|"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
by Don Baumgart
When news of California's gold reached the East Coast, bedlam broke out. The preferred route to the gold fields was by ship and soon tens of thousands of hopefuls began a migration by water in slow, tiny, crowded sailing ships and steamers.
In New York a newspaper advertised the sailing date of a California-bound ship and within three hours it was fully booked, passengers paying between $250 and $400. Its owners would make $28,000 gross revenue on the trip, employing a ship valued at $10,000.
Eleven ships sailed from New Bedford in January. By the middle of that month one-fifth of the voting population of Plymouth was at sea. By the end of 1849, 90 vessels had left Atlantic ports and the sailing dates of 70 more had been posted.
New York stores displayed banners advertising mining supplies, and many stocked up, but Gold Rush travelling gear always contained pen and paper. The migration by water was made up of young men who recognized this as their life's most momentous undertaking and their diaries and letters home made them one of the most articulate migrations in recorded history.
Not all of what they wrote was momentous, however. One passenger bound around Cape Horn at the tip of South America recorded the lack of interesting activity.
"Today I opened my big box and spread all its contents out on my bunk, examining each article carefully and then stowing it away again. One man came below and seeing me thus engaged, proceeded to unpack his trunk. We both agreed that it was a pointless proceeding, yet the time passed pleasantly."
"They were bound on one of the longest and most varied of sea voyages," Oscar Lewis wrote in his book Sea Routes to the Gold Fields, "the great lonely void of the ocean was an ever present companion..."
Many of the seagoing would-be miners complained of seasickness, and many more complained of the provisions. "We receive half a pint of stinking, rusty, brackish water twice a day," one recorded. Since they had begun their migration in the spring of '49 those rounding the Horn got there at the height of Antarctic winter.
After rounding the cape on a diet of salted meat and fish, most ships put into a port on the western coast of South America where the passengers feasted on pineapples, fresh milk and green vegetables. A Maine farmer wrote of encountering an exotic new fruit, "benaners." The month-long voyage around Cape Horn took months and was 15,000 miles long -- five times the distance by straight line to California.
Some tried to cut thousands of miles off the distance and make the trip in half the time by taking a boat only as far as the Isthmus of Panama, crossing by land to the west coast.
When the Forty-Niners started arriving at Chagres on the east coast of the Isthmus, the settlement had a mere 700 inhabitants, living in bamboo huts. The natives were happy to take the travellers in dugout canoes up the Chagres River to Gorgona, charging them $10 each for the 40 mile upstream paddle. Soon that rate would climb to $40, or a dollar a mile.
With two-thirds of the Isthmus behind them, the gold seekers set out on foot or aboard mules to cover the final 20 miles following centuries-old Spanish trails through the Panamanian jungles, hoping to catch a northbound ship at Panama City on the west coast. On the trail they found no accommodations, but did meet a few returning miners who fueled their expectations. One proudly showed off $22,000 in gold dust and a four pound lump of gold.
In Panama City the westbound adventurers met long delays which they spent in damp vermin-filled hotels perpetually filled to overflowing. Ships heading north, they found, were already crammed with gold hunters who had come around the Horn.
When at last they sailed into San Francisco Bay, the seagoing miners found few provisions, outrageously priced, and still more travelling ahead to get to the gold fields.
And, coming from the other side, were the overland migrants. In the spring of 1849, when the eastern hopefuls set sail, mile-long wagon trains began crossing the prairie, heading West. The momentous adventure still held sickness, drudgery and a few intact dreams.
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