Tuesday will mark America’s 241st birthday. Independence Day has been celebrated throughout the U.S. even in the smallest of communities during the earliest days of their existence. Napa was no exception to this tradition as documented within the journal of Frank Marryat, an English traveler. He also noted his opinion of Napa Valley and its people.
Marryat visited Napa on July 5, 1850 while on his way to Sonoma. Of his first impression of the area, he wrote, “On approaching Nappa...we entered a very beautiful valley about three miles in breadth, studded with oak trees, and bounded on either side by mountains that rose abruptly from the plain, and whose summit crested with heavy masses of redwood trees and white pines.”
Marryat continued, “As yet there was no sign of cultivation or enclosure, nor did we see a dwelling-house until the village of Nappa appeared in sight.” Regarding that settlement, he added, from “...this wild tract, that this little bunch of houses called ‘Nappa City’ had sprung into existence.” (Napa was originally spelled with two “p’s.”)
Marryat and his party entered Napa via a “ferry-boat to cross a small stream (Napa River),” he wrote. That “ferry-boat” was basically a floating platform tethered and moved by ropes and pulley across the river near the present-day Third Street bridge.
Marryat added an interesting notation about the ferry-boat owner. “At our first arrival at the creek, the ferryman, who was an American, had refused all toll on the strength of the ‘Anniversary.’ We could not but admire such a striking instance of real charity.”
As he pointed out, many farmers with their large families could not have afforded paying the dollar per person fare. Marryat wrote, “But there was nothing said about going back for nothing, and our Yankee friend having succeeded in filling the village gratis, now had the satisfaction of emptying it at a dollar-a-head.”
Before that financial hardship became a reality for the departing passengers, they and Marryat “found the little place in a lively state.” He continued, “Music was playing, the stars and stripes were waving from every house, whilst the street (Main Street) was thronged with people. The outside settlers had come in to celebrate their Fourth of July, it was now the fifth, and they were in the thick of it. And there was to be a ‘ball’ (dance) in the evening (as well as cannon salutes and fireworks.)”
While happily partaking in the large public dinner, held during the mid-day, Marryat had the opportunity to meet and talk with some of those early Napa residents. He wrote, “The settlers were nearly all ‘Western people,’ small farmers from Missouri, and other Western states, who emigrated with a wife and half-a-dozen children to California in search of good land.”
Although Marryat stated Napa Valley’s land was very fertile and “admirably adapted” for growing just about any crop, the excessively high price of labor forced most of those settler farmers to cultivate only small patches of land. As a result, “so rare a luxury is a vegetable,” he added. But for those farmers who did grow produce, they reaped great profits from small yields. For example, Ralph Kilburn of Calistoga netted $8,000 for the onions harvested from just two acres.
With those observations penned, Marryat shared more details about the July 4, 1850 celebration. “During the day, a Mexican tight-rope dancer performed to the crowd. I considered him rather a bungler at his work, but my opinion was not shared by the spectators. One of whom, an old farmer, said, ‘kinder reckoned it was supernatural,’ in which he was supported by an old backwoodsman who said, ‘It warn’t nothin’ else.’”
Eventually departing for Sonoma, Marryat “left these good folks in the height of enjoyment.”