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Loreta’s Civil War: No earthly paradise

July 18, 2017

Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart shared edited excerpts from the extraordinary memoir of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who chronicled her adventures throughout the Civil War — either as herself, as a Confederate spy, or in disguise as Confederate Lt. Harry T. Buford. She fought and led men in terrible battles, fell in love, bore and lost children, and traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe, ultimately fulfilling her childhood dream of a rich and adventurous life.

You can read the entire 1876 memoir online here. Learn more about Velazquez (and the incredible documentary film Maria Agui Carter made about her) here.

Read previous chapters of her incredible story here.

Part 59: The expedition to Venezuela is a disaster, and Velazquez loses her young and handsome husband to the “black vomit.”

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A small schooner was finally procured, and preparations for our departure were pushed rapidly forward. Just as we were on the point of sailing, however, the owners of the vessel, who had not received their money for her, attempted to regain possession. We were all arrested, therefore, but after a long investigation of the case, were released, and the schooner delivered into our hands. This was a disagreeable and discouraging commencement, but it would have been well for the entire party had it been the worst misadventure that befell us.

As the time for departure drew near, I lost confidence in Johnston more and more, and almost at the last moment endeavored to persuade my husband to refrain from embarking, suggesting that we should seek a home somewhere in the West. He, however, was resolved to go, and I yielded my better judgment to his wishes and went aboard, very much against my inclination.

The expedition consisted of forty-nine persons, including children, all of whom were stowed away in the hull of a small schooner without regard to decency, and without many of the necessities of life. I did not find out how badly provided we were for a voyage until after we were at sea but when I did discover what treatment was in store for us, I was boiling with indignation. There were no conveniences of any kind, scarcely provisions enough to sustain life, the water was foul from the impure barrels in which it had been placed, while the conduct of some of the persons on board was an outrage on the very name of decency. Our diet was beans and hard tack for breakfast, the same for dinner, with the addition of duff for dessert, and this bill of fare was repeated, day after day, until we entered the River Orinoco.

It was a terrible voyage, and although I had passed through some rather rough experiences in my time and was accustomed to hardships, it will always live in my memory as one of my most painful experiences. My sufferings, however, were nothing in comparison with those of some of the poor women and children who were with us, and I was indignant beyond expression at the idea of their being victimized in the manner they were.

At length, after a cruise that, brief as it was, was fast becoming intolerable, we entered the mouth of the Orinoco, and the despairing band of emigrants began to pluck up their spirits, for now they were fairly in sight of the paradise which had been promised them.

The sight of the promised land, of which such glowing accounts had been given them, filled our company with extravagant joy. Alas, they little knew what was yet in store for them but the prospect of being able to leave the wretched little schooner was such a pleasant one that they scarcely thought of the future, and almost any fate seemed preferable to remaining on board of her.

We had not been in the neighborhood of the mouth of the river long before a small, light canoe put out towards us, and its occupant, hailing us in Spanish, asked whether we did not want a pilot.

I was the only person on board who understood him, and as he came alongside the captain refused to let him come on board. Some of the men, thinking that he had hostile intentions, produced their pistols, and for a time there was a prospect of trouble.

I accordingly went to Johnston, and said, “Now, Capt. Johnston, you are in a nice fix. This man is a pilot, and you cannot go up the river without his assistance. If you attempt anything of the kind you will be considered a pirate.”

This frightened Johnston, and I laughed in my sleeve to see the perplexity he was in. After leaving him to his reflections for a few moments, I said, in a whisper, “This man is a government pilot, and your vessel and crew are in imminent danger. It won’t do to trifle with these Spaniards, I can tell you, for if you do, they will make short work of the whole party.”

Johnston saw the point, and telling the captain of the schooner who the man was, he was permitted to come on board. The arrival of the pilot created quite a commotion, and no little surprise was expressed at the fact of his being a negro. The man, however, understood his business and managed the vessel very skillfully. Without his assistance we would never have been able to have ascended the beautiful Orinoco or have steered the schooner among the numerous islands.

The scenery along the river was truly beautiful, and all admitted that, whatever else the country might be, it was certainly fair to look upon. I had not much confidence, however, that, on closer inspection, it would prove to be the earthly paradise we were searching for but kept my thoughts to myself, for I knew that there would not be much use in expressing them.

The first village we came to was Coraeppa, where we took on board another pilot, Antonio Silva by name. He was a bright colored half-breed, and, like the negro, was skillful in his business. When he boarded us, the captain exclaimed in disgust, “Good Lord, are all the officials in this country niggers?” A good many of the emigrants were quite as much disgusted as the captain and seemed to think that if the negroes were of as much importance as they seemed to be in Venezuela, it would have been just as well to have remained at home and fought the battle for supremacy with the free negroes and carpetbaggers on familiar ground.

That night we anchored at Baranco with a great uncertainty before us as to whether we would be permitted to proceed any farther or not. At this place I caught the first fish, which was a grateful addition to our bill of fare. Some of our people went in bathing — a performance which astonished the natives, who were afraid to venture into the water on account of the alligators, which abounded in rather startling profusion. Others obtained permission to go on shore and created a sensation by doing so. The ignorant natives, who had no idea who we were, promptly abandoned their houses, and, leaving everything behind them, fled to the forests.

They imagined that we were a band of pirates who were coming to take possession of the country.

A messenger was now dispatched to the city of Bolivar to notify the governor of our coming, and, with considerable uncertainty as to the reception we were likely to meet with, the next morning we resumed our slow progress up the river.

At Los Tablos we were commanded to stop, and a most primitive piece of artillery was pointed at us, which excited some derision in my breast but which appeared to inspire terror in that of Capt. Johnston, for he was in much agitation lest the authorities on shore should take a notion to fire on us.

After some parley, however, we were permitted to pass on to the city of Bolivar unmolested. On arriving off that place, the order was given that nobody should go ashore, much to the dissatisfaction of every one, for there was not a man, woman, or child on the steamer but was anxious to leave her at the earliest practicable moment.

After a time, the United States consul, Mr. Dalton, boarded us. He denied being the consul when my husband spoke to him and said that he was heartily ashamed of such a shabby expedition. In spite of his denial, however, I knew that he was the consul and determined to demand his assistance in case it should be necessary.

I now resolved to land and look out for myself and appealed to my husband to come with me, saying that I had money enough about me for all our present needs, although the other members of the expedition were not aware of the fact, and that I could draw more, if it should be wanted, through the consul.

My husband, however, refused to go and said that he would stick by the expedition to the last. I suggested that they would be far from sticking to him in case he was left destitute, and, thoroughly disgusted with the whole business, I left the schooner and went to the hotel.

At the hotel I met several very nice people with whom I was soon on friendly terms and was rejoiced to find myself once more in reasonably comfortable quarters, after what I had gone through with. The hotel was kept by a German who had married a Venezuelan woman, and it was very well managed.

Once on shore, and free to do as I pleased, I proceeded to carry out the purpose I had in view when I started. I called on the consul and explained matters to him, and through him obtained an introduction to the governor and his family. By all the persons I met I was well received, and a general desire was shown to give me such information as I needed with regard to the country and the inducements which it might hold out for emigrants from the United States.

While I was thus employing myself on shore my husband stuck to the schooner. Finally, however, he too became so much disgusted that he concluded to take my advice and abandon Johnston and his whole enterprise. In a day or two he left and started for the gold mines to find that the black fever was raging there to such an extent that it was dangerous for him to remain. He therefore returned and went to Caracas, where, shortly after his arrival, he was taken ill with the black vomit and died.

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