Chapter VI. The Footsteps of the Stranger
At no point does the early history of California come in contact with that of the colonies of the Eastern coast of the United States. The nearest approach to such contact was in the year 1789, when Captain Arguello, commander of the presidio of San Francisco, received the following orders from the governor of the province: -
"Should there arrive at your port a ship named Columbia, which, they say, belongs to General Washington of the American States, you will take measures to secure the vessel with all the people aboard with discretion, tact, cleverness, and caution." As the Columbia failed to enter the Californian port, the Spanish commander had no chance to try his wits and guns with those of the Yankee captain.
It would seem as though the Californians lived for a time in fear of their Eastern neighbors, since prayers were offered at some of the missions that the people be preserved from "Los Americanos;" but after the coming of the first two or three American ships, when trade began to be established, there arose the kindliest feeling between the New England traders and the Californians. The ship Otter, from Boston, which came to the coast in 1796, was the first vessel from the United States to anchor in a California port.
La Perouse, in command of a French scientific expedition, was the first foreigner of prominence to visit California. Of his visit, which occurred in the fall of 1786, he writes in his journal: "The governor put into the execution of his orders in regard to, us a graciousness and air of interest that merits from us the liveliest acknowledgments, and the padres were as kind to us as the officers. We were invited to dine at the Mission San Carlos, two leagues from Monterey, were received upon our arrival there like lords of a parish visiting their estates. The president of the missions, clad in his robe, met us at the door of the church, which was illuminated as for the grandest festival. We were led to the foot of the altar and the Te Deum chanted in thanksgiving for the happy issue of our voyage."
La Perouse's account of the country, the people, and the missions is of great value in giving us a picture of these times. In regard to the Indians he said that he wished the padres might teach them, besides the principles of the Christian religion, some facts about law and civil government, "Although," said he, "I admit that their progress would be very slow, the pains which it would be necessary to take very hard and tiresome."
Captain Vancouver, with two vessels of the British navy, bound on an exploring voyage round the world, was the next stranger to visit, California. So much did he enjoy the courtesy of the Spanish officers that when his map of the coast came out it was found that he had honored his hosts of San Francisco and Monterey by naming for them two leading capes of the territory, one Point Arguello and the other Point Sal.
As early as 1781 Russia had settlements in Sitka and adjacent islands, for the benefit of its fur traders, and in 1805 the Czar sent a young officer of his court to look into the condition of these trading posts. Count Rezanof found the people suffering and saw that unless food was brought to them promptly, they would die from starvation. San Francisco was the nearest port, and though he knew that Spain did not allow trade with foreign countries, the Russian determined to make the attempt to get supplies there. Loading a vessel with goods which had been brought out for the Indian trade of the north coast, he sailed southward. The story of his visit is well told by Bret Harte in his beautiful poem, "Concepcion de Arguello."
Rezanof was warmly welcomed and generously entertained by Commander Arguello of the presidio of San Francisco, but in vain did he try to trade off his cargo for food for his starving people. The governor and his officers dared not disobey the laws of Spain in regard to foreign trade. While they were arguing and debating, however, something happened which changed their views. The Count fell in love with the commander's beautiful daughter, Concepcion. Then, as the poem has it, -
". . . points of gravest import yielded slowly one by one, And by Love was consummated what Diplomacy begun."
It seemed to the governor that the man who was to be son-in-law in the powerful family of Arguello could not be considered as a foreigner, and therefore the law need not apply in his case. Thus the Count got his ship load of food and sailed away, promising to return as soon as possible for his betrothed wife. One of the most interesting pictures of early California is the poem which tells of this pathetic love story.
Count Rezanof was so pleased with the beauty and fertility of California that his letters interested the Czar, who decided to found a colony on the coast. An exploring expedition was sent out, and the territory about Russian River in Sonoma County was purchased of the Indians for three blankets, three pairs of trousers, two axes, three hoes, and some beads. Fort Ross was the main settlement, and was the home of the governor, his officers and their families, all accomplished, intelligent men and women. Besides the soldiers there were a number of mechanics and a company of natives from the Aleutian Islands, who were employed by the Russians to hunt the otter. Up and down the coast roamed these wild sea hunters, even collecting their furry game in San Francisco Bay and defying the comandante of the presidio, who had no boats with which to pursue them, and so could do nothing but fume and write letters of remonstrance to the governor of Fort Ross. Spain, and later Mexico, looked with disfavor and suspicion upon the Russian settlement, but the people of California were always ready for secret trade with their northern neighbors.