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The 49ers and their trip to California
Submitted By: XNGH Jason Thorn Date: May 08, 2010, 06:21:08 PM Views: 402365

Originally published in the Hewgag Monitor by Tom Barry in October, 1998


   Last time, we covered some of the events leading up to the discovery of gold in California by James Marshall. At that time, California was Mexican territory, and except for a few pueblos mostly along or very near to the coast, very sparsely inhabited. Yerba Buena had a population of only 459 in the summer of 1847, just before Marshall’s discovery. In April, 1848, when the first arrivals for the gold rush came, it was about 850. Then, renamed San Francisco, the town grew to 2,000 by the beginning of 1849. By November, 1855, around 55,000 souls called “The City” home.

   Similar growth occurred in many locations in California. For example, by 1853 about 100,000 Argonauts were engaged in mining in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada.

   How did these people get here? There were five main methods of travel in those days: walking, astride horses or other animals, animal-drawn wagons, trains and ships. There were no trains leading to California yet, so the journey by any of the other methods involved a very long period of time, much preparation and a good deal of money.

   Ships at that time, even the fastest clippers, could not proceed from the east coast to the west in less than about 110 days. Most trips took much longer, thanks to the capricious weather conditions along the route, especially around Cape Horn, the southern tip of South America. The cost of passage alone on a ship could easily equal more than a year’s wages for the average working man, and he still needed a great deal of equipment to be a miner, as well as means of transportation to the mining regions when he arrived. Living conditions aboard ship varied from barely civilized to outright horror. Mealy, rat-infested food, monotonously repeated day after day, squalid sleeping accommodations, dangerously maintained ships and uncaring, even vicious crew members meant that this method of passage to the gold regions lacked attraction for many.

   To cut the length of time somewhat, those who traveled by ship could opt for a much shorter trip by crossing the isthmus of Panama, and catching another ship to travel up the Pacific coast to California. This route was fraught with many hazards as well. Along with the same poor conditions aboard ship, the travelers often had to contend with unreliable guides and porters, sometimes even to the point of being robbed and beaten, then left for dead in the jungles of Central America. In addition to the possible danger from human predators, the overland travelers faced the uncertain rigors of contracting Malaria from the mosquitoes and attacks by poisonous snakes and big cats. If and when the would-be miner arrived at the Pacific side of the isthmus, there might be a long wait for passage up the coast. Coastal packets were small, usually overcrowded and had to make port often to carry on their main business of supplying goods to the communities along the way. All this for a chance to save up to 30 days on the trip from the east!

   As for the one of the other alternatives given earlier; consider walking. It was done by accompanying a wagon, filled to the brim with supplies, drawn by mules or oxen. Groups of Argonauts formed companies with elected leaders and often elaborate sets of by-laws for mutual protection from the many unknown hazards of the 2000 mile trek from the jumping-off place along the Missouri River.

   Just to get to the Missouri, many travelers had already taken expensive boat rides from places in the east. When they arrived at the edge of “civilization,” they then had to outfit themselves for the arduous 120 to 150 day trip ahead. Their first decision was whether to use mules (faster, but not as strong and steady) or oxen (slower, but more durable and stronger). Then, a wagon and other travel goods had to be obtained. All this could easily amount to more than a year’s salary for most of the men.

   The next decision was to pick the proper time of the year to leave. Too early, and the trail would be muddy, fresh spring grass would be scarce along the early part of the trip, and the weather could easily revert to winter-like conditions along the prairie. Too late, and the other companies’ animals ahead might have already eaten the good grass and most importantly, their arrival time in the Sierra Nevada mountains might be so late as to allow them to be trapped by winter snows. The fate of the Donner Party was well known by all who came west over land after 1846. An experienced guide was often sought out by the companies, and sometimes the guides turned out to be not as experienced as they should have been, having only read about the trip west from the same guidebooks available to the companies themselves. Often, even the guidebooks were written by people who had not taken the routes they advocated, but had heard from “reliable sources” about them. There was enough uncertainty about the largely unknown west to make even the most stout-hearted of reasonable men think seriously about some other means of getting to California. Of course, most of these adventurers were no longer reasonable men, having firmly caught “Gold fever,” and they anticipated only a short stay in California to find and take enough gold home to set themselves up for the rest of their lives. What if the trip was difficult? Others had made it, and at this very moment were raking nuggets off the golden riverbanks on the other side of the journey.

   Finally, which route to take? The most direct trails to California were very arduous, especially when contending with the deserts of Utah and Nevada, and the crossing of the Sierras on those trails was through some of the toughest, wildest, rockiest places in the known world. There were very few places along some trails that allowed the travelers to obtain much-needed supplies. There was often the need to trade weary, sick animals for some that had been “recruited” by some enterprising, hardy soul such as Jim Bridger in southwestern Wyoming. With the proper amounts of cash, foodstuffs and fresher animals could be obtained from Bridger by the Argonauts, as well as repairs on their always overloaded, beaten down wagons.

   As for the journey itself, picture yourself walking an average 15 miles a day in weather that was at first changeable and later unbearably hot, stopping several times a day to rest and feed the animals, constantly being aware of the hazards which could swoop down upon the company as easily as a summer thunderstorm or an Indian raiding party on the lookout for horses, mules or oxen. Add to this unpleasant picture your inability to engage in regular baths, put on clean clothes, to enjoy the company of women, regular, decent meals, or just resting once in a while. The trip was a constant trial of their strength, resolve and temper. Some could take more hardship than others, obviously, and quarrels were certain to break out on occasion. Add to this the possibility of contracting some disease such as cholera, more often than not fatal, and in some places in the east it was rampant. Many travelers came down with it and were buried along the trail.

   For a great description of a company making the great trek to California, get a copy of the book, The World Rushed In, by J.S. Holliday. In it is found the chronicle of the travels of William Swain from his home just north of Buffalo, New York to the gold regions around Oroville. Swain did not travel the famed California Trail through Nevada’s Forty Mile Desert, then over the Sierra Nevada by way of the Truckee River Canyon and then down to Sutter’s Fort. His company stayed north, taking the Applegate Road, which crossed the Black Rock desert into the Warner Range in Northern California, through Fandango Pass to Goose Lake, then down the Pit River to the Sacramento Valley. This route was much less direct than those many others took, but was successful for Swain’s company.

   Swain left Buffalo on April 11, 1849, and arrived at Peter Lassen’s Rancho (near present-day Vina, north of Chico) on November 8, 1849, a passage of just under 7 months. The portion of the trek from Independence, Missouri on May 16th to Lassen’s Rancho had taken 25 weeks. Their arrival in November could easily have been plagued with bad weather, as it is not unusual for snow to fall in Northeastern California at that time of the year.

   Not only did the traveler have to arrive in the gold country at the right time, he then had to provide some sort of shelter for himself. Conditions were not right for much mining in the winter, as the rivers rose in the rainy season to a level that made gravel processing very difficult, and the weather in California can be quite cold during the winter. There didn’t seem to be too many chunks of gold lying around to be picked up, and waiting out the winter to start gold mining in earnest was almost as hard as the hardships experienced on the trip.

   Keep some of this in mind the next time you are on summer vacation in your air-conditioned 250 hp car, traversing the countryside at 75 miles per hour, on superhighways that never exceed a grade of about 6%, stopping each night another 500 or more miles from the last night spent in yet another air-conditioned, comfortable, clean room, and you have to call the manager at the motel to complain about the ice machine not working. How many of us could, this day, take off on a cross-country hike carrying most of all the things we would need for the next 4 or 5 months? How many of us would?

   Next time, we will consider some of the day-to-day living conditions of those hardy souls who arrived in California during the Gold Rush.

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