October 4, 2023


Shopping, Clothing & Fashion

HUMBOLDT HISTORY: The Humboldt County Fashion Options in the 1850s Were Truly Dismal, According to These Dandy Young Men From Pennsylvania | Lost Coast Outpost

Our Humboldt Bay pioneers were probably not
fashion conscious, but they were undoubtedly
clothes conscious. They were conscious of the fact
that their clothes were often wet, dirty, and about to
fall apart —- wet from the rain and the rivers, dirty from
outdoor living, and about to fall apart from hard usage.

How do we know this? Because the La Motte brothers
have told us about it.

The gold miner’s ideal ensemble, upon setting out: knee-high boots and a hardy jacket. Lithograph by Currier & Ives, between 1849 and 1856.

Robert and Harry La Motte, ages twenty-five and
nineteen, came to Humboldt Bay in April 1850 on
the Laura Virginia, the first ship of white settlers to
enter the bay. They were faithful correspondents with
their family back in Delaware County, Pennsylvania.
The family seems to have been bankrolling the young
men’s California adventure by shipping them potential
sales goods — items such as clothing, denim, ticking,
eggs, preserves, gingerbread, and paper, not to mention a transit so that Robert, a surveyor, could practice his profession. In fact, it is Robert La Motte who
produced the survey for the Laura Virginia Company’s
land speculation scheme, Humboldt City. This survey,
which is an unusual colored specimen, can be found
in the Humboldt County Recorder’s Office map collection.

The original La Motte letters are now at the Bancroft
Library, and they are a prime source for descriptions
of daily life and activities here on Humboldt Bay.1 The
brothers write home about the daily particulars of
food, clothing, and shelter on the frontier, and some of
their liveliest writing is on the subject of clothing.
The two brothers had high hopes of turning a profit
by making needed articles of clothing available to their
fellow pioneers. As Robert writes to his mother on
June 23, 1850:

Tell Dan that heavy clothing will always pay a
moderate profit, sometimes a large one, heavy
boots, of large sizes say not less than No. 8’s &
mostly 10’s & 12’s pay well.

Robert to Dan, July 28, 1850:

I think of opening a store here with Hob. Smith & if
I do that will give Harry a chance to do something
than to shoot Elk & tear his breeks [trousers]. By the
way, talking of breeks — have those coats & breeks
been sent us… am much obliged for your prompt
attention as our present garments are rather seedy.

Robert to Dan, November 23, 1850:

You speak in your letter about shipping heavy
clothing & want me to particularize as to the
kinds wanted — any heavy clothing has paid well
so far but the best are pilot cloth monkey jackets
& course pants. Those long boots are beautiful. If
I had had some of them last winter I could have
got from $75 to 100 pr pair for them. I think that
setting Haws at work is a good idea—let them be
large sizes from 9s to 11s and reaching to the knee
which is the most saleable kind. They are worth
from $9 to $16 a pair now.

In the first of several reports on the state of their own
clothing, Harry tells his mother on July 28, 1850:

This place is death on pants — on account of the
bushes that we have to go into to kill game, but
I guess I will foot shine before shortly; for I am
tanning an Elk skin, Indian fashion, to make a pair.

The success of everybody on the Laura Virginia expedition, no matter their vocation or social standing,
depended on Humboldt Bay becoming a gateway to
the Trinity mines. Here is Harry to his mother, telling about a road-building expedition to Trinity River,
August 12, 1850:

It was determined that each member should go
and work ten days on the road or pay a fine of $100
& so nearly every member up here shouldered
his axe or pick and started to work out his road
tax. There were eighteen of us … . It was a queer
party to go on such an expedition. Lawyers, MDs,
Merchants and gentlemen all dressed in their
strongest clothes.

We were at work 11 days… . Our garments in
the mean time had become a little the worse of
the wear for tramping among the bushes & logs
makes the wear and tare considerable, particularly
the latter. Fortunately we came across a few
Indians and in consideration of a few strings of
beads got several deerskins tanned with the hair
on. Oh, what a cutting and patching there was in
camp that night—next day you’d see a man who
had on a pair of black pants with a patch on his
seat of honor about a foot square, say nothing of
the difference in material and color, but having
the hair on was odd.

Harry to his mother, September 11, 1850:

Father writes me that George called his second
youngster after me. Well, health & Happiness to
him, but as to the “satinet pantaloons” — if he were
to see my old leather pants, his little heart would
melt with pity.

The most interesting description of clothing is in
this same letter, Harry’s report on some overland pioneers:

Numbers of Emigrants are arriving on the Bay
from different parts of California, bringing stock
of all kinds, as well as their families. A few days ago
I saw an old Mountaineer & Hunter (who by the
way was formerly a guide to Jack Hays) bringing
his “women & children” to Humboldt. The old
man rode ahead dressed in a full suit of buckskin
with a long rifle across his knees; next came his
cattle & horses driven by his elder son dressed in
the same manner then came his wife on horseback
in company with her daughter and little son; the
little chap took my eye; he was about nine years
old, dressed also in leather and on a splendid wild
looking California horse. Well, in that manner
they came from Sonoma, a distance of about three
hundred miles.

The La Mottes spent about a year and a half on
Humboldt Bay, sailing back and forth to San
Francisco and looking after their various financial
enterprises. But they always seemed to be a day late
and a dollar short — buying high, selling low, missing
the peak of the market and the flush times, having
difficulty collecting for their sales, services and insurance losses. In one of his letters to his father at the end
of 1852, Robert says, “I have learned that after I left
Humboldt some persons ‘jumped my claim’ there, and
sold it to other parties for $10,000 and they afterwards
refused $30,000 for it. My luck — but I don’t worry
myself about it for I had to leave or starve.”

And he
might have added: At least I got out with the clothes
on my back — my blue pilot cloth monkey jacket and
my beautiful knee high boots.


The story above was originally printed in the Summer 2011 issue of The Humboldt Historian, a journal of the Humboldt County Historical Society, and is reprinted here with permission. The Humboldt County Historical Society is a nonprofit organization devoted to archiving, preserving and sharing Humboldt County’s rich history. You can become a member and receive a year’s worth of new issues of The Humboldt Historian at this link.