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January 21, 2014 > History Column: A Lady Visits Mission San Jose

History Column: A Lady Visits Mission San Jose

By Phil Holmes

Eliza Farnham came round the horn in 1850 to take charge of a farm near Santa Cruz bequeathed by her husband Thomas Farnham. She arrived at age 34, a widow, an educated, progressive reformer and a capable writer. She plowed, planted, hammered and performed whatever tasks were necessary to build a home in the Santa Cruz wilderness. She rode horseback about the country clad in whatever clothes were available and functional; she even wore bloomers at times. As Eliza traveled, she made notes about the crude, barbaric activities of men in early California society.

She wrote a book, California, In Doors and Out, describing her adventures. Her writings are especially interesting to us because we have so few eye witness accounts by women in these early days. One experience described by Farnham was a trip to Mission San Jose in the summer of 1850. She was making one of her horseback trips from Santa Cruz to San Francisco and decided to make a detour to visit a friend who lived at the mission.

It was a hot summer day. The countryside was very dry and the road piled with dust beaten fine by the pounding of many hooves during the long drought. Eliza, as usual, was riding her horse, Sheik. She was annoyed that she had to take her hired hand Tom away from the farm to escort her on this trip. Tom was riding Bill who was moving along with his usual free gait. Sheik was exhausted from the previous dayÕs journey over the mountains and stumbled awkwardly along, jolting Eliza each step of the way. The riders decided to exchange mounts to make the journey more comfortable for Eliza.

Bill was smooth to ride, but he was not much for looks. He was a small rough roan with one cropped ear, not a respectable kind of horse for a lady to ride in public. About a mile from the mission, the riders halted to exchange horses again so that Eliza could approach the mission in style mounted on Sheik.

Bridles and saddles were transferred, and Bill was left nibbling on a bit of grass with his saddle uncinched and bridle off. When they tried to catch Bill, he darted up the hill toward the mission and jogged impudently ahead forcing Tom to walk in the hot mid-day sun. At the top of the hill, Eliza saw a Spaniard riding toward her. She motioned him to lasso the runaway horse, but when he started to swing his rope, Bill bucked his saddle off and galloped out of sight.

Eliza entered the mission, noting the beauty of the spot and the dilapidated condition of the adobes. She had been told to ask for the home of Mr. C. She spotted a man, with a very large gold chain, sitting on the porch of one of the old adobes. She rode near and spoke to him, but the man was taking his siesta and did not respond. She was attracted by the incessant jabbering of half-dozen Indians dressing a carcass of beef and three or four more wrestling with a live animal nearby.

She was about to move on when the Indians suddenly stabbed the animal and bled it on the street right in front of her. Eliza was horrified. She had never seen an animal butchered, and the sudden shock almost caused her to faint. She nearly fell out of her saddle. She wondered if there could possibly be anything pleasant in a place where the people permitted such horrors to be enacted in the public streets.

When she recovered her composure, she saw a young American on a fine gray horse. He readied his rope to lasso Bill, who had followed Eliza and now stood nearby. However, Bill ran through the lasso and dashed away out of sight.

The sleeper awakened from his siesta and escorted Eliza to the house she was seeking. She was ushered into a room and was pleased to see a tumbler of roses, a bit of muslin, an Indian work basket, a good thimble and several booksÉ evidence of a womanÕs touch. Eliza located her friend, Jane Beard, in the home that she and her husband, Elias Beard had fashioned in the inner quadrangle of the mission complex. She found Jane to be not only a sweet woman but a charming hostess.

Dr. Horace Bushness described Mrs. Beard after a visit. He said, ÒMrs. Beard is one of the finest and most interesting of women. Sensible, easy, simple as a child, and practical as one of the out-door characters who has seen all sides of the world, the rough and the elegant, and meets them all with a welcome.Ó

He also described the home as Òone of the old adobe structures, walls four feet thick, built by the monks on three sides of a square of about 200 feet on the sides. It is only one story high and one room wide with a piazza all around covered much of the way with vines.Ó

Eliza explored the mission grounds and saw an abundance of pears, apricots, olives, figs, pomegranates, grapes and apples planted by the padres. Eliza and Tom spent the night there, apparently much to the satisfaction of the fleas, and the next morning returned to Pueblo San Jose without any further trouble with Bill.

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