STILL FLYING AND NAILED TO THE MAST
Chapter One: Sweet Western Wind
April 16, 1849 "Left the city of Boston a member of the Boston and Newton Joint Stock Association bound for Calafornia for the purpose of bettering our conditions on money matters and seeing the country. I left home with regret as it is no easy matter for me to leave wife home friends and attachments."
With these simple words, David Jackson Staples, a mature and self-reliant twenty-four-year-old, began his journal of the overland crossing. Before the year was gone, 55,000 men would have crossed the plains or sailed around Cape Horn or braved the fever-plagued jungles of Panama to reach to gold fields. Only a few were destined for lives of great distinction in the new land. Staples was one of them.
His childhood reads like a page from Dickens. His mother and father died when he was eleven, and although the family was of ancient Yankee stock, it had never been one of means. Welfare being a private matter in those days, David went to work in a Massachusetts cotton mill to earn his living and help support his four younger brothers and sisters. The two years he spent there must have been filled with heartache: no mother or father, no schooling, no play. He never spoke of it in later life.
After trudging ten miles or so he stopped to speak with a farmer at the side the road, and the man invited him to the farmhouse for supper. Since the farmer needed help and David needed a home, they reached an agreement that evening. David was to work three years for the farmer in return for his keep, three months' schooling each winter, and a new suit of clothes when the term was up.
Although the farmer was a kindly man, his wife was a mean unloving woman. For the smallest infraction she would force the boy to commit whole chapters of the Bible to memory. Whistling on Sundays was a paramount sin.
When allowed, he chopped wood at the church or gathered huckleberries for a few pennies. But however small the amount, it was invariable appropriated by the woman for violation of some obscure family rule. Because of farm duties his schooling was more of a wish than a fact. Only the kind words of a neighbor who had once known his mother kept the boy from breaking the agreement.
At the end of the contract, the woman gave him the promised suit of clothes. It was as shabby thing outgrown by an older boy in the family.
The next eight years went easily. A shoemaker named Leach hired him as an apprentice and took a fatherly interest in his future. He encouraged the boy to study reading and writing at night school. And in their conversations through the long working day, Leach quickened the boy's interest in politics. He had an early recollection of his father heading a column of men marching to the polls with fife and drum to vote for Democrat Andrew Jackson, but his own hatred of slavery, which stemmed from another childhood memory, turned him in the other direction.
When David was an infant, his father had moved the family from Massachusetts to Maryland, where the boy vividly recalled being dropped from the arms of a mulatto slave girl who was caring for him. In the fall his knee was burned badly on a hot skillet cover. His screams brought the girl's master who, seeing what had happened, proceeded to give the girl an unmerciful whipping. He remembered that his mother had protested "with all her New England spirit against the cruelty." The memory and the scar on his knee were with him all his life. Staples became a Whig and later an unyielding Republican.
At eighteen, restless and weary of the confinement at the cobbler's bench, he spent several months at Martha's Vineyard roaming the beaches, fishing and hunting, building his strength. From that time until he left for California he followed the mechanics trade and was happy in it.
In 1848 he fell in love with and married Mary Pratt Winslow. That was also the year of discovery which was to change the course of the nation and the world- gold on the American River! The fever which swept the world burned in Staples, and with arguments long forgotten he convinced his young bride that he must go.
The twenty-five men who made up the Boston-Newton Joint Stock Association knew what they were doing. Many stories have been told of the hardship tragedy which dogged the Argonauts. The Boston-Newton party was to be touched by death, but because they were strong and well prepared, their crossing was to be remembered as a notable success. Characteristic of their thoroughness, they bought a bark, the Helen Augusta, loaded it with tools and provisions, and sent it on ahead.
A newspaper in St. Louis wrote of them, "No finer looking or nobler set of men have yet passed this way, and their conduct since they have been in our city proves them to be of the true grit for an enterprise like this..."
The excerpts from Staples' journal which follow shed much light on the man and the common experience. Perhaps it is wise to not that although he could build a locomotive, fashion a pair of boots or the close-fitting mechanism of a rifle, and hunt and fish with a skill given to few, he had not mastered the rules for written language. This can be understood, though for many years later he revealed that six months would cover all his formal schooling.
Traveling by train and lake steamer, the party reached Ohio without incident.
After buying provisions at St. Louis, the party, spurred on by a cholera epidemic, left for Independence by paddleboat. Of the captain Staples said, "this one is a real half cent Yankee We live verry plain but healthy."
It took them two weeks to buy the mules and horses, wagons and harness in Independence. "No one knows how vexacious it is to manage wild mules these were as wild as Arabs..."
On May 27, Staples wrote of Indians, mule trouble, double-teaming the wagons through wet prairie, a part"...returning haveing lost a husband father and friend of Cholera," and the evening campsite on the banks of the Kansas River ("...a grand scene for a painter"). And tucked away in the day's record was this note: "This morning George Winslow was taken with diarea and vomiting this evening feels some better" Winslow was his wife's brother.
"...at 5 oclock in the afternoon all being ready we assembled in the Carrale the corps brought out of the tent Mr. Burt was requested to read scripture he read a psalm and the last chapter of Ecleasieastees Mr. Sweetser made an appropriate prayer there was not a dry eye in the group of sunburnt faces
we formed a procesion and followed him to his last resting place each man deposited a green bough as a token of respect and the first earth was put on him at six oclock we returned to camp each praying the like never to happen again in our number"
Staples filled many pages with descriptions of their days. And although he recorded in detail such pleasures as hunting buffalo, finding sweet springs, and signing hymns on the Sabbath, the trip was filled with hardships. Broad rivers, marshy lowlands, steep inclines, poor feed, sickness and death, mile after mile of choking dust heat and cold, broken animals and equipment, and bad water each took their turn to challenge the party.
The party arrived in Salt Lake City on August 7. Exhausted, "...a more beautiful sight could not be presented to our view hundreds of acres of corn wheat and vegetables"
The following day the party dined with Ira Willis, who had worked for Sutter and Marshall at the time of the gold discovery in 1848. "Ira gave us some verry gratifying inteligence of the abundance of the filthy lucre We shall be better satisfied when we see for ourselves"
After a week of rest and good food, the party left on the final and most trying leg of the journey. They faced the broiling salt flats of Utah, the vast Nevada desert, and the granite slopes of the Sierra Nevada.
That was his last entry. The day before, Staples noted they had reached the "headquarters" of the Humboldt River. Heat, bad water, hostile Indians, and the sickening sight and stench of dead oxen abandoned along the trail in the Humboldt Sink were more than enough to speed every party along with all haste. They were within striking range of their goal: the gold fields and letters from home. And crossing the Sierra Nevada in 1849-even in the best season-took all the strength remaining. It took twenty-seven days for them to reach Sacramento from what is now Elko, Nevada.
When the weary band reached San Francisco they found they had sent a gold mine around the Horn. The cargo aboard the Helen Augusta was sold for many times its cost, and when the company parted for good, each man found himself with a generous and unexpected stake.
Staples and several other members of the company went up to the gold fields and tried their luck at Windsor's Bar on the Mokelumne River. "...I was presently taken sick," he wrote many years later, "and concluded that I did not like mining, it was too much like shovelling sand and rolling a wheel Barrow, and so went to Stockton and camped for the winter..."
Staples' capacity for productive effort had its roots in New England practicality and the many years of working fourteen hours a day as a child and a young man. But one cannot review what he accomplished in his first nine months in California without knowing that here was a man to reckon with.
Leaving the diggings in November, he soon set up a muleback freighting system between Stockton and the southern Mines. With the profits from this venture, he bought twenty-seven square miles of rich land on the Mokelumne in February of 1850, and by August he had built a 3,800-square-foot house, a barn and outbuildings, fences, corrals, levees, and roads; built and operated a profitable ferry on the Mokelumne; and with all this somehow found time to fight for the state constitution which was finally accepted under Henry Clay's famous Compromise of 1850.
In August he could wait no longer and returned via Panama to Newton to fetch his wife and newborn daughter. They arrived back in Stockton on a warm and sunny January day in 1851. Memory of the fourteen-mile ride to the ranch through fragrant fields was to linger all their lives.
The land was rich, and over the years Staples' harvest and cattle herd grew as California itself grew. "Enterprise" was a word Staples not only favored in speech but defined in action. In '51 he bought a gravid scw for $250 from a man who had just crossed the mountains. Her offspring eventually produced $3000 worth of lard and meat and breeding stock. Salmon ran so thick in the river that he seined them to throw the hogs.
Between the attraction of dead fish and live claves, the ubiquitous California bear found Staples' ranch irresistible. It would have been simple for Staples to shoot them down, but he learned that a promoter of bear and bull fight in Sacramento would pay well for every live bear he could deliver. To do the job, he rigged up a large rope net, weighted on all sides by heavy logs, in a tall oak tree near the pigpen. The net was suspended horizontally in such a way that the attachments could be set loose simultaneously by Staples from his vantage point in the tree. When the trap was ready, he baited it with a quarter of veal hung on a rope beneath the net, and then climbed into the tree with his wife and a visiting neighbor lady for the long watch. At 2 A.M. a bear finally caught scent of the meat and ambled over. When the animal stood on his hind legs to reach the bait, Staples tripped the release. The bear struggled mightily, but the more he fought, the more entangled he became.
It worked so well that he caught six more in the months to come,and only gave it up when the animals became scarce.
Life in San Joaquin County was not all bears and skittles, however. Led by David Terry, Southerners dominated county politics to such as extent that it was known as the "South Carolina" of California. Staples an outspoken abolitionist, nettled them, and through the years the antagonism broke into hot exchanges.
One day Staples watched a small band of armed riders come down from the bluff above his ranch and canter into his wheat field. They stopped four times to drive a stake, then rode off to the high ground. He knew who they were-Terry and his slave-state cohorts.
Terry was a man of violence. He would be remembered ultimately, not for serving as Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, but for killing Senator David Broderick in a duel.
Staples had no choice if he wanted to keep his land free of squatters, so he strapped on his gun, rode into the field, and pulled up the stakes as they watched from above. When he was done, one of them rode down to meet him at the house. Staples recognized the man.
"What do you want, Conovan?"
"I think you have pulled up my claim stakes, Staples."
Staples' anger rose. "I didn't know you had any claim. Where is it?"
"Up here in the valley a little way."
"In the bottom?" asked Staples.
"You damned scoundrel, you have staked off a claim in the middle of my wheat field. You clear out of here at once, and if you ever set foot on my land again, I'll shoot you like a dog!"
Years later he said, "I had no further trouble from that quarter. That was the only way to meet those fellows."
Although he was a Northerner and, what was worse, a Whig, Staples declared his antipathy to the Southern cause repeatedly, but it nevertheless fell to his lot to hear a land-grab case between two Southerners in which counsel for the defendant was a man named Purley, a confederate of Terry's. The hearing opened with Staples placing his revolver in plain view on the table in front of him.
At one point during the testimony, Purley accused Staples of being in collusion with the plaintiff, whereupon Billy Smith, counsel for the plaintiff, jumped to his feet and provoked a challenge by shouting:
"I have never heard a more unfair and groundless accusation. In all my experience I have never seen a judge who filled the bench with more impartiality and ability than Staples!"
Billy Smith was not a Whig, nor was he an abolitionist, nor for that matter a Union man. He had been governor of Virginia from 1846 to 1849 and was to return to his home state to serve as governor again during the Civil War.
In 1856, Staples abandoned the greatly weakened Whig party and with two other men called the first San Joaquin County Republican convention. The stronger anti-slavery tone of the Republican platform appealed to him. His strength in the party grew during the next four years and in 1860 he was chosen by the California convention to represent the state at the national convention in Chicago. He almost didn't go, however,
William Seward of New York was considered almost certain to win the nomination, and California rank and file leaned heavily in his direction. At the state convention someone introduced a proposal to commit the delegation to vote for Seward. Staples strongly opposed the move. He rose and told the assemblage that there was something wrong if they didn't have faith in the judgment of the men they were about to send to Chicago. A motion was made to suspend the rule and Staples was given full support and a free hand by acclamation.
His conduct so appealed to John C. Fremont, Republican presidential candidate in 1856, that he asked Staples to present to the national convention his formal withdrawal from candidacy.
When he go to Chicago after weeks of arduous travel aboard the overland stage, Staples actually did note for Seward on the first ballot, in consideration of the sentiment at home. But Lincoln had won his heart, and Staples helped turn the tide for the tall man from Illinois.
Staples went east again in 1861, this time to attend Lincoln's inauguration. Less than twelve years before, he had made his first difficult crossing. New perils slowed his travels this time. Angry Apaches under Cochise and Taklishim, father of Geronimo, were raising Cain in New Mexico and the stage was held up for days. Traveling across Texas, the stage was stopped by hooligan Texans looking for "Black Republicans." By the time Staples reached Washington, Lincoln had been inaugurated. And seven of the Southern states had seceded.
Day by day the hopes for reconciliation grew dimmer. If the agonizing national dilemma wasn't enough, Lincoln had the added burden of duty to the Republican party-in the shape of thousands of office seekers from all parts of the nation. Staples found about a hundred Californians and Oregonians in the capital when he arrived, all seeking favors for themselves or others. Two factions had formed: one under Edward D. Baker, a onetime California leader, then senator from Oregon, and the other under James Simonton, editor of the San Francisco Bulletin.
One day soon after his arrival, Staples and half a dozen others were taken by Baker to the White House for an informal meeting with the President. The following morning, Lincoln called in both the Baker and Simonton factions so that he could settle the question of West Coast appointments. A man named Nunes, speaking for Baker's friends, read a moderate statement promising that if his associates were appointed, California and Oregon would remain Republican.
Simonton chose to make a personal attack on Baker, apparently unaware of Lincoln's long friendship with him. He accused him of being an associate of gamblers and worse. Staples later wrote:
"I could see a dark frown gathering on Lincoln's brow as the reading went on."
When he had finished reading the names of those he recommended for appointment, Simonton laid the list on the table in front of Lincoln. With that, Staples wrote,"...Lincoln rose from his seat. It seemed as though he would never stop rising. He asked if the paper was for him, and if it was, he wanted it. The paper was given to him. Lincoln then turned and took up Nunes' paper, saying, 'This paper seems to be respectful in tone, I will keep it for future reference. But this! (taking Simonton's paper) This is a vile paper and I shall burn it in the presence of the man who wrote it!' and he dashed it into the fire."
At this point Baker leaned over and whispered, "Staples, can't you say something in reply?" Staples stepped forward and said, "Mr President." Before he could utter another word, Lincoln raised his hand and spoke.
"Not a word; not a word; I don't have to hear a word. I have known Colonel Baker twenty-five years. I have known him better than any of you know him and I don't want any defense of him from anyone."
As Staples prepared to leave Washington, Beauregard fired on Fort Sumter. Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers and awaited the arrival of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry to defend Washington. These were perilous and uncertain days. Pro-Confederate sentiment in the District was so strong that in fear of a civil uprising or an attack by nearby Confederate troops, 300 visiting Union men, including Staples, were recruited to serve in an emergency battalion under the fiery Kentucky abolitionist, Cassius M. Clay. For three weeks armed recruits patrolled the streets. After the Massachusetts troops arrived, Lincoln disbanded the battalion with these words, "Gentlemen, go home. You can better serve the country and me away from here, especially you Californians."
He needed every loyal man he could muster to keep California and its gold on the Union side. Thousands of miles from the scenes of battle, California Unionists were to prevail in a bloodless contest with the slavery element. Staples was torn. He wanted to stay and fight, but Baker convinced him his place was in San Francisco. Staples' discharge arrived with a letter of thanks signed by both Lincoln and Secretary of War Cameron.
It has been written that the floods of 1861 and 1862 drove Staples off his ranch. The rain and snowfall were appalling that winter. but he had faced far greater adversity than this before. In all likelihood the excitement of politics and business finally overcame his great love of the land. Whatever the reason, in June of 1861, at the age of thirty-seven, he sought the Republican nomination for governor against Leland Stanford, but Stanford, who had been the losing candidate in 1859, beat him. Although his love of politics remained, Staples never ran for another office.
In 1862, Stanford, through a mutual friends, asked Staples to visit him.
"Why haven't you come to see me before this?" he asked.
"Governor, I opposed your nomination, and I had no right to call on you and advise with you."
"Well, I want such men as you to do it; I want your counsel."
Before the interview was over, Stanford, who owed Staples nothing, offered the influential and well-paying job of San Francisco port warden. It was the port warden's job to see that cargoes were properly discharged and that everything went through the customhouse. Stanford had sent three other names to the legislature for the job; all had been rejected. Staples was offered support by Leander Quint, one of the ten Rebel state senators. Considering the hatred generated by the national conflict, it was an extraordinary gesture. Staples' intense feelings for the Union and abolition were too strong, and he would not accept the offer.
"I don't want your vote; I don't want any but a loyal Republican to vote for me!"
He won approval easily, and in the next four years San Franciscans had a firsthand chance to measure the man. To no one's surprise, Staples did a splendid job.
In 1864, Frederick F. Low, another Republican, was elected governor, and in the political pie-spitting after the election he replaced three of the four members of the Board of Port Wardens with loyal supporter. Staples' record was so impressive that Low, despite pressure by his political friends, asked him to remain on the Board.
Two years later, Low needed all the political support he could muster in his quest for election to the U.S. Senate. When he nominated Johnny Martin for Staples' job, a petition signed by every member of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Marine Underwriters asked him to retain Staples in office. In those days the state legislatures did the electing and a good deal of leverage was required by a Senate aspirant. Sometimes money did the trick, but Low was using appointive power to gather votes, and in this instance the public had to be ignored. As California historian H. H. Bancroft put it, "Staples was displaced by Governor Low for political purposes."
In March of 1866, Staples found himself, for the first time since childhood, without work and without a clear idea of where he was going next.