The beaver trappers of the early 19th Century were, in effect, pathfinders. They “penetrated the hidden vastness of the mountains, explored the unknown course of rivers...and broached the routes that were to become the course of soldiers, explorers, and immigrants yet to come.”
One such pathfinder, James Pattie, was among the first to make an overland trip to San Diego, albeit in a roundabout way. He wrote about his errant odyssey in The Personal Narrative of James Ohio Pattie.
By 1827, Pattie had made several forays into the West, in search of beaver pelts. He’d been wounded at least twice in shootouts with Indians and “was nearly killed by mistake by a friendly Apache.”
In September 1827, Pattie and his father, Sylvester, went to Santa Fe, where Sylvester obtained a Custom House certificate to make a trapping expedition in the Spanish territories. They assembled about 30 men and all signed an agreement: “that the first one who should...separate from the company, or desert it, should be shot dead.”
Beaver were scarce. Soon provisions ran out, so they ate their dogs and later six horses. On November 26, after a man and his horse drowned in the Gila River, the group split up. Pattie and seven other men continued on until a war party of Yuma Indians stole their horses. So the trappers made dugout canoes and drifted down the Colorado River in search of a Spanish settlement. Near the rivermouth, they buried the furs they’d trapped. Then they set out, on foot, through Mexico.
They couldn’t find water for days. When they saw a pond near an Indian camp, they raced through the natives, scattering them, dove in the water, and “overloaded our empty stomachs, and soon became as sick as death. After vomiting, however, we were relieved.”
They befriended a Spanish-speaking Indian and headed southwest through deserts “lonely as chaos, as grim as Milton’s hell,” often going 48 hours without food or drink.
On March 12, 1828, they reached Santa Catalina Mission, 45 miles east of Mission San Vicente (about 40 miles south of Ensenada). A corporal of the guard put the “wild-looking trappers” in a guard house. Six days later, soldiers arrived from San Vicente and took the trappers to the mission by the sea.
A suspicious “serjeant” interrogated the men about their reasons for coming to Mexico. On April 20, a force of 16 soldiers brought the trappers, on foot, to San Diego. Their first sight included a large ship in the harbor, “which they were told was the Franklin of Boston.”
Governor Echeandia of San Diego “looked upon the Americans as being worse than thieves and murderers.” He tore up their passports and put them in a dungeon.
One of Pattie’s men convinced the governor they should get the furs buried at the Colorado and buy their freedom. Six men left; Pattie remained behind, a hostage, with his ailing father. Four men came back with furs ruined by summer flooding.
Pattie’s father brought smallpox vaccine for the trip. Pattie convinced the governor he would vaccinate “every pueblo, mission, and presidio in California.”
Pattie “visited the length and breadth of California,” including the Russian fort of Bodega, north of San Francisco. For his service, “Pattie was offered a tract of land, a thousand head of cattle, and some other animals; but first he must become a Mexican citizen and join the Catholic Church. This proved to be the last straw. All Pattie appears to have gotten out of his experience was $100 from the Russians at Bodega.”