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Jews in the Wild West

Chapter 37.

Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West

Journey to Los Angeles—Catholic Missions—Fields of Mustard—California Ladies—Morals of the People—Gamblers—Description of a "Hell"—Climate of Los Angeles—Delicious Fruit—California Wine—Don Manuel Domingues—Rancho—Menada—Breaking a Horse—Portraits of Domingues—Salt Lake—Asphaltum Lake—Hot Springs of San Juan de Campestrano—Analysis—Geological Examination—Remains of a Mastodon—Don Pio Pico—Ground Squirrels—Strychnine—Brothers Labatt—Their Example worthy to be Imitated.
 

Fields of Mustard

FROM San Bernandino to Los Angeles, a distance of forty-five miles, the road lay over one continuous field of wild mustard, covering the whole breadth of the valley of Los Angeles, and extending far up into the mountains; it was ripe at the time I travelled through. Millions of acres producing many thousands of bushels, annually go to waste. If coal is ever found in this country, a mustard mill could be profitably worked. At present there is no water power to turn a mill, or fuel to propel an engine for steam works.

Catholic Mission—Los Angeles.

To-day I met Mr. Hildreth, one of the brothers who commanded a large emigrant party, and whose unprovoked and fatal attack upon the Parvain Indians, near Fillmore, caused that tribe to murder Capt. Gunnison and officers, a description of which I have already given. Mr. Hildreth says that his brother (the commander), and himself had left camp to hunt, and when they returned they were informed of the unfortunate and premature attack of some of his people upon the Indians. It seems that a small number of Parvain Indians came into camp armed with bows and arrows, begging food and clothing at sundown. They were ordered out of camp, they refused. They were told if they gave up their bows and arrows they might remain, and one of the men used force to obtain the bow from an Indian. In the scuffle the American was wounded, whereupon without any further provocation, a number of rifles were discharged at the Indians, killing several, among whom was an old chief. Capt. Hildreth at once raised camp and proceeded on his journey for fear of the consequences. This fatal event would not have occurred if Capt. Hildreth had been in camp, and he lamented the occurrence.

The California ladies are generally brunettes; some of them with whom I became acquainted were most beautiful and accomplished. Bonnets are unknown. During the morning their magnificent tresses are allowed to hang at full length down their backs. I have seen suits of hair at least three feet long, waving gracefully around a wellformed neck. In the evening a great deal of care and pains are taken to curl and plait it. When they go out, a simple mantilla of black satin or silk, sometimes of colored silk, is gracefully thrown over their heads; they invariably carry a large fan. The most costly material is used for dresses, and the richest and most expensive shawls may be seen worn by the ladies in Los Angeles. Society is very select among the better classes, although there are but few American families residing there.

Alas! for the morals of the people at large; it was the usual salutation in the morning, "Well, how many murders were committed last night? "—"Only four—three Indians and a Mexican." Sometimes three, often two, but almost every night while I was there, one murder, at least, was committed. It became dangerous to walk abroad after night. A large number of American gamblers frequented the principal hotels, and induced the Californians to risk their money at all the famous games of monte, roulette, poker, faro, etc.

When I arrived at San Francisco, I had the curiosity to enter one of the frequented "hells," to see the process of winning and losing money. The building selected by the gentleman who accompanied me, was a celebrated one in Clay street. An orchestra of thirty-five musicians, were performing fashionable operatic airs; following the sound, we were introduced into the saloon, which was brilliantly illuminated; it was truly an imposing sight. There must have been over fifty tables, at which presided most beautiful women, dealing out cards, or whirling around a roulette table; at some might have been seen old gentlemen with white hair, to all appearance respectable, and whose proper place seemed to me, to be a magistrate's bench, or a judge's forum. Few or no words are spoken at the table; men silently place their gold on a card, and before a second expires, it is swept away; once out of many times, it is doubled by the player; it remains and he wins: a second time fortune favors, it doubles again; the insatiate vice of selfishness, not satisfied with eight times what he originally staked, leaves his pile, building castles in the air with the imaginary proceeds of his winnings-when in the twinkle of an eye, a gentle sweep from the smiling syren, dissipates his dreams of fortune, and he retires from the hell penniless in reality. Hundreds of men who have acquired by hard work and industry, a little fortune at the mines, and come to town to purchase a bill of exchange to send to their families, are induced to visit one of these places, and in an hour he has lost the labor of months, leaving his family anxiously awaiting remittances which they are doomed never to receive.

These native Californians have been known to borrow money at the enormous rate of six per cent. a month, compound interest, and give their ranchos as collaterals, on purpose to gamble with; many who once were rich, are now reduced to beggary from this cause; the compound interest accumulating so fast, that unable to meet it, the mortgage is foreclosed, and a valuable property sacrificed to the usurious practices of those who call themselves men, for one twentieth part of its real value.

The climate is delightful. The pine-apple, grapes, figs and oranges of the tropics, grow alongside of the pears, peaches and apples, of the temperate regions. The most delicious grapes I ever tasted, are cultivated in large quantities in Los Angeles. Hundreds of tons are annually shipped to San Francisco; peaches, delicious pears, etc., and, in fact, the fruit is cultivated purposely to ship. It yields a good profit and a large income. The vineyards are set out in drills six feet apart, each vine is trained to an upright position supported by rods, until they acquire age. The usual price for grapes was three dollars a hundred pounds as they are on the vines, to be plucked and boxed at the expense of the purchaser, other fruit is also sold by the pound on the tree. Many proprietors have permanent engagements with San Francisco merchants, to sell annually the produce of their vineyards and orchards.

Wine of a superior kind is made in Los Angeles, it is white and dry like the Hockhiemer or Rhenish. A superior article is worth twenty-five dollars for eighteen gallons.

Don Manuel Domingues, a noble specimen of a Spanish gentleman, owns a very large tract of land in Los Angeles county. The San Gabriel, and Los Angeles Rivers run through it, making the property very valuable. It adjoins the large rancho of Mr. Stearns. It was confirmed by the United States government during my short residence at his hospitable mansion, and I painted a large portrait of him to celebrate the event, with the letters patent of his property in his hand. I was prostrated at this gentleman's house by a severe attack of brain fever, superinduced by exposure in travelling over the hot deserts of sand, between Salt Lake and San Bernandino. His good, kind-hearted wife, Donna Gracia, paid me all the attentions and devotion of a mother. For ten days I was delirious, during that time she hardly left my bedside. Doctor Brinkerhoff who resided with them, volunteered his medical advice. To their combined skill and care I owe my final recovery.

I was taken ill the very day I got out to their rancho. If I had been ill in Los Angeles, where I had been residing previously, I should have died for want of attentions which money could not have procured.

I also painted the portraits of Donna Gracia, and one of her daughters.

Don Manuel has several brothers, living at short distances from each other; they have all large families of grown sons and daughters, who meet alternately at each other's houses, when music and dancing is indulged in with unalloyed pleasure. Young gentlemen from town often drive out to spend an evening, and the four weeks I spent there, speaking Spanish and dancing with the beautiful senoritas, conduced much to restore me to the habits of civilized life, which a voyage of nine months, across the continent had almost made me forget.

Don Manuel has an immense number of oxen, sheep and horses. His menada is said to contain the finest riding animals in California; and it is only by great persuasion that he will sell a choice horse. While I was there, I saw the process of breaking a horse to the saddle. A native Californian lassoes the animal he intends to break, and brings him out of the menada. One end of the lasso he ties around the nose of the horse; a blanket is strapped on his back by a strong surcingle; he then jumps on him, and introducing his knees under the surcingle, he is now firmly seated. On his feet are immense spurs; he touches the horse with them, and off he bounds with the speed of the wind, his rider guiding him with perfect ease. Now he plunges—see him rearing! but his master is on him, and his efforts to dismount him are unavailing. After he is exercised in this manner for an hour, he is turned into pasture, picketed, and not suffered to run with the menada afterwards.

The mares are of comparatively little worth; they are never used as beasts of burthen, or for riding; they are kept for breeding purposes. I have seen a magnificent animal sell for forty dollars, while geldings, not superior in quality, brought two hundred dollars.

On this rancho, towards San Pedro, is a salt lake, which was being worked by a company of gentlemen. The salt is of superior quality, and brings a good price in Los Angeles.

On this same place, near the shores of the Pacific Ocean, there is a lake of bitumen or asphaltum, used almost altogether in Los Angeles, as covering for the roofs of houses. In winter it does very well, but the dropping of hot pitch from the eaves of the houses in hot weather, is not agreeable. Large quantities of it are, in consequence, on the side-walks, which, in warm weather, acts like bird-lime; for if you meet a friend, and stop accidentally on it, there you both are fixed for the moment. Gentlemen's clothing is frequently spoiled by this material. It is highly inflammable; an excellent gas might be obtained from it. I have seen it used on steamboats, to get up steam quickly.

The mission of San Juan de Campestrano is not far from this rancho. Near it are the celebrated hot springs of that name.

These hot springs of San Juan de Campestrano excel all others in the neighborhood (and there are many), in regard to their medicinal virtues, both from their chemical combinations and the results obtained by their healing qualities in all those diseases for which the chalybeates are reported to cure.

In making geological examinations on Domingues' land, I had the curiosity to dig into a mound of earth raised up several feet from the surface, and not fifty yards from the dwelling-house. I found several pieces of large size petrified bone, too colossal for horses or oxen. Procuring a pick-axe, I penetrated further, and was gratified in exhuming portions of a mastodon. I collected four perfect teeth; the largest weighed six pounds. I destroyed several with my axe, before I realized their value. Portions of the tibia I also got out perfect. These interesting antediluvian relies I took with me to Los Angeles, where I met Mr. Trask, the State geologist of California. At his request I presented two specimens of the teeth to the State Geological Society, the rest Mr. Trask took charge of for me, to deliver in California. I have never seen a report of my present to the society, and when I met Mr. Trask at San Francisco, they had not yet been shipped from Los Angeles. I regret very much that I allowed them to leave my own possession, as I promised one of the teeth to Col. Fremont, and, in consequence, have not been able to fulfill it.

These huge animals are granivorous, and must have consumed trees on the mountains; around Los Angeles there is no sign of a tree, and on the vast plains in the centre of which I found these petrified remains, there is nothing but short grass and mustard. Query, how came the mastodon in the place I found it? did it die there? or was it washed down from the mountains? I leave this interesting investigation to more scientific minds.

At Los Angeles, I painted the portraits of the ex-governor, Don Pio Pico, and several other gentlemen.

The whole country of Southern California, especially in Los Angeles county, is infested with millions of ground squirrels, which destroy vegetation, and are great nuisances to farmers, as well as to the community; they domesticate themselves in houses, and I have seen them jump on the dinner-table, overturning tumblers, etc. The country is overrun with them; various methods have been suggested to destroy them, but without effect; the most successful, however, is strychnine—large quantities of which are imported into California, for this express purpose. This virulent and active poison, for this reason, becomes an important article of trade.

These squirrels form the principal food of the numerous bands of degraded Indians, who live near the settlements.

To the brothers Samuel and Joseph Labatt, merchants of Los Angeles, I am indebted for many acts of kindness; men who anticipate the necessities of their fellowman, and spontaneously offer money advances to a perfect stranger, I have not often met with, "but when found, I make a note of it."
 

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