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New Orleans to San Francisco in '49

Travelling Again

It was indeed necessary for the health of the remainder of the family that we hasten from that place. Our funds, too, were getting low. Though we had left home with, as we thought, a sufficient sum, only about $700 remained. It would cost a good deal to transport our baggage to Panama, and we did not know how long we should have to stay there. Mother asked the negroes who had helped at our father's burial, if they knew of any one that she could hire to carry the baggage to Panama. As they did, she and my brother went with them and hired two men and eight mules. Their charges were so high that mother knew she would not be able to hire mules for us to ride. So she hired a native to carry my little three-year-old brother, and also to act as guide, and it was decided that the rest of us should walk to Panama. The native came early on the morning of the 3rd of May, and after a great deal of fussing and chattering the mules were all loaded and started on their way. Very many of our things had been left at Chagres, and now another lot had to be left here.

Mother divided the money, giving half to my brother and carrying the rest herself. The two lots were placed in belts and fastened around the waists of the bearers. Brother carried the baby in his arms, and his rifle on his shoulder. Mother carried father's shot-gun on her shoulder, and an umbrella to hold over baby when it rained. The native guide was to carry my little brother most of the way, but was to let him walk where the trail was in good condition. All being ready, we began our weary march over the regular trail traveled by mule-teams from Gorgona to Panama.

Although this trail had been used by the Indians for generations in making their journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it was still so rough that it could be traversed only on mule-back or on foot, and in the wet season it was not an easy matter to go over it in any way. Though this was the most expensive route by which to reach the Golden West, as it was the shortest it was the most traveled, and was necessarily, during the rainy season, in an execrable condition.

Along this narrow, rough, and muddy trail we picked our way as best we could. The guide took the lead and the rest followed, generally in Indian file. It rained a great deal of the time, and we were soon soaking wet. Our wet skirts impeded our progress so much that whenever it stopped raining mother would wring the water out of them and out of our sunbonnets. Our shoes were thin and rather low, and got so full of mud and water that they chafed and hurt our feet. We soon passed the mules that were laden with our baggage.

Although we made but slow progress, we got along faster than the baggage trains, several of which we passed. Often one or more of the poor, over-laden mules would be stuck fast in the mire, and the drivers would be cruelly beating them or prodding them with iron prods. The mules that carried passengers traveled faster, as they were not so heavily burdened; still, many of these would also get mired. We passed a number of carcasses of mules that had fallen in their tracks while being hurried on by cruel travelers. The trail was so narrow that when we met empty trains returning to Gorgona it was with difficulty that we could pass them.

About noon we arrived at a native hut, where our guide said that we should have to get our dinner. It had been impossible to bring food with us while making this trip, so mother ordered dinner. While it was being prepared I inspected the habitation and its surroundings. The hut was built of poles, covered with palm leaves, and enclosed with the same on three sides, and left open on the fourth. There was a ground floor and a loft. The loft was the common sleeping-room for the entire household, and for any native travelers that happened along. The ascent to it was made by means of a log, with notches cut in it for steps. I did not see the furniture of the loft, but supposed it consisted chiefly of cowhides, as they seemed to be used for so many purposes. The furniture of the ground floor consisted of one or two earthen pots, numerous calabashes, a cowhide, a few horn spoons, a knife, and some small blocks for stools. The pots were small, and made with round bottoms. They were of unglazed ware, and looked like our common terra cotta flower pots.

Dinner was announced. It was served in the little earthen pot, which was placed in the center of the cowhide, and each of us was given a horn spoon with which to eat. It consisted of two quarts of rice cooked with jerked beef, which was supposed to be sufficient for mother, six children, and the guide. As we were all expected to eat from the same pot, we were in a quandary as to how to manage it. But mother solved the problem. She called for a calabash, and dishing out a liberal portion, gave it to the guide. We then sat around and ate the remainder. We were still hungry, but as it had taken an hour to prepare this potfull we could not wait for them to cook any more. So mother paid our hostess two dollars for our entertainment, and we started on our way.

Towards nightfall we came to another hut like the one we had visited at noon. Mother ordered supper immediately, for we were all very tired and hungry. The usual contents were put in the pot, and a little fire kindled on the earthen floor, which was the usual place for cooking. As soon as this was cooked we ate it, and the pot was put on the fire again with the second course, which consisted of rice and grated cocoanut sweetened with native sugar.

After supper the mistress of the hut climbed up to the loft and threw down a cowhide. This hide and the one that had served as our supper table were to be our beds for the night. The hides were placed side by side on the ground, and seven blocks of wood to be used as pillows were placed at the end. These blocks, which were cut from the trunk of a tree, were about fourteen inches long, six inches thick, and hollowed out in the center to fit the head. The woman then told mother that we could go to bed as soon as we chose. The natives, including our guide, climbed to the loft, and drew up the ladder after them. This was done as a precaution against tigers, of which the natives stood in great fear both night and day. As these animals were very numerous, all the surrounding country a wilderness, and the habitations a great distance apart, the precaution was not unwisely taken. This particular family probably felt unusually safe that night, for if any of the hungry marauders should chance to pay a visit, the seven members of our family lying on the ground would doubtless serve to satisfy their demands. Knowing that fear would avail us nothing, we lay down on that strange bed, in our wet clothing, and managed to sleep some in spite of all discomfort.

Next morning after our breakfast of rice and beef, we were given some bananas, pineapples, and cakes of sugar to serve as our lunch, as we should not reach another hut until late in the day. Mother paid five dollars for meals, lodging, and lunch, and we again started.

How the rain did pour down that day! We could travel but slowly, and the streams were so swollen that they were dangerous to cross. Still we braved everything, as it was useless to do otherwise.

About four o'clock we came to where an American was standing under a tree by the trail. He said that he was one of a company of American surveyors, who were surveying a road from Chagres to Panama, and that their camp was about a quarter of a mile to one side of the trail. Some of the company had been out on the trail that morning, and had met a party of mounted travelers, who had told of our helpless condition. Accordingly he had been sent to watch for us, to take us to the camp for the night.

We were both surprised and grateful, for this was the first kindness that had been shown us by a white man on the Isthmus. Mother consented to go with him, and he took my youngest sister in his arms, and led the way to the camp. The other surveyors met us, and gave us a cordial greeting and a hearty welcome. The camp consisted of one large circular canvas tent, several smaller tents, and a brush cook-house. The large tent was comfortably furnished with good American camp furniture, and was placed at our service for the night. The cook, who was an American negro, set on the table a well cooked American supper, which was relished, indeed, by us. After supper, it was a luxury to be able to take off our wet clothes, and get in between clean sheets on the inflated rubber beds, where we had a night's refreshing sleep. In the morning, after a good substantial breakfast, we were sent on our way, our hearts filled with gratitude for the kindness of those noble men.

That day a party of travelers on mule-back passed us. Among them were two American women, the first that we had seen on the Isthmus. They were riding astride, for it was impossible to ride in any other manner over that rough path. That night we spent at another hut. In addition to the rice and beef we were given some hominy and a whitish kind of syrup. After supper, the owner of the hut cut down some kind of a palm tree, which yielded a quantity of sap that looked like milk and water. This he gave us to drink. It tasted very much like some of the milk sold by milkmen in cities. We had stewed yams, with roasted bread-fruit for our breakfast the next morning, and started on our way early, as we hoped to get through to Panama that day.

Our feet were very sore from walking in our wet shoes, and kept us awake a good deal during the night. They itched and burned so badly that mother thought they were poisoned. But the native woman at the hut told us that we had gotten jiggers in our feet. These are small insects of a parasitical nature, and the woman said that the soil was full of them. She said that they would eat or burrow in the flesh of a person's foot, and would lay their eggs under the skin and hatch there. In a few days small blisters would form on our feet. These blisters were the cells containing the jiggers and their eggs, and mother must open them, scrape them well and wash with strong salt and water to rid us of the pests. They had got into our feet from the mud that was continually getting into our low shoes, and as the wet shoes kept our feet soft it was an easy matter for the insects to work through the skin. We were frightened at what the woman said, for we had seen many natives with crippled feet. and she said that the jiggers were the cause.

The path was now better than any we had passed over, and continued to improve as we neared Panama. We children were much amused by the huge armies of ants that we saw on our way. They would be seen crossing the trail in trains a foot in width, and each one would be carrying a green leaf, which he held over him as if to shield him from the sun or rain. When we disturbed them they would scatter without dropping their leaves, and would immediately fall into ranks and go marching along like a great army of soldiers.

 

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