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New Orleans to San Francisco in '49

Heading Inland

We did not get away from Chagres until afternoon of the next day. There were two negro boatmen to each of the canoes. The canoes were long but rather narrow. They were covered for about two thirds of their length with palm leaves, fastened in some manner to bows, like the bows of a wagon cover. This covering was for shelter from both the rain and the sun. The canoe in which father, mother, and the baby, were to travel was loaded principally with bedding, and arranged as comfortably as possible for father's sake. My brother and the rest of us children were in the canoe that was loaded with trunks and boxes of clothing; and old Duncan, with the provisions and tools, occupied the third. On top of the trunks in our canoe was a feather-bed, and on this we had to sit or lie, whichever we chose, until we reached Gorgona. The bed was so near the covering of the canoe that, although we were very small children, we could not sit upright; and it was so terribly hot that when we lay down the bed seemed fairly to scorch us. We were glad when a shower of rain came up, as it cooled the atmosphere for the time being; but as soon as the shower had passed, the sun shone with even more than his accustomed fervency. None of us were well, so we complained and fretted, while brother tried to comfort us. He diverted our attention from ourselves by pointing out different objects on the banks of the river.

And indeed, there was enough to look at; for both sides of the river were lined with strange trees, underneath which was a perfect jungle of plants. Lovely flowering vines hung in festoons from one tree to another. Gorgeously plumed birds flitted from bough to bough. Many of the trees were laden with troops of noisy, chattering monkeys. occasionally we could see an alligator sunning himself on some half-submerged log; and whenever we passed an open place on the bank of the river it was sure to be occupied with huge lizards and snakes, basking in the tropical sunshine. Although these sights were new and strange to us, they could not long divert our minds from our discomforts.

We had not seen the canoe with our parents since leaving Chagres; and now, as nightfall was approaching, we began to fear that some misfortune had befallen them. We could not understand a word of what the boatmen were saying, but from their movements and gestures we knew that they were on the lookout for some place to moor the canoe. We had been told before leaving Chagres that we could not go ashore for the night, as the jungle on both sides of the river was full of tigers and reptiles, so we knew that we should have to pass the night on the boat. The boatmen at length found a place to suit them, and one of them jumped out, fastened the line that he had to a tree, and waded back to the canoe.

With the night came myriads of mosquitoes. We had taken off our shoes and stockings during the day to cool our feet; and now, though it seemed scarcely cooler, we were glad to put them on again to protect our feet from the venomous insects. Our shoes seemed to be the only protection that we had, for the ravenous creatures did not seem to experience the slightest difficulty in biting through our clothing. The negroes must have been related to the pachyderms, for though they were destitute of clothing, with the exception of their breech-cloths, they lay down in the bow of the canoe and in a few minutes were sleeping soundly. The night was very dark, and strange sounds were heard in every direction. Shrieks, growls, and murmurs, filled the air, and we were very much afraid. Our chief anxiety was for our parents, whose canoe did not come up with us that night. We could not sleep, but tossed about as much as we could in our cramped position.

The longest night has its end. Morn came, and the boatmen jumped out and unmoored the boat so as to go on. My brother tried to make them understand that we did not want to go farther till our parents' canoe came up. But they either did not understand or did not want to stop. So they went on until nine o'clock, when they came to quite an open place, which was somewhat higher than the country through which we had been traveling. Here the canoe was hauled up to the river's bank, and we all got out and waited for the missing canoe, which made its appearance at ten o'clock. Mother had passed an anxious night on our account, but she said that we must not stop, for father was suffering so that we must hasten to Gorgona.

So we ate a hasty lunch and started on our way. It rained more on this our second day on the river, and consequently was not quite so hot. The scenery was like that we had passed through the day before, except that in the afternoon we passed several habitations. At one of these places mother bought some milk from an old negro woman who could speak English. This woman said that she had come to the Isthmus from Cuba, and that at onetime she had been a slave in the State of Mississippi. She brought us a gourd full of cooked rice to eat with our milk; and said that although she had been living there six years, we were the first American children that she had seen on the Isthmus.

We were anxious to gather some of the many lovely flowers that we had seen growing on the banks of the river, and now, as we stopped to eat our lunch, we thought that we should have an opportunity. But the old negress told mother that there were many poisonous flowers growing on the Isthmus, and as we would not know which they were, we had better not pick any kind of flowers. This was a great disappointment to us, the flowers were so plentiful and so lovely.

That night we came to a little village and we wanted to camp ashore; but the inhabitants, saying that a party of Americans camping there the night before had shot a young native boy, forbade us to land. By the description given of the men we knew that they were not Americans, but a company of Englishmen that had come with us from New Orleans. I do not know why they had shot the boy, for the natives seemed to be very kind and inoffensive.

The third day the water in the river seemed to be very shallow, and the canoes would stick in the mud or sand. The boatmen, one on each side of the canoe, would then stick long poles into the bottom of the river, and by pushing on them force the canoe ahead as far as possible; then they would repeat this operation until the canoe was free from the mud. When this method failed, the men would jump out and drag the canoe off. I was always afraid to see them jump out in this manner, lest they be taken by some of the many alligators to be seen; having heard people say at home that alligators were very fond of negroes.

 

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