Starr County Historical Documents & Letters

Edited Excerpts from:

“Audubon’s Western Journal: 1849-1850”

by John W. Audubon

Author H. Clack Co. Cleveland, 1906

      John W. AUDUBON, the son of the famous naturalist, John J. AUDUBON, would pass through Rio Grande City and Roma, TX in 1849 on his way to the California gold rush.  In order to beat the hordes of gold seekers taking the northern route from St. Joseph, MO that had to wait until early May for the Rockies to thaw, Audubon’s party planned on crossing in the early Spring through Mexico.  They left New York on February 8th,  crossed overland to Pittsburgh and continued down the Ohio River past Cincinnati to Cairo, where they met up with their leader, Col. WEBB and more members, and took the General Scott down to New Orleans for $8 a passenger.  Four days later on the 18th of February, they arrived in New Orleans where AUDUBON busily purchased supplies for the long overland journey. 

     “Two of our men had to be returned from this place of bars, billiards, and thirsty souls, and one of our otherwise best men was dismissed because he met some of his friends (?) who would insist not only on a jovial dinner, but masked and all other concomitants, and after four day of this, a unanimous vote of the company expelled him.

“Sunday is selected at New Orleans for the departure of vessels to all parts of the world and at ten o’clock on the morning of March the 4th, we left in the steamer Globe for Brazos, north of Rio Grande.”  (p. 49)


     At Brazos, the port city of the Rio Grande “we found a few cases of cholera occurred here”  By the 8th of March, the party had made the thirty mile trek inland to Brownsville

“where the rolling of bowling alleys and the cannoning of billiard balls was all that seemed to enliven the village…  Little work and large profits give an undue share of leisure without education or refinement, consequently drinking houses and billiards with the etc. are abundant… The ferries… do a thriving business, as Matamoras contains many Mexicans who do both a wholesale and retail “running of business” that is, smuggling.” (pp. 52-53)


     AUDUBON’s opinion of the land was equally unflattering:

     “I do not believe any part of this country can be good for a thing, as the rain is so uncertain in its favors.  The miserable Mexicans, who live far apart, at distances of ten even twenty miles from each other, do not plant their patches of corn with any certainty it will mature… The ranchos are forlorn “Jacals” (a sort of open-work shed covered with skins and rushes and plastered with mud, here so full of lime and marl that it makes a hard lasting mortar)… there are no fine trees here, though mesquite and willow sometimes arrive at the height of twenty or twenty five feet…” (p.54)


     On his trip up the Rio Grande, AUDUBON writes “the water is warm, and so full of lime as to create, rather than allay thirst; what but necessity could have ever induced settlers to remain here I can not tell, for the whole trip from Brownsville to Camp Ringgold does not present one even tolerable view.” (pp.54-55)   On the 10th of March, they attempted to make there way all the way to Roma, but “our boat was so large, that her return would be doubtful” so the company docked opposite Rio Grande City.  “It was two O’clock, the sun pouring down on us, the mercury 98 degrees in the shade.” (p. 55)


     AUDUBON and his party would quickly learn to despise Rio Grande City, for the misfortunes that would befall them.  On the 13th of March, around 11pm, one of their party, J. Booth LAMBERT, took ill and by 1pm on the 14th he had died. They acquired a coffin from Rio Grande City, and “at five o’clock, fifty of us followed him to the grave.  As we thought he would prefer, we buried him on the American side, in the graveyard back of Davis Rancho.” (p. 59)  On returning, he attempted to sanitize the camp by taking down LAMBERT’s tent, “leveled the ditches around it, and burned the withering boughs that had been put up to shelter it.” (p. 59)   But these efforts to sanitize were too little too late, as Ham BODEN, one of the most athletic members of the party, would succumb on the night of the 15th.  Good fortune brought the steamer Tom McKenny (sic) passing on its way upstream and Audubon paid $100 to have all those who were capable to be transported up to Roma, including Langdon HAVENS, who had just succumbed.   Audubon called for a group of volunteers stayed behind with the severely ill: Hamilton BODEN (who would recover) Samuel LISCOMB, and Edward WHITTLESEY. 


The volunteers were:

Robert SIMSON,


W. H. HARRISON (grandson of the US president),

Robert BENSON,

Leffert BENSON,



Nicholas WALSH,



W. H. LISCOMB, (son of the stricken Samuel LOSCOMB)


Henry BRADY,

and John BRADY


“I took Langdon HAVENS on board, never expecting to see him again, he looked pale, yellow, blue, black, all color at once, the large blood vessels of the neck swollen and black, showing how rapidly the disease was gaining on him, and begged TRASK (the expedition’s doctor) to do all he could for him.” (p. 62)


Those who remained were hit hard.  Edward WHITTLESEY, Samuel LISCOMB, and Howard BAKEWELL, Audubon’s young cousin, died on the 16th.  Hamilton BODEN also appear to have died around this time.  On the 18th W. H. HARRISON would died, and on the 19th Dr. KEARNY, who had been cared for by Dr. CAMPBELL, the medic at Ft. Ringgold, would be buried at the fort.  Among the party that stayed behind, WALSH, SHIPMAN, SIMSON, were also suffered from the effects of cholera.


     “SIMSON, CLEMENT, and John STEPHENS went with me across the river to the town (Rio Grandy City) and the rest packed what was most valuable and hired men to guard the camp at night.” (p. 65)

“I lay on a bed in a small house belonging to Mr. (Orlando C.) PHELPS, listening and awaiting the arrival of the bodies of BAKEWELL and LISCOMB, who were brought over under the direction of HARRISON and SIMSON, and in sort of a dream I heard footsteps, sprang from the bed, and BAKEWELL was laid upon it.  I waited for the rest of the party with my saddlebags containing the company’s money; that was all of value that I thought of, and sometime I wonder I thought of anything, I was so weary.  But CLEMENT brought them and LISCOMB too, and the latter was laid out in the same room as poor Howard (BAKEWELL).  We then went to ARMSTRONG’s hotel, CLEMENT carrying my bags and valuables, and arriving found two more of our party down with cholera.  Dr. CAMPBELL came to see us and did all in his power for the sick, and indeed for all of us, and told us it would be unsafe for us to keep our money bags, but to give them to the bar-keeper (a Mr. WHITE) telling him their value, and promising to pay him well for his trouble in caring for them.” (p. 65)

     In the morning they buried the elder LISCOMB and BAKEWELL, and while making preparations to leave for Roma, returned to Armstrong’s hotel to ask for their money.  Once there, the bartender said that one of their men had already withdrawn it.  Audubon insisted on talking to the hotel owner, who replied that he was unaware that anything had been given for his safe-keeping, suggesting valuable deposits be given directly to him.

“As there was no jail, or place of security in which to confine (Mr. WHITE), we chained him to a musquit stump, and stood watch over him forty eight hours.  On March 18th “we told WHITE… we were so enraged that we intended to hang him that night, or have the money back.  When the sun was about an hour high, he said if we would let him go, he would tell where he had hid the money; we promised that if he recovered the money he might get away.  At dusk we went with him to find it, but his accomplice had been ahead of him; never shall I forget the tone of his despair, when on removing some brush and briars by a large cactus, he exclaimed, “ My God, it’s gone.”  Accustomed to the summary way of judging and executing delinquents in Texas, he thought our next move would be to hang him…  We took him back and again secured him, and that night SIMSON and HORDE arrested HUGHES, who was thought to be his accomplice, finding him in a gambling house surrounded by his cronies.  He too was secured and ironed, and slept on the ground, waking up in the morning demanding his “bitters,” and as impudent as ever...”

“This day, March 19th, Mr. UPSHUR, a gentleman acting as attorney and agent for Clay DAVIS at Rio Grande City, and who had shown great sympathy and kindness to us in all our troubles… called me to him led the way to his room, closed and locked the door.  Then he asked me if I could swear to my money if I saw it.  I told him I could not, but described it as well as I could remember.  He showed me three or four hundred dollars in gold coin of different nations, and asked me again if I could swear to it.  I could not, though I fully believed it was ours.  He looked into my face so closely, and for an instant I thought he doubted who I was; but I met his clear eye with one as honest and slowly he drew a piece of brown post-office paper from his pocket and asked: “Is that your handwriting?” “No” was my answer” but it is that of Mr. HEWES of New Orleans, it is his calculation of five hundred dollars in sovereigns and half eagles which Layton and Hewes placed in my charge, and now I can swear to my money, if the paper was with what you have showed me.”  He told me he had always been satisfied it was mine, as he knew there was not such an amount as I had lost in the settlement.”  (p. 67-68)

He then told of how the money was obtained:

     “Don Francisco (de la GARZA), a Mexican father-in-law of Clay DAVIS was sheriff for the time, as cholera had taken off the regular officer of “Star County.”  Whether Don Francisco was taking a midnight walk to see the fate of the “Californians,” or watching what others might be doing to them, we could never find out, but either he had followed WHITE and HUGHES until they separated, after which he could only watch one, which he did until the thief had buried his share; or else, with the wonderful power of trailing which the Indians and Mexicans possess, on the fact of our loss being made known to him, he may have found and followed the tracks of the thieves, and on discovering the money, thinking this was all, have given up his search, until the trails were obliterated by the footsteps of others.  I may add here, that Don Francisco generously refused any compensation for what he had recovered, saying we had suffered enough.”  (p. 69-70)


     On March 19th  the steamer Tom McKinney returned from Roma, and brought with it 18 or 20 men in the party who had abandoned the journey and were returning to New Orleans.  But they brought with them the promising news that Langdon HAVENS was recovering well, and of the men who went on to Roma, 52 had become ill, but only 2 had died, though 20 were still too weak to move.  Meanwhile:

     “HORDE, UPSHUR, and SIMSON were taking most vigorous measures to recover our stolen money, and we again had HUGHES on trial.  He swore falsely again and again, that he knew nothing of it.  We stood guard on him until we were compelled to rejoin our party, having recovered only about $3500, and lost all my papers, receipts, amounts up to date, besides letters of credit and introduction (71).


March 22nd- The night before Mr. UPSHUR sent for me.

     Audubon made his way overland to Roma, and took note of the landscape. 

     “Roma, named after General ROMAN of Texan celebrity, is situated on a sandstone bluff, perhaps a hundred feet high, but like all the rest of the country on this line, with no trees, only an interminable chaparral of mesquite, cactus (of three species,) and an occasional aloe, maguey (the Spanish name for the century plant) and wild sage, at this season covered with its bluish purple flower, almost as delicate as the light green of the leaf.  With the exception of the large, coarse cactus, which ought to be called “giganteus” almost all the plants are small leaved; worst of all, every tree shrub and plant is thorny in a degree no one can imagine until they have tried a thicket of “tear blanket” or “cat’s claw.”  The distant view was exquisitely soft, hill and valley stretching out for miles about us… deluding the weary traveler in the belief that the distance is a change from the arid, bleak country through which he is riding.” (pp. 72-73)

     “We turned in at a small store, found a loaf of bread and some whiskey, and lay down on the floor with our saddles for pillows, and blankets for beds, and slept soundly.”  At daylight I made up our party, saw them over the river in a flatboat and rode on, “to meet up with Col. WEBB.  WEBB had suggested AUDUBON bring WHITE along with them so he could question him personally “and get the money from him,”  But AUDUBON complained “the difficulty was that by the laws of Texas a man cannot be taken out of his own county to be tried, and it is also against the law to lynch him.”

     No sooner had AUDUBON arrived at Roma, himself weakened by cholera, had he received word from UPSHUR that he should return to Rio Grande City because the of new developments regarding their stolen money. 

     “And with CLEMENT and SIMSON I left for Roma on my way to Rio Grande, where I recovered $4000 more of our money; I still hoped to regain the balance, about $7000, but it was never found. 

To tell of the dull monotony of this place would be most tedious, nearly as hard to think of as to endure.  I found the officers of the camp my most sympathetic companions, Capt. McCOWN, Dr. CSMPBELL, Lieuts. CALDWELL, HAZZARD, and HAYNE, and Capt. DEAS.”

“Four days of fruitless examinations passed, and one night I had made my blankets into a bed… when CLEMENT came to tell me I was wanted in Judge STAKE’s room; with Lieut. BROWNING I went over.  At a circular table covered with books and papers, lighted by a single candle, sat Clay DAVIS, his fine half-Roman, half-Grecian head resting on his small, well shaped hand, his position that which gave us the full beauty first of his profile, then of his full face; his long black hair with a soft wave in it gave wildness and his black moustache added to a slight sneer as he looked at a Mexican thief standing before him; he was altogether one of the most striking figures I have ever seen.  Opposite was Judge STAKES, also a very handsome man, as fair in hair and complexion as Clay DAVIS was dark.  Behind him stood SIMSON with his Vandyke head and peaked beard; he was in deep shadow, with arms folded and head a little bowed, but his searching eyes fixed keenly on the prisoner.

One step in advance stood Don Francisco (de la GARZA) putting question after question to the thief. A little further off stood three other rascals, their muscular arms tied, waiting ‘adjudication.’

On the other side, in the light, sat another Mexican holding the stolen property which had been recovered; and behind him a table with glasses, bottles and a demijohn.  Lieut. BROWNING and I sat on a cot bed covered with a Mexican blanket, watching the whole scene, denials, confessions, accusations, threats, and one after another piece by piece was produced our property.  All the clothes were recovered, amid questions and oaths in Spanish and English, until we abandoned all hope of regaining anything more.”  (pp. 77-78)


     Audubon left again to return to his men, now near Mier.  On the way, he came across a party of his men who had given up, and were heading home.  Of the original 96, all but 28 had given up (including the many who died.)  AUDUBON himself, doubted the merits of going on, as Col. WEBB resigned due to his health, following his bout with cholera.  After announcing his own intentions to go home, AUDUBON meet up with a party of his men in the Armstrong hotel.  After some drink, revelry and a change of heart, the party nominated him to lead them on to California.  The next morning, Audubon agreed, and after a month of preparations, and nursing back to health, AUDUBON and 48 men left on April 28th towards Monterey to continue the journey to California.  There misfortunes had set them back so much that they had lost there head start on those taking the Northern route, and were much further from their final destination.

     The party would eventually make it to California, finally arriving in San Francisco on the 21st of December 1849.  After touring the gold fields, John W. Audubon returned home in July of 1850.  Unfortunately, the bulk of his artwork from the trip made the return voyage in the steamer “Central America” which was lost at sea.  Most of the party that survived the cholera epidemic made it to California and many stayed, to make the Western coast their home.


Edited and transcribed by Scott Grayson, 2008

This great resource was provided for your use by Scott Grayson - Thank you Scott!

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 by Linda Blum-Barton

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