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March 27th 1849

Panama, Nueva Granada

Dear Brother, I wrote to you by return of the steamship Alabama, giving you an account of my voyage across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, and I was in hopes that I would have it in my power to send you a full description of the Isthmus of Panama by return of the same vessel. But being from choice, and not from necessity, ten days in crossing the Isthmus and not wishing to send you a partial description of this singular and wonderful country, I have deferred writing until I have had the opportunity of seeing the whole of it. Let me in the outset assure you that you can no more form an idea of this country from a description than you can have a conception of pleasure without ever having experienced it. I propose simply to give you a recital of the facts, which I have seen and in which I have taken ah active part.

We carne in sight of the Isthmus of Panama on the 12th of March, at about nine o'clock in the morning. We coasted along until about three o'clock p.m. before we came in sight of Chagres. It was a pleasant sight after ten long and dreary days at sea to come in view of land--and such a land--covered with the richest and most luxuriant vegetation, a garden of Eden teeming with all the luscious fruits of a tropical climate, a land filled with the most delicate plants and flowers of every variety, none of which I had ever seen and many of which I had never heard of. We stopped within about two miles of the mouth of the river Chagres. Captain Tucker, who is the commander of the Orus, now running up the Chagres River, carne out in his yawl and piloted us into the river. There is no harbor at Chagres and it is therefore exceedingly dangerous to land outside of the river as the wrecks of two vessels on the coast plainly testify. Never was a set of men more agreeably disappointed in a place than we were at Chagres. Before we arrived there our only prayer was that we might meet with some speedy conveyance to take us away from this reputed charnel house. And there was the steamer Orus with steam up, just ready to go; but immediately upon our arrival we became equally solicitous to remain for a few days. Instead of finding Chagres the miserable slimy mud hole that it has been represented to be, we found it with the exception of Panama to be one of the most interesting and pretty spots on the Isthmus. Immediately at the mouth of the river Chagres, there is a considerable eminence upon which is situated an old and well-constructed fort. This fortification is manned with the finest pieces of brass cannon and mortars that I have ever seen, some of which were made more than a century ago. Just in the rear of this eminence and on both sides of the river, Chagres is situated. The houses are all composed of thatched huts, a fair copy specimen of one of which I will enclose you in this letter.

The natives are principally black and many naked as on the day God made them. Children, until they arrive at the age of six or seven, never know what it is to have a rag on their back. The natives however do not resemble the African Negro in any other respect than that of color. They have more vivacity, more animation, better features, and greater strength. Those who do wear clothes have them universally made of linen, consisting of a pair of pantaloons and a shirt, the tail of the latter sticking out answering the purpose of a shirttail and coat tail at the same time. The legs on the pants do not extend any further down than their knees, being more convenient to tuck up when they wish to "wade in and pound out." A coarse straw hat or more frequently a bare head, and you have everything which composes the costume and appearance of the natives of Chagres.

The female portion of the town is far more interesting. Some of the senoritas are very pretty: many of them have a clear, dark olive complexion with long, straight, black hair. I cannot give you a better idea of their style of dress than an American shimmy (now Maggie don't blush) bordered around the neck with wide lace in some respects resembling the long cape worn in the U.S. This dress is made so loose and long that it hangs upon them like a shirt upon a pole, exposing about one half of their backs and busts and about one third of their legs. They have very small feet and generally wear highly colored slips without stockings. Their figures are plump, round, and fat. They invariably dress in white and keep themselves, their dress at least, very neat and clean. A girl of about ten or twelve, is as well developed as ah American woman would be at the age of eighteen or twenty; and when a woman here arrives at the age of forty-five or fifty, she is as much shriveled up and bowed down as the oldest of our American women. It was a pretty sight, as we landed, to see the natives standing on the banks of the river with their little children running naked and half wild about them; and I assure you it was not many minutes before I, in company with several others, found my way on shore to examine more minutely the curiosities of the place.

The first thing that attracted my attention was the funeral ceremonies of a little child. Some fifty or sixty persons were gathered about a hut, in which lay the mortal remains of a dead baby, done up in all the gaudy ribbons and fancy colored scraps that the town could afford. On its head was placed a kind of three-cornered cocked hat and its whole dress resembled some fantastic uniform rather than shroud. Outside of the house sat two natives playing all kinds of fancy tunes on their fiddles, accompanied by a rudely constructed drum and some other instruments, which beats my time to name, never having seen the like before. The whole ceremony seemed more like a jollification at a wedding than the solemnities of a funeral. But upon inquiry I ascertained that it was always their habit to rejoice at the death of an infant for the simple reason that its soul has certainly gone to Heaven. Well, so I thought that would do and passed on.

The next thing that attracted my attention was the fact that every hut or casa had connected with it, as a part of its household furniture, a hog, a dog, and a game cock. A New Granada hog is a singular specimen of the swine genus to one accustomed to the fine breed we have in America. I have heard tell of a half-starved Irish pig; but had it not have been for the unmistakable grunt, I should certainly have classified the hogs in Chagres among the Rhinoceros species only of the human kind. Why you could split a rail with the sharp ends of their backs, use their long snouts as a crowbar and shave shingles with their pointed hams. In point of bones and want of flesh a "living skeleton" wouldn't stand any comparison with them. Most of the dogs are like the one brought me from Mexico known and designated, if I recollect rightly, by the lofty cognomen of Santa Asina. You may look into any casa and you will find these dogs and hogs lazing quietly and undisturbed in the best part of the house and the little children lolling and rolling over them. As I remarked before, every man has his gamecock, which is invariably fastened by a string on one leg to the front door sill and considered as indispensable as we would the most useful and necessary article of furniture. Cock fighting is one of their principal sources of amusements, a Sunday's diversion after Mass. In the evening, I attended a fandango, which to say the most of it was a dull affair. So many citizens from the States crowd into them as to wholly Americanize them and as a consequence destroy the novelty. The inhabitants of Chagres are an orderly, honest, and very clever set of people. Seeing that the Americans are a go-ahead, impetuous people, they have just sense enough to take advantage of their impatience and desire for locomotion to make all the money off of them they can; and so it is throughout the whole of Nueva Granada. While in Chagres I saw Dr. Smith of Newark, also lying sick with typhus fever in its most malignant form. He was attacked just after leaving the Balize, at the mouth of the Mississippi. Several young men from Newark were with him; but no hopes were entertained of his recovery.

It may be possible that I saw Chagres at the most favorable time; but I am told by all with whom I have conversed on the subject, that a correct report was never given of this place, that at no time in the years is its condition such as has been represented. The situation of the town and the appearance of its inhabitants all contradict the rumors, which you have so frequently heard in the States. I must say that as much as I desired expedition in my route to California, I left Chagres with the regret that I had not a few days' longer time given me to examine the curiosities of the place.

On the morning of the 13th, the day after we arrived at Chagres, we took passage on board the steamer Orus for Gorgona--and here let me remark that a greater humbug than this self-same steamer Orus was never started forth by Yankee ingenuity and enterprise. In the first and most important point, it can never be of any practical utility to passengers either in expedition or economy, for the simple reason that the Chagres River is not and never can be made navigable for more than twenty or twenty-five miles, and this distance can be made by the native canoe in much quicker time, with less expense and by a more comfortable way of traveling. So that by taking passage on the steamer Orus, you have to pay more and really travel with less expedition and comfort than in the native's canoe.

By the time my letter reaches you, you will have no doubt read in many of our public journals much more beautiful and perfect descriptions of the river Chagres than I can give you; but whatever account you may hear if it, however fancifully and highly wrought they may be, they will certainly fall short of the reality. Why just imagine a beautiful clear stream, so pure and clear that you can see in the bottom the clean nice gravel over which it runs, kept in its channel, not by banks, but by the growth of all the richest and most beautiful plants, vines, flowers, and roses in the vegetable kingdom, the boughs and branches of the trees overhanging the river, as if they would be glad to shake hands and embrace the limbs of their opposite neighbors. The vines along the Chagres River do not content themselves by creeping lazily up a few feet and then wither and die, but they go on shooting upward and upward until they can no longer find trees tall enough to cling to and then they creep downward until they loose themselves in the ripples of this beautiful river. Just in the rear of these vegetable banks (I can give them no other name, for the vegetation is so thick and luxuriant that you can see no earth at all), you can see the tops of the cocoa and flora trees. A flora tree (the botanical name I cannot give you--I give you the names of things as I learned them from the natives) is something like our umbrella tree at the top; but its height is generally from forty to sixty feet. The whole top of the tree is covered by a profusion of the richest flowers I ever beheld. In some spots you will see acres covered with these beautiful trees, the body of the tree is as straight as an arrow and as perfectly rounded and smoothed off as the main mast of a ship. What adds so much to the beauty of the scenery along the Chagres River is the fact that you see nothing that you have ever seen before. Everywhere around, you can see birds of every variety, the names of which my limited knowledge of ornithology will not permit me to give you.

As I stated before, the steamer Orus engages to take you to Gorgona, for which they charge you ten dollars; but as they are only able to take you some eleven miles up the river, you are at last compelled to take the native's canoe for the balance of the journey, which is about thirty-one miles further. In order to have transportation in readiness, they generally tow up from forty to sixty canoes with the natives in them. How I only wish I could present you this picture as it really appeared to me. A fine little steamer, slowly gliding up this beautiful river, with about forty canoes behind you, manned by 140 natives, all of whom are naked with the exception of a few who wear a breech cloth, keeping up an incessant gibberish of Spanish, constantly in dread of some fearful accident. Every turn that the steamer makes (and every turn in the Chagres River is a right angle) some half-dozen canoes become filled with water, the steamer stops until matters are put right again, while the natives in their peculiar and animated manner, with their wild gesticulations, blame one another for an accident altogether unavoidable. I stood behind a young gentleman from New York, an excellent draftsman, while he was drawing this motley scene from the stern of our boat; but with all his genius he could not do justice to the subject; he could not give the wild and excited appearance of the natives, and the loud laughing and buzzing of the Americans standing on the deck and enjoying the scene. The natives cannot understand how it is that Captain Tucker, the commander of the Orus, can have the power while standing in the stern of the boat to stop her by simply singing out "Stop, Stop." They regard him as a superhuman being and fear him accordingly.

I shot an alligator, about ten feet in length, going up the river, and it was the only I saw. The evening of the 13th, I remained all night at a very pretty Indian village, situated on the first bluff that is to be seen after leaving Chagres, and it was here that I first saw the kind of food the natives ate and the manner in which they prepared it. In no part of Nueva Granada that I have seen or heard of do they pay any attention to the cultivation of the soil. Nature furnishes them with everything necessary for their sustenance and with ten fold more than they absolutely need. As soon, therefore, as we landed, I saw the natives start out in pursuit of something to furnish them their evening's food. They soon returned with their plantains, yamas, rice, bananas, mangoes, breadfruit, coconuts, and a variety of other tropical fruits the names of which it was beyond my comprehension to learn. The first process is to extract the milk from the coconut. They then grate the meat of the coconut, press from it all the juice and throw away the pulp, and in this they boil their rice, yamas, and plantains. Sometimes they purchase a few feet of jerked beef and boil this in the same way. I need not add that, barring their neatness and cleanliness, they prepare a very nice meal and have a jolly time of it. Among other things, which I saw them cook, I must not forget to mention some nice-looking roasting ears and a species of tomato. Just think of it, com and tomatoes early in March.

April 9th 1849

On the first day of April last I was taken sick with a very severe attack of intermittent fever from which I am just recovering. I am anxious, however, that you should hear from me, and I shall endeavor to finish my letter today although it is against the command of any physicians. My fever has been broken, but in this climate when one is taken sick it so enfeebles him that it takes a long time to recover. I suffered dreadfully during my illness. There seemed to be a determination of blood to the head and it was my brain that was principally affected. For five days and nights I neither ate nor slept. I was blistered and plastered and cupped all over and took more medicine than in my whole life put together. I entertain no doubt but that in a few days I shall have my usual health and strength. Up to the hour I was taken sick no man who has started for California enjoyed better health. But the 1st of April (Sunday) was a great day here among the Catholics, and I exposed myself entirely too much, being in the sun all day with no other covering than a nice, snug little Panama hat I bought here, and I'm afraid it let the fever in.

But to proceed with my narrative: on the morning of the 14th in company with Jim Myers and Ferguson I took a canoe for Gorgona. We were polled up by three strong natives. As you advance further up the Chagres River the stream becomes in places exceedingly rapid, and it requires all the muscular power that the natives can exert to keep the canoe moving along.

I find that I will not have sufficient strength to finish my letter. I shall not let the present opportunity go by without letting you hear from me. As I gain strength I shall continue to write you. The Lord only knows how long I may be detained at Panama.

Very affectionately, R. P. Effinger


Nueva Granada: At the time, Panama was a province of the Republic of Nueva Granada, later Colombia.

The Orus, a wooden side-wheel steamer previously working New York environs, was put into service on the Chagres River as one of the earliest attempts to improve the Panamanian route to California. (29)

Flora tree: Effinger's flora tree may have been the ceibo (Ceiba pentandra) or cativo (Prioria copaifera).

Yamas: Effinger is probably referring to names, or yams, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as "the starchy tuberous root of various species of Dioscorea, largely cultivated for food in tropical and subtropical countries, where it takes the place of the potato."

"Intermittent fever" is a term used frequently to describe the malady suffered by many in Panama. It may have been malaria, which was reported to be "the only endemic and common disease of the Isthmus." Another likely possibility is basically what Effinger described: overexertion and being unaccustomed to the climate. (30)

April 12th 1849

Panama, New Granada

Dear Brother,

When I last wrote to you under the date of April 9, I was just recovering from a very severe attack of sickness, which at that time I supposed to have been intermittent fever. But I have subsequently been informed by Dr. Chamberlin that my case was a severe attack of congestion of the brain, that seeing that I was of the impression that it was intermittent fever he did not wish to undeceive me as it was all important that my mind should be as quiet and undisturbed as possible. My health is now completely restored, but I am quite slow in gaining my usual strength, but hope in a few days to be as strong as usual and again deserve the soubriquet given me by my friend Mr. William Jenkins of the "Iron Man."

If I recollect rightly, I closed my last narrative by placing myself in company with Ferguson and Myers in one of the natives' canoes in route for Gorgona. The Chagres River about sixteen miles from its mouth becomes a very rapid stream, and it is therefore necessary in going up the stream to use long poles instead of oars. Its depth varies nearly every two hundred yards, but its plain beautiful gravel bottom (or rather pebble bottom--for the stones are composed of beautifully rounded pebbles) continues the whole way. At places there are strong riffles in the river where the current is so rapid as not only to require all the strength but ingenuity of the natives to overcome it, and if a pole happens to slip away down the stream you go at least one hundred yards before you recover. The navigation of the Chagres River is no child's playas the swelling muscles, heaving chest, and short breath of the natives testify as they apply their shoulders to their poles and gradually heave you up the stream. The natives when they commence working strip themselves stark naked. The hot sun, which in less than ah hour's time had scorched my hands and face into blisters, has no more effect upon them than to simply dry up the perspiration. Occasionally when they become overheated they dive head foremost in the water and remain under for at least a half-minute. This I suppose is the cooling process.

About two o'clock in the afternoon we stopped at a little Indian village to get a bite to eat, and while it was under preparation I took a stroll toward a high bluff, which bordered the village. When I arrived at the brink of the bluff I saw a sight, which would make many a man less modest than myself feel rather queer and funny. Down a little valley not fifty feet from where I stood I saw at least twenty senoritas stark naked just cooling themselves off in a pretty clear mountain rivulet. The water was not more than knee deep and they were kneeling down sousing themselves by pouring gourds full of water on top of their heads, and this operation was kept up so fast that an ordinary waterfowl would have been drowned by the process. Some few of the girls were standing just on the brink of the stream washing clothes. I stood for some time enjoying the scene until at last they detected me and such a scampering after shifts and shirts you never did see. After they had each of them put on a shirt they gave me a very polite invitation to come in and bathe with them. I need not add that it did not require much urging to make me accept their very polite invitation. These people spend about one third of their time in the water, and indeed it is the only pleasant way of living in this hot country. In the evening I went supperless to bed on a sand bar.

On the morning of the 15th we renew our journey and when we arrive within about four miles of Gorgona I got the natives to land us and conclude to walk the test of the way. I had not proceeded many miles before I repented my indiscretions. I knew that their woods were filled with snakes, lizards, and all kind of poisonous reptiles, but I was not aware that a person runs the risk of encountering a tiger which though not numerous are frequently found in their forests. I had left my gun in the canoe, the weather being excessively hot and not wishing to be encumbered by it. No one can form an opinion of the density of their forests; it is almost impossible to penetrate them. Dr. Chamberlin in walking over the same route that I came shot a tiger and a monkey. I arrived at Gorgona about noon completely fatigued and worn out. Many of our party did not reach Gorgona until the next day. This village is situated upon a high bluff and contains about 600 inhabitants who differ very little either in appearance or habits from the inhabitants of Chagres. At the time I arrived at Gorgona there were about 300 Americans encamped there, and we pitched our tents among the rest and commenced camp life. We heard the most discouraging news in reference to our getting away from Panama, all of which proved to be too true, as I shall tell you when I come to speak of Panama. I remained at Gorgona four days, as I saw there would be nothing gained by hurrying over to Panama. I boarded most of the time at the alcaide's, who has four wives and nineteen children by one wife and who is of course the greatest man in town. Many very interesting incidents occurred during my stay at Gorgona all of which I noted down with particularity and care but I have really not the strength to give them to you now.

On the 21st I started for Panama by myself having in charge a train of ten mules carrying stores belonging to J. B. Weller's U.S. Commission. Each mule carried two whole barrels and a small package in the center. It is cruel the way they load mules in this country. The girths around them wear their bellies as raw as a piece of beefsteak while the crupper under the tail absolutely lays bare the backbone. But the queerest sight is to see the larger packages the natives carry fastened by a little wicker basket on their shoulders. I have seen them pack off loads that would make two good stout men grunt to lift and yet they carry them two miles. The whole road between Gorgona and Panama is filled with mule trains and men: trains going and coming. I was mounted on a little jackass, and if he didn't get his ass jacked before I reached Panama it was no fault of mine. The appearance of the country between Gorgona and Panama like all the scenery here baffles description. Whenever you reach a high point where you can make a survey you can see stretched out in a long range little mountains all topped off like a sugar loaf, covered all over with the most beautiful vegetation. The road leads over and along and around these mountains. Occasionally you descend into a deep ravine where [run] rivers as clear and limpid streams of water as ever the eye gazed upon or as ever quenched the parched thirst of the weary traveler. These streams occur at intervals of every four or five miles. One of the prettiest and brightest features in this country is the clear and pretty streams by which it is watered.

The road is just such an one as any man of sense could imagine it to be when he is informed that it is a path that the mules originally selected to travel, and if there is any bad picking with mulish instinct, they found it out. The only real bad and dangerous part of the road is the descent of the hills for they are not only steep but worn in steps. But as bad as this road is represented to be and as bad as it really is, it can be walked in eight hours (and this is by far the pleasantest way to travel it) and a good mule can make the distance (twenty-two miles) in six hours. At the time I came over, dead mules were strewn all along the road having been permitted to lie just where they dropped dead--the stench arising from their putrefied carcasses was not calculated to appease a ravenous appetite although the buzzards fared sumptuously every day. My pack mules became exhausted, and I was compelled to stop within four miles of Panama and sleep on the bare ground with no other covering than the broad canopy of heaven, and even this in this country could be very well dispensed with. I don't mind sleeping in the open air, but this thing of having lizards crawling all over one I did at first object to but finally submitted from the sheer necessity of the thing.

When you come within about three miles of Panama, you strike into a broad open road and country, and for the first time in the whole transit of the Isthmus see some evidence of civilization. You can see the gray old towers of Panama, the roofs of the antiquated houses and the huge wall that surrounds the city. It is certainly the funniest looking place I ever saw; it is more funny than curious. Describe one house and you have a description of every dwelling in the city and so with the churches. Their houses are generally three stories high with a court inside. The aristocracy lives in the third story, the second best in the second story, and the plebeians or servants in the basement. Running around the second and third stories is a wide balcony; the houses being constructed upon the principle to live out of doors as much as possible and at the same time live in a house. This city was built better than a century and a half ago, and not one repair has been made to it since it was finished. Why just imagine what an appearance any city in Ohio would present permitted to go to waste for 150 years. The whole place gives evidence of former wealth and even grandeur.

I took my quarters immediately after my arrival in the city among some of my acquaintances in a large, fine room situated about 150 yards from the Pacific. I pay for my quarters ten cents per day and board around at the different restaurants, which costs me from sixty to seventy-five cents per day. In this way I not only live well but cheaply. Nearly every morning I take a bath in the Pacific. I live so close to the beach that I generally jump out of bed in my drawers, run down and take a bath, and then come back and dress. Aside from the churches and their religious form of worship, there is but little to be said concerning the local affairs of this city. There are about twenty churches in the city, and for every church there are about four bells and some of them are the finest toned bells I ever heard in my life. It seems to me that they are ringing almost constantly, the natives thinking that it keeps the devil out of the city. This being Lent the people seem to live in their churches. Mass is said every morning at six o'clock, and this is the only opportunity we have to see the aristocracy of the place. The women dress in the richest yet neatest kind of style, but I cannot pronounce any eulogy on their beauty. They generally have the appearance of our old maids, look jaded and worn out, you don't see in them the freshness and vivacity of our pretty American girls.

In this place one can form an opinion of a country governed by the Catholic persuasion. Why, there is no set of heathens in Christ's kingdom who are guiltier of worshiping images than the people of this country. Their churches are filled with them, and they bow down and worship these just as the Hindu does his idol god. The first day of April was Palm Sunday and is the greatest day here in the whole year. Toward evening a large procession formed outside of the city to welcome the coming of Jesus Christ. The procession must have amounted to more than six thousand persons. In a little while after this vast assemblage of people outside the city had been formed, our Savior appeared mounted on an ass surrounded by all the priests and potentates in the state of Panama. They had a waxen figure with long curling hair set astride of a jackass to represent the Savior. As the crowd moved through the city, hundreds of females preceded him sprinkling the most beautiful flowers in his path. Every housetop and plaza was filled with anxious and joyous faces. The bells kept up a devil of a ringing and if the Savior had absolutely appeared the people could not have been more rejoiced and made more fuss about it. In the course of the week they crucified him and then raised him from the dead and then as the great finale they hung Judas Iscariot in the most public plaza in the city. I only wish I had time and felt well enough to give you a full description of this farce, although I know it would tax your credibility to believe one half-that I should tell you. It was following after this big procession bare headed, for they made every body take off their hats that I think produced my congestion of the brain. The principal amusement in this city is cock fighting and a South American circus, and Sunday is the great day set apart for the sports.

Effinger recounts that most of the "Lancaster Boys" had embarked at New Orleans on the Maria Burt with all of Effinger's baggage and supplies. Serious leaks required the ship to return to New Orleans, where the Ohio men chose a Mexican overland route to California, so that Effinger was left with minimal personal belongings and meager means. To make matters worse, the government ship that was supposed to transport the Weller party to San Diego was much delayed. Finding himself stranded along with 2,500 others at rainy Panama City, and with slim prospects for securing quick passage on a vessel to San Francisco, Effinger was feeling dejected, and he toyed with the idea of waiting only until May 1 before throwing his lot with others in turning back to the United States. Meanwhile, he was "comfortably situated" and made the best of things by "trading and scrounging" and surmising that whenever the California or another streamer arrived, he would be "one to step in" and would reach California with Commission members.

Away down here on this hot Isthmus--where after six a.m. the rays of the sun come pouring down like the heat in a reflector and where it is unsafe to venture out before six in the evening and where as a consequence you are necessarily cooped up in the house much of the day--I often think of family matters and of the changes which must necessarily take place before I see any of you again. Although I have not been absent quite three months, it seems to me an age. I have traveled through such a variety of scenery and climate, have been subjected to so many trials and inconveniences, have fared so sumptuously and then been starved, have in the space of four weeks been subjected to the extreme of heat and cold, in fine have seen and felt so much that I feel like a different person. My personal appearance has undergone such a change that I think you would scarcely recognize me. I support a very handsome curled mustache, dress in the loose pantaloons and open sack coat made here and worn by the better class of natives, wear a nice little panama hat which together with my dark swarthy complexion makes me more resemble a Spaniard than a civilized American citizen. I only wish I could convey to you an idea of the intense heat in this country. You have felt hot sultry days at home in the month of August where there was not a breath of air stirring. Here we have pretty much all the time a brisk Pacific sea breeze, but then the air is blown upon us as if from a fiery furnace. But I have now been on the Isthmus thirty-one days and am becoming a little accustomed to it.

Give my love to Mother, Mary & Eddy, to Michael, Elmyra, Maggie, and Sarah.

Your Affectionate Brother, R. P. Effinger


Congestion of the brain: Congestion of the brain was a term used for hydrocephalus or meningitis.

Gorgona: Because of her draft, the Orus could not complete the trip to Gorgona, so travelers transferred to canoes called bungos, or put their baggage in the canoes and walked the rest of the way, as Effinger did. Soon, several smaller steamers were on the river between Chagres and Gorgona, and the isthmian passage was further facilitated first with improvements to land transport in the form of regularized mule trains and road building, and ultimately with the completion of the Panama Railroad in 1855. (31)

Tiger: Panama's rainforest is extremely diverse: the "tiger" Effinger mentions might have been a jaguar, jaguarundi (otter cat), puma, or ocelot. Six species of monkeys are there: howler, tamarind, squirrel, owl, and spider monkeys. On the ground, an array of reptiles and amphibians includes several varieties of turtles and tortoises, crocodiles, snakes, geckos, and iguanas. The three-toed sloth lives in treetops.

Panama: Panama (City), almost two hundred years old when Effinger arrived, had been an important colonial port, and as Argonauts noted, still something of a metropolis even though the population was no more than ten thousand. With the Gold Rush traffic came bloated population consisting of travelers waiting for ships to arrive in port and with them, the hurly burly of adventure and much wilder times than the city had seen for many years. The price Effinger paid for room and board was the going rate; about eight dollars per week covered hotel or pension accommodations and restaurant fare.

Mother, Mary & Eddy, Michael, Elmyra, Maggie, and Sarah: See note on the Effinger family, page 11. "Brother Michael," the addressee of about half of the letters "Uncle Par" wrote, was a leading citizen of Lancaster until his death. He had inherited the family home upon his father's death, and was married in the house to Elmira Catlin, where his boyhood friend, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Robert shared the privilege of serving as best man. Michael and Elmira's first-born Sarah C., known as Tella (1847-?), was born in the house her grandfather built, raised there, and returned there after attending Emma Willard's Female Seminary in Troy, NY. She also was married there. She chronicled a good deal of family history and Civil War observation in diaries she wrote as a teenager and young woman. (33)

April 19th 1849

Panama, Nueva Grenada

Dear Brother,

There are many things calculated to produce sickness here, some of which I shall enumerate. In Panama there is no water, the spot upon which the city is situated being a solid rock from thirty to fifty feet in depth covered only with a few feet of earth. It is therefore impracticable if not impossible for these indolent natives to dig for water. The water that is used is brought from a running stream and several springs a few miles from the city in large earthen jars by mules and on the backs of natives. In consequence of the increased demand for water by the immense emigration of Americans to this place, many of the springs become exhausted, and the natives who have not the energy or enterprise to increase their means of conveyance have commenced bringing water from the sluggish pools in and about the city. As a matter of course drinking such stuff as this would make the devil sick or at least a little bilious.

Add to this the Americans will eat great quantities of the tropical fruits which grow in such abundance here and which can be obtained for a mere song. Great quantities of watermelons are now brought to the market and the way they are eaten beats the old-fashioned general muster days we used to see at home. By far the richest fruit that grows in this country is the pineapple. They are very large and oh, deliciously luscious. Next to the pineapple is the breadfruit, which in taste somewhat resembles our clingstone peach. It is about the size of a golden pippin and has a seed in it as large as a walnut. They are mighty nice, I tell you.

Another cause of sickness is too much exposure to the sun. Why, when I came to Panama my usual good health had been so improved by exercise and travel that I thought nothing could hurt me, and day after day I ran about here at all hours of the day and night when the sun shone the hottest and the dews fell the fastest, but you see I acted imprudently and am now suffering the consequences. And so it is with hundreds of Americans on the Isthmus. Too much exercise produces sickness, and this was one of my follies, but you see I am learning by experience.

One of the great luxuries in this place is their fine tobacco. It seems to me that I never enjoyed a good genuine smoke until I came here. I only wish I had the opportunity to send you several thousand segars, and then how you could luxuriate on Sundays. One great treat that we receive here in Panama is the fine serenades that the natives give us about three times a week. I never in my life heard more beautiful music than these people draw from the violin, the flute, and the guitar. These are the only instruments that are used in their churches, and when a man once becomes a good performer on any of them, his fortune is made. They can play all the fashionable polkas and waltzes that we are accustomed to hear in the States. Every Sunday evening they give a concert at the Hotel de Americano for the benefit of Americans who are sick and destitute, and with this exception all their serenades and concerts are gratuitous.

April 20th 1849

Hurrah for me! I knew I only wanted about three well days to make some speculation or take some extraordinary step on my way to fortune. Today I succeeded by ingenuity and a little skillful management to obtain from Colonel Weller the appointment of taking charge of all the government stores belonging to the United States Commission. They are now being put aboard of the schooner Two Friends and tomorrow I take a nice, snug cabin passage along with them and set sail on Sunday (22nd April) for San Francisco. The whole Commission is going to San Francisco instead of San Diego as at first contemplated.

In addition to this good stroke of fortune I have been offered a situation in Colonel Weller's Commission, which I may or may not accept, depending on the state of things in California. Colonel Weller has secured passages for most of his men on board the steamer California. This vessel has not arrived yet. What detains her no one knows. It is conjectured that her crew deserted her, some think she has run out of coal, one thing is certain: she has not arrived yet and neither has she been heard from.

You must not expect to hear from me now for a long time. I will arrive at San Francisco about the middle of June, and this will be the first opportunity I shall have for writing. Just think of it, among all those who have arrived on this Isthmus, and some have been here since the first of January, I will be one of the first to get away, and add to that I have a very snug little office. I certainly won't starve for I have charge over provisions for forty men for three months. Maybe if I get right hungry, I wouldn't cut into a nice sugar cured ham and knock the lid off a box of claret.

A few days ride on the noble Pacific will completely restore my health and then "Richard will be himself again."

In great haste Your affct Bro R. P. Effinger

On April 20, Effinger wrote home with excitement about the quick turn of events. After having languished with inactivity, illness, and impatient boredom for more than four weeks, the Ohioan had just gotten himself a job with the U.S. Boundary Commission and passage to San Francisco on the steamer Two Friends, scheduled to sail within days. That didn't happen exactly as planned, but the pace of travel plans and prospects accelerated with the May 5 arrival of the steamer Oregon, twenty-three days out of San Francisco and carrying first-hand news of the gold fields and even more interesting to Effinger, news of business prospects in supplying the miners. By May 15, Effinger was still in Panama, but he had maintained excitement about completing the last leg of the journey to California. Colonel Weller and his senior staff were to sail on the Panama; Effinger and others on the Oregon in five to ten days.


Segar: Quaint though it may appear, "segar" is an accepted spelling for "cigar."

California: The brand-new California was launched in New York and cleared the harbor just two months before public announcement of gold discovery in California. By the time she reached Panama on January 17, 1849, there was a crowd awaiting passage to San Francisco, where she arrived on February 28, 1849, the first steamship to do so. (34) The rumors Effinger reported in Panama were true. Designed as a cargo and mail ship--not for passengers--the California made her first trip from Panama to San Francisco filled to the gills with people, undersupplied with coal and food, and beset by labor problems. Once in port, all of the crew but the captain and one other man deserted for the gold fields; consequently, the ship was delayed until mid-April in beginning the return to Panama due to Captain Cleveland Forbes's difficulty in securing a new crew. (35)

May 7th, 1849

Panama, New Granada

Dear Brother,

By the time this letter reaches you, you will be of the opinion if you have received my former letters that I am half way to San Francisco. My last letter informed you of my appointment by Colonel Weller to take charge of the stores belonging to the U.S. Commission and of my departure on board of the brig Two Friends. On the 20th of April I went on board the Two Friends and that evening we set sail for Taboga, an island some ten miles from this port and the place where all vessels receive water for their voyages. Colonel Weller had procured for me a cabin ticket having had to pay for it $350, so that I was as comfortably situated as any passenger on board of the vessel.

I had just recovered from a second attack of sickness and my appointment was so sudden that I had no opportunity of judging whether it was to my advantage to accept or reject it, having only two hours time for reflection and for the preparation of my departure. To a man in health it was certainly an excellent appointment, but my whole system had been completely prostrated and enervated by two successive attacks of fever and with me it was a matter of serious consideration whether I would not be periling my life by taking this voyage. But by the advice of Dr. Chamberlin I went on board, and we set sail for Taboga. I can hardly describe to you the appearance that this vessel presented when I came on board. She contained in her cabins and steerage 167 passengers. Never in my life have I seen cattle as densely packed on a railroad car or steamboat. The bulwarks, the rigging, the decks, the mid-ship, every place was crowded. Why, just imagine a small vessel constructed to carry from three to six passengers crowded with 167 and you may form some idea of her condition. The cabin was a tight, close little hole between decks with three staterooms, to sleep in any one of which would have been sure suffocation. The captain very kindly offered me his own hammock, which I accepted and although I would have given all my interest in California to have been ashore and out of the scrape, I concluded to go. On the evening of the 20th we arrived at Taboga and the next day commenced filling the water casks.

Right here I must give you a short description of the Island of Taboga, as it is in some respects the most beautiful and interesting spot I ever saw. This island is about twenty miles in circumference and has evidently been thrown up by some volcanic eruptions. It is the place where most of the fruits are raised which furnish the market of Panama. It is covered with groves of oranges and pineapples, patches of bananas, plantains, and yamas, and in fine with nearly all the tropical fruits. In the center of the island a beautiful brook comes leaping down a ravine, and it is from this stream that vessels receive their water. It is considered the finest watering place on the Pacific Coast.

When they commenced bringing the water casks on board, I ascertained in conversations with some of the passengers that casks were purchased from the whale ship Niantic and had been used for years to contain sperm oil. When some of the casks were brought on board I got the steward to draw some water and tasted it, the smell of it was enough to make a dog sick, to drink it came nearly to "wiping me out." Shortly after I had drunk some of this water--and I had simply tasted it--I was seized with violent vomiting which was immediately followed by a severe attack of diarrhea. This in my weak and prostrated condition would have killed me in less than twelve hours had I not have exercised a will and determination, which I never before knew that I possessed. I immediately sent ashore (we were anchored about 250 yards from the beach) and hired a bungo (which is an odd kind of canoe), threw my baggage into it, and then crawled into it myself. I was so weak that I could scarcely sit up, but I directed the men to row as for their lives and I would reward them at Panama.

I started from the vessel at twelve o'clock p.m. when the sun shines the hottest and the wind blows the hardest. The wind came from the land and was direct in our teeth. After we got about two miles at sea, the wind blew so hard that the natives concluded to return to Taboga and wait until the wind lulled, but by threats and offer of greater price I succeeded in persuading them to continue on to Panama, at which place I arrived at ten o'clock in the evening having been for six hours exposed to the scorching rays of the sun and for four hours to the dews and fogs. The ocean was at low tide and we were therefore compelled to stop about a mile from Panama, so I hired a native to carry me to shore on his back. Before I got to the beach I was wet up to my waist in water, and when I at last arrived at my old quarters I fell down completely exhausted with fatigue and hunger. Never in my life did I subject myself to such hardships and exposure and never was my constitution in such a miserable condition to endure it.

But as has often been the case this very exposure which had it occurred whilst in health would very probably have produced my death just seemed to reanimate me and from that time I have gradually grown better and stronger and have now the satisfaction of informing you that I am once more as "stout as a little bull." The next morning I called on Colonel Weller and he sent Captain Richmond in my place. I was then offered a situation in Colonel Weller's Commission as the Computer in Major Emory's department but declined and for this reason: when the Commission reaches San Diego, Major Emory will be detained some four or five months taking astronomical observations while the rest of the party will be scouring the country seeking adventure and gold. My salary would have been six hundred dollars the first year, and one thousand dollars the second year. But I did not feel like binding myself to Major Emory's division when I saw there was a probability of being connected with headquarters. I then purchased a ticket on board of the Humboldt, the only respected vessel at that time in this port, but finding that they were going to crowd four hundred passengers on board of her, I sold my ticket, which cost me $235, for $375.

On the third of May, Colonel Weller again informed me that he would be glad to have me count myself with his Commission, that if I would join him he would assign me no post just now but that if after our arrival at San Diego I did not choose to take the position he would assign me, I was free to continue on my way to California. This position gave me this advantage: an opportunity of getting off with the U. S. Commission on the first steamer that arrived at this port free of expense--a comfortable room and the best boarding that the city of Panama afforded while here. And I assure you I did not hesitate long before I accepted his proposition on the morning of the fifth of May (my appointment was made on the third of May). I moved my quarters to Colonel Weller's and became fairly initiated into the Commission. On the evening of the fifth the steamer Oregon arrived and then for the first time I knew I had made a double ten strike.

Now see how my case stands and then judge ye of my wisdom or good luck. For forty days, I remained on this Isthmus waiting an opportunity to go to California. By chance I procured a ticket on the first vessel that left this port but deserted her to save my life. I then procured a ticket, cabin passage on the Humboldt, a fine Bremen packet but sold it for a similar reason. I then received a position in the U.S. Commission and on next Sunday (the thirteenth of May) in company with Colonel John B. Weller and his party. I take passage in the Oregon for California free of all expense and, if I choose, at a very handsome salary remain with the Commission along the Gila River. What I shall do will depend on circumstances. If, as has been represented, the country along the Gila River abounds in gold, I will continue with the Commission. If not, I go to San Francisco.

The last news that we have received from California not only authentically corroborates the wonderful intelligence, which we have already received from that country, but adds new facts that are calculated to inspire ardor in the minds of those who heretofore have felt no interest in this subject. I have seen and talked with men who left the gold mines of California forty days ago. I have examined the specimens of gold they bring with them, and my own opinion of the state of things there as drawn from these conversations is about this: I believe that all who are now going to California will if they remain there be compelled to lead a dog's life for several years to come. The grand pursuit of everybody will be digging for gold. Whatever inducements may be held out to capitalists and speculators to engage in some business that may result to their own profit and the comforts of those engaged in mining, the inducement that by being personally present in the mines they may perchance pick up the gold in lumps and pounds will at first be greater, so that all will be consumers and none producers. I believe that a man whose constitution has been hardened by labor provided he has health and "luck" and exercises due economy can amass what in our state we consider a very handsome fortune in the course of one season. Gold hunting will be something like our fishing excursions in the big reservoir: while some are taking in a fine perch, some will make a water-haul while others catch a gudgeon.

You may be surprised at my singular good fortune by receiving so many gratuitous favors at the hand of Colonel Weller, a gentleman that I never knew except on this expedition and against whom my first impressions were so unfavorable. I can only say that it will not do to satisfy your curiosity upon this subject just at this time.

The rainy season has at last commenced. It don't rain here: the clouds seem to spring a leak and the water comes pouring down in torrents. For the last month there has been a great deal of sickness on the Isthmus. I don't believe that out of the three thousand Americans one out of ten has escaped some kind of sickness. Many Americans have died. I visited the burying ground a few days since and was really startled at the number of graves. The old Spanish cemetery is an odd-looking place. A wall about nine feet thick encloses a square piece of ground. They stick their dead in holes formed in this wall as in a vault. When a fellow has lain there long enough for his carcass to rot, they open the hole again and take out his bones to give room for some new victim. The consequence is that the enclosure is filled with all kind of human bones, skulls etc. which are kicked and knocked about with as much want of respect as we would pay to the bones of a horse. The natives always throw away all the clothing, the bed and bedding and everything in any way connected with the deceased person. The Americans, however, have chosen their own burying ground and as far as in them lies [the possibility], give their friends a decent burial. Last night W. H. Legg, a printer of Columbus and who at the instance of Mr. Rankin joined our company at Cincinnati, died from fear, yes absolute fear. About five days ago he had a simple attack of diarrhea and at the very first became very much alarmed. His fear continued until last night when he expired at my old quarters. This is the first case I ever witnessed of death being produced by fright, although I have heard of the like before. This evening we bury him. Dr. Chamberlin pronounces his disease acute dysentery.

The dreaded cholera has at last made its appearance in this place. Several of the natives have already fallen victim, and what its ravages may be the future must determine. It is natural that you should want to know how I feel surrounded as I am with diseases of all kind in these infernal regions situated way down here thousands of miles from home and friends. Well to be candid with you I feel very well and perfectly easy under the circumstances but I do really think I was a great fool and ass ever to leave the comfortable position I had at home for an expedition that can never repay me, let it be ever so profitable, for the comforts I have left and the hardships and suffering I have endured. But for fear that I should again become restless and have a disposition to roam abroad I am determined to see the thing through. I intended that this trip should be a lesson to me. It has already taught me more than I would have learned at home in the quarter of a century, but hereafter I shall be contented to learn without learning so fast.

Tell sister Mary to write to me, and I shall also expect a letter from Mich and Elmyra. Tell Mother that notwithstanding my hardships, I feel as funny as usual. One time I gave up in despair and intended returning home, but I didn't like to go back without having seen the "Elephant." I believe were it not for obstinacy and shame, two-thirds who have taken this route would return. But Uncle Sam is paying my way now and feeding me at the same time, and I therefore feel a leetle more at ease.

Give my love to all--write to me often and fully.

Your Affectionate brother

R. P. Effinger


Niantic: A Connecticut whaler built in 1833, the Niantic arrived in San Francisco from Panama in July of 1849, was abandoned by her crew, and recycled as a store ship on shore until she was burned in the great tire of May 1851. Remains of the ship including cases of French champagne and other precious cargo were uncovered in 1977 during excavation and construction for a new building. Portions of the hull and many artifacts were salvaged, and are now preserved and interpreted at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. (36)

Water-haul: In a water-haul, the net is drawn in empty of fish; it is a fruitless effort. A gudgeon is a small freshwater fish related to the carp and used as bait.

Satisfy your curiosity: Boasting to his family and reassuring the folks at home about his good fortune to have become so favorably connected to Colonel Weller and his federally sponsored commission, Effinger's cryptic pronouncement ("I can only say that it will not do to satisfy your curiosity upon this subject just at this time") hints of a growing friendship with Weller, to whom he lent money once in California and apparently sympathized with during political discord in the coming months. The significance of Effinger's statement, and his change of heart about Weller, is yet to be discovered.
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Date:Mar 22, 2004
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