Carleton Watkins                      Steamship Crescent City


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Steamship Crescent City


          Carleton Watkins celebrated his nineteenth birthday on November 11, 1848, about a month before his older friend and mentor, Collis P. Huntington, finalized plans for a company of men from Otsego County, New York, headed for California to seek their fortunes.  It would be the last birthday Carleton spent with his younger siblings--three sisters and four brothers--and we can imagine how fifteen-year-old, Harriet and thirteen-year-old Caroline, rallied the five younger ones to create a suitable birthday event for their idolized older brother before his departure.  Ironically, considering Carleton's future profession, not a single family photograph has survived, but a diagram illustrates the degree of his seniority [Fig. 1a].      

          Years later when Carleton dressed himself like a camera we see a festive side to his personality that had its origins in his social life growing up in Oneonta that ranged from circus performances, theatrical troupes, choir singing, ice skating, sleigh riding, ball playing, home-made pyrotechnics, to swimming, hunting, fishing and public social events at the hotels.[1]  Carleton could have been a real-life model for Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer[2] [Fig. 1b].

          By late 1848 Carleton's Tom Sawyer years were becoming just memories for him.  Besides learning the three Rs in school, and how to amuse himself and others, he had acquired at least two very practical skills.  From his uncle, Hezekiah,[3] he learned to handle a team of work-horses and from his father he learned carpentry, skills that were certainly made use of by his father in provisioning and maintaining the hotels under his management, and that would serve him well for his new life in the far west.     Carleton was, moreover, the first-born heir of a landed and respected Otsego County family.  It was a longstanding pattern for the first-born son to walk in his father's footsteps, but Carleton broke this custom when he signed-on to the brigade of fortune-hunters headed for California.  We can imagine that in his father's rigid Presbyterian mind Carleton's proposed emigration west was akin to running away with the circus.  John Watkins


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[1] As recorded by Willard V. Huntington in Oneonta Notes, vols X-XII and documented in notes to Chasing Aurora, Chapter Two. 

[2] Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1875.

[3] Shelley Bennett, "Carleton Watkins & Collis P. Huntington," unpublished research, July 19, 2011:  "Solon and Collis Huntington are linked through birth and marriage to Carleton Watkins.  They share the same great grandparents, through the brothers Hezekiah Watkins and Edmund H. Watkins."