New Orleans to San Francisco in
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.