AT THE FRAZER RIVER GOLD FIELDS
1858 AGE, 19
Like a new Eternal City, San Francisco nestled upon a cluster of hills. These hills rose on a narrow spur or peninsula, washed on the west by the ocean and on the east by the bay; and on the north formed one portal of the Golden Gate. The bell in the little pioneer adobe church of the missionary Franciscan monks still tinkled at the "Mission Dolores," and though many substantial buildings had arisen since the entrance on Statehood, the city for the most part still consisted of "cloth and paper shanties." The whole world was sending the flower of youth and energy into the new city; and to the young and bold and adventurous of spirit, San Francisco, for all her newness and roughness, wore a charm, and even fascination, that only they could understand. Should Oregon fail, this, to Henry George, seemed the place to seek his fortune.
He had expected on reaching San Francisco to find a letter from Mrs. Curry telling him of the Oregon prospects, and perhaps inviting him to come up. When a letter came to hand, several days after his arrival, it contained no information on this subject and gave no counsel, and to it he replied (May 29, 1858):
The "Cousin Jim George" referred to was son of Henry's Uncle Dunkin, his father's only brother. James George was book-keeper for the retail clothing firm of J.M. Strowbridge & Co., doing business at Commercial and Sansome streets, and composed of Jerome and W.C. Strowbridge and E.F. Childs. Childs had a young brother-in-law there named George B. Wilbur, a Rhode Island Yankee, who had gone to California with the hope shared by almost everyone going there – of finding a fortune. Wilbur and Henry George became acquainted, and Wilbur showed the newcomer around town; thereby beginning a friendship that was to be of mutual use in the near years, and though their aptitude and careers became distinct, was to last to the end of life.
And now since the prizes ashore seemed large and many for him who was free and could move quickly, young George had resolved not only not to remain at sea, but not even to embrace the prospect of a place in the Navy Yard at the head of the bay, which Commander De Camp, who expected to be stationed there, had talked of helping him to get. Though he had no fixed plans, yet it was the boy's wish to be free, and free at once. The obstacle was the Shubrick's shipping articles, which he, like every one else on board, had been compelled to sign at Philadelphia for one year's service, and which would hold him until November 11, 1858. He talked the thing over with Ellen George, James George's wife, a warm-hearted, sympathetic woman, who showed a lively interest in the youth's affairs. It was agreed that he should go into retirement for awhile, seeking the seclusion of a bed at her house, while she should confer with Commander De Camp, which she did. The Commander, as a consequence, failed to notice the absence of the boy, who, after a short season of this retirement, regarded himself as free of the Shubrick and at liberty to go where he would. But as yet no word of encouragement came from Oregon; nor in San Francisco, though he looked about him, did any inviting opening appear, so that he was left in idleness, consuming his little store of money consisting of wages earned on the Shubrick. All the while letters were coming from home which yet load a strong influence over him. From his mother (April 3,1858):
From his mother (May 3):
From his father (May 18):
From his Sister Jennie (June 3):
The same intense affection that Henry George kindled in the friends of his manhood was shown for him by the friends of his youth. The evidence of this on the part of Jeffreys we have already seen.1 A letter from Jennie George (July 2) tells about Charlie Walton:
This from Edmund Wallazz who had been a printer in King and Baird's and who was now a man of about twenty-seven (July 15):
"To understand my feeling of a peculiar relation existing between us I will mention the feelings which I experienced when we first heard of the yellow fever on board the Shubrick. Jeffreys told me of the report and of your father's fears near midnight of a day, I think, in the latter part of February or the early part of March. I was at first stunned; a cold, chilly sensation overpowered me for a few minutes; but after awhile I said, with an earnestness which made Jeffreys look surprised: 'Harry is not dead. If he were I should know it.' He asked if I believed in ghosts. Of course not, in the vulgar idea of ghosts. And yet I felt certain that if you were dead I should be informed of it. Nay, more. So strong was this feeling that for several days I sat alone in the dark at midnight waiting for you. And in those hours of terrible suspense how often did I think of your probable death, and picture your poor body tossed about by the billows of the Southern Atlantic, far, far from all who loved you! Firmly, I believe, if you had been dead, and if you had come to me, I would not have been frightened at all, only awe-struck, and it may be heart-wrung, by the thought that my advice had much to do with your going. But let this rest forever now. You cannot doubt my love; I cannot doubt yours."
But now Henry George was ready to act. For in June had come the thrilling news of large gold discoveries just over the American line, in the British possessions, on the Frazer River, not far from its mouth. There was much excitement in San Francisco, especially among that multitude of prospectors and adventurers, who, finding all the then known placer lands in California worked out or appropriated, and not willing to turn to the slow pursuits of agriculture, had gathered in the city with nothing to do. A mad scramble for the new fields ensued, and so great was the rush from this and other parts that fifty thousand persons are said to have poured into the Frazer River region within the space of a few weeks. Indeed, all who did not have profitable or promising employment tried to get away, and the Shubrick's log shows that most of her officers and crew deserted for the gold fields.
James George was doing well with the San Francisco clothing house, but caught in the gold excitement, he thought he saw a chance for a fortune in the sale of miner's supplies; and he formed a co-partnership with O.F. Giffin, of San Francisco, a dealer in nuts, dried fruits, etc., doing business on Front Street, between Sacramento and Clay. The agreement was that James was to go to Victoria, on Vancouver's Island, just off the mouth of the Frazer, and open a miner's supply store.
This project of James George's had much attractiveness for Henry George, but he resolved to be cautious and not venture on reports that might prove to be false. To Martha Curry, who now had become Mrs. Malthrop, he wrote (June 29):
A few days following this came a letter from Mrs. Curry (July 9) that ended all present thought of Oregon and increased that of the Frazer River. "As for this place," wrote she, "business is dull. The mines seem to be the all-absorbing theme." So with hope of Oregon closed and with no chance of work offering in San Francisco, the young man found himself urged along the line of his inclinations – toward the Frazer; and with the promise from his cousin James of employment as clerk in the store, should he fail at the diggings, Henry George's hopes burned high and he wrote home of golden expectations. But the news of his starting for Victoria carried some thing like dismay to the quiet home in Philadelphia. His mother wrote (August 15):
A month later (September 18) she wrote:
His father in the same letter wrote:
Henry George, working his way as seaman on a top sail schooner, reached Victoria when the excitement was at the flood. That place, established in 1843 as a trading-fort of the Hudson Bay Company – those pioneers of commerce through the north-western part of the continent – and beautifully situated on Vancouver's Island in the majestic Puget Sound, had, with the gold discoveries, suddenly swelled in population, until it was estimated that at times ten thousand miners, in sheds and tents, gathered about the more substantial structures.
Henry George arrived at Victoria when the river, still at the season that rains and melting snows on its great mountain water-sheds swelled high its volume, came tearing down its long, twisting course and rushed through its rocky gorges like a roaring flood of destruction, earning the name sometimes given it – "The Terrible Frazer." The gold had been found at Yale and Fort Hope, a hundred miles up stream, in the exposed bars and the bed of the river when the water was low, so that with the water in flood, all gold-seeking operations had to come to a stand still and there was nothing to do but to wait until the water had subsided. The young fortune hunter, therefore, went into James George's store.
The store was in a rough wooden structure of one story and an attic, or rather loft. It stood on Wharf Street, beside the Victoria hotel, facing the harbour. Henry George worked very hard there. Part of the time he slept in the loft, reaching it by a ladder. He fastened a note outside the street door inviting customers who came out of the regular hours to "Please give this door a kick." In a letter to his Sister Jennie subsequently from San Francisco (December 6, 1858) he said:
But the full picture of his condition was not at once revealed to the folks at home. He had on starting for Victoria written of such large expectations that pride now prevented him from saying more than he could help about the poor results. Jo Jeffreys wrote (October 3):
From his Sister Carrie (October 4):
His father wrote him a letter containing worldly wisdom (October 4):
Ferdinand Formhals, now a well-known citizen of San Francisco, who had charge of a stove and tinware store beside James George's store on Wharf Street, Victoria, says that he knew Henry George there, and that "George had nothing to say about the single tax or political economy then." Yet that the youth's mind was even then quietly at work is proved by a speech he made in San Francisco thirty-two years later:
But now something caused a falling out between the cousins. What the trouble was does not appear, though in after years Henry George said that he had "behaved badly towards Jim George." The offence could not have been grave, as they were on the old friendly terms soon again in San Francisco. But however this may be, Henry left James' employ and went to live in a tent with George Wilbur, who had come up from San Francisco to dig gold. Wilbur had since his arrival made an unsuccessful trip up the river, but was determined to try again. Mean while he was driving a water cart for a living. Henry George proposed to go up the river with Wilbur, but before they could set off they were daunted by the stories of failure that returning miners were bringing down. While in this wavering state of mind, Ferdinand Fonnhals gave Henry George information that caused him to abandon the project. Formhals was something of a chemist and had from curiosity been analysing some of the samples of "pure gold from the river" that were being handed about, and found them to be a mixture of tin, lead and other metals. He believed that there was some gold at the diggings, but only a little – not enough to be worth searching for. Time has confirmed Formhals' judgment, comparatively little gold having at any time been taken out of this part of the Frazer River, the really rich deposits being found in the Cariboo region, several hundred miles farther up; but these places were not discovered for a number of years afterwards.
Hope of finding a fortune at the diggings thus closing before him, and having no other employment, and for that matter without prospect of any at Victoria, Henry George decided to return at once to San Francisco, and when there, should no opening offer, to take again to the sea, and keep to it as a calling. With this determination, he borrowed enough money from George Wilbur and others to buy steerage passage down to San Francisco. George Wilbur says of the setting off: