Picture this: a wagon train, full of healthy, strong, and virtuous pioneer families, snaking its way across sunny prairies en route to the West. This idealized image couldn’t be further from the serious dangers and harsh realities faced by the “Forty-Niners” during the California Gold Rush. The truth of those journeys is nearly too extreme to be believed but for the multiple accounts that the variety of ills met along the way.
To get to California, most men traveled overland in trains of fifteen to twenty wagons, each pulled by teams of oxen, with three to five men per wagon. Few women made the trip. Rarely did horses or the occasional donkey cross the country. One account notes that 30,000 men gathered at launch points in early 1849, waiting for spring to enable travel across the plains and mountains.
No roads led the way for wagoneers, who choked on dust in the searing heat of summer and dragged their possessions through deep mud during spring and fall storms. As the gold rushers traveled through Indian territories, they were often raided by night and attacked during the day. Bears, wolves, and poisonous snake attacks were not uncommon.
For those who could afford passage, travel by sea through the Isthmus of Panama (then part of Columbia) or around Cape Horn was considered a far better option. A letter survives from a man who was aboard the steamer Panama with 200 other fortune-hunters on May 11, 1849 from New York. At the Isthmus of Panama, he describes being rowed in canoes by “natives,” and finding the scenery, monkeys, and parrots “very enjoyable.” The party apparently left the steamer and camped in tents for several weeks, then went on to Panama to seek passage up the Pacific coast. By this time, several men had died, but the rest bought passage on a German ship that sailed south to the equator before turning west. They arrived in San Francisco Harbor 85 days later.
Though sea voyages were, in many ways, easier than overland passage, they had their own perils. To reach Sacramento, the original passengers of the Panama boarded a schooner that ran aground and nearly sunk on the Sacramento River. Some men disembarked but nearly drowned. Those onboard were swamped in the boat. After several tidal swells, the boat came loose and the party traveled for a week, but again ran aground more than once before arriving at Sacramento. There, they hired an ox team to traverse ten miles to Sutter’s Fort. On the fourth day, they arrived in the dark, but awoke the next morning in the midst of the diggings, and joined in. The entire journey had taken months and it was late autumn. Men from every walk of life abandoned their families, homes, and jobs to seek a fortune in the gold fields. Many considered the trip temporary, expecting to make money for a year or two then return home to their families to live an easy life
By June of 1848, The California Star reported that “every seaport as far south as San Diego, and every interior town, and nearly every rancho from the base of the mountains in which the gold has been found, to the Mission of San Luis, south, has become suddenly drained of human beings.” Where had they gone? Americans, Californians, Oregonians, Indians, and Sandwich Islanders, men, women, and children were engaged in “gold washing,” as the panning process was called. All along the Pacific coast, towns and settlements emptied of all but a handful of men, leaving women and children behind to fend for themselves. In fewer than six months, more than 1,000 people had begun to prospect in an area 100 miles long and twenty miles wide. In Benicia (near San Francisco), the doctor was the only male in town during 1848 and 1849.
While huge discoveries were made by a few lucky Forty-Niners (called such because the rush hit its stride in 1849), the yield per day per person was estimated at $15 to $20. One man tallied $42 for the low week of a month and $112 for the highest, with $61 and $82 the other weeks. In today’s dollars, a monthly total of about $6,800.
Prices were exorbitant as people tried to profit by selling goods and necessities to miners. A barrel of flour cost $125 ($2,861 in today’s dollars) and butter $200 ($4,577). Gambling, a constant pastime along with drinking, at $5 or $10 a game ($115 to $225 today), meant that men made or lost thousands of dollars in a night.
One man wrote in a letter, “There is a great deal of sin and wickedness going on here, stealing, lying, swearing, drinking, gambling, and murdering…. Almost every public house is a place for gambling, and this appears to be the greatest evil that prevails.” The poor and limited diet of the Forty- Niners resulted in scurvy, rickets, and all manner of disease. With no medical care available, almost any illness quickly became life-threatening. Disappointments and difficulties were also known to make a man become deranged or die. Lawlessness meant many disputes ended in murder, and duels to the death were common. Civilization only came to California as the Gold Rush waned, replaced by mining companies with hired employees.
– Kristen Gandrow