Far Western Lawgivers and Preachers

From an 1868 issue of Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round, London, England. The correspondent is unidentified.

    Of course there must be a legislature as soon as a rude territory is organised, and somebody must "run" for it, and somebody be elected in all the divisions to sit in the local parliament, and all who are so chosen have the title of "honourable." Indeed, it seems as if in these parts of the world every government official, except the policeman, has this handle to his name. It does not always follow that these honourables are the worthiest men to be had, any more than it always follows that honourable members of the British parliament comprise the flower of our British intellect; but one thing is certain, in the West, at least, and probably over the whole of America, that the legislature is almost sure to contain the wordiest members of society; for to speak, or "make a few remarks" on something, is absolutely indispensable to a Western man.
    In the wilder parts of the settlements members of legislature have often been elected, not so much for their talents, as for being "good hands at poker," or "great on a spree," and one of these ("the honourable gentleman from Mariposa"), on getting up to speak in the California legislature, and essaying several times without much effect, was greeted with shouts of "Git out. Oh! git out." They mistook their man, however, for, as one of his supporters remarked before his election, "He ain't much on the speak, but jist git him mad once, and he'll give 'em fits." "Look ye here, gentlemen," he remarked, cocking a Derringer pistol, "ye may holler ' Git out, git out' as long as God'll let ye, but my speech is already begun, and the next man who shouts 'Git out' in the house will bring to his ears the ominous click of small arms. What is it the gentlemen wish, and what would they have? Is my life so dear, or my peace so sweet, that it must be purchased at the expense of incapacitating a few on ye for militairy service? No, sir-ee! I know not what course others would take, but as for me, I will finish my speech or there'll be a dead senator found round these premises in about fifteen seconds by the clock." He was allowed to finish at his leisure.
    The late Dr. Henry, formerly surveyor-general of Washington territory, among the many genial stories he used to tell, and which still keep his memory green, had one at the expense of his territorial legislature. A hotel-keeper in one of the fashionable towns in the eastern states used to stand at the head of the table and read out the bill of fare in what the elocution teachers call a "clear articulate voice," though there was a printed carte on the table. This irritated his aristocratic customers until at last one said, "Say, Cap., why do you read out the bill of fare? Do you think we can't read?" "Oh, gentlemen," was the reply, "you will excuse me, I hope. It is solely the force of habit. I once kept a ho-tel in Washington territory, and most of the legislatoor boarded with me, and I'm blessed if half o' them could
read or write!"
    It is a matter of history that when the convention met to form a constitution for California, and on the usual preamble being read, "that all men should be judged by a jury of their peers," an Oregonian, who happened to be a delegate, moved, to the great amusement of the other members, that the word "peers" should be struck out: "This warn't a mon-archy--there warn't no peers in this here state!"
    Disgraceful scenes of drunkenness are sometimes seen in these legislatures, but in this they do not stand alone. One of the Californian members of the United States Senate is distinguished as "the sober senator," such a virtue being rather uncommon in the present Congressmen from that state. Corruption in these state legislatures prevails to a frightful extent, and is so open that newspapers will even have the hardihood to give a list of the sums paid to each senator for his vote. In the more refined states official embezzlements are styled "pickings," but in the Far West and Pacific states plain English suffices, and they are well known as "stealings." More than once prominent government officials have asked me, while in social intercourse, how much salary I got for such an office. I would tell them. "Wal," would be the reply, "that ain't much for this country, but of course you have got your little stealings?" I was naturally rather inclined to resent the insinuation of robbing my government or employers of any sort, until they would assure me that they meant no harm. It was the regular thing there, everybody did it. "Why, sir, do you think I can support my family on fifteen hundred dollars a year in greenbacks at sixty cents to the dollar, or that I would come up to this one-horse place after having a practice as a lawyer in Frisco* [*A common name on the Pacific coast for San Francisco.] of ten thousand dollars a year, for that? I guess not!"
    All members of these legislatures are paid, and get, also, a certain mileage, or travelling expenses, from their homes to the seat of government. This recompense, or per diem, as they call it, varies from about ten dollars to fifteen dollars a day, and is generally paid in the Pacific states in gold. The mileage is about twenty-five cents a mile. Now this to a Congressman travelling from Washington Territory, Idaho, Oregon, or California, comes up to a very round sum, and, indeed, is looked upon as their principal pay, always exclusive of the little "stealings" formerly mentioned. The local legislatures are limited by the state constitution to a sitting of so many days (and it would be well if the British colonial ones were under the same rule, for their unpaid twaddle is endless), and, of course, their pay only extends over that period. Sometimes they will finish their work in a much less time than the law allows for their sitting, but they have no notion of rising while their pay is going on. When not engaged in the ante-rooms of the senate hall in playing "monte," "cut-throat poker," "euchre," or "seven up," they can pass the time in introducing "bogus," or sham bills, generally a divorce for some of their own number, or a rule to show why another should not change his name, the wit and decency of which, I am told, are very much in the style of an institution once presided over in London by Chief Baron Nicholson. When Oregon was poor and humble, her rough names for her rivers and towns were good enough for them, but when she got rich a bill was gravely introduced to change these names. "Rogue River" was to be called "Gold River," gold just then being found on its banks, and so forth. It would probably have passed, had not another supplemental bill been introduced, which provided that "Jump-off-Joe"* [*A place in Southern Oregon.] should be called "Walk-along-Joseph"; that "Greaser's Camp" should be called "The Halls of Montezuma;" that "Shirt Tail Bar" should be styled "Corazza Beach," and so on. This fairly laughed the whole proposal out of court; though, indeed, on the official map an attempt was made to keep up some of these elegant appellations, and to Indianise the more outrageous of the names. In the way of legislative joking, it is a well-known fact that when a bill was introduced into the Georgia legislature to lay a tax of ten dollars a head upon all donkeys, a jocular member proposed to amend it so as to include "lawyers and doctors," which amendment was passed amid loud applause. Various attempts have been made to repeal the clause, but in vain, and to this day a tax of ten dollars is levied upon "all jackasses, lawyers, and doctors!"
    In the Far West, as elsewhere, there are legislators who are not too much in earnest. I recommend to some of our present candidates for British suffrages the following noble close to a Far Western election address: "Gentlemen," said the candidate, after having given his sentiments on the "constitootion," the "Monroe doctrine," and such like topics, "gentlemen," and he put his hand on the region of his heart, "these are my sentiments--the sentiments, gentlemen, of a honest man, ay, a honest politician, but, gentlemen and fellow citizens, ef they don't suit you, they ken be altered!"
    To appear a "plain sort of a man" on these electioneering tours is quite as necessary as the Old World baby kissing and shaking hands with the washed men provided by your agent are with us. I know a Western senator who keeps what he calls his stumping suit--hodden grey, well worn, but whole; shoes patched, but brightly polished; a shirt spotlessly clean, but frayed at the edges of the seams; and a hat which has seen better days, but in its well-brushed condition quite keeps up the air its owner is striving to assume--humble but honest. After a campaign is over, the suit is carefully put aside until another election in which its owner is interested. The worthy senator (who is rather a dandy than otherwise) has filled every office from governor to "Hog-reave," and considers that his suit of Humble but Honest won him many a vote. "Money wouldn't buy it," he told me; "it ain't for sale no how."
    It is commonly supposed that General Fremont lost his election out West by dividing his hair down the middle. The Honourable Samuel M. has often assured me that on his first candidature for office in Oregon territory, certain of the baser sort "voted agin' him 'cause of his puttin' on airs" in respect of wearing a white shirt, or, as they irreverently styled it, a "boiled rag."
    I have put the State in the Far West before the Church; for the Church there is of the future, although every place is not like Josephine County, where I was told, with a sort of depraved pride, "There a'nt nary preacher nor meetin' house in this yer county, cap'n."
    In other places, where the preacher gets a footing, it is sometimes easier to get a "meetin' house" full than to get wherewith to support the labourer who is nowhere in the world more "worthy of his hire." A preacher in a frontier settlement had been collecting money for some church object. There were still some twenty dollars wanting, and after vain efforts to make up the deficiency, he plainly intimated, as he locked the church door one day after service, that he intended to have that said twenty dollars before any of them left the house. At the same time he set the example by tossing five dollars on the table. Another put down a dollar, another a quarter of a dollar, a fourth half a dollar, and so on. The parson read out every now and then the state of the funds: "Thar's seven and a half, my friends." "Thar's nine and a quarter." "Ten and six bits are all that are in the hat, friends and Christian brethren." Slowly it mounted up. "Twelve and a half." "Fourteen." "Fifteen." "Sixteen and three bits," and so on until it stuck at nineteen dollars and a half. "It only wants fifty cents, friends, to make up the amount. Will nobody make it up?" Everybody had subscribed, and not a cent more was forthcoming. Silence reigned, and how long it might have lasted it was difficult to say, had not a half dollar been tossed through the open window, and a rough explanatory voice shouted, "Here, parson, there's yer money; let out my gal. I'm about tired of waitin' on her!"
    The "Long Tom Creek" region in Oregon is settled by a very rough lot of people, mostly from Missouri. They are (even in Oregon) a proverb for the uncouth character of their manners, and it was thought quite a missionary enterprise when a devoted young clergyman from "the States" came and settled among them. Church was a novelty with them. It reminded them of old times "in the States." They built a little church in the middle of a broad prairie, and for a time it was crowded every Sunday. The backwoodsmen and their families used to come to church in waggons and on horseback. The men had on fringed buckskin breeches and moccasins of Indian manufacture, and the head covered with coonskin caps, with the tail hanging in the form of a tassel behind. They would tie their horses up to the long "hitchin' post" in front of the church, and always brought their rifles to church with them, handy for any "varmints" which might cross their path going and coming. It so happened one warm Sunday that the church door was opened, and a backwoodsman who happened to be near it was gazing vacantly out on the prairie in front. Suddenly he spied a deer, close by, quietly grazing. Here was a chance! Slowly he took his rifle from the corner of his pew and crept out. His action was observed, and one after another followed, until nobody but a lame old man was left. By this time the deer was ambling over the prairie, and the whole congregation of men yelling and galloping in pursuit. Preaching was out of the question, for even the women and children were as eager as the men, watching the chase halfway over the prairie. The old man and the preacher stood alone together at the door of the church. The poor clergyman, in despair for the souls of his people, and thinking that he would have a sympathiser in the old man, who alone had not joined in the chase, sighingly said, "Lost, lost!" "Devil a bit o't, sir; devil a bit o't, they'll ketch it. By jingo, they've plugged it! I know'd they would!" The young minister received a haunch, and brought the service to a close; but he was out of his element, and soon "went East" again, where he is in the habit of remarking, with unnecessary acrimony, that "the Oregonians are a very careless people in heavenly matters!"
    In the same part of the country, at a place called Candle Bridge, I saw a deacon preach. His sermon was not very remarkable for vigour, but I can vouch for it, that his squirting of tobacco juice over the pulpit rails was most forcible! I had noticed that for some seats next the reading-desk, the pews were unoccupied, though other parts of the church were crowded. After what I witnessed, I had no difficulty in accounting for the indisposition to sit under him too immediately. If the parson is sometimes rough so are the parishioners! At church in a little backwoods settlement most of the congregation were asleep. Suddenly a half tipsy fellow made an apple bump on the bald head of one of the sleepers. The preacher stopped and gave the offender an interrogative stare. "Bile ahead, parson! Bile ahead! I'll keep 'em awake!" was the ready explanation.
    The following incident has I think been told before, but still it is so characteristic that it is worth repeating. In California a miner had died in a mountain digging, and, being much respected, his acquaintances resolved to give him a "square funeral," instead of putting the body in the usual way in any roughly made hole, and saying by way of service for the dead, "Thar goes another bully boy, under!" They sought the services of a miner, who bore the reputation of having at one time of his career, been "a powerful preacher in the States." And then, Far Western fashion, all knelt around the grave while the extemporised parson delivered a prodigiously long prayer. The miners, tired of this unaccustomed opiate, to while away the time began fingering the earth, digger fashion, about the grave. Gradually looks were exchanged; whispering increased, until it became loud enough to attract the attention of their parson. He opened his eyes and stared at the whispering miners. "What is it, boys?" Then, as suddenly his eyes lighted on sparkling scales of gold, he shouted, "Gold, by jingo! and the richest kind o' diggins'--the congregation's dismissed!" Instantly every man began to prospect the new digging, our clerical friend not being the least active of the number. The body had to be removed and buried elsewhere, but the memory of the incident yet lives in the name of the locality, for "Dead Man's Gulch" became one of the richest localities in California.
All the Year Round, October 24, 1868, pages 463-465

Last revised March 1, 2009