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Adolph Sutro Travels to California (Part 1)

by Jack Leibman

Young Adolph Sutro, barely twenty years old, arrived in New York from Prussia in October 1850. He was the first of his band of seven brothers to arrive, and the second oldest. After learning all he could about the Gold Rush from the California-bound gold-seekers, the brash but perceptive Adolph decided abruptly, just a few days after his arrival, to go to California.

He boarded the steamer Cherokee on October 12th. The first of his many letters to his brothers is dated Wednesday, October 30, from Panama; they assumed he was still in New York. (The voluminous letters, edited and paired with unattributed translations from the German, are found in the collection of the Sutro Library in San Francisco.)

Adolph's letter brims with excitement and sage observations. His opening expansive comments (even before describing the trip) overflow with hyperbole as he immediately becomes a fount of knowledge.

Already I know California fairly well, as I have talked with thousands, returning from this land of promise, hungry and miserable. The mines are extraordinarily rich, overrun by 100,000 persons. Among 100 miners, five make a fortune, 50 earn the necessities of life, the rest barely live or perish of hunger. Miners return like robbers, hair and beard uncut for years, clothes in rags. Many squander their money in gambling houses. Merchants from the east do a large business with California. If an article becomes scarce, the merchants order large quantities, causing overstocks. Safe business is difficult, but with foresight and judgment, much money is to be made.

The ship had departed from New York promptly at 3 PM on October 12th, passing a cheering crowd and a multitude of vessels. The scene was lit by the afternoon sun, “a beautiful shore with villas and gardens." Adolph describes Brooklyn, Staten Island, the Narrows of the Hudson, its fortifications, and Sandy Hook, and remarks on its similarity to Westphalia in Germany. The voyage, taking eight days on a mirror-smooth ocean, is described in great detail. No one was sea-sick. Dangerous Cape Hatteras on the North Carolina coast was passed on Oct 14th. The heat increased as they neared Florida on the 15th. "Flying fish were traversing the air in great numbers." On the 16th, Adolph noted the Tropic of Cancer, where Columbus first saw San Salvador.

The stars and constellations had changed considerably. Various islands were seen, and mountainous Haiti was sighted on the 18th. On the 20th, the ship neared Central America and approached with caution the hazardous port of Chagres, Panama. Next morning, Adolph and his fellow passengers were taken ashore in a small boat. The landscape is again described in meticulous detail. The tropical trees, the rocks, fortifications, many bright plumaged birds--"all this makes the place very romantic and interesting." On the left of the town of Chagres were the miserable dirty bamboo huts of the natives. On the right were better huts with huge signs: Washington Hotel, Astor House, and the like. "But what hotels? Pigs, chickens, etc. were running wild amid the humans, and for food, there was only fruit."

Hardships have not started yet!

City Guide Jack Leibman is a volunteer at the Sutro Library, where he has been assigned the fascinating task of reading and summarizing Adolph Sutro’s voluminous personal and business correspondence. Jack has shared in GuideLines the saga of the century-long efforts to provide a home for the portion of the Sutro Library collection that survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. This article is the first in a series of information culled from Sutro’s letters.

Historic photo e courtesy of SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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Sutro standing by his house at Lands End in 1896.

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