Early in December, 1853, Charles Watkins left his brother and sisters in Fort Lee, N.J., bound for the lucre and adventure of California. Boarding the steamer Northern Light on the Vanderbilt line, he crossed the isthmus at Nicaragua, amusing himself with imaging the intentions of the other emigrants aboard ship. To Watkins, California was a promising land, inextricably linked with fortune and the opposite sex:
"I have been much amused by conversing with and learning the motives which induced them to 'go to California.' Some are young men from the country who are bound to the mines in hopes of gathering sufficient of the dust to enable them to return home and buy a farm, marry Susan or Nancy and settle down. Others are broken down store keepers or mechanics who find that there is little or no prospect of saving enough for a rainy day, and are bound for California in hope of getting good wages and by economy amassing enough to make the future look more comfortable. We have also quite a number of California widows who have been separated from their husbands one, two, and even seven or eight years, and now alone and unprotected are going to rejoin them" (1853 December 13).
Financial need, so important to many California emigrants, seems to have played little role in Watkins' decision to leave home. His family seems to have led a comfortable life, if not necessarily an affluent one, and we are left to assume that it was a sense of "adventure," more than anything that drove him into the gold fields. Rather ambiguously, he summed up his motives in saying "At present emmigrating to California appears to me like Father's opinion of getting married (viz) 'You will be sorry if you do, and sorry if you don't'" (1854 January 1).
Arriving in San Francisco on New Year's Day, Watkins wasted little time in striking into the "interior." For several months, he wandered the northern, central and southern gold fields, making ends meet, but little else. Recognizing that few miners made a profit, Watkins was never concerned that his own efforts bore little fruit. At Michigan Bluffs, Placer County, for instance, he joined a company of Dutch, Prussians, Danes, and Englishmen, and headed with them into the high mountains, only to find that the new mines they sought did not exist. Yet Watkins shrugged off the situation, even after a fellow miner died in the deep snow, saying: "When I left them [the company] they were promising each other that if they ever could manage to get home to their families they would be the happiest men alive and stay home and curse California during the remainder of their lives. For my part I like the fun... I like California and a person who has no home or particular local attachments cannot do better than to come here and take his chance and I will garentee that in one year he will neither respect or bear anything, but adopt the pirates motto 'every one for himself and old Nick for us all'" (1854 March 12).
In March, 1854, Watkins was confined with "mountain fever," a disease that manifested itself in sweating and shakes similar to the ague, and within two months, he had returned to San Francisco and began to think about other adventures, soon deciding to head for the Sandwich Islands in search of "cannibals." A touch of sadness colored his last letter home, sadness over being too late for the real manly, profitable fun.
"I regret very much that I did not come here in '49 (as the first settlers delight to abbreviate the date of their arrival). California is fast changing its nature it is no longer the land of Gold -- the El-Dorado of the nineteenth century and future travellers though they may describe the beauty of the scenery -- the mildness of its climate and fertility of its soil, will never be able to describe California in the infancy of her settlement. I have often been surprised however to learn that very few of the early settlers have been at all benefited by their experience in the Gold days and it is a fact that of the many thousands who visited this country in '49 and '50 scarcely one in a hundred has retained enough of the precious dust to support his future old age. Easy come -- easy go is an old adage which has seldom been falsified... these disappointed and unsuccessful '49ers are the most pitiable objects imaginable, like the flying dutchman they seem compelled to maintain a ceaseless search for an object never to be found, they live in hope and die in despair" (1854 August 4)