Buffalo Express
22 January 1870

Around the World: Letter No. 7

Pacific Coast -- Concluded


One of California's curiosities the people in the States will some day become familiar with through the Pacific Railroad. I mean the Chinamen. California contains 70,000 of them, and every ship brings more. There is a Chinese quarter in every city and village in California and Nevada, for Boards of Aldermen will not allow them to live all around town just wherever they choose to locate. This is not a hardship, for they prefer to herd together.

Peculiarities and Superstitions

They are a people who fondly stick to their ancient customs. They dress in the quaint costumes their ancestors wore 500 years ago. They build temples, gaudy with gilding and hideous with staring idols, and there they worship after the fashion of their fathers. A strict record is kept by their chiefs of the name and residence of every Chinaman, and when he dies his body is sent back to China for burial -- for they can never get to their Heaven unless they start from China. And besides, Chinamen worship their ancestors, and they all want their share of worship after they are done with this world. Even when the Chinese government sells a shipload of degraded and criminal coolies to a Cuban or Sandwich Island planter, it is strictly stipulated that the body of every one of them must be sent back to China after death.

The Chinamen being smart, shrewd people, take to some few of our commercial customs and virtues, but somehow we can't make great headway in the matter of civilizing them. We can teach them to gamble a little, but somehow we can't make them get drunk. It is discouraging -- because you can't regenerate a being that won't get drunk.

The Chinaman is the most frugal, industrious and thrifty of all creatures. No matter how slender are the wages you pay him he will manage to lay up money. And Chinamen are the most gifted gardeners in the world. Give one of them a sandbank that would not support a lizard, and he will make it yield generous crops of vegetables. The Chinaman wastes nothing. Every thing has a value in his eyes. He gathers up all the cast-away rags and bones and bits of glass, and makes marketable articles of them. And he picks up all the old fruit cans you throw away and melts them up to get the tin and solder. When a white man discards a gold placer as no longer worth anything, the patient Chinaman, always satisfied with small profits, and never in a hurry to get rich, takes possession and works it contentedly for years.

The Chinaman makes a good cook, a good washerwoman, a good chambermaid, a good gardener, a good banker's clerk, a good miner, a good railroad laborer, a good anything you choose to put him at -- for these people are all educated, they are all good accountants, they are very quiet and peaceable, they never disturb themselves about politics; they are so tractable, quick, smart, and naturally handy and ingenious, that you can teach them anything; they have no jealousies; they never lose a moment, never require watching to keep them at work; they are gifted with a world of patience, endurance and contentment. They are the best laboring class America has ever seen -- and they do not care a cent who is President. They are miserably abused by the laws of California, but that sort of thing will cease, some day. It was found just about impossible to build the California end of the Pacific Railroad with white men at $3 per day and take care of all the broils and fights and strikes; but they put on Chinamen at a dollar a day and "find" themselves, and they built it without fights or strikes or anything, and saved the bulk of their wages, too. You will have these long-tailed toilers among you in "the States" some day, but you will find them right easy to get along with -- and you will like them, too, because they will stand a heap of abuse. You will find them ever so convenient, because when you get mad you can snatch a club and go out and take satisfaction out of a Chinaman. The native American Negro is getting so insolent, now, that the patriot from Ireland cannot take a little recreation out of him without getting into trouble. So the Chinaman will afford a needed relief.

Modest Villainy

As evidence that Chinamen are satisfied with small gains, I will remark that they drill five holes into the edge of gold coins -- drill clear through from edge to edge -- and save the gold thus bored out and fill up the hole with some sort of metallic composition that does not spoil the ring of the coin. Their counterfeiters put nine parts good metal and only one part base metal in their bogus coins -- and so it is very lucrative in the long run and the next thing to impossible to detect the cheat. It is only greedy bungling Christian counterfeiters that blunder into trouble, by trying to swindle their fellow creatures too heavily.


Another curious feature about California life was the breed of desperadoes she reared and fostered on her soil and afterward distributed over adjacent Territories through her Vigilance Committees when she had had enough of their exploits. These men went armed to the teeth with monstrous revolvers, and preyed upon each other. Their slightest misunderstandings were settled on the spot by the bullet; but they very rarely molested peaceable citizens. They robbed and gambled and killed people for three or four years, and then "died with their boots on," as they phrased it; that is, they were killed themselves -- almost invariably -- and they never expected any other fate, and were very seldom disappointed.

Sam Brown

Sam Brown, of Nevada, killed sixteen men in his time, and was journeying toward Esmeralda to kill a seventeenth, who had stopped the breath of a friend of his, when a party of law-abiding citizens waylaid him and slaughtered him with shot guns. Mourners were exceeding scarce at his funeral. It is said that Sam Brown called for a drink at the bar of the Slaughter House in Carson City one morning (a saloon so nicknamed because so many men had been killed in it) and invited a stranger up to drink with him. The stranger said he never drank and wished to be excused. By the custom of the country, that was a deadly insult, and so Brown very properly shot him down. He left him lying there and went away, warning everybody to let the body alone, because it was his meat, he said. And it is said, also, that he came back after awhile and made a coffin and buried the man himself -- though I never could quite believe that without assistance.

Virginia City was full of desperadoes, and some of the pleasantest newspaper reporting I ever did was in those days, because I reported the inquests on the entire lot of them, nearly. We had a fresh one pretty much every morning. Toward the last it was melancholy to see how the material was running short. Those were halcyon days! I don't know what halcyon days are, but that is the proper expression to use in this connection, I believe.

Jack Williams

Jack Williams was one of the luckiest of the Virginia City desperadoes. He killed a good many men. He was a kind-hearted man, and gave all his custom to a poor undertaker who was trying to get along. But by and bye some body poked a double barrelled shot gun through a crack while Williams was sitting at breakfast, and riddled him at such a rate that there was hardly enough of him left to hold an inquest on -- and then the poor unfortunate undertaker's best friend was gone, and he had to take in his sign. Thus he was stricken in the midst of his prosperity and his happiness -- for he was just on the point of getting married when Jack Williams was taken away from him, and of course he had to give it up then.

Cemeterial Curiosities

It is said that the first twenty-six graves in the cemetery at Virginia City were those of men who all died by the bullet. And the first six in another of those towns contained the bodies of a desperado and five of his victims -- and there in the bosom of his family, made dear to him by ties of blood, he calmly sleeps unto this day.

Mr. Slade

At the Rocky Ridge station in the Rocky Mountains, in the old days of overland stages and pony expresses, I had the gorgeous honor of breakfasting with Mr. Slade, the Prince of all the desperadoes; who killed twenty-six men in his time; who used to cut off his victims' ears and send them as keepsakes to their relatives; and who bound one of his victims hand and foot and practiced on him with his revolver for hours together -- a proceeding which seems almost inexcusable until we reflect that Rocky Ridge is away off in the dull solitudes of the mountains, and the poor desperadoes have hardly any amusements. Mr. Slade afterward went to Montana and began to thin out the population as usual -- for he took a great interest in trimming the census and regulating the vote -- but finally the Vigilance Committee captured him and hanged him, giving him just fifteen minutes to prepare himself in. The papers said he cried on the scaffold.

The Vigilance Committee is a wholesome regulator in the new countries, and bad characters have a lively dread of it. In Montana one of these gentlemen was placed on his mule and informed that he had precisely fifteen minutes to leave the country in. He said, "Gents, if this mule don't balk, five'll answer."

But that is sufficient about the desperadoes. I merely wished to make passing mention of them as a Californian production. -- Mark Twain