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New Orleans to San Francisco in '49

Setting Sail for Panama

We sat on deck and watched our friends, who stood on the levee waving their handkerchiefs at us. We watched them until their outlines grew dim and faded in the distance. I remember that I then turned for the first time to look at those on board. I was surprised to see that although the steamer was crowded, all seemed to be men. I thought that the women and children had gone into the cabin. So we children went down into the cabin. There sat poor mother crying, and an old Frenchwoman sat by her and seemed to be trying to comfort her. At a table in another part of the cabin sat two gayly dressed young women, playing cards with several men. I asked mother where all the ladies and children were that I had seen on the steamer before we left the city. She told me that they had all gone ashore before the steamer left the levee; that they were only the relatives and friends of the men, and had come on board to bid them good-by. She said that we were the only children on the steamer, and that the French woman, the two women who were playing cards, and herself, were the only women.

I then for the first time felt sorry that we had left home. Before that I was glad to go; for I was only a child, and children are always glad to be going somewhere. Father had said that we should all return home in three years. I should have been very sad indeed had I known that I was never again to see that dear old home and my little playmates; but though forty-one years have passed since I reached this fair, golden State that I now love so much, I have never once visited that old plantation home, nor seen even one of the friends of my childhood.

The oldest child in our family was a boy in his nineteenth year. I came next, then a sister of seven, one of five, a brother of three, and a sister of eighteen months. Mother told my brother to take us all on deck and keep us there as much as possible, until we reached the Gulf. She thought we would be less likely to be seasick in the open air than in the close cabin. Outside I watched the deck hands stowing away the freight and baggage that lay in piles on the deck. The officers were ordering and directing the men, and seemed anxious that everything should be stowed away before we reached salt water, as they feared that we should have rough weather.

The passengers seemed already to have become acquainted with one another. They were mostly Americans, though there were a number of foreigners among them. They stood or sat around in groups; talking most of California, the land of gold. If they spoke of the homes they had left, it was merely to tell of the great things that they would do when they returned with the fortunes they were sure to make. They had very severe attacks of the gold fever, as it was called in those days; and as it was contagious, we children soon caught it, and began to talk of the gold that we should dig, and of the nice things that we should buy.

As we steamed down the river, we met steamboats and other vessels bound for New Orleans. We also passed some large sailing vessels outward bound and loaded with cotton. Whenever we passed one of these the passengers cheered, and acted like a party of boys on a pleasure excursion. As we neared the mouth of the Mississippi we met fleets of oyster boats, or yawls as they are called in New Orleans, laden with oysters for the city. Several of them came alongside, ropes were thrown them, and many of the passengers availed themselves of this last opportunity to buy oysters. Some bought, expecting to have the oysters prepared for their next meal, but others immediately began to eat them raw.

There was one man, a jolly sort of a fellow, who seemed to be known by a large number of the passengers. They called him Mack; whether that was the whole or only a part of his surname I do not know. He made a bet that he could eat one hundred raw oysters at one meal. He began eating at once, while laughing and joking, but he had not eaten forty when he was seized with the cholera, and died in a few minutes. Then the appalling fact became known that cholera was on board. It seems strange that no one had thought of the possibility of such a thing before, for we had just left a plague-stricken city, -a city in which hundreds were weekly falling victims to the ravages of the terrible disease.

The discovery that cholera had taken passage with us had the effect of lowering the temperature of the gold-fever patients very much. The first victim was hastily buried, just at the mouth of the Mississippi, and everybody at once began using some kind of cholera preventive. Disinfectants were freely used by order of the captain. The ship's doctor furnished medicines, such as he had, to any who wished them. There was an old German doctor on board, who seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of cholera medicines, both preventives and cures. These he readily disposed of to those who had money. But he was a heartless old wretch, and not a drop of his medicine would he let go unless he received an exorbitant price for it. There were many that thought he had something to do with the appearance of cholera on board.

In spite of the medicines used, and all the precautions taken, the plague had come in its very worst form; and one after another succumbed, until twenty-eight of the passengers and crew had died, and with one exception, were hastily buried in the sea. The last to die was one of the two young women I had seen on first entering the cabin. We were near the Isthmus when she died, and her body was put into a cask of alcohol and carried to Chagres for burial. Others of the passengers and crew had the cholera and recovered. In fact, nearly all had some symptoms of it.

The officers' prediction in regard to encountering rough weather on entering the Gulf proved true. Though the deck hands had worked faithfully in stowing away baggage and freight, there still remained a considerable amount on deck, which began rolling back and forth with the motion of the ship. The passengers now began to be seasick, and many thought their sickness the first stage of the cholera.

All of our family, with the exception of my mother and the sister next to me, were sick. I do not know what we should have done had mother been sick, for our poor father was now very low, and growing more feeble every day, and all the rest of us were sick and helpless. Old Duncan, the nurse, proved to be utterly worthless, and was more of an annoyance than a help to mother, he was so stupid. Indeed, his head seemed to be as bald on the inside as it was on the outside. Mother could not teach him to do anything right, so had to do everything herself, and was compelled to be on her feet almost continually, both day and night, for three days. Then my elder brother recovered from his sickness sufficiently to relieve her of some of the care of father. But at this time our baby sister was taken very ill, so that it kept both my mother and brother busy all the time to care for the two sick ones. The rest of us were too young to be of any help to them.

The passengers were either all sick or all very selfish; for not one of them ever offered to relieve or help mother in any way. The ship's doctor seemed willing to do what he could, but the cholera patients took most of his time. The steward was also kind, and would prepare any little nourishment that mother wanted for father or the baby. But with these exceptions, no one ever offered to do any kindness for us. Father continued to grow worse, so mother called the German doctor to see him. He prescribed for him three times, but did not furnish any medicine, and charged $30 for his services. Mother bought several bottles of his cholera medicine, for which he charged $2.50 per bottle.

 

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