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A Trip to California in 1856 - Part 1

by Isabelle Walton Lusk

Isabelle Walton Lusk wrote her memoir in the 1920s, when she was in her 90's, about traveling to California. Her great-grandson, Eric Bennion, heard from his mother that Isabelle was looking for her lost father who disappeared somewhere near Nicaragua on the journey back to Bangor, Maine. Other relatives intimated that she was actually not looking for Dad, but for treasure he supposedly buried in California. More likely, thinks Eric, she just did not want to be the daughter who was assigned caretaker of her mother - and took her opportunity to escape Maine. Her memoir will be published in GuideLines in installments.

Part 1 - Isabelle Prepares to Travel

On October 16, 1856, I was twenty-one and free to go where I pleased. I decided to go to California that fall. I had heard of the lovely valleys where no snow fell in winter, and it was there I wanted to go, for I disliked the cold snowy winters of Maine.

In 1849 my father went to California around the horn. In April fifty-three, he started home by way of Nicaragua…and was drowned, his body never being found although they stayed there three days to find it. My mother, poor soul, knowing he was a fine swimmer - believed he swum ashore, and in his demented condition had hidden there and was still among the natives and consented to my going to California to find him.

Besides the property at home, and the farm which was in my mother's name, he sent by Adams Express forty-five thousand dollars, to be divided among his six children and widow.(1)

When everything was settled, each child had five thousand dollars, and I decided to spend some of my share on an education. I was a good student and wanted to know everything that was going on in the world and was an insatiable reader. I did not read trashy novels nor detective stories. I was good in mathematics and could not be beat in spelling.

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Isabelle Walton Lusk and her granddaughter Frances Lusk in 1932.

I was a very good housekeeper, a cook, and expert needlewoman and knitter. Crocheting was not known here. I had a better education than most girls my age.

I did not have to go to California for a husband, for in my youth already had twelve offers of marriage.(2)

So with my trunk full of good clothes and other things, [I had] three hundred dollars in gold in a buckskin purse, in my silver beaded purse, in my Chatelaine bag.(3)

My traveling gown was of tan colored silk and wool, made tight fitting with a long pointed waist, kept in place by whalebone in the lining. Around the shoulders a Bertha cape.(4) That Bertha cape hid the purse, skeins of thread, scissors, thimble, and needle case. My cloak was of black velvet. My gloves tan lined kid, my bonnet on a frame of tan velvet with a bow of purple and tan ribbon. The flowers [were] cream colored ones. All bonnets at that time had flowers. I had heard that ladies' shoes in California were expensive. So I had six pairs made at the price of two and a half dollars.

In this purse I carried gold to take to California, no paper money and of course silver of any amount would be too heavy. So it was gold that was going back to California where it no doubt came from. I knew all about tipping from reading and from my older brother who had been all around the world. He said if you tip the porters and waiters, they would be helpful to you. Perhaps a nine pence would be enough for a tip. A nine pence is twelve and a half cents of our money, the money of New England, Kentucky and some other states. Six shillings for a dollar. Our shilling was sixteen and two thirds cents. And our big copper cents, these cents were a little larger than our quarters today, and very heavy.(5)

My father had left his younger brother Rufus in California, and [my] uncle borrowed three thousand dollars from father, and had given his note at six percent interest. This note was in his trunk when it came with my brother from California. My brother gave me that note as the rest of the money from my father's estate. It was not quite fair but I made no complaint. Brother said I used the other two thousand on my schooling and clothes. But as I had taught school summer and winter for two years since I graduated, I could hardly see how I spent all that. I made no complaint.

So with my two trunks, my [several] hundred dollars, [I traveled over the Maine countryside] on the 23rd of November 1856 for California.

(1) The money was sent before Isabelle’s mother was widowed. It is not clear whether the money came from gold mining or lumber. The Adams Express Company began as a company that carried small packages and letters in Massaachusetts, and by 1850 was shipping from California. It exists today as a publicly traded investment company.

(2) In the memoir she describes her many proposals of marriage. One was the son of Hannibal Emery Hamlin—a Maine senator, governor, and Abraham Lincoln’s first vice-president. Isabelle says she rejected him (it is unknown which of the three Hamlin sons she is referring) because "he was a drunk at 19."

(3) A Chatelaine bag is a purse on a chatelaine - a hook with chains where accessories, such as sewing items, were hung.

(4) This is actually not a cape, but a large, wide, flat, round collar covering the shoulders. It was popular in the Elizabethan and Victorian eras.

(5) The English pence was valid currency during this period. Foreign money was legal tender in the United States until 1857 when Congress decreed that only U.S. money could be used in trade. The discovery of gold in California finally led to a sufficient amount of gold to establish more mints to turn the metal into coins. Newspapers published tables showing various foreign monies and their corresponding U.S. values. This was done to provid standards of value and facilitate commerce. [Thanks to Rand Richards for this information, in his book Mud, Blood, and Gold: San Francisco in 1849.]

Thanks to Eric Bennion and Frances Lusk Bennion for sharing this memoir.

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