California: its Gold and its Inhabitants: a British gentleman’s impressions of the barbarous Far West, review by Taryn Edwards, staff librarian.
I adore first person accounts of people’s travels to California, and we have several in our library’s collection. One of the funniest is Henry Vere Huntley’s pithy California: Its Gold and its Inhabitants.
Sir Henry Vere Huntley (1795-1864) was a British naval officer who served in many exotic locales during his extensive service career. Described by the Dictionary of Canadian Biography as an “impetuous man, prone to direct and dramatic actions,” Huntley led a life of energy, intrigue, and some profound screw-ups. During the thick of the California gold rush, he found himself in San Francisco as the gentleman representative of the Anglo California Gold Mining Company – a quartz mining outfit centered in Browns Valley in Yuba County near Marysville.
Huntley’s stint in the far West was troubled from the start – the machinery he had imported from Britain to grind the quartz was useless, there were few paying places to mine, communication with the company’s board of directors took months, and there was never enough money. Nevertheless, in his published journal of 1852, Huntley rises to the occasion – sometimes delighted by the rusticity of the frontier and at other times, utterly appalled by the trials that he, an English gentleman, was forced to endure.
Huntley’s book, told in a stuffy, querulous, downright prissy voice, is laugh out loud funny – especially if read to an audience in a mock British gentleman’s accent. Go ahead, you’ll be the life of your Zoom party! The text is filled with details about business and social engagements and the tricky differences between Americans in the Far West and Brits in dining and hygiene habits. For example, grossed out by hotel and boarding house accommodations, Huntley describes with disgust how at one, all he received for washing was “a bit of soap the size of a shilling and a veteran hairbrush…used by all of the travelers who liked it” and at another, he received only a “a towel fourteen inches square – I measured the towel in my room. For this two dollars are charged. If you object to having anyone in the room with you, four dollars must be paid.”
Additionally, Huntley is put off by the habit of San Franciscans not offering meals in courses. While dining at an acquaintance’s house, he states with incredulity, “we had a roast duck and an oyster pie to be eaten together; after that had been accomplished, I had put on my plate at the same time – gooseberry tart, cheese, and preserved ginger. How very strange this seems to us, who see no reason for being in a hurry about such matters.” He later remarks peevishly, “as soon as the dinner is over you go away; you are asked to eat only; the delight of an English dinner party, and evening afterwards is unknown to the Californian American.”
He also mentions with fascination that, “The American from the “backwoods” cannot feel that he is a bore to any one; on the contrary, he thinks he can entertain [others] by a long history of his own biography, especially that part of it which has been subjected to disease of any kind; this disposition to speak of self pervades even better classes and the backwoodsman in the United States.”
Aside from humor, the most useful take away for historians is for understanding the transportation experience between California’s cities, towns and mining camps. Look forward to many descriptions of unsanitary hotels and privations on the road washed down with “eternal champagne, till one sickens at the sight of it….and how the men drink!”