Across the Continent–[By Samboles]

Ambrose Bierce

San Francisco News Letter/May 15, 1869

In the year 3973 I had the hardihood to make a vow that I would cross the continent from the extreme eastern limit of New York City to the Pacific coast. It was with many misgivings that I left upon a journey which few men of the present century have dared attempt. My way lay directly through the inhospitable deserts people by the wandering tribe of “White Indians.” By the by, I have somewhere met with a doubtful statement that these savages are descended from a singular ancient race, known as the Moormen, who inhabited a large city somewhere near a great lake, the dry bed of which is said to be still known to explorers. Here they lived and grew rich, until the early merchants of Chicago got after them, despoiled them of their worldly goods, outraged their women, assassinated their leaders, and drove them forth into the deserts to starve. How much, if any, of this is true we shall never know, but it is certain that these Indians are the most abject and degraded of the human race. Some of their customs are very singular. Among other eccentricities, their marital relation is deserving of mention. Each woman insists upon having at least twenty husbands, and they fight terrible battles for their rights in this regard, in which many of the males are slain. They subsist principally upon snakes and grasshoppers. I will not recount my terrible adventures among these savages—how they destroyed my air ship, ate my provisions, and murdered my slaves. Thank God, I left the most valuable of my niggers upon my plantation in Massachusetts! After nine months of hard walking and precarious subsistence, I arrived at the almost unknown region of New Vaddah—probably so called from its recent discovery. In crossing a frightful range of mountains beyond, I found a singular cave, open at both ends, but choked up with rubbish within. In digging near its mouth for water, I came upon a curiously shaped broken bar of iron about three feet long. It was attached by spikes to a piece of petrified wood. It is impossible to describe the feelings with which I gazed upon this interesting relic. There could be no doubt of it—it was a piece of the ancient iron road to the Pacific. There are, I believe, several of these relics in the possession of antiquarians. How strange was the infatuation of our ancestors, how blind their devotion to iron roads! They built them, and built them, until the wealthy companies who controlled them combined together, and, under their united oppression, civilization withered like a tender flower in the focus of a burning-glass. Had it not been for the purely accidental discovery of aerial navigation by the Hottentots, the entire Anglo-Saxon race in America would have died out under the monopolies of their own creation. Probably the strangest chapter in the annals of antiquity relates to our present subject. Archaeologists tell us of the ancient Californians, that when their iron road was completed, their merchants, bankers, landowners and other chieftains joined in a great rejoicing over the event; fondly imagining that the tide of population and wealth would flow toward them from the more civilized states. They were doomed to a bitter disappointment. Their population was composed mainly of vagabonds from all parts of the world who had been lured thither by false representations, and who, being unable to return, had assisted in keeping up the deception. But no sooner was the last rail lad, and pegged down with what is known in the catalogue of the British Museum as the Noos Lettah Spike, than these chafing thousands arose en masse, took possession of the entire road and compelled the company to run their trains night and day, until not a soul was left in the sterile valleys, and upon the arid plains of California. So horrible were their accounts of the country from which they had emancipated themselves that for three hundred years not a man crossed the Rocky Mountains. To this day a blight and a curse seem to rest upon the country. In flying over it birds are said to fall down dead. Not a green thing grows within its borders. Where are said to have stood the populous cities of Sham Sanfrisco, Shakermantoe, Mud String and Yoobee Dan, are now nothing but clean level wastes of white sand, or stagnant pools of black water, travelers disagree which. But I digress.

(Source: California State Library, Microfilm Collection)

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