On the Water

Van Valen’s Gold Rush Journey

Day 199 – Aug. 8-9, 1849


Based on the careful examination of Van Valen’s journal and supporting primary sources:

  1. How many miles did Van Valen sail and how many days did his voyage last? Aren’t the answers in the text above?
  2. What was Van Valen’s physical condition upon arrival in San Francisco?
  3. What were some of Van Valen’s initial impressions of San Francisco and the gold fields?

Van Valen’s Journal Entry

Wednesday Augt 8th ’49. Cloudy and foggy. Wind North
Saw several Vessels this morning, about 2 P.M.
the more than joyfull Sound of “Land ho” was heard
which resounded again and again from Stem to Stem
till all joined in the welcome chorus “Land ho.”
The Shores and Golden Mountains of California were
directly ahead of us, we approached near the Coast
and from observations (&c) we were to the Northward
of the entrance to the Harbour, we sailed down the
Coast till night when the weather became thick
and foggy again, it was deemed imprudent to proceed
any farther. and dropt Anchor.

Thursday Augt 9th ’49. The Weather was somewhat thick
and foggy again this morning. about 6 A M we weighed
Anchor again and stood for the Mouth of the Harbour
which appeared about 14 Miles distant. The passengers
all forgot their daily allowance of Water this morning
and the Mate neglected to secure the Scuttle-butt
so we had free trade and no monopoly, but the
scenery which the Coast presented to our eager
eyes, prevented a too free indulgence of it. we
had forgotten our former hardships and privations
in anticipation of speedily arriving at the
Port of our destination, About 12 M we had the...

pleasure of seeing the Old Anchor once more descend
from the Bows and make sure her fastenings,
and the Vessel safely mooved in the Harbour. and
in front of
the long-looked-for City of San Francisco.
My first Business was to repair to the Post Office for
Letters. we had been absent from our homes nearly
7 Months and received no tidings from them in
the meantimes. I found the Post Office without
much difficulty and procured a beautifull supply
of Letters for myself and Company. We made the
passage from Valparaiso in 74 days, the distance Sailed
was 7909 Miles. Whole number of days from New York
including stoppages at St. Catherines and Valparaiso
199 days. Whole distance Sailed between New York
and San Francisco 20579 Miles. Whole number of
Sailing days 181. The passage from the Sea to the
Harbour is a narrow channel, about 1 mile wide
in the narrowest part, and 5 miles long. The entrance
is but a Small gap, abd presents more of the appearance
of a narrow Mountain pass. The channel could
with a little trouble be strongly fortified, and
made the Gibraltar of America. the Harbour of
San Francisco is one of the finest in the World.
between the western shore of the Bay of San Francisco
and the Sea, is a low range of Mountains on
rugged Hills, some of which uprise to the height
of Several hundred feet. This Coast range as it
is called forms a noble barrier to protect the
Bay and Shipping in the Harbour from the strong
North West winds that prevail on this Coast.
The City of San Francisco is situated on the West
shore of the Bay which bears the same name,
and at the entrance from the Sea. It is built
upon an elevated position and commands a
fine view of the Harbour. a long distance up

and down the Bay, and also a large portion
of the beautifull Slope that skirts the Eastern
shore of the Bay. The City is regularly laid
out into Streets and Squares. it is yet in
its infant State, but few well constructed buil-
-dings adorn its beautifull and commanding position
in its – rapid growth, and in the absence of a better
material, Tents, and Frames covered with Canvass
supply the place of more substantial structures
for dwellings and Stores. And in taking a
view of this unparalleld rapid growing City. the
thousands of tons of Shipping swinging idly too
and fro, at their moorings in the Harbour. one
cannot help but indulge in wild speculations
as to the future developements, of what has
allready begun under auspices so favourable for
commercial wealth and greatness. and must attain
that high and commanding position which is
her destiny. The Soil near the Water is a hard
clayey substance, farther back it is rich and loamy
well adapted for gardening or other purposes.
the Water is bad, the most of it being impregnated
with an Alkali or mineral substance, and has a
Copperish disagreeable taste. The Climate is
mild and of an even temperature, the City in summer is
cooled by a fine breese which setts in regularly
about Noon each day, and continues till Sun down
from the North West. during the dry or Summer
season, Rains and dews are seldom and of rare
occurence. during the Winter Season the prevailing
Winds are South East, which bring with it rains
and fogs. the North and East Winds which are
seldom, are generally Cold and usually acc-
-ompanied with Squalls of Hail and Snow.
The population at present is variously estimated

from 10,000 to 30,000. no specific number can be
accurately decided upon. the number of per-
-manent residents, to the mighty mass that
are in the City daily, and those who make
it their abode for a space of time, before leaving
for the Mines, is comparatively small.
Building material is scarce, and the price placed
it beyond the reach of many. Lumber when we
arrived was selling at $375.00 per [illegible].
Mechanics werescarce and demanded extravagant wages,
$12 or $16-per day was asked and readily given. the imm-
ense cost of Building at present greatly retarded
the progress of improvement, although a visible change
was observed daily, and the clattering din of the
Carpenters hammers & Saw, could be heard amid
the bustle of this magic-like sceene. Labour
of every description, Provisions, Staple Goods &c comma-
-nded high prices, and Money, or Gold dust at $16-
per ounce which is, properly speaking the currency
of Country, was in abundance, which was equiva-
-lent to the exhorbitant prices demanded. Gambling
is carried on to a great extent in all its different
branches. “Monte” the favourite of the Mexicans, is
the principal game, large Fortunes have been
quickly made at the Mines, and more speedily
lost at the gambling table. this is San Francisco
which but a short time ago contained but a few
old and delapitated spanish dwellings, one which
I observed was still standing, it was constructed of
Adobes or sun burnt bricks, one story high, the
roof was covered with Tiles, and looked as ancient
as old Antiquity itself. The Bay and Harbour
has been celebrated, from the time of its first
discovery, as one of the finest in the World,
and is justly entitled to that character, even under

the Seamans view of a mere Harbour. But
when all the accessory advantages which belong
to it-fertile and picturesque dependent Coun-
-try. Mildnes of its climate, connected with
the great interiur by the navigable waters of the
Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, which
flow into it, and drain the most fertile and
beautifull Valley, I suppose in the known
world, its valuable Sources for ship timber
when all these advantages are taken into
the account, with its Geographical position
on the line of communication to the great
commercial Ports of Asia and the East-Indies
It rises to an importance far above that of a
meere Harbour, and may justly be considered
a valuable acquisition to the United States in
a Maritime point of view, from it s close
proximity to those great Asiatic ports.
We remained in San Francisco 4 days. the
vessel not being ready to discharge her cargo
as soon as we wished to proceed to the Mines,
so we took our Tent, some Provisions, a few
tools and made preparations to depart, We
concluded to go to the mokelem diggings.
Daniel P Clark a Brother of one of our company
and a discharged Volunteer in Col Stevenson’s
Regiment, agreed to accompany us to that place
he had worked in those mines the proceeding
Winter. on the 13th of Augt our preparations
being completed we were ready to embark. we
engaged passage in a Small launch of about 20
tons, Schooner rigged, for $14.00 each to Stockton
and @ 2 ½ per hund for all freight that exceeded
100 lb to each man. we to provision ourselves
on the passage, 12 more of our fellow ship mates

took passage in the same boat with us. We left
San Francisco about 12 M the Tide and Wind being
fair, we had a delightfull Sail out of the harbour
and up the Bays. about 12 Miles from the City
we passed the beautifull Island of De los Angelos,
(lost Angels) the passage between the Island and
the main land is narrow and forms a kind of
a Straits which separates the Bay of San Francisco
from San Pablo Bay, which extends to the North
our course lay across the Southern extremity, about
20 Miles when we entered the Straits of Carquinez
and passed into Suisun Bay. near these Straits
are 6 small Islands singularly located in pairs,
and called the Father and Mother, the two
Brothers and the two Sisters. On the Northern
shore of these Straits is situated the town
of Benicia, a beautifull and to all appearances
a healthy location, and the surrounding Country
present fair prospects for the Agriculturists, high
arid lands well adapted for grazing, and now
covered with Wild Oats, level plains, and
beautifull undulating grounds, exhibiting rich
and fertile Valleys and sunny exposures, from
its fine location and easy access to the Sea. this
place must rise to importance in the destinies
of California. the Shores are bold and sufficient
depth of Water to float the largest class of
Vessels, Ships of 600 tons can lie along side of
the bank and discharge her cage. it is the
opinion of some that here will be the Navy
Yard in California. Goverment has allready
established a Military Post here. at present
there is quite a detachment of Dragoon quartered
at this point. The Country bordering on these
Bays’ presents smooth low ridges and rounded

Hills. clothed with Wild Oats and more or less
openly wooded on their Summits, it assumes though
in a State of Nature, a beautifull and Cultivated
appearance. Wild Oats cover it in continuous fields
and herds of Wild Cattle are scattered over
low Hills, and partly isolated ridges, and termina-
-ting into more abruptly broken hills or Mountains
Myriads of Wild Geese, Ducks, Pelicans, Cranes, and
numerous other species of Water Fowl, infest the
Shores and waters of the Bays, Otter & Seal are quite
numerous also. The Waters abound in the most
excellent varieties of Fish, such as Salmon,Trout
and the like, and on the Marshes bordering on
the Bays, are innumerable flocks of Curlews
and Mud Hen an excellent game bird.
We came to an Anchor at dark in Suisun Bay,
the Wind was blowing fresh and cool from the
North and we were compelled to lie on the open
decks of the Boat, with only our Blankets to shelter
us, which we had sparingly provided ourselves with
and thus we passed a verry uncomfortable night. We
resumed our passage again at daylight and about
Sunrise entered the Mouth of the San Joaquin (San Manto)
River. this river and the Sacramento both enter the
Bay at the same place, one from the South the other
from the North, at the mouth of the San Joaquin River
is situated the town of “New York on the Pacific”
it is called. Col Stevenson of the New York Volunteers
figured largely in bringing this place in existence
at present it consists of our House nearly completed
two others in contemplation, and a Flag Staff with
the American colour flying in all that denotes the
place of this “Gotham” in embryo. its location is
low and backed by level and extensive plains
Vessels of all classes can lie along side of the Bay...

The San Joaquin River at its mouth varies from
an 1/8 to a mile in width, the banks are low
and marshy, and covered with a luxuriant
growth of Tules, which frow to the height of
10 or 12 feet, which deprives the traveller from
viewing the scenery beyond them. The
adjacent Country is level, and numerous
Sloughs branch off from the River, some
of which are as large as the main stream
rendering the navigation rather difficult
to those unaquainted with them. We had
the misfortune to run in to one of them
the Captain discovered his mistake in
a few hours, we tied our launch up to
the Tules at night. the next day Augt 15th
We arrived at Stockton, which is the
principal trading post for the Southern
Mines, it is a place of considerable size
and importance as the great trading Depot
for the Southern Mines. as present it is like
all other cities we have seen in California
a city of Tents, but few wooden structures
grace its beautifull location.

Primary Sources

From a daguerreotype series by William Shew

Abandoned vessels in Yerba Buena Bay, San Francisco, 1853

In April 1850, a harbormaster’s estimate counted 62,000 people from across the globe arriving in San Francisco by ship in the preceding 12 months. Hundreds of ships lay abandoned, their passengers and crews out searching for gold.

Alex Van Valen Letter to his Brother, 18 January 1850

Van Valen wrote a letter to his brother six months after his arrival in San Francisco. Much of it copies his daily journal entries, but Alex also shared many personal feelings and lifestyle details that for various reasons he did not want his wife or partners back in New York to know. For example, he described how hard things really were, and how naïve he had been upon arriving in California. He describes the mining machinery that his company used, along with the climate and topography of the mining region.

. . . we performed the journey on foot in a little more than two days. it was a verry fatigueing journey for persons no better prepared than we were for the undertaking, having been confined for near 7 months on board of a Small Vessel, with little chance for exercise, and no manual labour to harden us. the roadswere verry dry& dusty and the Weather warmer than we had been accustomed to, the Thermometer ranging at Mid-dayfrom 110º to 130º. We arrived at the river late on Saturday evening and all of us was so nearly exhausted that we spread ourselves out on the ground as well as we could, not one of the 17 in the company had ambition enough left to prepare a Supper. for my part I awoke rather late the next morning. the Sun was up and shining directly in my face, which aroused me somewhat sooner than I would otherwise have been. the dry sands of the river shore making a much softer bed, than the hard ground of the plains & Mountains we had just passed over, and made my Slumbers sweet and gratefull. being fully awake it occurred to me that I was in the Mines, having travelled 3 or 4 hours after dark the night before over the hills, through valleys, deep ravines and over rocky ledges. I was somewhat anxious to see what kind of a place I had arrived at. I endeavoured to rise up but it was no go. I was so Stiff & Sore my limbs refused to obey my will, finally after rolling over two or three times and taking advantage of a little side hill I got upright at length, stiff in my limbs as an old plough horse. I thought I would take a little walk around and see if I could see any Gold Lumps laying around loose, I would pick them up of course. the first thing that met my eye and allmost my head (as I came near stumbling in) was a deep hole, another and another and so on, till it had more of the appearance of a lot of opened graves in a grave-yard. I found no pieces lying loose and came to the conclusion that to obtain Gold in California, a person must undergo an operation similar to acquiring it in the States, that is work hard for it. I hardly thought when I left home of finding it upon the top of the ground, but near it, and I maintain the same opinion yet, that it would be more convenient if was a little nearer the surface....

Yours truly Alex Van Valen

Handwritten journal entry, 8 August 1849

After 199 days and 20,579 watery miles aboard the bark Hersilia crowded with more than 90 passengers and crew bound from New York, Alex Van Valen and his fellow travelers finally saw San Francisco Bay on 8 August 1849. The first thing he did after reaching the shore was visit the post office, where a large packet of letters from back East awaited. Then he began to write in his journal his first impressions of his destination.