Just as many other people are, I’m anxiously waiting for a Covid-19 vaccination. How fortunate we are to live now when so many vaccines are available to prevent deadly diseases that regularly dispatched people at a young age. As I read in Bill Bryson’s book The Body: a Guide for Occupants, vaccines for smallpox, diphtheria, polio, and measles saved the lives of millions. Better sanitation, improved diets, and fresher foods also helped in a major way.
In the early 1800s in Alta California, there were no doctors and little medicine. Smallpox caused virulent epidemics in the Native American population, but occasionally the vaccine was available to inoculate some of them. Because Captain Richardson had some medical experience during his service in the British merchant marines, he helped the friars at the California missions when he could. For common illnesses, most medicines were made from plants. Blackberry syrup was used to treat coughs. Indigenous people in California drank a tea made with the leaves of a native shrub, now known as mountain balm, as a remedy for coughs, colds, asthma, and bronchitis. After they taught Spanish settlers to use it, the Spanish called the herb yerba santa, meaning “holy or sacred herb.” Chemicals in the leaves are effective in loosening phlegm. Chumash people in Southern California probably taught Richardson to use the leaves in a poultice to relieve pain from sprains, bruises, and arthritis. When doctors or naval surgeons visited California, they might provide doses of medicines such as laudanum, mercury, or calomel. Some of these proved to be worse than the illnesses they were supposed to cure. Laudanum was addictive, and mercury, used to treat syphilis, could kill the patient.
Bull and bear fights were a common entertainment in early California. Vaqueros rode into the hills, searched for a grizzly bear, lassoed it, and dragged it back to a corral, which was often set up near a California mission. When a bull was dragged into the same corral, the bear’s rear leg was tied to one of the bull’s forelegs, and the two beasts were forced to attack each other. Somewhere I had read that these fights were the early origins of the stock market terms. The way the animals attack inspired the name. A bull thrusts its horns up, while a bear swipes its claws down. A bull market refers to a rise in stock prices while a bear market portends a downward trend. In her recollections of social life and customs in the 1830s, Captain Richardson’s daughter Mariana described watching such a fight when she was nine years old, the animals attacking each other as they tried to break away and escape. However, after checking on the Merriam-Webster website, I found another origin story. An old proverb warned it was unwise to sell a bear’s skin before catching the bear, meaning don’t buy something of no value. The term “bearskin jobber” came into use, “bearskin” was shortened to “bear,” and that term was applied to a stock being sold by a speculator or the actual speculator. Bull market might originate from the use of bulletin board notices for the early London Stock Exchange: the more bulletins on the board, the stronger the market.
Fresh, ripe fruit just picked from a tree is much juicier and sweeter than store-bought. As I bit into one of our plums, I thought about the lives of early California people, both Native Americans and the Mexicans, and understood how much they yearned for fresh fruits, berries, and especially greens after a long winter without any. When my plum tree produced masses of fruit last year, I decided to preserve as much as I could. It takes lots of time and energy, boiling jars, picking, pitting, and cooking the fruit, and preserving it in canning jars. But it is worth it to have sweet plum jam on toast when snow covers the ground. Early settlers would not have that luxury of juicy stone fruit jams, but they would have stored apples and pears for winter and maybe citrus fruits would be brought on ships from southern Alta California. How lucky we are in the twenty-first century to get produce from around the world. Yet I still think that your own homegrown fruits and vegetables taste the best.
When I read a Los Angeles Times article about the recent increase in the number of wild animals seen roaming in Yosemite National Park and the peacefulness experienced in the park by the 100 to 200 employees living there, it reminded me of the wild nature of all of Alta California just 200 years ago. With few people in the park, the territorial songs of birds, grunts of bears, growls of mountain lions, and howls of coyotes blend with the rush of the waterfalls and the wind in the treetops in Yosemite as it once did in the 1800s. In those early days, in the San Francisco Bay area and all along the coast, wild animals did not fear people as much as they do now. Once in a while, even now, you can get quite close to nature.
The Spanish built an adobe battery called Castillo de San Joaquin at the top of Fort Point to defend the bay with eight brass cannons. Cannon shots were fired from there as a warning or a greeting as ships entered the San Francisco Bay. When a cannon is fired at a distance, you would first see smoke, and seconds later you would hear the boom. If you remember your high school science and the rule about lightning and thunder, you’d say, of course, I knew that. I had the chance to experience live cannon fire as I watched two tall ships during a commemoration sail celebrating Captain George Vancouver’s explorations aboard the sloop Discovery.