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A Trip to California in 1856 - Part 4

by Isabelle Walton Lusk

Twenty-one year old Isabelle Walton traveled from Maine to California, and wrote this memoir in her 90s. In Parts 1-3, Isabelle wrote about preparing for her trip, meeting her traveling companion, dining in New York, and meeting Mr. Salmon Lusk. You can see the earlier parts on the City Guides website.

Part 4 - Boarding the Ship

People were falling over Mrs. Barnard's carpetbag and jostling us right and left trying to find their staterooms [on the steam ship]. I found ours at last.

We were so far in, what is called the aft.(1) Light filtered through from a small porthole in the side of the ship.(2) This old ship had once been a man-o-war and laid aside. But the rush to California was so great, every old bulk had been fitted for steam.(3)

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Although this steamship was built at a later date, it is similar to the one Isabelle traveled on to Panama.

Mrs. Barnard went to the deck to watch the loads of baggage, and to get [ours]. If the porter put ours into the hold, it would cost more to get them out. I had learned that from my brother.

The front of the steamer was wide open and I could see everything going on. Some men were fixing a block and tackle to lower the baggage into the hold. Men were still unloading baggage from drays. Some trunks were covered with ropes. They were coming quite fast now. Then I saw a wheelbarrow covered with boxes, trunks.

At that critical moment I saw a little girl child coming around the wheelbarrow, under the slipping truck. I gave one spring and managed to reach the child. The poor stevedore [almost lost the load] and was muttering.

Now I saw our trunks which had been tucked in different places [and called the porter]. [The girl] had big brown eyes and golden curls peeping out from under her cap of lace. Around her neck a string of the smallest gold beads I had ever seen. I tried to find out what nation she belonged to fore I could see she was a foreign child. I looked at the little cross [she had] and found the name Isabella. She was so thinly clad I knew she must be cold, I opened my cloak.(4)

The porter asked, are you going to find her folks? I responded. "No I am going to wait until they find us [rather than go all over the ship]."

The porter said, "They must be them there popish people." [Isabelle later finds out the man is a Spanish consul.](5) I saw a man coming [with a woman] wringing her hands, and when they caught sight of us, shouted. But the child would not go to either, laughed and clung to me. He said they thought they had lost her. His wife was not very well and fainted. Their maid stood [with us] while he ran for a doctor. [And a while later] I had at last put the child in her father's arms.

I hated to go down to that closed stuffy stateroom, and sat for sometime looking at the ocean watching the stevedores still coming down with their loads. I went down at last. When the dinner bell rang, Henry was sound asleep - but little Charley was wakeful. I told [Mrs. Barnard] to go out and find some places at the table and I would come when Charley fell asleep. So she went out.

(1) They were in the back of the ship.

(2) The home place for passengers was their cabin—called a stateroom. In 1856 it was typically 9 feet long with two bunk beds, and often a couch. Light came from a small porthole during the day, and oil lamps in the evening. Source: Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and The Great Atlantic Steamships, Stephen Fox

(3) When gold was discovered, clipper ships were used to travel quickly to California. These ships had multiple masts and sails and could travel at great speeds. At the time of Isabelle’s trip, steamships were replacing clippers. Steamships were not as fast, but did not depend on the wind and could carry more cargo, bringing the demise of clippers. Source: Howard Chapelle, Smithsonian Institution curator.

(4)At the beginning of the Gold Rush, men traveled without their families to California. Just a few years later, more women and children were on the ships. In 1863 one man stated, “The greatest annoyance on board is the number of babies and children. The noise they keep up is frightful.” Source: The Panama Route: 1848-1869, John Haskell Kemble

(5)By 1856, German political revolutions and the Irish potato blight brought increasing numbers of immigrants to this country – many of them Catholic. The term "popish”, meaning following the Pope, has been a derogatory term since the 1500s. Immigration and slavery were main issues for the Presidential election of that year. It was estimated that 1.5 million Irish and 1 million Germans had emigrated to the United States at this time. The nativist American Party, also called the Know-Nothings, was created with a platform to stop immigration and naturalization. The party eventually disintegrated over the slavery issue, many joining the newly formed Republican Party. Sources:, and Bathsheba Malsheen, Ph.D., Linguistics

Photo courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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