Veni, vidi, vici: firsthand accounts from the land of gold

There’s nothing like first impressions Here are three I’ve read recently.

Sir Henry Vere Huntley, “Tripe and pork! What a combination of nauseous horrors!” courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Sir Henry Vere Huntley, “Tripe and pork! What a combination of nauseous horrors!”. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

California: Its Gold and its Inhabitants by Sir Henry Vere Huntley. Out of print but available online, courtesy of the Internet Archive.

Sir Henry Vere Huntley (1795-1864) was a British naval officer who served in many exotic locales during his extensive service career. Described by the Dictionary of Canadian Biography as an “impetuous man, prone to direct and dramatic actions” Huntley led a life of energy, intrigue, and some profound screw ups.  During the thick of the California gold rush, he found himself in San Francisco as the gentleman representative of the Anglo California Gold Mining Company.

Huntley’s stint in the far West was troubled from the start – the machinery imported from Britain was useless, there were few paying places to mine, communication with the company’s board of directors took months, and there was never enough money. Nevertheless, in his published journal of 1852, Huntley rises to the occasion – sometimes delighted by the rusticity of the frontier and at other times, utterly appalled by the trials that he, an English gentleman, was forced to endure.

Filled with details about business and social engagements and the tricky differences in dining and hygiene habits, Huntley’s journal is laugh out loud funny. Grossed out by hotel and boarding house accommodations he describes with disgust how at one all he received for washing was “a bit of soap the size of a shilling and a veteran hairbrush…used by all of the travelers who liked it” and at another, received only “a towel fourteen inches square – I measured the towel in my room. For this two dollars are charged. If you object to have anyone in the room with you, four dollars must be paid.”

Additionally, Huntley is put off by the habit of San Franciscans not offering meals in courses. While dining at an acquaintance’s house, he states with incredulity “we had a roast duck and an oyster pie to be eaten together; after that had been accomplished, I had put on my plate at the same time – gooseberry tart, cheese, and preserved ginger. How very strange this seems to us, who see no reason for being in a hurry about such matters.” He later remarks, “as soon as the dinner is over you go away; you are asked to eat only; the delight of an English dinner party, and evening afterwards is unknown to the Californian American.” He also mentions with fascination that, “The American from the “backwoods” cannot feel that he is a bore to any one; on the contrary, he thinks he can entertain [others] by a long history of his own biography, especially that part of it which has been subjected to disease of any kind; this disposition to speak of self pervades even better classes and the backwoodsman in the United States”

Huntley’s book is told in a first-rate British gentleman’s voice, and is especially useful for understanding the transportation experience between California’s cities, towns and mining camps. Look forward to many descriptions of unsanitary hotels and privations on the road washed down with “eternal champagne, till one sickens at the sight of it….and how the men drink!”


courtesy Wikimedia Commons

courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Schliemann and the California Gold Rush: The 1850-1852 American travel journal of Heinrich Schliemann: a transcription and translation by Wout Arentzen and Christo Thanos

Most people are familiar with Schliemann – the famous 19th century archaeologist who “discovered” the ancient city of legends, Troy, and the “Mask of Agamemnon” at Mycenae. Schliemann’s life was indeed “golden”, prior to his awe inspiring discoveries Schliemann spent some time in California – settling his brother’s estate and making a fortune buying gold dust and banking.  This portion of his extensive diary is really a travel journal covering his treks from Europe to the states, through the mosquito ridden Panama and the dusty streets of Sacramento.  Inside you’ll find details of landscapes – hotels, theatres, and the rolling hills of the lower Sierra – from the perspective of a German businessman on the make.


Gold Seeker: Adventures of a Belgian Argonaut during the Gold Rush Years by Jean-Nicolas Perlot

Last but perhaps the most enjoyable is this memoir by Jean-Nicolas Perlot. Anthropologist, linguist, adventure seeker, gold miner, gardener, mountain man extraordinaire this journal is fraught with adventure and as fast a read as Krakauer’s Into the Wild – only without the sadness and suicide. Perlot, who was profoundly daring, left Belgium, to seek his fortune. He hooked up with a French mining company that upon arrival in Monterey, was found to be bankrupt. Undeterred, Perlot made a go of it alone making friends along the way with fellow gold seekers and natives. While times were sometimes brutally hard, Perlot’s ability with languages, respect for native culture, proficiency with a rifle, and green thumb allowed him to conquer the West in his own way.


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