- Historic Sites
General Sully Reports
In vivid paintings and prose a professional army officer recorded a career that spanned nearly forty years and mirrored the history of the American West
December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
Arriving at Monterey, California, in April, 1849, Sully wax made chief quariennasier loi the U.S. troops I here. The Gold Rush was at its height, and the effect of that, in addition to the impression made by the Spanish culture of California, was soon reflected in Sully’s letters. What follows is a combination of observations he made between April 16 and September 20, 1849: I am writing this in the Capitol of California. The Adjutant General is on my right making out his returns for the mail. Near me the Secretary of State is doing the same. The Governor General (General Rilcy) is I suppose gone aboard ship, for it is near 10 o’clock at night and the Quarter Master of this important dependency of the United States is smoking his pipe, writing to his mar and par. High sounding titles we all have but when you have sounded the titles you have done all, for we are names without meaning or rather an executive or power without the force. Ask a man to do anything for you and he will laugh at you though you öfter to pay him well. A gentlemen the other day arrived, offered to pay a loafer on the wharf $4.00 to carry his trunk. His reply was, ‘Stranger, I’ll give you two ounces ($30) if you’ll carry it up yourself. I would like to see you carry that darned thing with your kid gloves.’ … Monterey is situated on a bay opening on the sea, well protected. The country around beautiful. Covered with tall trees. Well built (for a Mexican town) but badly populated. Plenty of the female proportion; the males have all gone to the mines. There is nothing to eat. People are all too busy digging gold to cultivate the ground. Our standing bill of Tare is: breakfast, coffee, ham, dapjacks and molasses. Dinner, beef and rice, tea, coltee, ham, (lapjacks and molasses. Lunch and supper, whiskey and pipes. And another thing, got some wood this morning. Not dear, only six dollars a cord, but it never saw an axe. I have got (he top of a tree in the fire. The trunk and branches are on the door, reach about the middle ol the door. As last as it burns olf, we push it further in. … Our men have mostly left us. A party of go started off together. The officers armed themselves, mounted and brought them back. They are now serving out their time in irons. Some have furloughs with permission to dig gold. So out of a company of yo we have but 20 left for duty. Our band we also found we could not keep together, so we have given them leave Io go and dig for a time. Refore they left we gave a grand ball. The ladies did all the cake baking, and we furnished all the wine and music. We managed to get some thirty good looking young ladies but the gentlemen were rather scarse as most of them had gone to the gold mines. They danced all night, as il it was a very regular piece of work they had to perform, and broke tip very pleased with the performance.
I was sorry to sec them Amcricanize their dress; … they look ninth better with their short skirts and rebosas. A remarkable thing about these Californians is their large families. They generally marry when they are 12 or 16 years old and have an addition to their family every year until they are 50. Thank God they don’t all live or the country would not be large enough to hold them all. … Many are making fortunes, but many will have to smash. The Yankees arc driving out of the mines everything that talks Spanish. Thousands of Mexicans are on their way home swearing death and plunder to all Yankees. Many not able to leave will turn to cultivating and hope lor a better state ol things next year. The other day we rode out on a beautiful road ditched and lined on both sides with willow trees (the work of the priests in olden times) to the mission house. Like all other missions in the country a long line ol low buildings enclosing a square, with a large church in one corner, surmounted by a cupola filled with bells. What, a happy set of devils those priests must have been. … They had the whole control of the country. Every thirty miles along the coast their large mission houses taking thousands of acres. The Indians were their slaves and their will the law. Yet I have been told by old inhabitants the country never was in a happier state. They never abused their power, were hospitable and kind to all, particularly so to strangers.”
The irregular conditions of army life in Monterey led Alfred Sully to the most intense happiness he was ever to know—and the most intense anguish. Since there was no established officers mess, he went to board with one of the local Spanish families. It turned out to be the most distinguished family, as well as one of the wealthiest, in that part of California. The romantic and tragic consequences were recounted in a scries of letters that Sully wrote over a period of two years—from June, 1849, to May of 1851: