Story of Two California Pioneers
by James Howe

Many stories have been told about the gold discoveries in California in the old days of ’49, and perhaps it would be interesting to some to read the adventures of two brothers who were originally engaged in the lumber business in the province of New Brunswick, B.N.A.

These two brothers, Henry N. Howe and James S. Howe were natives of Maine, that old pine tree state.  They were of English parentage, their father being Simeon Howe whose wife, nee Hannah Dawes, was their mother.  Miss Dawes was the sister of the grandfather of United States Vice-President Dawes.  These two brothers, quite early in life went to New Brunswick and each married a New Brunswick girl.

Henry Howe married Miss Rebecca Hall of old Mayflower stock and a descendant of John and Priscilla Alden.  James took for his wife Miss Clementina Seeley of proud old English stock.

The rumours of the discovery of gold in California reached these two brothers, and as the rumours became more real and visions of wealth came before them, they gradually contracted the gold fever.  This fever became so virulent that they made up their minds the only cure was to go to California.

Imagine the surprise when the brothers informed their wives and relatives of their decision!  It meant the breaking up of family ties for a period of years, and maybe forever, and at any rate hardships for not only the brothers but for their families which now consisted of a wife and four children in the family of Henry Howe and a wife and three children in the family of James.  They did not have much money and they had to make provision for their families for an unknown period.

The brothers finally engaged passage on a little sailing vessel called the “Sam French”.  It had but two masts and was part schooner and part brig, - that is having square sails on one mast and schooner sails on the other mast.  It was not much more than 120 feet long, carrying a capacity of 120 tons.  They were to pay half of their passage in money and the other half they worked out as seamen before the mast.

The vessel was to sail for its voyage around Cape Horn early in November, that it might reach the south temperate zone the latter part of December as that would be summer time at Cape Horn.  The weather would be less stormy in which (to use sailor’s vernacular) to double the Cape.

When the time came for the Sam French to sail, the brothers took a sorrowful leave of their families and boarded the ship that might never return.  They soon learned to say “aye aye” to the captain, but had a little better treatment than the other sailors.  This made the other sailors somewhat jealous and they sought in many ways to make it unpleasant for our voyagers.

One old tradition the sailors adhered to and practised was that the first time a sailor crossed the line of the equator, he would have to treat the ship’s crew to grog or else submit to having his face shaved with a dull razor.  When they neared the equator, the sailors demanded that the Howe brothers either treat or be shaved.  They declined to do either on the ground that they were not regular sailors, having paid half their fare in money.  Then it was that the trouble began, for the sailors were going to shave the brothers anyway.  The brothers had a little too much of the old English blood in their veins to stand for that and there being only six sailors (for this small vessel had only about eight men besides the skipper and mate) they did not dare to come to open combat, but did everything they could to make it unpleasant for our gold seekers.

There were few things besides this to change the monotony of a long sea voyage, except the splicing of ropes, sweeping the decks and keeping things tidy.

One of the strange things not accounted for was the change that took place in the drinking water carried in wooden tanks.  The fresh water taken on board in the north temperate zone began to get thick and ropey like syrup as they neared the equator.  As they came to the south temperate zone it gradually came back to its original liquid state.

Imagine if you can the frame of mind of our gold seekers out on this trackless ocean, no sight of land for nearly three months, conflicting emotions – homesickness, love of families left behind, the lure of gold before them, and the uncertainty of ever reaching either.  There was no communicating with their families except meeting a homeward bound vessel, which was very seldom and only by chance.

Along about the latter part of January, a little after daylight, the watch on deck heard the welcome cry of “land ho!” from the lookout on the masthead.  “Where away?” cried the captain.  “Off on her lee bow” shouted the lookout.  The captain consulted his charts and decided that the land was the Falkland Islands, the first land seen since leaving the home port.  They knew then that they were nearing Cape Horn, and if winds were favorable would soon double the cape and then be headed north for the land of gold.

They were over a month rounding the Cape (which they never saw!) and came into that part of the world where the northeast trade winds blow (winds that blow steadily in one direction for months at a time).  As they were headed in a north-west direction they did not have to tack (or zig-zag) but held the vessel in as straight a course as they could by their compass.  They never sighted land from the time they sighted the Falkland Islands until they came in sight of the Farallone Islands west of the Golden Gate.

They passed through the Golden Gate in the early days of May, 1850, having been over six months on the trip.  The monotony of the long voyage was soon forgotten in the varied scenery and excitement of the land of their golden dreams.

San Francisco Bay was literally a forest of masts of abandoned ships of every description, the crews having left for the gold mines.  The streets and wharves were a jumbling, hurrying mass of humanity from every nation, all making ready to leave for the mines, they did not know where.  Prices were sky high.  Work in the city was plentiful at high wages and our gold seekers went to work to get money to outfit themselves for the mines.

They had a double responsibility now as they thought of their families back on the east coast, from whom they had never heard since their sorrowful parting six months before.

There had been a mail route established from the east to San Francisco via the Panama Isthmus, and when a mail steamer would come into port hundreds of men would form in line at the mail window.  Often an anxious one near the end of the line would buy the right of someone near the window, who after he had sold his place would then start at the back end of the line again.  Sometimes these lines would stand till dark, only to form again the next day.

Every few days news would be brought in that new diggings of fabulous richness had been found.  The feverish excitement was renewed and another rush was on!

The brothers worked about the city at different jobs till they got together enough money to outfit themselves for the mines.  Their supplies consisted mainly of bacon, beans, flour and coffee at fabulous prices; also pick, shovel, boots and change of clothing.

It was not more than seven months since leaving their home in the east and they had never had a word from their families.

The months of June and July were the months of high water from the melting snows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the rivers Feather, American and Yuba, where the greatest gold rushes had been, were too high.  The prospecting became general all along the Sierras, from the northern part of California to the southern end of the San Joaquin, King, Kern, Merced and Stanilaus Rivers.  Our gold seekers tried them all, following the foot of the rainbow with but little success.

Disheartened and full of malaria and rheumatism, they were told the story of a Dutchman who had been to the mines in different places and who was trying to get back to San Francisco.  This Dutchman was overtaken by a man with a team of mules.  The man offered the limping Dutchman a ride which was refused.  Upon asking why he refused a ride, he was answered like this: “I youst going to learn this Dutchman not to go some more to dem mines, so I make him walk all de way back.”

Again seeking work in San Francisco to replenish their depleted pocketbooks, the brothers managed to get enough to send back to their waiting families in the east; also passage money to pay their fare to California.  It took more than a month for this money to reach the families whom they had not seen now for a year.

The sending of money so long a distance in those days was risky because of the inefficiency of the service.  The money consisted of gold and the banks had no well established means of issuing drafts on other banks, so very often money sent back from California to parties in the east never reached its destination because of mail robbers.  However, after months of anxious waiting the wives of our adventurers received the money to come to California, for the brothers had decided to make California their future home.

With the money came a request to the father of the brothers to come with the two families as general manager and caretaker.  Imagine the surprise of Simeon Howe, a man then past 50 years of age, being asked to take the responsibility of bringing these two families to California!  He however immediately set about making arrangements for the journey.

It was decided that a six months trip around Cape Horn would be out of the question for the families to undertake.  But the household furniture and belongings actually necessary in the new land would be shipped around by sailing vessel, which was done.  The families would take passage on a steamship via Isthmus of Panama, taking only the necessary clothing to last to San Francisco.  Mr. Howe engaged passage on a side wheel steamship which was soon to sail.  Mrs. Henry Howe was in ill health and had been for some time and the doctor advised that the care of her youngest child, a boy of 2 years would be too much for her and that she had better leave him behind.  Yielding to the persuasions of the relatives and the doctor, she finally consented.

Mr. Simeon Howe made final arrangements; the steamship was ready to go and the two families bid farewell to their relatives and set sail for the promised land.  The steamer proved unseaworthy, being a side wheeler; the captain and officers had not yet gained the necessary experience to make a successful voyage; the crew was insubordinate and before the ship had been out many days they encountered a storm at sea.  The boat was soon disabled by the breaking of the main shaft, which drove the side wheels, and the ship drifted for days in a stormy sea in a helpless condition.  The captain and officers, with the help of some of the men passengers, cobbled up the broken shaft by placing emergency bearings around the broken shaft that they might use one paddle wheel.  Fortunately the storm abated and the vessel came limping into Aspinwall several days late.

Upon reaching Aspinwall they were informed that the steamship on the Panama side which they had expected to connect with, had sailed for San Francisco.  Then there came a time of uncertain waiting.  The families had been seasick during the storm and had now begun to feel hungry.  Their appetite was so keen they could eat the sour bread and dried meat as though it were the daintiest morsel.

After being in Aspinwall a few days, Mr. Howe arranged to cross the Isthmus, a distance of about 30 miles, to Panama on the Pacific Ocean side.  The women were carried on donkeys, the men walked and the children were carried on the backs of natives.  The way for some distance led up the Chagras River through the tropical forest, and the chattering of many kinds of monkeys, crocodiles and the flight of birds of bright plumage, made some diversion from the scenes on board the disabled steamship.
Nearly a week was spent on the trip over the mountains between Aspinwall and Panama.  At last our weary voyagers came in sight of Panama and with sighs of relief they thought their troubles would soon be over.  But disappointment awaited them as they were told there was no connecting boat there and it would be weeks before one would arrive from San Francisco.  Disappointments, worry and the hardships of the voyage and waiting at Panama in a sickly season, brought on Panama fever of which the oldest boy of the Henry Howe’s finally died.  The mothers also contracted the fever, came near death, but finally recovered.

After weeks of waiting the glad news of a steamship in sight filled their hearts with hope, only to be again disappointed most cruelly, for on presenting his through tickets to the agency, Simeon Howe was told that there was no connection between the Atlantic steamship line and the Pacific line.  With two sick families on his hands, in a strange country with no money, what could this old man do?  He told his story to the steamship agent and promised that he would immediately raise the money to pay the passage for the party on their arrival in San Francisco.  The company took his word for it and the homesick, seasick party went on board.  They arrived in San Francisco without further mishap and rapidly gained in health.

Mr. Howe immediately arranged to reach the place about 35 miles south of San Francisco, at the foot of the mountains southwest of Redwood City, where he expected to find his sons and to deliver to them the families he had so faithfully cared for.  He gathered together what little household belongings the party had brought with them and hired a man and team to move the families to the Pulgas Rancho, which is Mexican for “Flea Ranch”.

It took several days to make this journey of 35 miles over country with no roads, no bridges, over creeks and through brushy hills.  The party kept as near to the western shore of San Francisco Bay as possible without getting into marshy land.  While camped at midday to rest and cook food over a campfire, as well as to feed the hungry team, they saw in the distance two heavily bearded men approaching them on horseback.  Mrs. Clementina Howe said to her sister-in-law, Rebecca Howe, “I think that must be your husband coming.”  Rebecca answered “Then I think the other must be your husband James.”

After the brothers had sent the money back to their families, they had set about arranging some kind of an abode for them.  They had no assurance the families would even receive the money, how long before they could be ready to start or how long it would take them to reach San Francisco.  All was uncertain.

Having had enough of mining for awhile, they thought they would do something that they knew more about, so they made arrangements to take over a saw-mill and there they intended to bring their families.  They were quite happy getting things ready for awhile, but as time passed, they began to think it about time they should have word and spent many anxious hours waiting and visiting the post office.  Finally the steamer they expected would bring their loved ones brought word that the steamship on the Atlantic Ocean which should have been in port at Aspinwall, had encountered a tropical storm, and rumor had it that it was lost at sea.  After what seemed endless waiting and hoping against hope, the brothers finally got word that their families had arrived at San Francisco.  So they set out on horseback to meet or find them.  As they were riding along they saw some party camped at a distance.  James Howe, the younger brother said “Henry, who knows but that is our loved ones, spur up!  spur up!”  They rode at a gallop to hear the welcome words “Oh, Henry”; “Oh, James”, “At last, thank God, thank God!”

I will not try to depict the joy of that meeting – tears of joy at meeting their loved ones; tears of sorrow for the little one left in an unmarked grave; exchanges of experience; the hearty hand clasp with the faithful father as they thanked him in husky voices for the sacrifices he had made for them.  After a brief rest the united families continued their journey to the place which they intended to make their home.  They were so happy now that nothing seemed to annoy or worry them.

Upon reaching their new home and settling down to housekeeping, the wives soon found out the inconveniences of life in California without any household furniture.  They cut little boughs of redwood trees for mattresses and their pillows reminded them of Jacob of old when he was fleeing from his brother Esau’s wrath and made his pillow out of a stone.  They looked hopefully forward to the time when they would get their furniture which they had shipped around the horn.  But in this they were destined to disappointment.  The vessel was never heard from after leaving the eastern port.

The brothers had taken over a saw mill and now being reunited with their families went courageously to work to build up a fortune.  It is needless to say that the reaction to happiness of the two wives came only too soon.  They were in a strange land with none of the conveniences of the old home, no one outside of the families to visit; food was different, nothing seemed right, and in spite of the cheerfulness of their husbands, the wives spent many tearful hours.

The first California addition to the Howe families came to the Henry Howe family on January 31, 1853, a son, Frank Edwin, who lives at present (1900) near Hanford in Kings County.  Two months later a girl baby came to make her home with the James Howe’s.  They named her Sally Lee.  (She is now Mrs. Alfred Hinds of 147 Mission St., Santa Cruz, Calif.)  In 1854 another baby girl came to the James Howes; she was Mary Lucretia, born in San Jose.  She is now living in Alaska, married to a miner Christian Fox.  (added by Mary’s daughter, Ann Johnson)

These two families worked together for about eight years in lumbering, mining and farming.  The last business they engaged in together was the building of a saw mill not far from Alma, a little station about 3 miles from Los Gatos on the Santa Cruz highway.  The flood waters of 1862 washed the mill away, and the brothers dissolved partnership.  James Howe still followed the lumber business while Henry moved his family to a farm in the Santa Clara Valley.

Written by James Howe, son of James Howe in the story and father of Mary Virginia, who is the mother of Emma Schwedler Clayton, who is the mother of Barbara Ann Clayton.  Written about 1900.