Francis Bret Harte was born in Albany, New York, February 25, 1836. His father was a highly educated instructor in Greek, of English-Jewish descent. His mother was an Ostrander, a cultivated and fine character of Dutch descent. His grandmother on his father’s side was Catherine Brett. He had an elder brother and two younger sisters. The boys were voracious readers and began Shakespeare when six, adding Dickens at seven. Frank developed an early sense of humor, burlesquing the baldness of his primer and mimicking the recitations of some of his fellow pupils when he entered school. He was studious and very soon began to write. At eleven he sent a poem to a weekly paper and was a little proud when he showed it to the family in print. When they heartlessly pointed out its flaws he was less hilarious.
His father died when he was very young and he owed his training to his mother. He left school at thirteen and was first a lawyer’s clerk and later found work in a counting-room. He was self-supporting at sixteen. In 1853 his mother married Colonel Andrew Williams, an early mayor of Oakland, and removed to California. The following year Bret and his younger sister, Margaret, followed her, arriving in Oakland in March, 1854.
He found the new home pleasant. The relations with his cultivated stepfather were congenial and cordial, but he suffered the fate of most untrained boys. He was fairly well educated, but he had no trade or profession. He was bright and quick, but remunerative employment was not readily found, and he did not relish a clerkship. For a time he was given a place in a drugstore. Some of his early experiences are embalmed in “How Reuben Allen Saw Life” and in “Bohemian Days.” In the latter he says: “I had been there a week,—an idle week, spent in listless outlook for employment, a full week, in my eager absorption of the strange life around me and a photographic sensitiveness to certain scenes and incidents of those days, which stand out in my memory today as freshly as on the day they impressed me.”
It was a satisfaction that he found some congenial work. He wrote for Putnam’s and the Knickerbocker.
In 1856, when he was twenty, he went to Alamo, in the San Ramon Valley, as tutor in an interesting family. He found the experience agreeable and valuable.
A letter to his sister Margaret, written soon after his arrival, shows a delightful relation between them and warm affection on his part. It tells in a felicitous manner of the place, the people, and his experiences. He had been to a camp-meeting and was struck with the quaint, old-fashioned garb of the girls, seeming to make the ugly ones uglier and the pretty ones prettier. It was raining when he wrote and he felt depressed, but he sent his love in the form of a charming bit of verse wherein a tear was borne with the flowing water to testify to his tender regard for his “peerless sister.”