Carleton Watkins                           Canoa!--Canoa!


Previous Page                                                                                 Next Page







          After ten days at sea and twenty-two hundred miles traveled, passengers on board the sumptuous nearly new steamship Crescent City [Fig. 1] saw the first leg of their journey coming to its end.  Journalist-passenger, Theodore Johnson, recalled the excitement of observing landfall like a hallucination: 

"The cry of land-ho announced the shores of South America, and we were quickly on deck gazing at the wished-for sight.  We soon neared the coast and sailed some fifty miles in full view; the shores bold with high hills rising in broken aspect one above another, covered to the water's edge, and even the rocks in the sea, with the profuse and extraordinary verdure of the tropics; displaying every imaginable hue of tree, flower, and plant, giving to the whole coast a feathery appearance, for no other word will describe the exuberant growth."[1]

          The day was Saturday, March 24, 1849, when Collis Huntington, Carleton Watkins and four other men[2] from Otsego County, New York, stood on the spar deck of steamship Crescent City positioned not far from Jessie Benton Frémont, her six-year-old daughter, Lily, and her brother-in-law, Richard Jacob.[3]  Their eyes were fixed on the distant landscape as the vessel cruised for five hours along the tropical coastline of New Granada.[4]  At about three p.m. the Crescent City made its way to the mouth of the Rio Chagres where passengers would debark [Fig. 2].  There is no record that Jessie did any more than make eye contact with Collis, Carleton or any other of the Otsego County boys during the ocean voyage, but destiny would eventually have its way.  

          Steamer service between New York and the isthmus[5] of Panama was new and it is unclear how much the average passenger knew about what was in store.  Before reaching the mouth of the Rio Chagres[6] Captain Charles


Next Page


[1]Theodore Johnson, Sights in the Gold Region and Scenes by the Way, New York:  Baker and Scribner, 1849, p. 9 (the author passed through the isthmus of Panama in February, 1849 on his way to California, and again in May on his return to New York).  With thanks to Patricia Keats, Society of California Pioneers.

[2] Le Roy Chamberlain, Daniel Hammond, George Murray, and Egbert Sabine.     

[3] Pamela Herr, Jessie Benton Frémont: A Biography, New York: Franklin Watts, 1987, p. 185

[4] The principal city in New Granada was Panama, which gave the name to the isthmus and to the present-day Republic.  In 1849 people understood "Panama" to mean City of Panama (see notes 5,6).  

[5] The "i" in "isthmus of Panama" is not capitalized unless used in a title such as note 6.

[6] E. L. Autenrieth, A Topographical Map of the Isthmus of Panama, together with Separate and Enlarged Map of the Lines of Travel, and also a Map of the City of Panama. . .with a Few Accompanying Remarks for the Use of Travellers, New York: J. H. Colton, 1851, uses the name "Rio Chagres" however the unidentified map maker of Fig. 2 designated the river "Rio de Chagre" (no "s").  The town-name is found on all maps of the period as "Chagres" (with the "s").