In 1841 the U.S. government sent a Baltimore surveyor named Augustus Rodgers out west to chart the foggy, cypress-forested California coastline. Perhaps there was no presumption that within a few years all that wave-crashed, fogbound Mexican land would become American land, but when that happened, Augustus’s finely drawn maps came in handy.
He settled near the harbor in San Francisco with his wife, Serena, and their four daughters: Cornelia, Marion, Nannie, and Grace Maria. When the girls grew old enough to be interested in love, they realized how unlucky they were to be living in California. Augustus did not consider any of the newly rich gold-rushers swaggering along the streets of the town to be plausible suitors for his daughters. He wouldn’t allow a single one of those muddy-booted ruffians to sit in his narrow parlor, or even to climb his wooden porch steps bearing a bouquet of Indian paintbrush and wild lilies.
Augustus and Serena had very little money, but they had ancestors. The ancestors were so wondrous, so shimmering, their names could scarcely be uttered. The girls saw them stretching far back in a line, like Banquo’s descendants, to the very crack of doom—here’s an aide de camp of William the Conqueror, here’s a mistress of James the Second, whose noisy son was quieted by a land grant in the Hudson River Valley. Like Yaweh of the Hebrews, the ancestors could only be invoked obliquely, but their spirits formed an impermeable membrane around the rickety frame house in which Augustus and Serena protected their girls.
“We might as well be Chinamen, with all the ancestor worship around here,” Marion said.
“We might as well build an altar in the dining room,” Nannie said.
“We could set oranges and rice cakes on it, and light smelly candles,” Grace Maria said, and giggled. She and Marion and Nannie would live far into the next century: elderly and merry and bad-breathed and virginal.
Cornelia giggled too, although she had a beau. He was a Navy captain, and she guessed he would be all right with her father. He was. Six months after the wedding, the captain was bitten by mosquitoes in the mud of Panama, and died of yellow fever. Cornelia, a twenty-one-year-old widow with a new baby and no money, went to work in the mint on Montgomery Street, inspecting silver coins as they rained out of the giant presses. Her sisters thought it great fun to mind the baby, and quietly fought over it, as they’d once fought over dolls.
Suddenly, magically, the ancestors intervened. Cornelia had a cousin her age named Louisa, a New Yorker whom she had never seen. Louisa’s combination of beauty and ancestry had enabled her to meet a rich and easily irritated English aristocrat, who also greatly enjoyed irritating others. He fell in love with Louisa, a wild American, and married her. That her half-savage American ways irritated his relatives pleased him, and when she told him that she had a twenty-one-year-old cousin, an officer’s widow who was forced to work grinding out coins in California, like an Indian woman grinding acorns, he proposed that they send her some money. The thought of the dismay this gift would cause his relatives, not to mention the family solicitors, gratified him so much that he mentally doubled the amount he told Louisa he would send.
The bank draft arrived in San Francisco—an unbelievable, staggering sum. And Cornelia, a half-savage American with a baby, went right ahead and cashed it. She bought one of the gleaming, new-money mansions on the top of Nob Hill, and moved up there, away from the mud and flies and flammable wooden houses on the margins of San Francisco Bay. Of course she invited her sisters and parents to live with her and the baby.
Augustus and Serena raised no objection. How could they, Marion and Nannie and Grace Maria told each other. The ancestors had sent the house as surely as they sent rain to a parched village in the African desert, or a sperm whale to a band of Eskimos, who’d reached the point of discussing, in lowered voices, the wisdom of setting their elders out to sea on floes of ice.