the coast range of mountains, the former taking its rise in the north, and the latter in the south, and both, uniting near the centre of the state, pass into the noble Bay of San Francisco, whence they reach the sea. They are fed in their course by great numbers of mountain streams from the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. Other important rivers, though of less considerable extent, intersect the state in various directions.

Internal Improvements. – But little attention has hitherto been given to this subject, beyond providing for the temporary accommodation of residents in the principal settlements. No railroads or canals of any importance have yet been constructed ; although projects have been suggested for several improvements of this description. It is not probable that many years will elapse before ample and convenient means of communication will be established between the seaports and the mining districts ; for the necessities of the people, and the nature of their pursuits, must soon demand far greater facilities of intercourse than any now existing.

Minerals. – Besides the incredible quantities of gold, for which California has become renowned above all other countries on the globe, sundry mineral products of much value are found in different parts of the state. Silver, mercury, and lead have been obtained ; and indications of copper, tin, iron, and other ores have appeared, as is reported, in several places. Cinnabar is found, in great quantities, within eight or ten miles of San José, the capital of the state. Sulphur is obtained in the vicinity of Sonoma. Salt ponds exist in different parts of the state, and limestone is not uncommon. In various spots, during the summer season, a peculiar sort of earth may be gathered from the sites of certain dried-up ponds, which possesses strong alkaline properties, and answers all, the uses of ashes in the manufacture of soap

No satisfactory signs of any extensive coal fields have as yet been discovered, although reports of their existence have from time to time been made. Some few small veins of what was at first imagined to be pure coal have been met with ; but, on investigation, they have proved to be lignite, bitumen, or other material of tertiary formation. Researches for other minerals than gold have not yet been prosecuted to any great extent ; nor is it likely that, during the prevailing attraction towards the more precious metal, the coexistent mineral resources of the state will be fully developed, unless incidentally, and by degrees, or through systematic explorations under authority of the government.

The wealth of the "gold region" is almost, if not entirely, incalculable. This region comprehends the territory occupied by the Sierra Nevada and the contiguous country, including its rivers. Indeed, it is almost solely on account of its capacity to produce gold, that the attention of the world has been directed to this extraordinary country. The universally coveted metal is found in prodigious quantities along the western slopes of the great mountain range, and especially in and around the streams that descend thence into the large valley of California, at the bottom of which flow the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers. The gold is obtained in various forms, mostly in small, thin particles; but not unfrequently in lumps, some of which have weighed several pounds. The slate rocks of the mountains enclose numerous veins of granite, in which gold is imbedded ; and it is from these sources, wrought upon as they have been by volcanic action, that the metal finds its way into the ravines and crevices upon the mountain sides, and into the streams below, carried thither by the constant operation of powerful atmospheric agencies.

The value of the auriferous product of California can scarcely be computed. The yield of the mines for the year 1851, it is confidently stated, may be estimated at some seventy millions of Dollars. This is based on official statements of the amounts procured, carried away by sea and land, stamped by various houses, or manufactured into jewelry, &c., during the first quarter of that year; the aggregate of which, at the mint valuation, exceeded sixteen millions of Dollars. New developments of rich deposits are constantly occurring; and notwithstanding the vast additions to the population, which are made daily, the average gains of miners do not seem in any degree to diminish.

Manufactures. – The only manufacturing branches at present carried on in California are such as chiefly pertain to the casual wants of the people ; and these are confined to mechanical operations connected with the construction and repairing of houses, vessels, furniture, &c., the making up of clothing, and the fabrication of various articles needed by miners. Some considerable amount of gold is formed into jewelry, much of which is sent abroad ; but no other commodities, to any great extent, are manufactured for exportation.

Indians. – Few of the descendants of the aboriginal inhabitants remain within the present limits of the state. These few consist of small and scattered tribes, who neither own, nor pretend to claim, any portion of the soil beyond the boundaries of their small villages. To the gold region, especially, they assert no title. They are, for the most part, a roaming, wretched race, divided into insignificant hordes, subsisting on wild fruits, berries,. roots, &c., and too indolent to hunt for game in a legitimate way ; but not too much so to pursue and steal the cattle and horses of the whites, which they use for food. There are, probably, no bodies of Indians in the United States who are more dishonest, perfidious, and cruel ; nor any that are not superior in moral and intellectual character.

Population. – So rapidly has the population of California accumulated since the first discovery of a gold "placer" in February, 1848, and so constantly does the stream of immigration flow on and expand, that the ratio of increase, at definite periods, cannot be ascertained with any great degree of accuracy. A comparison of the number of residents in certain localities, at the time of the occupation of Monterey by the United States forces in July, 1846, with the estimated number in January, 1851, – a space of four and a half years – may give some idea of the force and velocity of that great "tide in the affairs of men" which is setting towards this point from all quarters of the world.

At the former date, there were but eight towns, or pueblos, within the present confines of the state, viz., San Diego, with 500 inhabitants ; Pueblo de los Angelos, with 2,500; Santa Barbara, 800 ; Monterey, 1,200 ; Santa Cruz, 400 ; Pueblo de San José, 1,000 ; Yerba Buena (now San Francisco), 400 ; Sonoma, 200 ; making a total of 7,000. The rest of the territory contained some 7,000 to 8,000 besides. At the latter date, it was estimated that the residents in California, permanent and temporary, numbered not far from 200,000, one third of whom are engaged in mining.

The following estimate, made in April, 1851, is from a public journal printed at Sacramento: In the northern mines, or that scope of country lying north of San Francisco and Feather River, the population is computed at 20,000 ; the Yuba, 40,000 ; Bear River, 4,000 ; the American Fork, 50,000 ; in the southern mines, or that portion lying south of the American River, 80,000 ; Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys and neighborhood, 65,000 ; the coast south of San Francisco, 20,000 ; thus making an aggregate of 314,000. It is further estimated that the 100,000 miners have each labored 300 days during the preceding year, and have produced an average of 31 Dollars per diem; which gives a total of $100,000,000.

There are towns, which, at the close of their first year's existence, contained from 1,200 to 1,500 voters. In October, 1850, the monthly mail from the United States conveyed nearly 50,000 letters to California; and there were 22,000 advertised letters in the post-office of Sacramento city, then a place of less than three years' growth. There are some twenty post towns in the state. In January, 1851, thirteen newspapers (many of them daily) were published, as follows: 6 in San Francisco, 2 in Sacramento city, 2 at Stockton, and one each at Monterey, Sonoma, and Maryville.

Religion. – There are religious societies of almost every Christian denomination, and increasing attention is given to the support of public worship. No one sect appears to predominate, and the utmost toleration prevails. In the present fluctuating, unsettled, and bustling state of things, there must be, of course, many changes in the affairs, and in the relative numbers, of different communities and associations so that an attempt to furnish correct statistical details in the premises must, at this time, be attended with much difficulty.

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Via the


From New York to San Juan del Norte, at the mouth of the San Juan River, otherwise called Greytown, is 2,000 miles. From New Orleans the distance is about 1,400 miles. There is a good pier at Greytown, at which passengers can land without trouble, or they can pass directly into the river steamers, which ascend 52 miles to the Castillian Rapids. Here is a short portage of about 300 yards, the rapids not admitting the passage of steamers. Above the rapids to San Carlos, at the head of the river, is 27 miles. Thence across Lake Nicaragua to Virgin Bay is 42 miles. From Virgin Bay to San Juan del Sud, on the Pacific Ocean, is a land journey of 13 miles, to facilitate which a plank road has been constructed. The Transit Company have now on the river and lake seven small steamers, and others building, and the passage of the Isthmus, 135 miles in the whole, is accomplished in about 40 hours, a time which will be considerably diminished when the new boats are ready.

From San Juan del Sud to San Francisco is about 2,800 miles, making the whole distance from New York about 5,000 miles. This is accomplished in from 22 to 28 days, being the shortest and most expeditious route to California. Steamers by this route leave New York, New Orleans, and Saw Francisco once a fortnight, on the 1st and 15th of each month.

Via the


From New York to Aspinwall or Navy Bay, a few miles eastward of Chagres, via Kingston, Jamaica, (the mail route) is about 2,300 miles. Via Havana the distance is about 2,400 miles. From New Orleans to Aspinwall is 1,400 miles, or via Havana, 1,650. A fine pier has been constructed at Aspinwall, to which the steamers come, the passengers and freight being placed directly in the cars of the railroad which is to extend to Panama, 49 miles. About 30 miles of the road are already finished, and the whole will be by the spring of 1853. [The Panama Railroad across the Isthmus, connecting with steamers at both coasts, was finally completed and opened in 1855.] From Panama, touching at Acapulco, San Diego, Monterey, the distance is 3,400 miles, making g the entire route from New York to San Francisco, via Kingston, 5,750 miles, or via Havana, 5,850. First class steamers employed on this route leave New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco on the 5th and 20th of each month. Time of passage is from 25 to 30 days. From San Francisco to Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River, (distance 700 miles,) there is a semi-monthly mail steamer.

Via the


From New York to California, via Cape Horn, is about 14,700 miles. This distance is made by clipper ships in from 100 to 130 days. Ordinary merchant ships are from one to two months longer.

The expense by all these routes for first class passengers is from $250 to $350 each ; steerage passengers $150 to $200.

Via the


There are two principal starting-places for this route, St. Joseph, Mo., a few miles above Fort Leavenworth, and Council Bluffs, a short distance North of the entrance of the Platte into the Missouri. The road from Council Bluffs for 800 miles up the North side of Platte River is the best natural one in the world. The elevation is less than 12 feet to the mile. The water coming from the high lands is fresh and cool. Grass is abundant, and on the river bottom two weeks earlier than on the route over the plains from St. Joseph, on the other side of the river. Timber, "buffalo chips," and mineral coal are found sufficient to supply travellers.

The large amount of travel to California, Oregon, and Utah makes it a great national thoroughfare. Over 100,000 souls have already travelled the road since the discovery of gold in California. The passage from Council Bluffs can he safely made, with wagons drawn by mules or oxen, in from 60 to 90 days, at an expense of not over $100 for each passenger. If emigrants conduct themselves properly, no danger need be feared from any Indian tribes through which the road passes.

All necessary outfits and supplies can be had at Kanesville and Council Bluffs. An accurate General Directory has been published by J. H. Colton, 86 Cedar Street, New York, and a Mormon Guide, by Mr. Clayton, which will give the emigrant all necessary information. The forts of the American Fur Company and of the United States are usually prepared to render any aid needed by travellers. Aid has also been furnished at the California end of the route at the expense of the state of California.

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Transcribed, annotated by, and courtesy of the Bruce C. Cooper Collection.

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