Ft. Humboldt, California.
Written by Ned Lodwick, U.S. Grant Homestead Association
“Captain U.S. Grant in California”
Finally, in September of 1853, three long and hard months after leaving New York City, the 4th Infantry reached Ft. Vancouver. The fort was six miles from Portland, Oregon on the banks of the Columbia River. The small cluster of wooden buildings didn’t resemble what we would think of as a western fort but more of a small village.
The Regiment and Brevet Captain Grant settled into their new quarters and responsibilities easily. Ulysses job as Quartermaster was to supply the Regiment with all of its needs as to food and supplies. A difficult enough job considering the three month trip that it took supplies to reach the West Coast but made much more difficult because of the Gold Rush. Food had to be procured locally at the going rate and money to pay for it had to be estimated, ordered, and then received from the East. By the time the money to buy a dozen eggs in December was received in March it may only purchase a single egg.
Grant was also responsible for outfitting the numerous surveying parties that came to the Northwest to map this new territory. Many of these parties made extravagant and outrageous requests and Ulysses had to do all he could to fill them.
Ulysses’ family now numbered four. He had left Julia and Fred behind with his family in Bethel when he left for the West. He had not seen Fred for over a year and Ulysses, Jr. (Buck) had been born while Ulysses crossed the Isthmus. If nothing else can be said of Ulysses S. Grant then you must say that his family was his first love and concern. He was now three thousand miles from his beloved Julia and his two boys. He was receiving the pay of a lieutenant in a place where eggs sold for a dollar apiece. Even if Julia and the boys could survive the trip to reach him how could they live on $40 a month?
From the time Ulysses reached Oregon he struggled with the problem but he was always a man of action. First, Ulysses started a general store with a partner. The store prospered and soon the partner offered to buy out Grant’s share for $1,000 dollars. Ulysses agreed and took $200 down with the rest to he paid later but the black powder in the store exploded and the store was gone along with any hopes of more money.
Ulysses and a friend tried buying cattle and hogs to resell in San Francisco but they got to the City a week after a schooner from Mexico loaded with beef. They saw how expensive ice was in San Francisco so they cut 100 tons at Ft. Vancouver and loaded it on a ship that got caught in headwinds and the ice all melted.
Next Ulysses decided to go back to what he knew and rented 100 acres of ground. He cleared the ground and bought horses, harnesses, farming implements, and seed. He did the work himself and wrote to Julia, “I am surprised I can plow as straight of a furrow as when I was fifteen.” He planted twenty acres of potatoes, one acre of onions, and a few acres of corn. The growing season was perfect and the profits after harvest might just be enough to reunite the Grant family. Then it happened, a 100 year flood. The grain was washed down the river and the potatoes and onions rotted in the ground.
Ulysses bought all the chickens within twenty miles of Ft. Vancouver and chartered a vessel to take them to San Francisco but they all died or the way. He cut firewood to sell to the river boats on the Columbia but an unseasonable flood swept every cord away.
All of the work, profits, and dreams were gone and only the realities of his situation were left. Now reassigned to Ft. Humboldt in Northern California even his hopes were fading. Ft. Humboldt was a moldy, crumbling little post 250 miles north of San Francisco. The fort was commanded by a man even less agreeable than Col. Bonneville. Major Robert C. Buchanan was ‘old Army’ and stuck to the letter of the military manuals so Ulysses was not permitted to spend any of his time trying to earn extra money. Even if he did there were no quarters in this little fort for officer’s families.
Worst of all for Ulysses was the idleness. He was a man of action, of work, of constant motion, in a place where time and men stood still. He wrote to Julia, “You don’t know how forsaken I feel here. I do nothing but sit in my room and read and occasionally take a short ride on one of the public horses.”
The forts supplier of beef liked Ulysses and explained his situation well, “Grant’s duties were fewer and less onerous than they had been and the discipline was far more rigid and irksome. No greater misfortune could have happened to him than his enforced idleness. He had little work, no family with him, took little pleasure in the amusements of his fellow officers – dancing, billiards, hunting, fishing, and the like. The result was a common one. He took to liquor. Not in enormous quantities, for he drank less than other officers but he had a poor brain for drinking. The weakness did not belong to his character, for in all other respects he was a man of unusual self-control.”
On April 11, 1854 Ulysses became only the 5th man in his West Point Class to receive a permanent commission of Captain but even that and the increase in pay that came with it could not stop him from his only logical next move. In early June of 1854 Ulysses S. Grant resigned his commission in the United States Army and headed east to rejoin his wife and two boys as a civilian. His military past behind him he would once again be active, industrious, and above all, sober.