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Early Years - My Voyage to California.
My father was one of the largest landed proprietors of Kentucky, in the southwestern section of the State. That was still on the frontier of the Far West. Beyond stretched the land of enchantment and adventure - the plains, the mountains, the unbroken solitudes, the wild Indians, the buffaloes and the Golden State on the shore of the Pacific.
Youngsters whose minds are occupied today with baseball and tennis and who still retain a lingering love for taffy, sixty years ago on the frontier were dreaming of wild adventures that were nearly always realized to some extent. We lived on the border line, where the onward wave of emigration broke and scattered over the vast vacancies of the West, and it is hardly saying too much to assert that fully seven boys in ten were caught and carried forward with the flood before they had gone very far in their teens.
For myself, I simply gave up to the spirit of the times. At the age of fifteen I ran away from college to join an aggregation of young gentlemen but little older than myself, who enlisted under the banner of General Walker, the filibuster. The objective was the conquest of Nicaragua. The Walker expedition sailed to its destination and what followed is a matter of well known history. But for my companions and myself, numbering 120 in all, it ended in a humiliating disaster. For, as we sailed down the Mississippi River the long arm of Uncle Sam reached out and caught us, like a bunch of truant kids. I managed to elude my captors, and after various wanderings and strange experience made my way to the paternal home in a condition that made the Prodigal Son look like 30 cents.
That didn't abate the wandering fever in the slightest and in order that I might not commit myself to another Walker expedition, my father consented that I should try my luck in California and I started with his blessing and what seemed to me a liberal grub stake. I had just turned sixteen.
Instead of going to New York and taking passage from that port, I decided to travel down the Mississippi River, have a look at New Orleans and leave on one of the various steamers there that connected with the Pacific Mail at Darien.
Here an unforeseen calamity very nearly upset all my plans. My money consisted of currency, issued under the auspices of the various States. A financial storm of some kind had just swept the country and the currency became legal tender only in the borders of the State of issuance. All that I could realize on my bills was barely enough to buy a steerage ticket to California. That, together with five dollars in gold coin and a revolver comprised my earthly possessions.
At Panama we were crowded into a small steamer designed for about 400 passengers, but nearly 1,000 were crammed into it. Conditions in the steerage were appalling. Besides, the ship was under-provisioned and we soon ran short of anything like vegetables and fruit. The purser had thriftily laid in a large private supply of oranges and bananas for sale in San Francisco. These he had divided into two caches. The hungry mob seized on one of them, located between decks, in the night, and cleaned it up to the uttermost peel. The purser knew only too well that the next night would witness the disappearance of the balance of his property. He was in despair. An inspiration seized me.
"How much will you take cash for the lot?" I asked him.
"Give me $10 for them and it's a bargain," he answered.
I fished out that lonesome $5 piece, paid it on account and made some vague excuse about getting the other five from my bunk. I was given permission also to hold a fruit auction sale on the upper deck.
Being a fruit peddler shocked my southern ideas of a gentleman's employment. Nothing but downright poverty could have driven me to it. However, I took the edge off the thing as far as possible by employing an itinerant gambler, also dead broke, to act as general salesman and orator while I took in the cash. He had a voice like a fog horn and the gall of a highwayman. He cried our wares with such success that in a few minutes the whole ship's company was engaged in mad competition to buy oranges and bananas at five for a half. It would have been just the same if I had made the price five for a dollar.
Money rolled in faster than I could count it. I could see that my chief of staff was "knocking down" on me in a shameless way, but I didn't have time to check his activities - in fact, I didn't care. In a little over an hour, the last orange and banana had vanished. I settled accounts with the purser and counted my capital. I had a little over $400 to the good, enough to make a decent start in California.
I do not tell this incident because it is noteworthy in itself. Instances were then so common of needy gentlemen who extricated themselves from the financial bog by some shift which in other days they would have thought ignoble - almost disgraceful - that this event would not be worth recalling; but in the peculiar way that destiny is worked out, it had a decisive part in directing very important matters of the future. And it has been my observation that the most impressive movements in the lives of most of us have been determined more by chance than by a fixed purpose.
Among those who watched my fruit sale with interest was a gentleman named Harvey Evarts. He was a successful plumber in California and was returning from a trip to the "States," whither he had gone with a party of bankers, mine owners and others of fortune commensurate with his own. Plumbers were not in 1857 the financial giants that they have become today. Still their stars were in the ascendant and Mr. Evarts was one of the brilliant luminaries in the sky.
This gentleman approached me after the sale. I had transferred at once from the steerage to the upper deck, as became my altered fortune, and he congratulated me in a pleasant way on my extraordinary good luck. I told him all about myself in boy fashion and when we reached San Francisco we had become so well acquainted that Mr. Evarts invited me to accompany him to Camptonville, then a great mining district, now off the map, so far as the yellow metal goes, where he had important interests.
Placer mining was on the toboggan in 1857, when I arrived in California. All the great "bars" and gulches had been located and worked out. Very few individual strikes were made after that date. I do not know whether it was good judgment or just a case of pure "nigger luck," but at all events it happened that even in those days of declining fortune, every suggestion that Mr. Evarts gave me turned to gold. He advised me to take a chance at the head of a couple of abandoned gulches. In both cases I struck it rich enough to add $6,000 to my working capital. Again he suggested a lease of a hydraulic mine on what was known as Railroad Hill, which had been the ruin of several experienced miners. I followed his advice and after being brought to the verge of bankruptcy struck it rich, to my way of thinking, and cleaned up finally with $60,000 to my credit, all before my 17th birthday.
I visited the newly discovered Comstock Lode. Didn't like it, for deep mining seemed too slow a way of making money. Later I had a spectacular race with Jim Fair, then a hustling prospector, to locate a mining claim in Utah. But the tales of mountains gorged with wealth vanished when we got there.
Then I began to listen to a lot of mining camp talk about Mexico and its riches. California and Nevada were growing dull to my way of thinking and I turned my thoughts to the land of Montezuma.
The Author at 16
Taken just before his migration to Californa