Carleton Watkins                       The Living Present


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The Living Present


          Time stops briefly in the biography of Carleton Watkins in mid-May, 1849, when the documentary record evaporates.  He was on the isthmus of Panama from March 24 to mid-May, 1849, when he was part of the highly profitable trans-isthmus cargo-transfer enterprise organized by his older friend and mentor, Collis Huntington. In mid-May, the business with the U. S. Mail[1] as its chief client, appears to have been acquired by Zachrisson, Nelson & Co. [Fig. 1a], and the profits shared thus giving financial independence to the Otsego County boys.  Collis left Panama with more than five thousand dollars in his pockets most of which was earned from his Panama operations.[2]  Approximately the same amount is believed to have been divided among the rest of the team[3] giving each of them a purse estimated at between five hundred and a thousand dollars to do with as they saw fit.   

          In mid-May ships became available to transport travelers who had been stranded in Panama north to California, including two people who would, more than any others, influence the future of nineteen-year-old Carleton.  On May 18, after more than two months on the isthmus, Jessie Benton Frémont and her daughter, Lily, boarded the crowded steamship Panama, bound for San Francisco, where in mid-June she would reunite with her husband after being separated for seven months.  

          Two days later on May 20 the sailing ship Alexander von Humboldt [Fig. 1b] departed with Collis on board along with several Otsego County boys.   However, Carleton did not sail on the ship Humboldt.[4]  Speculation on his whereabouts for more than a year following departure of the Humboldt will be the subject of Chapter Seven.  This chapter deals in part with some theoretical matters concerning methods of writing history.

          Unraveling the story requires applying the approach advanced by the historian Hayden White who proposed that "history. . .depends as much on


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[1] John Haskell Kemble, "The Gold Rush by Panama," in  John Walton Caughey, ed., Rushing for Gold, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1949, p. 47.  The steamship Crescent City on which the Otsego County boys traveled from New York to Chagres, was operated by the newly established United States Mail Steamship Company. 

[2] Hubert Howe Bancroft, ed., ""Life of Collis P. Huntington," in Chronicles of the Builders of the Commonwealth, p. 34.

[3] See note 10 below.

[4] Humboldt Association, Thirtieth Anniversary, San Francisco: 1879, pp. 3-4,  lists the people who arrived in San Francisco on the sailing ship Alexander von Humboldt on August 30, 1849 and  Carleton Watkins is not listed among them.