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Bayard Taylor and the California of Forty-Nine. Bret Harte and His Literary Pioneer Contemporaries.
And here in old Marysville, the county seat of Yuba County and situated on its extreme western boundary, I ended my tramp, having covered a distance of approximately two hundred and fifty miles, exclusive of retracements. The ideal time to visit the Sierra foot-hills would be in the late Spring or early Autumn. I was compelled to grasp the opportunity when it offered or forego the pleasure altogether. Nor is it necessary, of course, to walk; the roads, whilst generally speaking not classed as good going for automobiles, are at least passable. I was surprised at the number of high grade machines in evidence, in all the towns of importance mentioned in this narrative. There remains also the alternative of a good saddle horse, or, better still, a light wagon with camping outfit, thus rendering hotels unnecessary, the elimination of which would probably pay the hire of horse and wagon.
Half a century is a long period. You could probably count on the fingers of one hand persons now living in the Sierra foot-hills who have any recollection of ever having seen Bret Harte. It must also be remembered that in the fifties his reputation as an author had not been established. Of all that group of brilliant young men who visited the mines in early days, which included for a brief space "Orpheus C. Kerr" and "Artemus Ward," I can well imagine that Bret Harte attracted the least attention. It is extremely doubtful to "my mind if he ever had much actual experience of the mining camps. To a man of his vivid imagination, a mere suggestion afforded a plot for a story; even the Laird's Toreadors, it will be recalled, were commercially successful when purely imaginary; he only failed when he subsequently studied the real thing in Spain.
Bret Harte was a man who in a primitive community might well escape notice. In appearance, manner and training, he was the exact antithesis of Mark Twain. He was a student before he was a writer and possessed the student's shy reserve. I can well imagine him, a slight boyish figure, flitting from camp to camp, wrapped in his own thoughts, keeping his own counsel. Yet he alone of that little band, unless you except Mark Twain, possessed the divine spark we call "genius." Centuries after the names of all the rest are buried in oblivion, Bret Harte's stories of the Argonauts in the mining towns of California will remain the classics they have already become.
Yet as before stated, when once I got fairly started on the road, the pioneers themselves and their worthy descendants absorbed my interest and assumed the center of the stage to the exclusion, for the time being, of the romancers; who, after all, each in his own fashion, depicted only what most appealed to him in the characters of these same men and their contemporaries. Bayard Taylor in his interesting work "El Dorado," the first edition of which appeared in 1850, thus states his opinion of the men of '49:
"Abundance of gold does not always beget, as moralists tell us, a grasping and avaricious spirit. The principles of hospitality were as faithfully observed in the rude tents of the diggers, as they could be by the thrifty farmers of the North and West. The cosmopolitan cast of character in California, resulting in the commingling of so many races, and the primitive mode of life, gave a character of good-fellowship to all its members; and in no part of the world have I ever seen help more freely given to the needy, or more ready co-operation in any human proposition. Personally, I can safely say that I never met with such unvarying kindness from comparative strangers."
That last sentence also spelt the literal truth in my experience. Even the dogs were kindly disposed and though I carried, a "big stick," except by way of companionship and as an aid in climbing, I might safely have left it at home. And while at times I walked through a wild, mountainous and almost deserted country, the idea of possible danger never occurred to me. When finally one encountered a human being, he invariably proved a courteous, obliging and companionable personage to meet.
Bayard Taylor attended in September and the beginning of October, 1849, the convention at Monterey, which gave to California its first, and in the opinion of many, its best constitution. He closes his review of the proceedings with these forceful and prophetic words:
"Thus we have another splendid example of the ease and security with which people can be educated to govern themselves. From that chaos whence under, a despotism like the Austrian, would spring the most frightful excesses of anarchy and crime, a population of freemen peacefully and quietly develops the highest form of civil order - the broadest extent of liberty and security. Governments, bad and corrupt as many of them are, and imperfect as they all must necessarily be, nevertheless at times exhibit scenes of true moral sublimity. What I have today witnessed has so, impressed me; and were I a believer in omens, I would augur from the tranquil beauty of the evening - from the clear sky and the lovely sunset hues on the waters of the bay - more than all, from the joyous expression of every face I see, a glorious and prosperous career for the State of California."
Southern California, by which is understood all of the State south of the Tehachapi Mountains, was mostly settled by and is still to a great extent the objective point of people from the East and Middle West. Most of them came in search of health and brought a competency sufficient for their needs. When President Wilson, then Governor of New Jersey, visited California in 1911, he came over the southern route to Los Angeles. Addressing a Pasadena audience he said: "I am much disappointed when I see you. I expected to find a highly individualized people, characters developed by struggle and mutual effort; but I find you the same people we have at home," and more, to the same effect. Subsequently, Governor Wilson delivered an address at the Greek Theater, Berkeley, before the students of the University of California. At its close, Mr. Maslin mounted the stage, a copy of the paper containing the account of the Pasadena speech in his hands, and asked the Governor if he was correctly reported; to which he replied in the affirmative. "Governor," said Mr. Maslin, you came into the State at the wrong gate!" "Gate? gate? - what gate?" inquired the Governor. "You should have come through Emigrant Gap, through which most of the emigrants from '49 and on entered the State. Now, Governor, the people you saw at Pasadena never suffered the trials of a pioneer's lite, they are not knit together by the memory of mutual struggles and privations. When you come to the State again, come through Emigrant Gap. Let me know when you come, and I will introduce you to a breed of men the world has never excelled." With the smile with which millions have since become familiar, Governor Wilson grasped the hand of the pioneer and said: "When I come again, as I feel sure I shall, I shall let you know."
The following morning I took the train for my home in Alameda. As I sat and meditated on the scenes I had witnessed and the character of the people I had met, it was borne in upon me that this had been the most interesting as well as enjoyable experience of my life. Already the temporary discomforts produced by heat and soiled garments had faded into insignificance, and assumed a most trivial aspect when I reviewed the journey as a whole. They were part of the game. To again quote "Trilby," tramping "is not all beer and skittles." Your true tramp learns to take things as he finds them and never to expect or ask or the impossible. He will drink the wine of the country, even when sour, without a grimace; pass without grumbling a sleepless night; plod through dust ankle deep, without a murmur; there is but one vulnerable feature in his armor, and with Achilles, it is his heel! And it is literally the heel that, is the sensitive spot. I will venture the assertion that the long-distance tramper - not even excepting Brother Weston - who has not at some time or another suffered from sore heels, does not exist. The tramp's feet are his means of locomotion; on their condition he bestows an anxiety and care which far surpass that of the man in the automobile, with all his complicated machinery to inspect.
Remains then, the memory of the delicious, faint, cool, morning breeze, gently stirring the pine needles; the aromatic odor of forest undergrowth; the murmur of the stream hurrying down the mountain gorge to mingle its pure waters with those of the muddy Sacramento, far away in the great valley below; the deep awe-inspiring cañons of the American, Stanislaus and Mokelumne Rivers; and back of all, the azure summits of the Sierra Nevada.
Remains also, the memory of the kindly-disposed, courteous and open-hearted inhabitants of the old mining towns. But more forcibly than all else combined - for it seems to epitomize the whole - the glamour of the towns themselves appeals with an irresistible fascination, that no poor words of mine can adequately express.
Views of the Bret Harte Country
Here ends A Tramp Through the Bret Harte Country by Thomas Dykes Beasley. Published by Paul Elder and Company and printed for them at their Tomoye Press in the city of San Francisco, under the direction of John Swart, in the year Nineteen Hundred and Fourteen.