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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 lumpy peninsula now called San Francisco was humanized at some unrecorded moment of prehistory by brown-skinned Californians of the Costanoan strain. It was Europeanized in the eighteenth century by a small delegation of Spanish cavaliers, camp followers, and missionary priests; and it was Americanized seventy years later by a succession of commodores and company commanders, among whom was a mercenary swaggerstick named Jonathan Drake Stevenson, who propelled himself into the westward course of empire in the spring of 1846, the year the United States went to war with Mexico.
Then, as now, many Americans regarded the Mexican War as an expansionist adventure, and nothing gave more substance to this opinion than the official participation of Colonel J. D. Stevenson, the living personification of Manifest Destiny. Seen in the meanest light, the colonel was a bottom-rank New York City politician—a minor functionary of Tammany Hall with a demonstrated skill in advancing his own political fortunes and a manifest sense of his personal destiny. He had a vulturous nose and a hawkish brow, a hyperventilated chest and a gusseted waistline. Despite his ripe age (forty-six), he always held himself guts-up, like a musketeer at present arms, and his words rolled out in magnificently cadenced phrases, punctuated with exclamations of “My good man!” and “You, sir!” Had he stayed in Manhattan, he undoubtedly would have wound up a high sachem in the wigwam of Fernando Wood or Bill Tweed, dispensing street-repair contracts and saloon permits with winsome partiality. Instead, he made his way to Washington, D.C., on a crucial spring day in 1846 and succeeded in having himself appointed commander in chief of a seventeen-thousand-mile expedition to carry Anglo-Saxon civilization to the far Pacific coast.
The point of the expedition, as President James Knox Polk saw it, was to recruit a regiment of volunteers—skilled artisans, sturdy young farmers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, and others—and send them by ship around Cape Horn to California. Enlisted in the East under the militia statutes of New York, trained and disciplined by a respected army officer, the men would be mustered out on the Pacific coast as colonists of a new American province. Admittedly, California was an uninviting place—a desert shore, visited a few times each year by Yankee trading ships that unloaded cheap mirrors, combs, and leather shoes and came back with cattle hides and tallow; but a well-selected group of young Americans, nurtured in the traditions of the Republic, soon would transform this wilderness into a thriving commonwealth.
The President never explained why he chose Stevenson, a civilian, to command the regiment. Stevenson liked to think it was because he personally had secured the Democratic nomination for Polk. Since nobody else, including Polk, ever gave him credit for that accomplishment, the real explanation probably was less flattering to the colonel. Perhaps it was because he had called that day at the home of Postmaster General Amos Kendall, the Man to See in Washington, and had reminded Kendall of various services that he, Stevenson, discreetly had performed among the contentious Democrats of Manhattan. Perhaps it was because Stevenson knew Folk’s Secretary of War, William L. Marcy—and Marcy, who is remembered for his succinct enunciation of the guiding principle of nineteenth-century American politics, “To the victors belong the spoils,” was a man who never slighted his friends. Or perhaps it was because the President’s brother-inlaw, who was commandant of cadets at West Point, had turned down the assignment.
In any case, Polk wanted a commander and Stevenson wanted a job. The result was a colonial enterprise that left a deeper mark on California than had any Costanoan tribe or Spanish fort or covered-wagon cavalcade. The men of Stevenson’s regiment became the mayors, legislators, congressmen, judges, sheriffs, tax collectors, and county clerks of the new state. Seven of the regimental officers were among the forty-eight delegates who drafted the first California constitution. The first millionaire in San Francisco was from the regiment. So were the first sheriff, the first port collector, the first published author, and the first editor of the first important newspaper. The colonel himself found a niche in history as the first grand master of the Masonic Lodge in California; one of his subordinates made it as the first authentic English-speaking highwayman. Names from the roster adorn the lesser streets and alleys of San Francisco—Folsom, Stevenson, Leavenworth, Rausch, Green, Naglee, Gilbert, Hardie, Shannon, Russ—and the regiment abundantly supplied the underpopulated territory with gunfighters, knife throwers, ballot-box stuffers, and disturbers of the peace.
In short, Colonel Stevenson and his New York volunteers were the founding fathers of American California, although they were not at all the type of colonists the President had in mind.
Earlier in 1846 Polk had dispatched several smaller forces to California. A squadron of one hundred dragoons from the Army of the West was marching overland by way of New Mexico. A battalion of Mormon volunteers was en route from Fort Leavenworth to San Diego. An artillery company was rounding the Horn by ship. Already on the Pacific coast were several naval vessels and an armed survey party headed by the quarrelsome gadabout of the Western frontier, Captain John C. Frémont. Stevenson’s volunteers, getting a late start, obviously could serve no useful purpose except as an army of occupation; but Polk was eager to conceal his territorial ambitions. To this end, he asked Secretary Marcy to send a confidential letter to General Thomas Sidney Jessup, letting him in on the plans and cautioning him to be quiet in handling the logistics so that news of the expedition would not trickle out.
Colonel Stevenson, however, was giddy at the prospect of leading bayonet charges and liberating mission Indians. He rushed back to New York, full of winks and nudges. On the Fourth of July, at a get-together of militia officers of New York City at City Hall, he elbowed up to the speaker’s platform and blurted out the happy news that he had been called “to a distant and perilous service” on the northwest coast of Mexico, where his regiment of volunteers would be discharged at the end of the war.
To the Free Soilers in Congress, who had been saying all along that the war was only an excuse to annex four or five new slave states carved out of former Mexican territory, this announcement sounded like an official admission of guilt. Representative George Ashmun, a Whig from Massachusetts, flushed out Marcy’s correspondence about the regiment and indignantly read it to the House.
“It is no longer pretended that our purpose is to repel invasion,” Ashmun said. “The mask is off; the veil is lifted; and we see in the clearest characters invasion, conquest, and colonization emblazoned on our banners.… We behold an expedition about to sail from New York to a distant region of the globe, which it cannot possibly reach in less than four to six months, commanded by a mere political fortune-hunter of not the highest character, and destined to accomplish the conquest and dismemberment of a sister republic whose weakness seems to make her a ready prey to men whose purposes are those of plunder!”
Colonel Stevenson did not reply to this gratuitous slur on his character, made in the privileged sanctuary of the Congress. He was fully occupied trying to enlist, equip, and train more than seven hundred men in one month for a strategic expedition that would have done credit to Hannibal—for, of course, the regiment was by no means “about to sail.” It existed only in Colonel Stevenson’s patriotic dreams. The day after his announcement, the colonel put a notice in the New York papers, inviting volunteers to come down to the state arsenal on White Street and sign up; and, on the sixth, a militia captain named Seymour Steele set up a recruiting desk at Stoneall’s Hotel, a favorite meeting place for Democratic ward heelers. Governor Silas Wright, although he disliked Stevenson almost as much as he did Polk and Marcy, agreed to assign to the regiment several volunteer companies that had been forming upstate.
But recruiting was slow, the weather was stifling, and to make things worse, Marcy kept sending reminders that this was supposed to be an elite corps: “The President expects, and indeed requires, that great care should be taken to have it composed of suitable persons—I mean persons of good habits—as far as practicable of various pursuits.…”
The colonel did succeed in corralling an entire family of such “suitable persons” as a result of stopping to have his watch repaired by a German jewelry maker named Emanuel Charles Christian Russ, who was nursing a grievance against New York. A year and a half earlier, while Russ and his family had been out watching a memorial parade in honor of President Jackson, burglars had broken into his shop and stolen Russ’s life’s savings, twenty thousand dollars. Since that time, Russ repeatedly had declared that he would rather live in the wilderness than remain in this urban jungle, and Colonel Stevenson’s crusade sounded like an ideal opportunity to emigrate to the end of the earth. In return for free passage to California, Russ volunteered his own services and those of his oldest son, Adolph, as a private soldier; his two younger sons, Charles and Augustus, as fifer and drummer, respectively, of the regimental band; and his wife, Christiana, and six younger children, as laundresses, cooks, and scullery moppets.
The Russes were hard-working, frugal Lutherans from Saxony, accustomed to breakfasting on a quart apiece of home-brewed lager and making do on a family income of three dollars a day. If the colonel had been able to find more like them, it is possible that San Francisco would have turned out quite differently—more like Cleveland, say, or Minneapolis. Instead, in his desperate haste, Stevenson was compelled to accept virtually any man who wanted to make the trip. His volunteer officers included bankrupt lawyers from small towns in upstate New York, unemployed cadets from Philadelphia, newspaper editors, job printers, and doctors without formal education; and entirely too many of the men in the ranks were restless young bucks from the bloody sixth ward, sprung from the oyster cellars of Howard Street, the minstrel theaters of Chatham Street, and the gin mills of lower Broadway. Soon everyone was calling the regiment “Stevenson’s Lambs” or “Stevenson’s California B’hoys,” which was not at all the effect Polk wanted; and the colonel had to make a hasty tour of the city, giving propitiatory speeches about the splendid character and moral purposes of the volunteers, none of which mitigated the incessant sneering of Horace Greeley’s Tribune and other papers of Whig inclination.
On mustering day, August 1, only a few companies were filled. One or two were wafting downriver on the night steamer from Albany; another was trudging over from the seventh-ward Democratic headquarters on the East River. Seymour Steele’s A Company lined up on Nassau Street in the muggy morning haze, a rabble with the smell of whisky on them, and trailed off, single file, through Fulton Street and Broadway to the Battery. It was a Saturday, and nobody came outside to cheer.
How the colonel hated this! Unkempt men, straggling through town, drifting out to Governors Island, setting up their brand new white canvas tents every which way on the lawns of Fort Columbus, wolfing sweet crackers and warm beer, complaining about the heat, the sunburn, the half-cooked pork, the brackish coffee. What was needed was discipline! A firm, military schedule, clearly set forth in the order book. Rise to drumbeats at 4:30 A.M. and drill from five to seven. Breakfast and cleanup, then drill again from ten to twelve. Dinner at two, drills five to seven, then supper. Final roll call at nine, with every private soldier to enter his tent, douse the lights, and keep quiet.
First thing Monday, the colonel called together the full regiment, such as it was—two long lines of men in motley, facing the choppy harbor in a pearl-pink summer dawn, mouths crumpled shut in sleepy discontent, stretching, hands clasped on buttocks, eyes roving back to the beloved city. The colonel spoke with eloquence about the friendly, gentlemanly attitudes that would prevail, the bounteous new home awaiting them, the courage and sacrifice of battle. California was in a state of “armed insurrection.” They must be prepared to fight and die. An impressionable corporal caught the gist of it in his diary: “Roast beef and two dollars a day, plenty of whiskey, golden Jesuses, pretty Mexican girls, safe investments, quick returns.”
Muskets were issued, bayonets passed out. The daily drills began, and the hectic purchase of supplies: 1,606 barrels of salt pork, pickles, sugar, vinegar, pickled onions and sauerkraut; tons of coffee; bushels of beans; thousands of pounds of soap and candles; hundreds of crates of muskets, rifles, cartridges, primers, fuses, quick matches, slow matches, cannon balls, canisters, shells. There were four 6-pound field guns, two 12-pound howitzers, four 10-inch mortars, twenty 32-pound iron guns, and all the wagons, tools, and portable forges that Captain Joseph Folsom, the assistant quartermaster, could lay his hands on.
A regimental uniform was designed: light trousers with scarlet piping along the outer seam; a dark blue, single-breasted frock coat with a stand-up collar and scarlet cuffs; and a conical blue cloth cap with a black patent-leather visor in the newest French army style—“very becoming,” said the New York Herald , which approved of everything about the war. At $9.50, however, it struck the volunteers as an extravagant fancy: they got only $12.00 a year for clothing, and $12.00 a month in pay.
As for the officers, they were expected to put together their own kit. One young lieutenant, rushing around Manhattan on a sultry afternoon, ran up a frightful bill at the outfitting shops: one pair of gold lace shoulder straps, $2.00; mattress and pillow, $9.50; four pairs of white drill pants, $21.00; two white marshal’s vests, $8.00; one India rubber cloak, $16.00; one silk vest, $2.50; one double percussion gun, $39.38; one pair of gilt epaulets, $10.00; one silk sash, $12.00; two and one-third dozen pairs of white gloves, $21.00; one glove box, $4.00. Add to this a copy of Scott’s Tactics and a copy of Cooper’s Tactics , pillow sheeting, cotton sheeting, cold counterpanes, buckshot, powder, several dozen pairs of black prunella stockings, plus four or five bottles of Monongahela (rye) whisky, a dozen bottles of old brandy, and a ten-gallon keg of sherry (a sensible contribution to the officers’ mess), and you reached a level of military procurement that significantly enhanced the popularity of Mr. Folk’s War with the merchant class.
Meantime, on Governors Island the enthusiasm of the volunteers melted in the August sun. Most of the men were afflicted with what they called “summer complaint,” a form of galloping diarrhea attributed to New York water; and others turned up with more serious complaints attributed to New York women. Captain Kimball Dimmick, lately of Chenango County, New York, often felt so puny in the morning, what with the megrims and the cholera morbus, the whining of the men, and the carping of the Tribune , that he had to fortify himself with brandy and sugar before he could face the 5:00 A.M. drill, and then he would venture out to find the island seething with mischief and disaffection. First one company, then another, refused to buy the very becoming uniforms. The colonel reacted by locking several-score troublemakers in the guardhouse; and that caused so much grumbling that he had to bring in a company of army regulars to restore respect for authority. “If we sail for California, I have no doubt that Stevenson would die at the first opportunity,” Captain Dimmick wrote to his wife. “I would not dare to go in his shoes.…”
Almost every day the parents or friends of some recruit would appear at the colonel’s tent to serve him a writ of habeas corpus for the release of a disgruntled volunteer who had decided he was too young, too old, or too frail to go to California. One ill-fated company lost thirty men in a day and was left with only twenty-two of its original seventy-seven recruits. Another, commanded by the former superintendent of a starchy military school in Vermont, lost four by desertion, eight by medical discharge, and one to a constable who arrived with a warrant and handcuffs.
To seal off some of the leaks, the colonel posted a cordon around the island and ordered that any soldier moving about the grounds must pass a guard tent and give a secret password. Defectors continued to scamper past the sentry post, however, cheered on by crowds of admiring volunteers. It was reported that a startled picket, hearing footsteps and a splash, rushed out and shouted: “Say Newport or I’ll shoot!” The story was untrue, of course, like most of the trash in the opposition press; but the security system obviously did not work. During the eight weeks from muster day to sailing day, Colonel Stevenson had to replace close to five hundred recruits, almost a 100 per cent turnover, and the screening became increasingly haphazard.
To add to his anxiety, the colonel was being subjected to various means of legal harassment. Certain putative creditors, apprised of his imminent departure, haled him into court, where an unfriendly judge forced him to post a bond to guarantee that he would stay within the jurisdiction of the courts of New York, an obvious impossibility for a military officer en route to distant and perilous service. Next, a group of volunteers, disqualified because of physical disabilities, brought suit, charging Stevenson with illegally detaining them for twenty days before giving them a medical examination. This malicious litigation apparently had been instigated by a mercenary soldier and free-lance revolutionary by the name of Thomas Jefferson Sutherland—a would-be officer and tactical advisor to the expedition, whom the colonel had rejected with characteristic vigor. (“I am quite capable, sir, of directing this expedition as the President has entrusted me to do, sir, without the advice of consultants.… Good day, sir!”)
Sutherland was a filibuster with an appetite for Mexican girls and golden Jesuses, and he craved a tour of California. He sent a petition directly to Secretary Marcy through some friends in the capital, warning that legal entanglements would prevent Stevenson from leaving New York and suggesting that an acquaintance of Sutherland’s from Philadelphia—one Captain Henry M. Naglee of Company D—be appointed commander, instead. Marcy forwarded the letter to Colonel Stevenson, who answered by setting a sailing date—Friday, September 25. Sutherland’s intrigue was precisely the sort of challenge the colonel relished: covert, political, and dastardly. A few years earlier, during a presidential election, Stevenson had served his party and himself by playing double-agent in a plot the Whigs had concocted to import dozens of unemployed pipelayers from Philadelphia to New York to vote as repeaters in the precincts of lower Manhattan. Stevenson was therefore wise to all the dirty tricks of wicked statesmen and adept in all the classic postures of defense. He at once doubled the guard on Governors Island and gave instructions not to allow any unidentified persons to land. Leaving camp, he would draw his cloak up to his earlobes and surround himself with bodyguards. At midnight on September 23, accompanied by six men armed with cutlasses and pistols, he crossed the channel to Brooklyn in a rowboat with muffled oars and said a furtive farewell to his three daughters in the house of a friend.
The government had chartered three vessels, each with a capacity of seven hundred tons, to transport the volunteers. The Susan Drew , commanded by the mild-mannered West Pointer Lieutenant Colonel Henry S. Burton, was distinguished by her figurehead—a blowsy blonde (presumably Susan) with an upturned backside of transcendent grandeur. The Loo Choo , under Major Hardie, was graced by most of the literary and forensic talent in the group; and the Thomas Perkins was honored by the personal presence of Colonel Stevenson, who chose her, after careful reflection, as his flagship.
On Wednesday afternoon, September 23, steamers towed the transports down from the Brooklyn Naval Yard and warped them against the quay at Governors Island. All sails drooped. The decks were strewn with crates and boxes; hawsers dangled from the railings; and the sailors were grousing about having to sail on Friday. As for the regiment, every company was under strength, and one had dried up completely. The colonel, out of respect for maritime superstition, agreed to hold off the day of departure until Saturday; but he ordered the volunteers to board the ships immediately. He had received word from a friend in the sheriff’s office that process servers were on their way.
Last letters must now be sealed and mailed, last gifts dispatched: a pair of gloves, a smelling bag, a needle case. Captain Dimmick, braced with sugared brandy, wrote his wife: “Cheer up—be courageous for days of Joy are yet to come. The God of Battles will Shield me and nerve my arm in the hour of danger against my country’s foes and protect and console you in your lonely hours.…”
Last orders: Colonel Stevenson to company commanders—“All clothing and other articles refused to be paid for must be delivered to the Quarter Master at the Store Tent of the Regiment within four hours.…”
Last visitors: Lieutenant John Hollingsworth’s Uncle Chase drew Captain Naglee aside and muttered in his ear, as old men do: “ Naglee, if anything happens to him [Hollingsworth], say he died a clever fellow and bury him with the honors of war.”
Naglee assured him the regiment would never come within a hundred miles of an armed Mexican.
“Yes,” said Uncle Chase, “but you may fall out among yourselves.…”
Last souvenirs: a lithographer on Nassau Street turned out a satirical engraving of a volunteer in uniform, embracing a sorrowful doxy two feet taller than himself.
“Goodbye, Liz! Here’s my daggero type likeness! I’d stand treat but I haint got the ghost of a red cent left, our uniforms is so very expensive.”
And Liz, tearful but game: “Well Jake as you’r goin away, I’ve got three shillin so let’s go down to George Brown’s in Pearl Street and get two stews and a couple of horns!”
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.
His rough recruits were lounging at the rail, quarreling, puking, goosing one another, pining already for the joys of New York, sweet home of chicken fricassees, clam pots, chunk apple pies, egg flips, spruce beer, and gingerbread. Not even James Knox Polk could have mistaken these for country squires. Theirs was a bristling urban world of Irish saloons and German groceries, ward bosses, volunteer fire brigades, and rifle guards that marched with fife and drum on Sunday afternoons, led by mascots in tall fur shakos and black porters with a bull’s-eye target. It was a world of accessible comforts and easy companionship in which a man could pause on almost any street to wet the whistle at a tavern of the proper stripe. It was a world of Barn-Burners and Hunkers, Soft-Shells and Hard-Shells, Loco-Focos and Anti-Renters, Native Americans and National Reformers, factions and rivalries and splinters of a Byzantine complexity, which dealt with one another with all manner of bizarre and slanderous propaganda, stuffed ballot boxes, graveyard voting rosters, dark-lantern marches, kidnapings, arson, riots, slungshot, and brass knuckles.
These, presumably, were the Institutions of the East that certain of the New York volunteers intended to engraft upon the wild root stock of the Pacific coast. As a first step, they set about establishing them on the colonel’s transport ships. Almost every day Stevenson was compelled to promulgate new rules, and almost every day the men devised new antics not yet categorically proscribed: diving overboard for an unauthorized swim, climbing the rigging for an unsanctioned view, refusing to fall in line until one had finished shaving, eating in the bunkroom.…
To remind the regiment of their historic mission, the colonel would order the drummers to beat the long, insistent roll “To Quarters! All hands on deck to repel boarders!” Then, with everyone rolled out, he would deliver a fine, brisk, soul-inflating speech, afire with the enthusiasm of those rousing songs they used to sing at Niblo’s Gardens—“Success to California … likewise to Oregon … and the rooster that crows there … must be Uncle Sam.…”
But the boys were too far from the pain and glory of war. Their pranks began to smack of revolution. An impudent corporal in Company F called Sergeant Webster a son of a bitch. A frisky recruit in Company B poured flour and molasses over the sleeping person of Private John B. Brady; and every single man in the supposedly well-behaved company of Captain Francis Lippitt (he was the military academy martinet from Vermont) contrived to “lose” his very becoming French hat. The colonel sensed that he would have to rise to the occasion. He read aloud the articles of war, adding reminders: sleeping on duty will get you twenty days in the guardhouse, with two hours of each day trussed to the rigging by both hands; insubordination—leg irons and a ball and chain. Hereafter, all soldiers of the regiment shall go to bed at 9:00 P.M. to the sound of a drum.
The bedtime regulation caused an ominous rumble of discontent. It was as hot as Hades below deck, and you could not eat or smoke or sing. One of the sergeants, passing the order along, told his platoon he didn’t give a damn whether they obeyed it or not. The colonel, fortuitously, overheard. Hastily convening a court-martial, he broke the sergeant to the ranks and sentenced him to holystone the deck. The sergeant glared at him defiantly.
“Have him trussed up by the thumbs until he apologizes,” said Colonel Stevenson. “Maintain discipline, sir.”
Next day, Captain Folsom, the staff quartermaster, came in to report that the sergeant’s punishment was upsetting the men.
“Did you know they’re planning a mutiny this afternoon?”
The colonel inflated his chest and examined Folsom, a West Pointer and no slouch, but not as spunky as he might have been.
“No, sir,” the colonel said. “But I do know that there will be no mutiny aboard this ship this afternoon. And further, Captain Folsom—you are well aware that I sleep over nine hundred pounds of gunpowder; but do you not know, sir, that I have a train from that powder to my berth? I do, sir, and you can rest assured that before I will suffer the command of this vessel to pass from me, there will not be a plank left for a soul aboard to cling to. And now, Captain Folsom, let the mutiny proceed!” Folsom presumably spread word that Colonel Stevenson had come unglued and was threatening to blow up the ship, for the mutiny did not proceed.
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.
Upon entering the straits, the colonel thought at first that the great expanse of the bay was as empty as the moon. Flocks of seabirds floated on the water, and the island of Alcatraz was white with gulls. He issued a call to arms and buckled on his sword. Then they sighted two American men-of-war and a little hide drogher from Boston, taking on water at the port of Sausalito. As they lowered the topgallant sail and came around to Yerba Buena Cove, the colonel could see the flag of the United States flying over the adobe buildings of the Mexican cuartel . He was too late to conquer California. It had been conquered months before, and Colonel Jonathan Drake Stevenson would never be the Ruler of the New Colony.
Gazing up at the scattering of wretched sheds and shacks above the cove, the colonel tasted the gall of disappointment. There were no golden Jesuses here for him. San Francisco was only an isolated army post on the outer limits of a fallen empire, a minor harbor in the hide-and-tallow trade: three or four frame buildings, put up by renegade Americans, a billiard room, a bar or two, a blacksmith’s shop, a trading post, a few corrals, a couple of adobe warehouses for storing salted rawhides. Some dark-haired women were washing underwear in a stream that trickled down among the windblown hills.
But a Spanish-speaking Californian named Mariano Vallejo and a Frenchman named Victor Prudhom rowed out to the ship to deliver a formal little speech of welcome; and the colonel, drawn up stiff and pigeon-chested, responded on behalf of the regiment, the President, and the state of New York. Afterward, feeling somewhat bouncier, he sent a courier to General Stephen Watts Kearny, down at the provincial capital in Monterey, announcing that the army of occupation had arrived. Excepting a few men with colds, all were healthy and “able to perform any duty you may require of them.”
Next day, the colonel landed his troops by boat at Clark’s Point, a spit at the foot of Telegraph Hill, and on the following day marched them out to the Presidio, a deserted Spanish barracks on a slope above the straits. Blackbirds were so thick underfoot they had to be kicked aside as the troops walked. The boys swept out the buildings, posted a guard, and began the occupation of California.
On March 12 the Susan Drew came in; ten days after that, the Loo Choo ; and at the end of April the transport Brutus with the stragglers and the late recruits. By then San Francisco Bay was cluttered with Yankee vessels—sloops of war, transports, storeships, and frigates. General Kearny’s dragoons had come in, overland, and soldiers and sailors outnumbered all the previous American settlers in California by more than two-to-one. They ran the territory as a military camp, with a governor-general in Monterey and a magistrate in San Francisco to keep track of five or six hundred whites and a couple of hundred Indians, mestizos, blacks, and Polynesians.
The volunteers spread up and down the coast. The colonel took three companies to Monterey, where they dug redoubts and sulked. Three under Burton went to Santa Barbara, occupied a homey Spanish barracks, and amused themselves for a year or so shooting doves and putting on minstrel shows with banjos made of sheepskin stretched on flour sieves. Three under Major Hardie stayed at the Presidio of San Francisco; and a single company went up to Sonoma, the northern edge of European influence.
Ultimately, Colonel Stevenson wound up with the command of the Pueblo of Los Angeles, a quiet village in the center of a dusty plain. The Spanish-speaking Californians received him gently: they were accustomed to blue-eyed gringos from Boston and figured he was another of the same. It was a decorous, benign regime. The colonel kept the articles of war and the army regulations constantly at hand. On holidays he read the Declaration of Independence in English and Spanish and ate courtly’suppers in the company of Abel Stearns, a storekeeper from New England, and his Spanish wife.
A single incident aggrieved the colonel’s pastoral reign. A young lieutenant, after nipping aguardiente in the duty shack, tried to storm Abel Stearns’s liquor store and was heard to call the respected proprietor, his wife, and her sister “a bunch of pimps.” Stevenson sent apologies and cashiered the lieutenant.
On the eve of the New Year, 1848, the colonel and his boys were hosts to the gentry of Los Angeles at a grand ball and supper. Stevenson raised a dozen toasts—to the President, to the Nation, to the ladies, to old friends in the States (“God grant that we may spend our next New Year among them”), and bashfully accepted a toast to himself. If anyone toasted the future, the sentiment was not recorded. The future was beyond belief, beyond imagination.
Three weeks later, in a millrace on the American River in northern California, John Marshall spotted the flicker of gold. By the end of summer, 1849, the Los Angeles garrison, like every other encampment of the New York volunteers, was abandoned, the harbinger of Anglo-Saxon civilization scattered to the hills, the coastal towns and villages of California half-deserted. The little port of San Francisco had become the focus of world migration. Captain Folsom, the staff quartermaster, having secured appointment as collector of the port, was on his way to becoming a millionaire. The Russ family, purveyors of Moroccan leather and holiday fireworks, had opened a jewelry shop and begun assembling an empire of hotels, beer gardens, office buildings, and residential blocks. Sergeant John C. Pulis, late of Lippitt’s monstrous Company F, had become the first sheriff of San Francisco. Lieutenant Edward Gilbert was editing the Alta California , the leading newspaper in the territory; Captain Naglee (he of the bathtime rebellion) had founded the territory’s first bank; Lieutenant Hewlett had opened a boardinghouse; Captain Frisbee had started a commission agency and was in prospect of marrying the eldest daughter of General Vallejo; Lieutenant Vermeule, the plague of Abel Stearns, had set himself up as a lawyer and would soon be elected a delegate to the California constitutional convention and a member of the state legislature; and the Reverend Mr. Thaddeus M. Leavenworth, chaplain to the regiment, had attained the quasi-judicial position of alcalde of San Francisco and was granting homesteads and auctioning public lands with a Christian generosity that scandalized even his former associates.
As for the colonel, he was well on his way to a second career (and a second marriage and a second family) as a legal counselor, politician, and founder of a grandiose ghost city called New-York-of-the-Pacific, which endures today only in the name of a slough on the edge of San Francisco Bay.
The former New York boys were scattered by then throughout California, styling themselves doctors, lawyers, judges, or capitalists. A few in San Francisco called themselves the “Hounds”—or, on formal occasions, the “Regulators.” They were the first recognizable New York—style drinking-and-marching society in the Far West, and their raucous behavior soon aroused the more orderly citizens of the town to form the prototype of San Francisco’s several committees of vigilance.
For better or worse, the Americanization of California had begun.