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“To A Distant And Perilous Service”
Westward with the course of empire Colonel Jonathan Drake Stevenson took his way in 1846. With him went the denizens of New York’s Tammany wards, oyster cellars, and gin mills—the future leaders of California.
June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
Last parade: the chaplain of the island, the Reverend Dr. John McVickar, a teacher of moral and intellectual philosophy at Columbia University, came down to hand out Bibles. The men stood glassy eyed and dripping, while Dr. McVickar read a sermon on the heavy task of colonizing a “new, distant and dubious settlement.” As the chaplain saw it, squinting in the bleaching light, this expedition was a “living scion cut off the Parent American Stock, destined to engraft the Institutions of the East on the wild plants of the West.” It was a burden, he admitted, to carry civilization to the wilderness; but that was the price one paid for belonging to the Anglo-Saxon race, “a race that has never yet turned back, whose course has ever been onward and upward, and over whose destined empire there would seem to hang no other cloud than that which may arise from their possible unworthiness, should they be found to turn into base gain, or a lust of dominion, a trust of power committed to their hands for the Civilizing and Christianizing of the earth.”
During the sermon Colonel Stevenson peered across the harbor toward the Battery and saw a clot of agitated figures getting into boats. He held his ground with difficulty while the Reverend Chaplain was handing him a Bible and a Book of Common Prayer inscribed: “To the Leader of the Expedition and Probable Ruler of the New Colony.” Defensive tactics swamped his mind. He would station men along the gunwales of his flagship, each with a thirty-two-pound cannon ball in hand and orders to let fall on any boat that tried to fasten to the side. His own boat would guard the bottom of the ladder, with four armed men aboard to challenge process servers. He would have a marksman at the ready to drive off marauders, and the ship’s cannon loaded with grapeshot and canister.
There followed a nervous day aboard the Thomas Perkins . Peeking from his cabin, the colonel spied a little steamer wallowing purposefully down the East River. At once he summoned a musketeer and had him take aim at the pilot in the wheelhouse. Meanwhile, the deck officer of the Perkins shouted a warning to stand off or die. The steamer quickly drew away, confirming Colonel Stevenson’s suspicions that it was filled with deputies. He went below and dashed off letters to the President, the Secretary of War, the commander of the naval escort, the captains of the towing ships—even the sheriff of New York—notifying one and all that he intended to leave port at dawn Saturday at the head of his command—”peaceably if I can, forcibly if I must.” In later years it gave him satisfaction to remember this fine moment of ferocity.
At sunrise on the crucial day, training his spyglass on the nether tip of Manhattan Island, the colonel descried (or thought he did) a column of men piling into a harbor boat. An excruciating moment: the regimental band was bravely trumpeting “The Girl I Left Behind Me”; Fort Columbus fired its guns; two swift steamers took the Thomas Perkins in tow; and still they did not move, waiting for the ebb tide. A reporter came aboard with a flag from the benevolent Herald . A messenger arrived with a parting editorial from the malign Tribune: “As a specimen of utter, hopeless failure, this California expedition will stand without a superior, perhaps without an equal, in the annals of any nation.” Still, the ships did not move. At last the colonel heard a boatswain pass the order to cast off. The tow ships had a head of steam. By the time the harbor steamer carrying the sheriff’s posse (if, indeed, it was a sheriff’s posse) had reached Governors Island, the New York regiment of volunteers was slipping through the Narrows.
Sighing, Colonel Stevenson put down his glasses and commanded the flotilla to heave to while he made a final round of salutes and handshakes. It turned out that one captain, two lieutenants, four sergeants, and thirty private soldiers had been left behind in the excitement. The regiment numbered fewer than six hundred men. Secretary Marcy would have to send along another transport in a month or two to reinforce the scion of civilization.
Past Sandy Hook, the expedition met the open sea. Guns and boxes slithered to and fro. Barrels rumbled fore and aft. Every timber creaked and popped, and the bellying sails snapped full of blue-green spray. Colonel Stevenson, feeling a sudden surge beneath his tongue, scratched out a full week’s orders and made a rapid inspection of the billets. At the galley hatch, indignity overcame him. He tottered to his bunk and did not rise for days. When he ventured out again, it was October: the Perkins had found the southwest trades and was plowing the mid-Atlantic stream at eight to ten knots, through myriads of jellyfish, rising and floating up like blobs of opalescent butter. The air was soft; the laundrywomen shyly came up from below, and the colonel took a turn around the deck.