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Excerpts from William Perkins--Journal of Life at Sonora, 1849-52

William Perkins was a young Canadian who traveled to California in 1849 via ship (and across Mexico) and settled in Sonora. He tried mining, but settled in as a merchant and became one of Sonora's leading citizens and a member of its first Town Council. These excerpts are in chronological order.


On His Arrival in Sonora (July 1849). When I arrived...I thought I had never seen a more beautiful, a wilder or more romantic spot. The Camp, as it was then termed, was literally embowered in trees. The habitations were constructed of canvas, cotton cloth, or of upright unhewn sticks with green branches and leaves and vines interwoven, and decorated with gaudy hangings of silks, fancy cottons, flags, brilliant goods of every descrption...

Here were to be seen people of every nation in all varieties of costume, and speaking fifty different languages, and yet all mixing together amicably and socially...

The ground is delved, and dug, and thrown up... Work that would have taken hired laborers years to accomplish, the thirst for gold and the excitement of the search, has consummated in a few months...

The People in Sonora. Here was a John Chinaman with his quilted jacket, his full blue cotton breeches reaching to the knees, and meeting the stocking-shoes with their soles an inch thick; his head covered with the peculiar cap like a small beehive...

And here was a Kanacker,or Sandwich Islander [Hawaiian]--small eyes, coarse face, and an immense shock of hair.

There were plenty of native Indians strolling about...with a shirt barely covering their haunches and without pantaloons or drawers...their coarse matted hair always allowed to fall in front to the eyes and there kept cropped in a straight line.

Amonst the Mexicans, some wore only cotton drawers, a shirt and zarape, with a huge sombrero hat, black outside and lined with green...Others wore the vaquero dress: a leather jacket, double, with the outer surface scolloped out into fantastic patterns...half-tanned leathern trousers...adorned with rows of silver buttons...[and a knife and a] pair of silver spurs.

The dress of the saxon race was generally uniform... A pair of thick pantaloons, heavy boots worn outside the trowsers, a red or blue flannel shirt also worn outside, and gathered round the waist by a chinese banda or silk scarf, or a black leather belt, perhaps both; and in which a Colts' revolver was invariably stuck.

At the time I speak of, Sonora was probably the only place in California where numbers of the gentler sex were to be found...When Peruvian or Chilian women arrived in San Francisco, they soon found out that Sonora was the only place where their own sex were congregated in any number, and at once found their way to this vicinity.

Weekends in Sonora. On Saturdays and Sundays the old camp used to wear, night and day, an almost magic appearance. Besides the numberless lights from the gaily decorated houses ... the streets themselves were strewn with lighted tapers [candles].

It would have been difficult to have taken a horse through the crowded streets. Tables loaded with dulces, sweetmeats of every description, cooling beverages, with snow from the Sierra Nevada floating in them, cakes and dried fruits, hot meats, pies, every thing in the greatest abundance.

On either side of the street were ranged the gambling tables, generally covered with a rich scarlet gold embroidered cloth, in the centre of which would be displayed a bank of perhaps a thousand ounces, in silver dollars, gold doubloons or small bags of gold dust. [The tables] were made of rough planks hewn out of logs with an axe.

Behind the gambling tables were the counters, made in the same rough manner, and on which were ranged all kinds of liquor, which was retailed at half a dollar per glass; and it was nothing uncommon to see a Mexican enter, call for a bottle of brandy, which was worth an ounce [of gold], and taking a wine glass, deliberately pour the whole contents of the bottle into it, spilling of course all that the glass would not contain. The bottle being empty and the wine-glass full, he would swallow its contents with all the pride and satisfaction accompanying an ostentatious act.

The game always played was Monte, the great national game of Mexico; and the Yankees soon become expert hands at it, and made such immense sums by it that it became a temptation too strong to be resisted...

Becoming a Merchant with Partner Theall. I had no sooner arrived in the mines, than I decided to turn my attention to commerce in preference to mining, which entailed an amount of labor and personal suffering I was entirely unwilling to encounter.

Our house [and store] is built of adobes, [a large sun-dried brick] and is surmounted by a large sign-board, painted by myself. The house boasts of two glazed windows, the sash of which is also of home manufacture, mad with no other tools save a saw and a pocket knife. No other building in the town can boast of such luxury, and they are the envy and admiration of all our neighbors. The shelves, counters and doors are all made with our own hands.

Alongside the stove, to keep them dry, is a large pile of blankets, for our bedding. These we spread on the earthern floor of our house, as lumber is not to be had to make bunks or flooring. The roof is of canvas and, I am sorry to say, not quite waterproof...

On Crime and the Justice System and Drunkenness. Here, every white man is armed...those who do not carry pistols, the Mexicans and natives, always have formidable knives...

The laws, such as they are, have been respected. The Government is an alcade, an official that the Mexicans are taught from childhood, to respect and [the alcade dispenses an] equal distribution of justice to Spaniard [Hispanic] as well as to the white man.

The most common and fatal result of drunkenness is falling into some of the thousands of deep pits, dug during the summer by the miners, and now full of water. Scarcely a week passes that two or three bodies be not fished out of these holes; [not surprising considering] that the Mexicans and Indians spend the Saturday night, Sunday and following night in a continual state of inebriety.

22 lb Nugget Found by Mexicans. Today, a piece of pure gold, weighing twenty two pounds, two ounces, was dug out by three Mexicans a few yards from our house. They sold it immediately and divided the amount. For one whole week without intermission, will these poor devils drink and gamble, at the end of which time it is highly probable none of them will have a cent left.

Sundays. Sunday is the great business day of the week here...With Frenchmen, Mexicans, Peruvians and Chilenos, Sunday is not so much a day for devotion, as it is a day set apart from the others, for the purposes of rest and amusement. These people work outside, some [10-15 miles] distant, and never approach the town except on Saturday nights, when they come ... to amuse themselves and make their weekly purchases...

Indians. What a noise and racket! About three hundred Indians are in the town, drinking, fighting, singing, and dancing. As they are otherwise inoffensive, they are allowed to do very much as they please. They are what are termed Mission Indians. Most of them have been employed on the Mission farms on the coast, when the Jesuits were the only civilized people in the country. [Recently a] large number of these Indians returned to the hills and their old savage course of life.
The tribes of Root-Diggers [mountain, or Me Wok Indians] go entirely naked and are not often seen in the settlements... The women of these tribes do not appear to be so subject to the despotic will of the husband as [with valley tribes]. The Lower-Country Indian scorns to assist his wife in any work; and I have seen the latter with a burden that would make me shudder, while her lord and master walked ahead with no other weight about his person than his bow and quiver of obsidian-pointed arrows.

Sonora Being Built Up (April 1850). Sonora is being built rapidly, and with good houses. The most expensive item in building is lumber. Many people have been employed during the winter in sawing boards by hand, but lately there has been established a steam saw mill, so that lumber is to be had in abundance, but it is very dear...

Mules. [Most merchandise] is brought up on mules. They are a really valuable animal in a country like this, and it is surprising the load they will carry; three or even four hundred pounds over mountainous routes... An Atajo [mule team] generally consists of from thirty to forty mules... Each mule has its own packsaddle and cloth, with its name embroidered on the latter in large bright letters. At the head of the atajo is invariably a madre, mother of the mules... A bell is put on the neck of the madre, and the mules never leave her. On the road as long as the animals hear the tinkling of the bell, they trudge along quitely and patiently, but the moment it is out of hearing, they become restive and uneasy.

Work. We work at all hours and at every thing; from washing the dishes, making bread, cleaning horses, chopping wood, to selling in the store, keeping accounts, and writing journals. So true it is, we never know what we are capable of doing until Mother Necessity gives us a kick from behind.

The hardest work I ever had to do in this country was driving a team of six mules with a loaded waggon from Stockton to the mines. Fancy a man whose hardest work at home was driving a quill, a ride on horseback, a polka or a fencing match, seated ... in a dirty red shirt and blackened face, yelling to a lot of obstinate mules! I did not recover my voice for a week afterwards.

Bullfights. We have Bull-fights every Sunday... First comes the Matador, dressed in great finery and painted. He rides a prancing horse and carries a drawn sword in his hand, as emblamatic of his office, which is to slay the poor bull after he has been well tired out by the Picadores. Next to him comes the clown, el Payaso. He praces about with great agility...Following the Payaso comes a band of Mexican music, a violin, clarinet and bass horn. Then come a few gawdily dressed men representing the Callaberos, or horsemen, and after these the Picadores, the principal actors in the Ring.
The actual sport in the Arena is not worth going to see; the cattle being tame and spiritless. It is a butchery, nothing more.

Sonora Becoming Dangerous. ...We have had five or six fresh murders. The times are becoming dangerous, and the roads particularly so; yet I shall have to go down to the coast in a day or two. Scarcely a day passes but some murderous atrocity is committed.

Grizzly Bears. The Grizzly Bear has come down from the mountains, and [the bears] are pretty abundant in the vicinity of Sonora, and make our deer hunting dangerous sport. An old hunter was attacked some days ago by a couple and nearly killed. He succeeded in climbing a tree after being badly torn. Day before yesterday a father with his two sons were out hunting and were attacked by two bears, and the old man was torn to pieces; one of the sons is also badly hurt; all this with in two and three miles of Sonora.

Judge Lynch's Court. A gambler killed a man in a most brutal manner. The miners immediately secured the murderer, tried him in a Judge Lynch's court, and, finding him guilty, strung him up on an oak tree; the best action I have heard of in the mines. The example will, I hope, be followed every where.
Vigilance Committee Not a Lawless Mob. The Vigilance Committees, although authorized and sustained by the people, are not a lawless mob. They are composed of the very men,who are the first in every country to sustain and obey the laws...as they are actuated by a calm sense of duty and not from passion, it would be unjust to designate their proceedings as Lynch Law...Had this peculiar institution of "Vigilance Committees" not been organized, Lynch Law with all its atrocities and violences would have become common in the mines...a fearful crisis was preparing throughout California, and this crisis has been avoided by the organization of the Vigilance Committees.

Sonora is Now Dull (March 1852). Sonora is very dull compared to what it used to be; and yet I suppose we must call it improved with its organized police, its halls of Justice, its lawyer's offices, library and printing office; theatres, hotels, balls, dinners and well dressed people; in fact civilization staring us in the face. We have now no rows, no fights, no murders, no rapes, no robberies to amuse us!