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Back to the Gold Rush : In Which the Author Retraces the Steps of His Great-Grandfather in 1849, When Things Looked Mighty Different in California

July 03, 1988|CHARLES PERRY | Charles Perry is a restaurant columnist for The Times and a fourth-generation Californian.

MY great-grandfather, Benjamin B. Harris, was one of the restless men lured to California by the Gold Rush. Oddly, he came from the least restless of backgrounds, an old Virginia family of the sort whose greatest ambition is to stay in Virginia and become even older. Nevertheless, he left his home, first for Tennessee and then Texas, which in 1847 had been a state for only two years.

He practiced law there for a while but without great success. "For about eight months of each year," he later recalled, "malarious fever like a juggling devil assaulted me front and rear. . . . During the four healthy winter months, the wild turkey, deer and black bear oft enticed me into camp and fine hunting." Like a lot of Forty-Niners, he felt that he hadn't much to lose, and on March 25, 1849, in his mid-20s, he unhesitatingly joined one of the first parties to leave Texas for the California gold fields. It took the Gila Trail, the usual Texas route through northern Mexico and Southern California.

Forty years later, he wrote a memoir of his Gold Rush days, which is still in my family. I've known about B. B.'s single-spaced, typewritten manuscript since I was in college, and I've always wanted to retrace his steps and see the California he saw, even though I know that's a mirage, and not just because of cities and highways that weren't there in 1849. Far greater areas of our state have been changed beyond recognition by the water-control projects that have spared California its ancient curses of flood and drought.

This turns out to be obvious right from the start of my journey. In Yuma, Ariz., there's a sign pointing out the only fordable spot on the Colorado River, and though it has an ageless Western look--shallow, brushy, full of sand bars--I know it's not the river B. B. Harris saw. Before Hoover Dam, the riverbed was wider and deeper. The Yuma Indians had a profitable business here swimming travelers' goods across. And, so B. B. had heard, drowning the occasional mule so that they could eat it.

B. B.'s party of about 50 had already heard many bad things about the Yumas, who were among several Indian nations that at the time preyed on northern Mexico. Back in Texas his party had met a band of Comanches returning from Mexico with stolen horses, herded by Mexican boys the Comanches had enslaved after massacring their villages. Later, near Janos in the state of Chihuahua, they met Red Sleeves (Mangas Coloradas), war chief of the Mimbres Apaches, who tried to enlist B. B.'s party in a war against the Mexicans. Wherever the Texans went in Mexico, villagers welcomed them as deliverers and held feasts and fandangos for them because los gringos carried guns.

B. B. had even come very close to a fight with Yumas on the Mexican side of the Colorado when his mule was stolen, but his companions had managed to trade his blankets for another mule before he started a war. Ironically, though, as soon as the Texans crossed the Colorado into California they did get into a battle with the Yumas.

It was due to American naivete, as B. B. saw it. The Texans met up with another group of Forty-Niners that included a dozen Eastern dudes "as green as greenness on the prairie," B. B. wrote, "and sentimental for the red man." They apparently held the view, fashionable in Boston, that Indians were all more or less like Hiawatha.

Against the Texans' advice, two of the Bostonians went fishing and were promptly kidnaped. The Texans then took things in their own hands by kidnaping a couple of Yumas. Over the protest of the remaining Bostonians, there was an inconclusive battle at the end of which the Texans reluctantly agreed to give up the hostages. The two foolish Eastern dudes were found in the desert days later, naked and starving.

The landscape of brushy, gray-green trees around Winterhaven, across the Colorado from Yuma, probably looks much as it did during that abortive battle of Aug. 15, 1849, particularly if you squint a little and ignore the houses and power poles. This is fairly easy to do from a speeding Mazda 323 on Interstate 8, more or less the path (paved now, of course) the Texans followed on their horses. From here they pushed west through stretches of creosote bush so regularly spaced they look planted, then through peach-colored sand dunes. In 1849, so many pack animals died here that as a macabre joke travelers stuck the animals' feet in the sand and stood the dry, stiff corpses upright.

At the time, the Colorado Desert was greatly feared. But these days, once you're past the Imperial Dunes Recreation Area--where you don't see dead animals anymore but lots of bikes and dune buggies--the Colorado Desert is the terrifically fertile Imperial Valley with its labeled fields of wheat, carrots, onions and asparagus. You can see cowboys feeding cattle against a very California background of palm trees.

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