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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
The arrival in Rio de Janeiro, the expedition’s first stop, was something less than a triumph. To the colonel’s annoyance, his flagship came in last. The Brazilians failed to fire a welcoming salute; and the men of Captain Lippitt’s rowdy company, on sighting the rest of the flotilla in the harbor, gave three cheers and threw their newly reissued French hats over the side. When the colonel went around to inspect the other ships, he learned that discipline aboard the Susan Drew had broken down even more disastrously than it had done aboard the Perkins . An entire company had rebelled against bathing in a vat of seawater on the deck; and then, after Captain Naglee had put them in confinement, they had torn down the walls of the guardhouse, laughing and singing rudely, and had dumped the wreckage overboard. It was only after Lieutenant Colonel Burton had clamped the ringleaders into double irons that any sort of order was restored, and baths apparently were out of the question for the rest of the voyage.
Colonel Stevenson went ashore in a belligerent mood, and he found nothing there to improve his temper. The Brazilians were flagrantly cheating his soldiers, and his soldiers were acting like Vikings on a raid. One of the boys was in jail for stealing a valuable dog from the Hotel Pharoux; another had drawn a pistol on àmember of the Imperial Guard; and countless others were so drunk they had to be hog-tied and hauled back to the ships like carcasses of beef. It was distressing but not surprising to learn that the court of Brazil had filed a formal protest with the minister of the United States and had suspended diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The dramatic implications of the situation struck the colonel immediately. His patriotic spirit soared. He fired off a letter to the Brazilian government, pledging his full support to the American minister, the Honorable Mr. Henry Wise, and canceling plans for a ritual exchange of cannon fire with the shore batteries the next day. Then, with Mr. Wise at his side, he rushed back to the Thomas Perkins , climbed to the poop deck and, in ringing tones, told such men as could be assembled to prepare for war. Within twenty-four hours he would be leading an armed expedition through the streets of this impertinent capital.
The effect of this speech, as Stevenson remembered it, was “electrical.” An explosion of hysterical cheering spread from vessel to vessel, despite the fact that the men on thé other ships had no idea what the fuss was all about. Twenty thousand bewildered Brazilians came down to the quay to find out what was going on. All in all, it was “a great splutter,” as one of the officers said. That a war did not ensue was due as much to the forbearance of the Brazilians as to the obvious impossibility of mustering a sober landing force. Shore leave was suspended for a day or two, and the Brazilians settled for the recall of the American minister.
When things had quieted down, Colonel Stevenson got off an official letter to Secretary Marcy, reporting events to date and emphasizing the pleasant news that discipline had been “as good as could be expected of volunteers,” considering that most of them were under inexperienced officers. Twenty-two recruits, having achieved their apparent object of escaping from New York, elected to remain without permission in Rio; and the first night out of port the dissidents of the Susan Drew again tore down the reconstructed brig.
The balance of the trip to California was uneventful, save for the washing overboard of several men (one of whom drowned) off Tierra del Fuego. A newspaper called the Fish Market Reporter , edited by Obadiah Dolphin, Zachariah Flounder, Sephomiah Blackfish, and Ezekiel Sheepshead, appeared on the Susan Drew ; amateur actors in grotesque robes played Shakespearean tragedies on the Loo Choo ; and motion sickness again assaulted the commander in chief aboard the Thomas Perkins . Around Cape Horn the weather was properly foul, although it was midsummer in that latitude. Snow fell on Christmas Day. Seals and penguins sported near the ships. The men stayed below, chewing and spitting, drinking hot punch, and eating a holiday portion of plum duff.
The colonel, determined to beat the rest of the fleet to San Francisco, decided to bypass Valparaiso, Chile, while the Loo Choo and the Susan Drew put in for water. He did not regret his decision. On the ships that made port at that hard-bitten Chilean town, the boys smuggled themselves into water barrels, slipped through portholes, and stowed away in bumboats of fruits and vegetables. Twenty-nine escaped, but the Perkins sailed on, its cargo of Anglo-Saxon manhood more or less intact, and came through the Golden Gate at noon on March 5,1847. Colonel Stevenson, standing on the deck with Captain Arthur, breathed for the first time the strange aroma of the California land, a distillate of chaparral and oaks and lupine from the grassy hills around San Francisco Bay.