Up and Down California in 1860-1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer

William Brewer’s first view of Santa Barbara in 1861 was from the back of a mule. Brewer was part of the California State Geological Survey responsible for conducting a geological and topographic survey of the state, with an eye on identifying mineral resources.

The Survey Party

With gold fever having subsided, the new state legislature wanted to have a systematic survey of state’s resources. The well-known geologist, Josiah Whitney, headed the survey. William Brewer’s title was that of “Principle Assistant, in charge of the Botanical Department.” He was responsible for the fieldwork and for keeping detailed records of what was collected, measured, and observed.

With indefatigable energies, an insatiable curiosity, Brewer keep not only the field notes but managed a voluminous correspondence which became the basis for his journal: “Up and Down California in 1860 – 1864,” edited by Francis P. Farquhar and published by the Yale University Press in 1930. My copy, a beautiful edition generously illustrated, was inscribed to my father by Mr. Farquhar.  Mr. Farquhar at the time was the editor of the Sierra Club Bulletin and himself a mountaineer and author.upanddown2

William Brewer and his party departed from Boston, not on a sailing ship, but on a streamer bound for Panama. They crossed the isthmus by train to board another steamer for San Francisco. Like those before him and those after, he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Bay and impressed by the substantial look of the young city. Brewer compared the early November day, to the finest Indian summer day on the east coast, “but without the smoke.“

From San Francisco, the party steamed south to San Pedro near Los Angeles. After leaving Los Angeles, they travelled north, exploring the coastal terrain, arriving at Santa Barbara region the end of February.

East of Santa Barbara, Brewer climbed a high ridge alone. He discovered a variety of shells weathered out of the rocks “as thick as any seabeach and in good preservation.”

I cannot describe my feelings on that ridge, that shore of an ancient ocean. How lonely and desolate! How many decades of centuries, have elapsed since these rocks resounded to the roar of breakers, and these animals sported in their foam … no human being was within miles of me to break the silence. And then I felt overwhelmed with the magnitude of the work ahead of me … doing field work in this great state, a territory larger than New England and New York, complicated in its geography.

They arrived at the town of Santa Barbara on March 7. The steamer was to leave that night for San Francisco. With only two steamers a month, Brewer comments on Santa Barbara’s isolation where only horse trails connected the community to other settlements to the north. The first, rough wagon road north would be completed later in the spring.

Brewer’s observances about the “decadent town” were much like Dana’s thirty years earlier.

The mission was founded about the time of the American Revolution – the locality was beautiful, water good and abundant. A fine church and ecclesiastical buildings and a town sprung up around. The slope beneath was all irrigated and under high cultivation – vineyards, gardens, fields, fountains once embellished that lovely slope. Now all is changed. The church is in good preservation, with a monastery along side – all else is ruined.

The first two weeks camping near Santa Barbara were most unpleasant (Brewer uses the word “abominable.”) The dense, wet fog meant tramping through wet bushes and thoroughly soaked their campsite.

Brewer describes riding along the beach with two locals, where they observed that asphaltum, a kind of coal-tar which oozes out of the rocks and hardens in the sun. “It occurs in immense quantities and will eventually be a source of some considerable wealth.” (But it was oil itself underlying the Channel that would be the source of wealth in the next century.)

upanddown3Once the sun came out again, several of the party rode to the hot springs five miles east and took a refreshing bath in the hot waters, on the way passing “the most remarkable grapevine I have ever seen.”

With the return of the sun, Brewer and a companion set out carrying their barometer in its heavy box, climbing the rocky slopes to the highest ridge where the barometer would register the elevation.

Reaching the first peak, we struck back over a transverse ridge, down and up, through dense chaparral, in which we toiled for seven hours. This is vastly more fatiguing than merely climbing steep slopes: it tries every muscle in the body. We reached the summit at an altitude of 3,800 feet above the sea . . . . . I never before suffered from thirst as I did that day. The moon was bright as we struck down the wild, dangerous trail. Occasionally a snatch of song would awaken the echoes above the clattering of hoofs of the mules over rocks.upanddown6

Before leaving Santa Barbara, they joined in the celebration of Easter. The festivities of Holy Week, proved more irksome than pleasurable for Brewer as he had to extricate some of his men who had been jailed for brawling and drinking.

The survey continued its work traversing the state in all directions before returning to Boston in late December 1864.

During his almost four years in California, Brewer experienced back-to-back the wettest and driest years on record. During the winter of 1863, The Central Valley was under water. Crops were destroyed and cattle drowned.

upanddown5The following year was desperately dry. On May 27, 1864 he writes:

We came on up the San Jose Valley, twenty-one miles. The day was intensely hot, 97 degrees, the air scorching and dusty. The drought is terrible. In this fertile valley there will not be over a quarter crop, and during the past four days’ ride we have seen dead cattle by the hundreds. The hot air trembled over the plain, and occasionally a mirage seemed to promise cool weather, only to vanish as we approached.

William Brewer returned to the East Coast and a successful academic career at Yale. He married again and fathered several children after losing his first wife and newborn son, shortly before departing for California.

Though the survey was a disappointment to some as it is doubtful that the results led to immediate economic gain, much was learned about the mining regions. According to Francis Farquhar in the introduction to the book, “ … great progress was made toward the understanding of the geological history of the country.”


No other plant community speaks more poignantly of the California seasons than the grasslands – emerald green in the winter and early spring and tawny gold in the summer and fall. And in the undulating, rippling sea of grass you see the wind’s signature. Once, a quarter of the state was covered by grassland. But what I celebrate today is profoundly different from the grasslands before the arrival of the Europeans in the late 18th century.

The native perennial grasses have been mostly replaced by the imported European annuals, like the wild oats, whose seeds were often embedded in the fur of the long-horned cattle brought by the first Spaniards and Mexicans. The predominately native perennial grasses were not adapted to the heavy grazing pressure. As the native perennials declined the European annuals moved in. Grasslands, more than any other plant community, were affected by the arrival of the newcomers

The Bear Flag, the flag of the brief-lived republic before California became a state, shows the long-gone grizzly and the native perennial grasses which grew well spaced from one another. Spring wildflowers put on their annual display in these open spaces.upandown7

By the time William Brewer and the survey arrived in California the grasslands had been irrevocably altered.

Those interested in restoration have reintroduced bunch grasses in certain areas finding that redoing is slower business than the original undoing.

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upanddownAs a child, I reveled in grasslands. In the spring I rolled in the grass, staining my clothes green. I loved the pliant blades, and how green grasses held a trace of moisture even on dry days. I was soothed by the grassland simplicity, not yet understanding its complexity, seeing only an undifferentiated sea of blades. I liked that grasses accentuated the curve of the hills rather than hiding the contours under a coarser cover.

In the summer-dry grass, I would search for singing crickets, but they always stopped singing with my approach. The wind hissed in the dry stalks and picked up the seed-bearing fluff of dandelions carrying it off to new places. Dry grass, even though now lifeless, smelled sweet, like remembered barns full of hay.upanddown8

Before dying back, grasses had cast out their seeds, which lay dormant, until the first rains in the fall coaxed open the hard seed liberating the first tiny blades of new grass. During the rainy months of winter, the lengthening grass spread over the hills like a green tide.

The Way It Was

Sitting on a bench at Franceschi Park in the foothills above Santa Barbara, I look over the city.  The streets are laid out in grids, dense with houses and buildings.  The beach is backed by rows of tall palms. The harbor is filled with boats of every description.  I can’t help but think about how the same scene would have looked a thousand years ago.


Wiping the palette clean, what I now see is a narrow plateau sloping gradually to the sea.  The conical, thatched huts of a Chumash village cluster where a stream enters the ocean.  Offshore are several plank canoes with paddlers headed across the Channel to smaller villages on the Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Islands.


This scene persists until the arrival of Europeans in the late 1700s, when the Spanish coming up from Mexico established a string of missions along the coast.  At the larger missions, such as the one at Santa Barbara, a small village grows up around its presidio.


It was to this Santa Barbara on a warm and windless January day in 1834, that The Pilgrim, a brig out of Boston, dropped anchor offshore.  Aboard was a young student from Harvard, Richard Henry Dana.  He would later write the story of his adventures on the high seas and along the coast of California for a year of gathering hides and tallow.  His story would become one of the best-loved books of American literature: “Two Years Before the Mast.”

The Pilgrim

What Dana saw at Santa Barbara was a small village of about 100 white-washed adobes with red-tiled roofs, surrounding the larger presidio. The mission built on a slope above the town served as the mark where the vessels came to anchor.


The town is finely situated with a bay in front, and an amphitheater of hills behind. The only thing which diminishes its beauty is that the hills have no trees upon them, they having been all burnt by a great fire which swept them off about a dozen years ago, and they have not yet grown again. The fire described to me by an inhabitant, as having been a terrible and magnificent sight.  The air of the valley was so heated that the people were obliged to leave the town and take up their quarters for several days upon the beach (January 1835).

old view of santa barbara harbor
1830’s view of Santa Barbara Harbor


As a lad from Massachusetts, he would have expected the hills and mountains to be covered with trees.  He must have been puzzled by this dry, central California landscape where steep sandstone mountains could only support gray-green chaparral.


Sailing ships coming to Santa Barbara typically anchored three miles offshore, as this was an exposed and dangerous roadstead.

The whole swell of the Pacific Ocean rolls in here before a southeaster, and breaks with so heavy a surf in the shallow water, that it is highly dangerous to lie near in to the shore during the southeaster season, that is, between the months of November and April. The wind is the bane of the coast of California (January 1835)


Along the length of the California coast only San Diego and Monterey offered a reasonably safe anchorage, with San Francisco Bay offering the most secure.  Dana extols San Francisco Bay, prophesizing that San Francisco will someday be one of the great cities.


The crew of The Pilgrim spent almost a year on the California coast gathering and preparing hides for transport back to Boston, where factories produced finished leather goods.  Hide and tallow were the principle exports at a time when the land was divided into vast ranchos where herds of long-horned cattle roamed freely.


On one trip up the coast to Point Conception, the ship encountered a ferocious gale that blew unabated for three nights and days.  Even some of their reefed sails were ripped, and they were blown far out to sea.  Point Conception and Point Arguello, located where the coast bends inward, are still notorious for brutal winds in all seasons.


The Pilgrim made several stops at Santa Barbara over the year. One visit was when the youngest daughter of the De La Guerra family married the American agent, Alfred Robinson. It was a grand ceremony beginning at the Mission and continuing with a “fandango,” at the De La Guerra hacienda, lasting several days and nights.


Dana described the deterioration of the Missions following Mexico’s winning independence from Spain, twenty-one years earlier. Under Mexican rule, the Missions were stripped of their power and lands, leaving the Fathers with only religious duties.


Shortly before setting sail for the east coast Dana encountered Thomas Nuttall, the famous British collector of plants and birds (our Oak Park woodpecker, Nuttall’s’Woodpecker is named for him). He had been most recently botanizing in Califonia and came aboard as a passenger on Dana’s present ship The Alert,” homeward bound for Boston. For Nuttall’s eccentric ways, Dana dubbed him “old curiosity.”


In 15 years, California became a state, and the Pastoral Era of the great ranchos came to an end.  As new people poured into California, the Spanish landholders, unfamiliar with English and lacking cash, were unable to defend their lands against the newcomers.  Gold mining would pollute rivers and even San Francisco Bay itself.  Giant trees began to fall before the axe, as cities replaced the tiny presidio towns, and grazing lands became farms.  Nature itself was transformed with disappearance of large animals, and with exotic species replacing much of the native vegetation.


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       I have never had the privilege of being a part of a winter storm at sea as Richard Henry Dana did during his winter aboard “The Pilgrim,” while off the coast of California in 1864. But I have experienced innumerable storms while living in Coastal California, both north and south. In this driest year in memory, I can’t resist reenacting in my mind one such storm.


It’s November. After a few cloudless days, I look up to see cirrus clouds. Formed of ice crystals and blown by high altitude winds into thin wisps, cirrus clouds often precede an approaching storm.


Toward evening the wind begins to pick up out of the south, bringing warmer air. At bedtime, the rain is yet to fall, but the stars have disappeared behind thickening clouds. The building winds bring a palpable tension. The eucalyptus creak and groan, their leathery leaves clattering together sound like falling water. The pines sing and sigh.

I’m awakened during the night by the sound of rain falling against the south-facing windows. The wind blows unabated with harsh gusts rattling the windows in their frames


At daybreak, following a restless sleep, I awake to the rain still falling. The street is littered with streamers of bark and torn leaves. The wind becomes erratic blowing this way and that, releasing a final deluge of rain. And then all is silent and air grows chilly. Clouds race across the sky allowing brilliant sun to shine through. As the wind shifts to the north, remaining clouds gather into towering cumulus. On the horizon beyond the islands, they move south like galleons under full sail.


Fragrances are released that I’d forgotten. Streams flow again. The dry earth is sated. The wind has curried the trees releasing all that is tired and spent. The revived earth is born anew.



The Other Side of the Mountain

From my bedroom windows, I look up at the rocky wall of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The mountains rise twice as high as the Berkeley Hills, so much higher than I’m used to that I’m always startled when I see them. While the Berkeley Hills are dense with houses and green with planted trees, the Santa Ynez are mostly bare stony ramparts with thin patches of gray-green chaparral.

The only way to penetrate the mountains is through the narrow canyons carved out over time by running water. Even then, the going is rough requiring boulder hopping and at times squeezing through almost impenetrable thickets.

The mountains do have their gentler moments when the chaparral blooms briefly white in February and then pale blue in April. Sometimes in the winter the rocky face is laced with waterfalls which disappear in a day.

Late in the day when the low sun slants across the mountain face, shadows fill the canyons and the mountains look soft and approachable. At sunset, the mountains have their finest moment when the alpenglow suffuses the peaks with orange as if the mountains were being heated from within.

The rest of the time, the south-facing mountains, under the unrelenting sun, look harsh and forbidding. For relief, my eyes invariably trace the high ridge where a broken line of green conifers look like miniature cones from the distance. I learned that they are the drought-tolerant Coulter Pines which produce monster cones weighing up to eight pounds (maybe the largest in the world) while hanging on to their anchorage in such an inhospitable place.

A Coulter Pine

Since coming to Santa Barbara almost 9 months ago, I have been eager to see them up close. My grandson was game for the trip, so last week on a bright sunny morning we drove up San Marcos Pass (called route 154 on the road map).

In ten minutes we were at the right turn to East Camino Cielo. The narrow, but paved road, passes first through a dense, shady grove of madrone and tanoak trees like the groves I had last seen at Mount Tamalpais, in Marin County. I learned that this was indeed the southern-most outpost for these species.

And could those trees be Big-coned Spruce, growing dark and ragged on that distant, steep north-facing slope? If so, this may be the northern limits for this tree, so familiar to those who frequent the mountains of southern California.

Closer at hand were other surprises. What’s this? A small cottonwood with shining leaves vibrating in the breeze?. Cottonwoods belong near water. What is it doing in these sere mountains. Maybe the crease where it was growing is a moist seep hidden from view.

A few plants are still blooming – the golden-petalled monkey flower, the red blooms of the hummingbird sage. Manzanitas which had bloomed in late winter now bear the round green fruits whose Spanish name means little apples.

And more surprises, sword ferns in the shadiest, most protected places. Scattered about are young big-leaved maples, another moisture lover, which bring a touch of gold to the fall landscape.


This transverse mountain range running east to west contrary to most of the coastal mountains, is truly a “Hadrian’s Wall” a kind of “don’t cross” line separating certain Northern California flora from Southern California flora. Those plants requiring more moisture can make it on the lee-side of the ridge where fog drip and heavier rainfall meet their needs.

Absorbed as I am by my immediate surroundings, I remember to look up to take in the superlative views – north to the higher inland ranges like the San Raphael’s and the south over the Channel, half-lost in the summer haze. I could just make out the slumberous profile of Santa Cruz Island on the horizon. Most arresting of all was the view down into the drainage of the Santa Ynez River where steeply-sloping hills are so dry and thin-soiled that almost nothing can grow there. I wonder if even abundant winter rains could touch them with green.

The air was both fresh and still, the silence profound, with only a calling wrentit to disturb the silence. How divine it would be to camp here, to see the wheeling constellations and to watch a sunrise. But the nearest campground is some miles away down along Paradise Road which parallels the river, but with none of vistas offered by this highest ridge of the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Wrentit. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, wingbeats.org
Wrentit. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, wingbeats.org

I am thinking of my father as a boy, in the framed, black and white photograph of him and his dad which hangs in my daughter’s office. He is a lad, perhaps twelve years old, and like his father holds a rifle at his side. Wearing a slouch hat with his trousers tucked into his high laced boots, he looks utterly happy to be out on a trail in these same mountains. A boy and his dad with their guns. I neglected to ask him before he died whether he sometimes saw condors. In the early 1900s when the photograph was taken, they would have been riding the thermals over the wilderness back country.

Half of me still lives in my memories of Northern California where the hills and mountains are so different. Instead of sharp, irregular profiles against the sky with their “bones” revealed, “my” hills and mountains are curvaceous, voluptuous, plump, and most often further softened by a covering of grass. Where a hill curves inward, toward its neighbor, the seams are filled with dark green live oaks and bays.

My daughter, when visiting Berkeley, would always mention what she saw as the cool, blue light and rumble of the cities below. I often felt caught between her love of Santa Barbara, and my father’s preference for “the brisk, invigorating Bay breezes” which seemed to energize him. He was not a fan of laid-back Santa Barbara and its soft, silken air. He rarely returned, and I sensed always with reluctance. I sometimes wonder what he would think, knowing that his fellow, nature-loving daughter had forsaken the vigor of the Bay Area, for this somnolent place.

Back in Santa Barbara in time for lunch, it required effort to reorient myself after only two compressed hours in such a high, wild place. I plan on returning often, heartened by how close I am to wilderness.

Making It Work on the South Coast

I don’t think I could have written these words even two months ago because I was still unreconciled to my move to Santa Barbara. This is NOT my home, I would have told you. And then I would begin my rant. Where are the robins to sing up the dawn? Where are the chickadees chattering in the oaks, or the Great-horned Owls hooting at dusk from the eucalyptus?

Nothing was right. Here, it is a cacophony of crows – an unholy chorus – from dawn to dusk. The creek next to this retirement “campus” is dry as a bone, lacking the lush streamside vegetation to attract the spring singers like the Swainson’s Thrushes, Warbling Vireos, and Wilson’s Warblers that populated my beloved Strawberry Canyon.

American Crow. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, wingbeats.org
American Crow. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, wingbeats.org

Some days, I would imagine sitting on the bench under the sheltering branches of the oak I had planted 60 years ago. Or I would envision myself at the U.C. Botanical Garden, climbing the path up to the Old Roses garden, and to the fence line where I could look up the steep chaparral-covered slope to the bent tree at the top of the hill. Coming down, I would stop to view the Bay in the “V” of the hills. Of course, there would be robins singing everywhere, and the Olive-sided Flycatcher calling from its perch at the top of a redwood.

There’s no cure for this nostalgia other than to acknowledge that I will always look at what’s around me through Berkeley eyes. I don’t want to surrender that perspective. But maybe I could allow myself to consider the virtues of the South Coast, of Santa Barbara where everyone wants to come and visit and — if they could afford to – stay.

A month after I came to live here last September, flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers arrived, just like the ones in Berkeley. The manicured gardens of lawns, palms, and agapanthus beds were just fine with them. They dove into the palms and out again, forever “chipping.” Then a Hermit Thrush took up winter residency beneath the live oaks below my bedroom window. And then a troupe of cheerful White-crowned Sparrows arrived, singing sweetly, but in a different dialect.

White Crowned Sparrow. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, wingbeats.org
White Crowned Sparrow. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, wingbeats.org

My retirement community is just up the hill from Oak Park, one of the scruffier city parks but with some fine live oaks and sycamores. Sycamores are new to me except for the ones I would infrequently see out around Sunol where they favored the flats near streams. They are the true eccentrics in the plant world – no two trees alike. Gravity often has its way with them, pulling long branches in deep curves that almost reach the ground, while other limbs look to the sky and grow upward in search of the sun. The trunks near the ground are often covered with thick, brown bark that gives way to thin plates of bark that continually shed, revealing patches of pale brown, gray, olive, and bright russet in newly exposed areas. I am always reminded of a pinto pony. The upper limbs — rising high above the companion somber live oaks — are almost pure white, especially stunning against a blue sky.

Sycamores are attractive to birds partly for the opportunities they provide the cavity nesters. The larger holes invite woodpeckers and owls, with the smaller holes attracting House Wrens, nuthatches, bluebirds, and many others. Certain species of hummingbirds gather the down under the leaves to line their nest, while those winged beauties, the tiger swallow butterflies, leave behind eggs that become the voracious caterpillars that find the big palmate leaves to their liking.


Sycamore Limbs.
Sycamore Limbs.

Mission Creek, considered the only perennial stream in the area, borders the park. But this part of the creek, a mile or so from where it enters the ocean, is always dry this time of the year. Only once during this record dry winter did a good rain fill Mission Creek with a wild white-and-tan froth of racing water. From its bank, I could hear the torrent rearranging rocks in the creek bed. The next day, the flow had slowed to a few reflective pools connected by a trickle of running water. One day later, the water had disappeared – gone! And it’s been dry ever since.

I walk down the hill to the park most days, crossing a bridge where I often stop to examine the placard describing how the creek bed has been restored by removing tons of concrete that had acted as a barrier to the passage of the endangered Southern Steelhead Trout. In better times, the fish might have entered the creek from the ocean during winter storms, ascending the creek to spawn in the upper watershed where water remains year round. But not this year. Even the upper watershed in the Botanic Garden has been reduced to a few stagnating pools, with only the thinnest trickle of water in certain places.

Sometimes I drive up into the foothills to visit the Botanic Garden, which like the one in Tilden Park is devoted exclusively to plants native to California. The upper part of canyon has its share of live oaks, small bays, and towering sycamores, but none of the dense riparian vegetation to attract the streamside breeders that fill Strawberry Canyon with their joyous songs.

Many of the birds in the south coast canyons are the ones you might expect to see inland in the Bay Area – Acorn Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatch (instead of Red-breasted), Phainopeplas, sometimes Canyon Wrens, and Wood Pewees. Stellar’s Jays are seldom seen in the lower elevations. Swainson’s Thrushes pass through in migration, only breeding in the rare streamside where the vegetation conceals this shy bird that mostly reveals its presence through its song.

Acorn Woodpecker. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, www.wingbeats.org
Acorn Woodpecker. Photo Credit: Bob Lewis, http://www.wingbeats.org

Today I visited such a place – Atascadero Creek in nearby Goleta, which is tidal below its check dam. But above the dam, its fresh water section supports a jungle of willows, cottonwoods, a few small live oaks, and the first Big-leafed Maple I’ve seen since coming south. I heard two singing Swainson’s Thrushes, several Wilson’s Warblers, a singing Black-headed Grosbeak with a begging juvenile.

Here at the retirement place, House Finches continue to build nests on any flat surface and the Lesser Goldfinches empty my feeder in a day. But the Orange-crowned Warblers, which sang until a week ago in the park, have ceased singing, confirming that the summer doldrums will soon be upon us with few surprises in the bird world and the uninspiring sequence of daily fog and sun.

Time to look to the local beaches, where shorebirds are beginning to move along the coast. Shorebirds, mostly gray or brown during the winter, are my weak link. With my Sibley open, I’m trying to bone up on leg length and color, beak differences, feeding habits. Best idea is to find a walking companion more knowledgeable than I.