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New Orleans to San Francisco in '49

Arrival in Panama

We arrived at Chagres on the night of the 27th of March, having been eleven days in coming from New Orleans. This trip was a much longer one than it should have been; but the old ship was somewhat disabled by the storm and by striking on the reef, and had made but slow progress. I do not know at what hour of the night we arrived, but when I awoke in the morning the old Colonel Stanton lay at anchor, and there seemed to be a great deal of hurry and bustle on board.

It was a strange sight that met our gaze. From the deck of the steamer we had a good view of the town of Chagres. I could not at first believe that it was a town; it looked more like a collection of hay or fodder stacks. The houses, or cabins, or whatever they called them, were small conical structures, consisting of only a rude frame thatched with palm leaves, which answered the purpose of both walls and roof. A small opening was left for a doorway, and there was no floor but the beaten earth. The native inhabitants were negroes of various shades, ranging from coal-black to nearly white; but the majority were very black. They spoke the Spanish language.

The prevailing fashions there in the spring of '49 were very simple, cool, and airy. The dress suit for a native gentleman consisted of a piece of cotton cloth about a yard square, fastened about his loins. This, with a straw hat, completed the costume. Some few, however, having found a dirty shirt which had been discarded by some traveler, had adorned their manly forms with that superfluous garment. The fashion for ladies was also very picturesque, and consisted of a calico or muslin skirt of some light or gay color; which, with a scarf or long narrow shawl, thrown coquettishly over the head and concealing a large portion of the face, one end being thrown grace-fully over the shoulder, made the toilet of the most fastidious native belles. The fashions for children under fourteen years of age were even more simple and followed the style in vogue in Eden before our first parents adopted the garments of fig leaves.

The confusion and noise that I had heard on awakening was caused principally by the natives, who literally swarmed about the vessel They all seemed to have something to sell, -mainly tropical fruits, such as oranges, lemons, bananas, plantains, cocoanuts and pineapples, besides other fruits that were unfamiliar to us. They did not find ready sale for their stock in trade among the passengers, although it looked so tempting, for everyone was too much afraid of cholera to indulge in eating fruit.

If the natives looked strange to us, we children seemed to be perfect curiosities to them. They appeared to have great compassion for us, offering some of their fruit, and calling us "pouria los picaninies Americanos." An American who was in business in the town told my mother that we were the first American children that had ever landed there.

We all ate breakfast on board the steamer, which was our last meal there, as well as the last good meal we were to have for many a long day. The crew were already busy unloading the freight; and the passengers who were anxious to get their baggage were helping. One of the first articles to be unloaded was the cask that contained the body of the woman who had died of the cholera. So many of the crew had died that some of the officers were obliged to help in removing the cask to the shore. The second engineer who was helping was seized with the cholera, and fell dead just as he had put his foot on shore. As the cholera was still with us, everyone was anxious to get away from the steamer, hoping to leave that dreadful disease behind.

Poor father was carried ashore in a cot, and put down in the burning hot sun. Mother made me stand by him and hold an umbrella over him, while she and my brother were looking over our freight and baggage. She wanted to return with the steamer to New Orleans but father would not consent. Mother had never attended to any business before, but now she was obliged to leave father, who was so near death's door, take her little sick baby in her arms, and look after everything, with no one to help her but my brother.

She found that most of the freight we had brought with us could go no farther, so she sold what she could. Those to whom she sold, knowing that she would be compelled to leave it, would only give her their own price, a very small one, for it. Mother spoke both French and Spanish as well as English, and I do not know how she would have managed if such had not been the case. But her knowledge of Spanish enabled her to get along without hiring an interpreter, who charged a high fee for his services.

It was the rainy season on the Isthmus, and though it was clear when we landed it soon began to rain in torrents. As our tent had not yet been taken out of the ship, we did not know what to do. But mother having found the old Frenchwoman and her husband were going to remain at Chagres and open a restaurant, where they had already pitched their tent, made arrangements with them to shelter father and us little ones until our own tent could be put up.

The route across the Isthmus from Chagres was by canoe up the Chagres River as far as Gorgona, then by trail either on mule-back or on foot to Panama. Mother decided to start for Gorgona the next morning. So having collected what articles she thought she could get across the Isthmus, she hired three canoes, with enough native boatmen to row them up the river. She left my brother and old Duncan to load the canoes, while she prepared some provisions for our use while on the journey up the river. The articles that she had decided to take were bedding for the family, our clothing, two tents, our camping outfit, mining tools, the chest of carpenter tools, all the provisions that we could carry, and a small medicine chest.

She decided not to pitch our tent that night, but to stay with the Frenchwoman, so she gave us our supper and sent us early to bed. Our beds were some quilts spread on the ground. She said that she wanted to get a good night's sleep, for while going up the river we should have to sleep the best we could on top of the baggage in the canoes. But, owing to the heat and mosquitoes, we did not succeed in getting much sleep.

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