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New Orleans to San Francisco in '49

Waiting for Death

On the fourth day we arrived at Gorgona. Three nights and four days in our cramped positions, in that hot climate, with none of us well, and father and baby so very sick, was something dreadful to endure, and made the canoes seem like instruments of torture. Though father's bed had been made as comfortable as possible in the narrow space in which it had to be placed, having clean linen sheets slipped under him each day, he was so emaciated and his sufferings were so intense that the hot bed was a veritable place of torment to him. We still had his cot with us, and when he was taken out of the canoe and placed on this, he said that he felt so much better, that he thought that he was going to get well. But he was really no better and it was impossible for him to go farther in that helpless condition. My brother and old Duncan cut some poles, pitched our tent, and built a brush shed to cook under. They put father's cot in the tent, and built some scaffolds to put our beds on, for it was too wet to sleep on the ground. My brother cooked supper that night, for mother was so nearly worn out that she could do nothing. We did relish that supper, having had nothing but cold victuals since leaving the steamer at Chagres.

Our camp was in a clump of palm trees, about two hundred yards from the town of Gorgona, and about eighty yards from the river. The Chagres was wider and much more shallow here than it was below Gorgona. The banks were low; in fact, there were scarcely any banks at all. The bed of the river was rocky and the water very clear. The country here was more open than any we had seen coming up the river, though for the greater part it was still a perfect wilderness. There were some cultivated fields of bananas and plantains, but they were small. The building material here was the same as that at Chagres, but the houses were square, with gable roofs covered with palm leaves. Some had bamboo walls, and all were very. small.

The dress of the inhabitants was of the same style as that prevailing at Chagres, except that many of the women wore in addition to a skirt, one under-garment. Many of these garments were very finely worked around the low necks and short sleeves with what is known as drawn work.

Their food consisted of various kinds of fruit, rice, and a tuberous root they called a yam. The yams, I believe, grew wild, but were also cultivated to some extent. When properly cooked and eaten with meat or gravy they made a very good substitute for potatoes. Rice was cooked in two ways. One way was to boil it in little round-bottomed earthen pots with small pieces of jerked beef, and season it with salt and some kind of oil. Jerked beef is beef cut in long, thin strips and dried in the sun. The other mode of preparation was to boil in water and then mix with grated cocoanut, and sweeten with some of their native sugar. This sugar was of a dark brown color, made into little round cakes and wrapped in pieces of palm leaves. It was used chiefly as a confection. The natives also ate the flesh of the iguana. This is a hideous looking reptile, which we at first thought was a young alligator.

Although they wore but little clothing, that little was kept clean. The washing was done in the river. The women, carrying the soiled clothes on the head in a basket or tray, waded out into the stream until they found a suitable place for the performance of their labor-a smooth, flat rock over which the water was not very deep, and upon which they might sit. Having weighted down her basket to keep it from floating off, a woman would take out one garment at a time, rub it with soap, put it on a rock, and pound it with another rock until it was clean. She would then secure it in the water by placing a rock on top of it, and leave it in the running water until the day's washing was finished.

Many Americans passed through Gorgona on their way to Panama, but they stopped only long enough to hire mules to carry themselves and baggage. The country lying along the Chagres River was considered the most unhealthy part of the Isthmus, and no one wished to tarry there. But there, in that unhealthy place, in the most unhealthy season of the year, we must stay with our poor father, who now realized that he was nearing his journey's end. He was slowly but surely passing away, and it grieved him to know that he was going to leave us strangers in a strange land. Still he told mother not to go back to New Orleans, but to take his children to California. It seemed that every day must be his last; but there, with nothing to shelter him but a tent, though it rained every day, he lingered one month. On the 30th of April he spoke his last words; and though he lived until midnight of the 1st of May, he was in a state of unconsciousness. We little ones had gone to bed, but at ten o'clock our brother called us up. And there, near the midnight hour, in that lonely tent, by the side of that pestilential river, our dear father passed away. We were alone with our dead: with no friend, nor even a stranger by to offer a word of consolation, or perform an act of kindness. Mother and brother dressed him for his burial, and sat by him until the dawn of day. Then my brother went into the town, and hired some negroes to dig a grave. He also tried to get some lumber for making a coffin, but there was none to be had. He returned to the camp, knocked some of our largest packing boxes to pieces, and attempted to make a coffin of the material thus obtained.

He finished it about ten o'clock, when the negroes, having finished their digging, came to carry the coffin to the grave. Mother had not slept for three nights, neither had she lain down to rest. She was therefore so exhausted that she did not go to the grave, but remained at the camp with her sick baby, who, she thought, could not live long. We children and old Duncan followed the negroes to the grave, which was in a lonely place about a quarter of a mile from the camp. It was a little clearing, only a few yards square, and was called the American burying-ground. It contained only two graves, which were under a large mahogany tree; and father's was dug next to them. The ground was so full of water that it had seeped into the grave, and had to be dipped out before the coffin was lowered. The grave was filled, and my brother placed over it a small board, on which he had carved father's name. He also carved his name in the bark of the mahogany tree. And there in that tropical wilderness, without any funeral ceremony, and no monument but that noble green tree, we left him to his last long sleep. It was hard to leave him, yet it was his dying wish that we should go on.

 

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