The trials and tribulations of fictional characters can't even begin to match the unbelievable stuff that happens in real life.

I finished my rough outline for my next novel, and I began to feel a little sorry for my main character and all the new hardships she has ahead of her. She didn't exactly have a blithe holiday in the first book, but this one looks to have some pretty traumatic experiences in store. How much can one poor woman live through? History shows us, quite a lot.

As part of my research into the California Gold Rush, I'm re-reading They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush by Jo Ann Levy, and I had a vague recollection of a story about a woman's experience sailing to California on a ship carrying coal--and the coal caught fire. I found the reference, and Mrs. D. B. Bates's experience was even more arduous (and melodramatic) than I remembered.

Mrs. Bates set out on a ship captained by her husband, and during a storm the coal in the hold ignited. Although the sailors tried to contain it, the peril came to her attention when gas and smoke filled her cabin. Mrs. Bates spent days tied to a chair on the deck, exposed to the ongoing storm, while the ship tried to make it the 800 miles to the Falkland Islands.

Once in the Falklands, the ship was scuttled and the Bateses took passage on another ship bearing a cargo of tar, liquors, and coal--whereupon, twelve days later, the ship promptly caught fire. This one burned while the passengers and crew watched safely from the longboats, and luckily a passing ship picked the Bateses up. Only to put them aboard another ship bound for California--and bearing a load of coal.

Out at sea, Mrs. Bates swore she could smell burning coal, but it took three days for the captain of the Fanchon to find the source of the gases in his hold, where the coal lay smoldering. It took them another 3 weeks to make it safely to Peru, where the ship burst into flames as it was scuttled.

Mrs. Bates did eventually make it to California on a steamship, but the fact that she was even willing to set foot on any ship at that point fills me with admiration. Sure, it's not a tragedy on the scale of the Donner Party or anything, but I would have taken all that misfortune as some sort of sign and stayed put in Peru.

But in fine American tradition, she had the good sense to put her sensational story in a book, entitled Incidents on Land and Water, or Four Years on the Pacific Coast, and published in 1858. Versions of it are available to read for free on the web, if you want to read her account for yourself.


Post a Comment