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The journal of B. Jay Antrim: What Guadalajara was like 169 years ago

Not long ago I was contacted by a reader of the Guadalajara Reporter who lives in the United States.

pg3aSteve Wilson is a former museum director who has studied mining in Mexico over the last 48 years. He told me he had come upon the journal of a certain B. Jay Antrim, who, it seems, was not only a good writer but also a talented sketch artist.

Perhaps motivated by “Gold Fever,” Antrim decided in 1849 to quit his job in Baltimore and travel from Philadelphia to California, only he decided to take not the direct route, but to go there via Mexico. He would take a boat to Tampico, cross Mexico on horseback and catch a ship to San Francisco from either San Blas or Mazatlan.

In his journal Antrim occasionally waxes poetic. Here’s an example of his prose as he sails south to Tampico:

“Tuesday, February 13, 1849. The sun rose beautifully in a fleecy cloud of golden hue, and a brisk wind drove us rapidly towards the Bahamia Bar. Here the bottom is composed of white sand with patches of sponge. The color of the water on the Bar for about 60 miles is a beautiful sky blue … The day has been warm and clear and the sun set among gilded clouds. There is something exquisite, glowing, brilliant and more diversified with brilliant and unapproachable colors accompanying a sunset scene in this southern clime that seldom occurs to those farther north and infinitely above the artist’s pencil.”

Wilson says Antrim and friends spent 44 days traveling through Tampico, San Luis Potosi, Lagos de Moreno, Guadalajara and Tepic, before finally reaching Mazatlan. The highlights of the journey were captured in 115 sketches which Antrim turned into paintings while on the boat to San Francisco.

To properly capture the essence of Mexican travel in 1849, you have to read Antrim’s complete journal, which Wilson expects to publish in the near future. Meanwhile, let me present a glimpse of what the traveler had to say about Gaudalaxhara, as he spelled it.

His party approached the city from the east along “a broad macadamized road three miles in length,” with sidewalks on both sides shaded by tall Alamo trees.

pg3b“We entered the city,” says Antrim, “in double files with pack mules in the advance. The suburbs appeared very extensive, and it was at least one hour before we reached our Mason [mesón], as we seem’d [to be] continually winding hither and thither, among a continuous crowd of strange, brown faces and peculiar Scenes. Having arrived in one of the handsomest and greatest cities of all Mexico, I hastened to avail myself of every opportunity to explore and discover its fine arts, etc.”

Here is Antrim’s entry for April 3, 1849:

“Day warm & Clear. Our Company concluded to remain in this fine city over this day to proceed early on the morrow. Of course I saw and Sketched as much as possible. The city is very regularly laid out in right angle Streets, usually from 20 to 40 feet in width [with] public gardens and several fine plazas, besides market squares variously. It is considered ... the most beautiful of all the cities of this Republic, and second only to the city of Mexico in size … Its communications with other towns is conducted entirely by mules and horses, and all goods carried upon the packsaddles of mules. So that the main road leading each way from the city is almost constantly crowded for miles beyond the reach of the eye, with thousands of horsemen, and pack mules, going and returning in large Companies ...  Dust is of course very plentiful.”

Antrim marvels at the beauty of Guadalajara’s main plaza – “the most splendid of all that I have yet seen in Mexico” – and makes much of the local custom of covering pavements with long and massive colonnades sometimes two stories in height. But he is unused to the dense crowds that he finds beneath these colonnades and thronging every plaza and market place. In Guadalajara he feels he is truly in a foreign country:

“Strange customs, ceremonies, dress, and modes of living seem to have transplanted you at once into another and different world. Go where you will, you are a Stranger, and a Strange object of gaping curiosity, even to the Soldiers in the Official Pallaces [sic], who would treat you respectfully with small presents of fruits, and politeness, and permit you to intrude on forbidden ground, whilst a common Mexican for the same intrusion without a permit might find a sharp whack upon his callabash [sic] the consequence.”

Antrim marvels at the abundance and low price of watermelons and numerous fruits that are unknown in the United States: “After leaving the cold winter of the States and comming [sic] so suddenly into hot weather ... in Mexico, you may well Suppose that we were quite sensible of this change. We often remarked to each other that our relatives at home little thought that we were now feasting upon the finest melons in the world, whilst the cold winds of winter were whistling around their homes.”

The next day, April 4, Antrim’s party marched out of the city, somewhat concerned about rumors that 200 ladrones had left the city the night before, planning to attack them along the way. Several miles outside the city they came to a dismal-looking burnt knoll where they saw “a large and high gallows, upon which were suspended the bodies of three Robber chiefs; they had been Suspended there about 3 weeks, and were ghastly looking objects. Bullet holes perforated their dried bodies in many places which were nearly ready to drop to the earth. Over them was a large painted Sign, as follows – “Thus the Law punishes the robber and the Assasian” [sic]. Only a few weeks before we arrived here these men were chief actors in some bloody deeds about this place when Government troops overtook them with the justice they merited.”

Perhaps frightened by this scene, the robbers never attacked Antrim and his friends, who safely arrived in San Francisco May 25.  I wonder whether a little “gallows drama” might not improve travel safety in today’s Mexico.

Wilson (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) would be happy to hear from any reader interested in hosting the traveling exhibit of Antrim’s 1849 watercolors. In addition, he says, “We are trying to discover what became of a rather strange stone fountain B. Jay sketched in Guadalajara and called ‘La Pela de los Compathris.’ We are also seeking the location of the George and Peter Lafler Hacienda, 16 miles up the Rio Pánuco from Tampico, where the Laflers located in 1835-37 and supplied many of the 49ers who passed their way. The Laflers were originally from Ohio.”

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