TOSSED ABOUT BY FORTUNE
1858-1859 AGE, 19-20
TOWARDS the end of November, 1858, Henry George arrived at San Francisco from
Victoria "dead broke." And now commenced a stretch of years notable for a
restless pitching about, with shifting scenes of prosperity and adversity
– years, though, that showed progress, if irregular and jolting.
This period opened with soft sunshine, for as the impecunious youth walked
the streets, meeting only strange faces and getting only rebuffs when he
applied for work, and when his mind had again turned to the sea as a means of
livelihood, he came face to face with David Bond, a compositor whom he had
known at King & Baird's printing house in Philadelphia. Learning of his
plight, Bond took him to Frank Eastman's printing office and got him
employment to set type. The next letter home breathed of prosperity. To his
Sister Jennie (December 6) he said:
"I am at present working in a printing office and am, therefore, busy all day,
and the evenings I spend in reading, unless (as is often the case) I go to see
"After being deprived of reading for such a time, it is quite delightful to be
able to read as much as I wish. In the house in which I am stopping there is a
good library, which to me is one of its prominent attractions.
"I am glad that you are so nearly through school. How would you like to come
out here and teach? Teachers here get very good pay, the lowest – the A,
B, C, teachers – getting $50 per month; the principals, $200. Ellie
George gets $100 a month. Lady's board costs from $25 to $30 per month.
"Women are sadly wanted here. In Victoria there are hardly any, and you can
plainly see the effects of the absence of women on society at large.
"I have few acquaintances either here or in Victoria' – I mean boys or
men. Don't on any consideration think I have thought of girls, for I haven't
seen one to speak to, save those I told you about, since I left Philadelphia.
But I suppose in some respects it is much better, as I spend less money.
"I am boarding now, and have been for these past two weeks in the 'What Cheer
House' the largest, if not the finest, hotel in the place. I pay $9 per week
and have a beautiful little room and first rate living.
"I get $16 per week the way I am working now, but will soon strike into
something that will pay me better....
"I suppose you have all grown somewhat since I left. I have not changed much,
except that I am even uglier and rougher looking. You thought I looked hard
when I came home from Calcutta, but you should have seen me in Victoria!
"How I should like to be home to-night, if only for an hour or two.
"Give my love and respects to all. I would write to them if I wasn't
so lazy. (You see I call things by their right names once in a while.)
"So good-bye my dear sister. I will write you a longer letter when I feel more
"Your affectionate brother,
"P.S. Wouldn't that signature look nice at the bottom of a check for $1,000
– that is, if I had the money in the bank."
Four years before young George wrote this letter a young man of thirty-two
named Ulysses S. Grant had for a short time slept in an attic room in this
same hotel, the "What Cheer House." He had come down from Ft. Vancouver,
Columbia River, where, utterly disgusted with himself and the life he was
leading, he had resigned from a captaincy in the United States Army, and was,
when in San Francisco, trying to make his way eastward with a view to going
into business or farming. Fame was to claim him in the rapidly approaching
The "What Cheer House" still stands and is doing business, though in a humble
way. In the fifties it was the best house of its kind in the city. A
temperance hotel, and a model of propriety and cleanliness, it was for the
accommodation of men entirely. No women were ever received and not one was
engaged on the premises. It was established by R.B. Woodward, a New
Englander, who from its proceeds founded Woodward's Gardens, famous all over
the Pacific Coast for more than two decades as a beautiful pleasure resort,
containing a menagerie, a museum, a theatre, an art gallery, an aquarium and a
variety of other attractions. One of the distinguishing features of this house
was a little library, numbering several hundred volumes, well selected, and
among them some economic works. Hon. James V. Coffey, who twelve or fourteen
years later became an intimate friend of Henry George's, questioning him as to
where he had during his busy life found time and books to read, was told that
his solid reading was begun in this little library, while staying at the
"What Cheer House" and at intervals following:
"Mr. George told me that he spent much of his time when out of work in that
little room and that he had read most of the books. That, he said, was the
first place he saw Adam Smith's 'Wealth of Nations' though I cannot remember
that he said he read it then. Indeed, in his last writings, he has said that
he did not read a line of Adam Smith until long after this period."
This new state of things gave Richard George, the father, undisguised
satisfaction. He wrote (January 19, 1859):
"I rejoice to find that you are doing so well. You now see the propriety of a
young man just starting in life having some trade to fall back on in time of
need, and you will say, 'Pop was right, not only in this, but in many other
things in which I dissented.'
"However, so far God has ordered all things well, and my earnest and sincere
prayer is that he may still watch over you until he brings all at last to his
"My dear boy, let me say again to you: Be careful and nurse your means; lay
up all you can and owe no man anything and you will be safe. Do not let others
entice you. Act on your own judgment, and I hope and trust before I am called
hence, to see you return prosperous and happy, which may God grant."
His mother took up another matter (February 2):
"I am very glad you have left Victoria and have some of the comforts of life,
and sorry to hear that Ellen is going there. I should not think that Jim would
want her until he could make things more comfortable, and the people were
more civilised – better society, a few of her own sex, at least. But this,
you say, is what they want – women. Ellen will be a star of the first
magnitude. Then I hope she will persuade others to go with her – some that
have husbands there. Then there will soon be a better state of things. A
writer of great celebrity has said: 'All men that avoid female society have
dull perceptions and are stupid, or have gross tastes and revolt against what
is pure.' One of the great benefits a man may derive from women's society is
that he is bound to be respectful to them. The habit is of great good to your
moral man. There is somebody to whom he is bound to be constantly attentive
and respectful. Moreover, this elevates and refines him.
"What will you do without Ellen and the children?... Have you made no other
acquaintances? Is there no other place you visit?"
Jo Jeffreys had a word of advice (February 3):
"After having talked with Ned Wallazz and Billy Jones for some three hours, I
turn with great pleasure to the consideration of you, my very respectable and
"It was not my purpose to induce you to follow the legal profession, though I
think you in every way capable to discharge its responsibilities with honour.
I meant by what I said in a former letter to induce you to adopt some one
particular employment to the exclusion of every other. If you mine, do so
until you have succeeded in your object. If you enter a house as clerk, stay
at it in God's name. If you should unfortunately resolve to follow printing,
follow it with all your abilities and energy until there shall no longer be
any necessity for it. You will allow me to say that your great fault (and I
think it is your worst one) is that of half-doing things, in this sense, that
you vacillate about the execution of that which alone secures permanent
success and lasting fame. Few men are competent in one lifetime to win honour
by more than one employment, and these few you would perhaps find were –
unlike you – favoured by circumstances.
"Now you are competent for any labour to which your inclinations may direct
you. You are not competent to succeed at a dozen employments, nor can you hope
to amass a fortune by labouring at them alternately. If you live on as you
are doing now, why, you will live on; you will earn sufficient to maintain you
in comfort, but that is all. You can hardly hope by mining one month, by
printing the next, and by serving in a clerkship a third, ever to arrive at a
"Why you do this is evident. You are dissatisfied, either because you are not
advancing or for trivial reasons, and then you undertake something different.
Now you cannot expect to avoid unpleasant things, and you cannot expect to
jump on a fortune, like a waif thrown away by a thief in his flight. Success
is the reward of long exertion, not the triumph of a momentary energy. It is
the crown for which, like Cromwell, you must struggle long and well. It is
like happiness here after, only to be obtained by patient and continued
"I wish I could make you feel as I do. You wouldn't then complain in after
life (as you will do without you adopt my opinions) of the caprice and the
wanton vacillation of Fortune's Goddess....
"I recognise the difficulties of your position and how you are situated, and
am aware that you are not at liberty to strike out into anything, as you were
here. But do the best you can. Take my advice wherever it's possible to do it;
I mean that which respects your employment and notwithstanding other
But notwithstanding Jo Jeffreys' counsel, a change quickly came, for business
becoming slack at Eastman's and the other printing houses, George was unable
to follow his trade. But refusing to remain idle, he obtained a position of
weigher in the rice mill of Waite & Battles, on Fremont Street, near Mission.
He wrote home (February 16, 1859):
"I am still in the rice mill and like it very well. I shall stay, of course,
until I am sure I can make a change for the better. I have to get up pretty
early though, and consequently retire early. Indeed, you would be pleased to
see what regular hours I keep. For months past 10 o'clock has invariably seen
me in bed, for I have no friends here, and neither the disposition nor the
money to go to the theatre or other places of amusement.
"Everything is still very dull, but the late rains, by increasing the gold
yield, will tend to make times better."
Soon after this George Wilbur came down from Victoria and Henry George and he
went to room together. First they lived in Natoma Street, then one of the
quiet residence portions of the city. Afterwards they roomed on Pine Street,
Henry George taking his meals at the "What Cheer House." Mr. Wilbur says of
his companion at this period:
"Very soon after our acquaintance I discovered that he was studious and eager
to acquire knowledge, and when we came to room together I frequently woke up
at night to find him reading or writing. If I said: 'Good heavens, Harry,
what's the matter? Are you sick?' he'd tell me to go to sleep or invite me to
get dressed and go out for a walk with him. A spin around for a few blocks
would do and then we'd get to bed again. I never saw such a restless human
That Henry George was in other ways restless was clear enough. His active,
energetic nature' would doubtless have made him restless anywhere, but in
California the conditions were peculiarly conducive to it, for it was a
country where thousands of active, independent young men like himself were
opening up the richest mineral region, in the world; a country which, within
twenty years from the first gold discovery in 1848, was to yield $800,000,000
of the precious metal. "California," he wrote to his
Sister Caroline in January, "is sadly in want of missionaries and I think it
would he a good notion for the Sunday school to send a few out, provided they
be gold-fever proof." As shown by his Frazer River adventure, Henry George
himself was not "gold-fever proof"; and now he kept thinking of the stories of
fortune that were coming in from the California mines, and he talked with a
young Philadelphian, Freeman A. Camp, who came to see him at the "What Cheer
House," as to the chances they would have there. His mother, doubtless
perceiving what was floating through his mind, wrote (March 3):
"Are you getting lazy? You do not write as long letters as you used to, nor
tell us much when you do write. You change your business so often I should
think you would have a great deal to tell. Remember, everything that concerns
you will interest us.... I suppose the old proverb does not apply in
California: 'A rolling stone,' etc. Be that as it may, we will rejoice when
you are settled."
Two weeks later (March 17) his mother again wrote:
"I am sorry Ellie has left you, though it is all right; she certainly should
be with her husband. I hope you have found some acquaintances among her
friends, where you can go and spend a social evening. I don't believe in
living without society, and least of all female society. And here I know you
will have to be careful, for if the women are not of the right stamp, instead
of elevating and refining you, they may prove your ruin. I like your early
hours, but not your lonely ones. You should have a few good friends. Here, as
in all other anxieties concerning you, I can only breathe the prayer: 'My
Father, be thou the guide of his youth.'"
But even if her son had the disposition to keep steadily at work, the rice
mill gave indications of temporarily closing down. In April he wrote to his
"We have not been very busy at the mill lately, except for a day or two at a
time; but this does not make much difference to me, as I have to stay there
whether busy or not. I generally get up about 6 A.M., go to the
hotel and take breakfast, and from there to the mill. I come up again at about
half past six in the evening, eat supper, go into the library and read until
about 9 P.M., when I come up to the room and write or think for
an hour or two and then turn in. A pretty quiet way of living; but there is no
telling what will turn up next."
And what did "turn up next" was anything but quiet, for the rice mill closing
down, he was thrown out of work, and he started off into the interior of the
State for the mines.
The day had passed when more than the occasional man could find some
overlooked and unappropriated spot on river bed or bar, where, with no more
equipment than shovel, pick and pan, he could draw forth any considerable
amount of the precious metal. Though the gold-bearing region of California,
including the northern mines and the southern mines, extended from Mt. Shasta
to Mt. Whitney and embraced an area approximately as great as England's
territory, every river bank, bar or bed giving the slightest indication of
gold had been worked over and over. The nature of mining then became
different. From "wet diggings" in the river channels, operations had turned to
"dry diggings" in arid ravines, hill slopes and elevated flats; which led to
"coyote-hole" mining (burrowing into the side of hills or boring wells); to
"hydraulic mining" (the concentration of a powerful column of water against a
hill or mountain side so as to wash the gravel or "pay dirt" down through the
sluice box or strainer); and lastly to "quartz mining," with its shafts and
tunnels, stamp mills and heavy machinery. Gold mining, therefore, had changed
its aspect, so that the average, common man could no longer expect to find,
except occasionally, places unappropriated, where, with no special knowledge,
or special appliances or other capital, he could find any considerable amount
of the precious metal or where he could "dig" and "wash out" even ordinary
What drew most gold seekers, and what drew Henry George, into the mining
regions was not so much the hope of mining in itself as of "prospecting" or
"locating a claim" – finding on the unworked and unappropriated lands
places that would yield to the newer processes the precious metal in
quantities sufficient to pay for the working. Such a claim might be sold to or
worked on shares by others who had the skill and capital, so that as soon as
the rumour of a rich discovery had spread, multitudes of "prospectors" came
rushing to the locality, eager to "stake off claims." The prospector was,
therefore, essentially one who roamed from place to place at the beck of the
Golden Goddess; and since she was whimsical and beckoned hither and thither,
the prospector was always on the move.
There are no clear evidences as to what locality Henry George had set his
hopes on, though the probabilities are that hearing in San Francisco confusing
reports from a hundred different points, he concluded to strike off for some
nearer and more advantageous centre, there to determine to which particular
mining spot to go; and it seems likely that his first objective point was
Placerville, formerly known as "Hangtown," and before that as "Dry Diggings."
For Placerville had not only developed rich finds in its immediate vicinity,
but in some instances large treasure was found by digging into the very ground
on which its cabins and houses stood. Moreover, it was on the old emigrant
route from the East and the road from the Carson River to the Sacramento
valley; and with its stores, hotels and saloons, was a place of recreation and
supply for all that region of the Sierras.
To purpose to go to the mines was one thing; to get there was another, but
young George was determined. "Having no other way of reaching them," he said
subsequently, "I started out to walk. I was, in
fact, what would now be called a tramp. I had a little money, but I slept in
barns to save it and had a rough time generally." But soon he had to spend his
money, and then though slight in build and never what would be called
muscular, he was forced to do farm work and other manual labour to keep
himself alive. He had got some distance towards the mines, but for sheer want
of living necessaries, could go no farther; and with great toil, and some real
suffering, he worked his way back to San Francisco.
This covered a period of nearly two months – for physical labour the
hardest two months in all his life – during which time he seems not to
have written a single letter home. While he was in the mountains, the Currys
had written of an opportunity to set type on the "Statesman," in Portland,
with pay according to competency; but when he had got back to San Francisco
the time to accept had passed. Then it was that he learned of the death at
Victoria of his sincere friend, Ellen George, and this news, taken with the
experience just closed and a poor out-look for work in San Francisco,
depressed his spirits, though he tried to write cheerfully home to his Aunt
Mary (June 17):
"Jim George has gone up to Victoria again, but will be down as soon as he can
settle up his business, which will probably be in two or three weeks. The
children are here going to school; they are in the best health and spirits.
"We are enjoying splendid weather, just warm enough, though for the last few
days it has been quite hot, reminding one of the summers at home. For some
time past we have had plenty of green peas, strawberries and all the early
summer vegetables and fruits. In ten or fifteen years this will be one of the
greatest fruit countries in the world, for fruit trees are yearly being set
out by the thousand and grape vines by the million.
"I am doing nothing just now, but expect to go to work next week. I have given
up all idea of going to the mines.
"Frazer River seems to have given out at last, and every steamer that comes
down is filled with miners. The rich deposits of a month or two ago appear to
have been without foundation.
"I must bring my letter to a sudden close, for the clock has struck eleven,
and I will just have time to get down to the post office to mail this. I
intended to write a longer letter, but coming up here I stopped to look at the
operation of moving a house, which must have consumed more time than I was
aware of. The way they raise, lower, and pull big houses around the city here
He had, indeed, given up all hope of going to the mines and also pretty much
all hope of remaining ashore, where there seemed to be no work for him and no
future. Thoughts of the sea came back in a flood tide. They ranged along the
line of ocean heroes, and he asked himself why he should not follow that
calling and rise to fame? He was thinking earnestly of this, and stood at the
parting of the ways, when his career was decided as if by accident. For the
second time David Bond, through a chance meeting, offered a kindly service and
obtained1 for his young friend a position as compositor – this time on the
weekly "Home Journal" owned by Joseph C. Duncan. Thought of a career at sea
Printer's wages in California were at that time still high, the union rate for
piece work being seventy-five cents a thousand ems and for time work to the
average man, thirty dollars a week. But as George was still a minor, he got
only a boy's pay for work in the regular hours – twelve dollars a week.
He resolved now to keep, if he possibly could, to type-setting until he should
come of age and be qualified as a journeyman. When somewhat settled he wrote
to his Sister Jennie (August 2):
"You ask me about my studies. I am afraid I do not study much. I have not time
and opportunity (or nearer the truth, perhaps, will enough) to push through a
regular course. But I try to pick up everything I can, both by reading and
observation, and flatter myself that I learn at least something every day. My
principal object now is to learn my trade well, and I am pitching in with all
my strength. So anxious am I now to get ahead and make up for lost time that I
never feel happier than when at work, and that, so far from being irksome, is
a pleasure. My heart just now is really in my work. In another year I'll be
twenty-one and I must be up and doing. I have a pretty good prospect ahead and
think that before many months I shall get into something better where I can
make good wages....
"My time is now pretty well taken up. As soon as I rise in the morning I go to
breakfast and then immediately to work, which I seldom leave until nearly
seven o'clock and once in a while not until one or two in the morning. There
are only three others in the office – nice social fellows – which
makes it pleasant for me. I do not make much, but I am learning a good deal
and think I have a pretty good prospect, so that I am quite satisfied."
This contentment of mind was broken by news of the death of the dearest friend
of his boyhood, Jo Jeffreys. Mrs. George revealed her sympathetic heart
"I feel as though I must say something to you, but my heart is full of the one
theme, poor Jeffreys, poor Jo. O I cannot tell you of the anguish I feel when
I think of him, and I can think of nothing else.... The agonising thought with
me is the uncertainty of his state. O had he time to call upon his Saviour; to
say: 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner.'...
"O his youth, his bright mind, his sensitiveness, his love for you made me
feel an interest in him of no common kind. I do mourn for him sincerely. I
know your heart too well to doubt your grief.
"Pop thought you would like to have a lock of his hair."
By the same mail Will Jones wrote:
"Poor Jeffreys has paid the debt of nature, unanticipated and mourned by all.
Brilliant in life, flashing upon our vision as a meteor, and as a meteor so
soon to be lost in the impenetrable gloom of night....
"We buried him at the Odd Fellows' Cemetery, in our lot there, the last
tribute of regard I could offer. None of his family was there save his two
brothers, who came on from New York to the funeral."
Jo Jeffreys' death was a bitter and heavy loss. It snapped the tie of boyhood.
Henry George's life from that time forward was the life of the man. In
November (20) he wrote to his mother:
"For the past week we have had beautiful weather, and I have employed every
possible opportunity to sun myself. The shortness of the days makes this
almost impracticable, except on Sundays, when I generally take a long walk
outside of the city.
"There is nothing of any interest going on here now. Even the news of the
'bloody Harper's Ferry rebellion,' couldn't get up the smallest kind of an
excitement, except among the political papers. General Scott has returned
from San Juan, and therefore, all danger from that quarter has ceased for the
present. Even the interior towns have for the time stopped burning down; so
that, excepting the non-arrival of the mail steamer, we are left without even
a decent topic of conversation.
"Letters from the Currys are getting more and more like angel's visits.
"I am still pursuing the even tenor of my way – working, walking,
reading and sleeping.
"Thursday is Thanksgiving day for us Californians, as I suppose it is with you
at home. I shall try and observe the day with the usual ceremonies, and will
think of home even more than usual. I hope you will have a pleasant time, and
oh! how I wish I could share it with you."
He wrote in this slighting manner of public matters in California doubtless to
calm his mother's mind should she hear rumours from the West; for as a matter
of fact most sensational events growing out of the slavery struggle there were
crowding into this period. Only the year before the Supreme Court of the
State had delivered a decision in the case of a negro named Archy which was
described as "giving the law to the North and the nigger to the South." And
now, on the just past 7th of September (1859), after the most bitter and
tumultuous political campaign ever held in California, the Lecompton, or
pro-slavery, party swept the State. Bad blood raised during the canvass left
many scores to be settled after election, the most conspicuous resulting in a
duel between David S. Terry, Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, a
pronounced pro-slavery supporter, and U.S. Senator David C. Broderick, the
foremost anti-slavery man west of the Rocky mountains. Eighty persons were
present to witness Broderick get a death-wound and Terry go unscathed.
Broderick was carried to San Francisco and half-hourly bulletins were posted
before a surging and excited multitude. He was accorded a public funeral and
his name became a rally-word in the anti-slavery cause on the Pacific Coast.
Henry George was not unconscious of such events; on the contrary he took a
burning and apprehensive interest in them. His father's mind, also, was filled
with apprehension arising from similar events in the East, for he wrote
"We have had a high old time with the Harper Ferry 'rebellion,' (as it is
called) and John Brown. The abolitionists are making all the capital they can
out of this poor fanatic. He is magnified and glorified beyond anything human,
and dies a martyr, according to their belief. It is having a great effect upon
business, and has thrown trade into something of a panic. Our iron men suffer,
I am told, on account of the Southern merchants everywhere refusing to have
anything to do with Northern men. What the result will be none can tell. I
have always been of the opinion that this Union could never be dissolved, but
if the present feeling is kept up and we do not get another Andrew Jackson for
our next President, I fear I shall be mistaken in my opinion.
"Brown was hanged yesterday at 15 minutes past 11 without any disturbance. But
the end is not yet."
 Hittell's "History of California," Vol. III. p.160.
 Meeker notes, October, 1897.
 "Broderick and Gwin," by James O'Meara, pp.
225-254. Terry was shot and killed by a Deputy U.S. Marshal in 1889, when
committing an assault upon U.S. Supreme Court Justice Field, growing out of a
case in which Terry had been committed to jail by Judge Field for contempt of