Four travelers from East and West.
Four travelers to California.
Two brought as children, one drawn by gold, one taken in arranged marriage.
Generations pass, and their offspring fall in love.
Four travelers converge in one American family.

This story was first published Oct. 21, 2010.

The High Sierras, a wonder of creation

BY ROBERT DIGITALE
What did I see in California? I saw Heaven and Hell, God’s beauty and the wretchedness of mankind left to itself. Oh, what a magnificent creation was that wild Sierra, with its towering stone mountains, its rushing rivers and some of the best timber man ever saw. And, oh, what miserable deeds men did undertake in the land we prospected.
This I learned firsthand after crossing the great desert and spending a miserable Sabbath at a tent village called Carsonville just east of the Sierras. I saw more extortion, swindling and taking advantage of the poor and needy than in a lifetime of Sabbaths. Even I was forced to pay $2 a pound for flour (a week later I bought some for the high price of 37 ½ cents a pound and thought it cheap).
It proved to be a fair specimen of California Sabbaths to come. Why, I remember one Sabbath at the end of December 1850. The air seemed nearly as warm as summer, with vegetation growing and birds singing and the frogs and lizards as nimble as if it were June. But where was man who should be praising his Maker for such blessings? He was wherever fancy led him, to prospecting or dancing or gambling or drinking or the lewd resort. And often this was by those that profess better things at home. But in California they lay away conscience in a napkin, and whether they would ever handle it again or not was more than I could tell.
And how they mistreated their fellow man! One morning in summer I found my purse missing, taken from my bed while I had been off delivering letters to the Express office. There was $109 in that purse, the gold I had dug in the last 12 days. I charged this crime to a Mr. White and before night got the purse back from him. Oh, but it frustrated me.
But that was nothing compared to what went on. One day in Elizabethtown I witnessed a desperate scene. Some boys about 10 to 12 years old were among the men gambling, and the oldest boy got mad at a man who displeased him. He swore he would kill the man and went for his pistols, but he was prevented from using them by the interference of others. As a father of a boy, I found this sight too painful to behold.
But my worst recollection came on a Sabbath about a month after I arrived at the diggings. About 9 o’clock in the evening, an English man in town killed his wife by shooting her in the back. Her final cries soon brought help and secured the murderer. Some were for hanging him right up and others for letting the authorities take him in hand. He was intoxicated, and who was the more guilty, the one intoxicated or the one who had made him thus? I am sorry to say that some of our good temperance brethren from my own country had taken up dealing in the poison.
Word of the killing spread to our camp the next day. A few hours later the murderer was hanged by other murderers no better, if any soberer, than himself. He was taken from the proper authorities by a mad and drunken mob. So is man when left to himself, guilty of the same sin for which he cries out against.

***

As a boy, the first thing I learned about my great-great-grandfather’s diary was that  each Sunday’s entry began with the word “Sabbath.” On the trail and in California, Sunday was for him a day of rest from travel and work, a day for reading his Bible. The only exceptions seem to be when he was crossing the desert and needed to keep moving for the sake of man and beast. (As an elderly man back in Illinois, he once became confused and pruned a tree on the Sabbath, only to hurry down in embarrassment when young relatives told him, “Uncle Pike! It’s Sunday!”)

But even this Bible-toting Midwesterner was drawn west in the Gold Rush. At times he lamented the lure of the shining metal upon men. But his entries also express a sense that he was on a grand adventure, one that doesn’t come along every day.

As a boy, I wished I could have such an adventure. I wanted to explore the Wild Sierras, too.

Joseph Pike

This is the seventh vignette in the saga of an American family. Next week: Franklin Fongson: So Many Women.

The main characters of “American Risotto” are:
Robert
Carol – Robert’s girlfriend
Joseph Pike – Robert’s great-great-grandfather
John Digitale – Robert’s grandfather
Kwong Check Fee/Franklin Fongson – Carol’s father
Ng Sau Ping/Elaine Fongson – Carol’s mother

To learn more, go to the “American Risotto” page.