"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
As More Forty-Niners Arrived Illness Swept the Gold Fields

by Don Baumgart

If the young men heading for the California gold fields entertained a negative thought about their adventure, it was most likely a vague fear of "bad luck."

Bad luck was indeed stalking them.

Following closely behind the Forty-Niners was a foe that didn't want their gold. It used no pistols, waylaid no stage coaches laden with nuggets but killed with a frenzy that would make a highwayman seem a saint.

It was cholera.

Up the Mississippi from New Orleans it accompanied California-bound travelers to Saint Louis. There cholera killed between four and five thousand people. The trip upriver from St. Louis to Independence was the disease's next target. On one ship hundreds of passengers were stricken and the rest fled the ship at their first opportunity. Unstoppable, the cholera epidemic hit the overland trails.

"From Independence to here," a gold-seeker wrote from Wyoming, "is a graveyard." One man reported spotting new graves every day along the trail. The estimate of cholera deaths on the trail to California was another four thousand, many of whom were left behind by wagon trains when they fell sick.

Cholera also came to California by ship. Forty-Niners bringing the disease from New Orleans piled up in Panama City on the Pacific Coast after the trek across the Isthmus. There they waited for the already-crowded ships coming around Cape Horn. Cholera did not wait. Called "Panama Fever" it struck dozens in Panama City, eventually causing the port to be closed. San Francisco officials decided not to close their port to shipping in spite of the arrival of a vessel bearing 14 dead from cholera.

In two weeks the terrible contagion was in Sacramento, killing 20 in 24 hours. Soon it was everywhere.

Bad Luck had many names in the gold country. One was dysentery and almost everyone had it. Fever, weakness and diarrhea struck miners by the thousands. The Fever "...was a consequence of the living and working conditions in the mines," Donald Jackson wrote in his book Gold Dust. "Long hours in freezing water...and hasty meals of bacon and half-cooked biscuits." There were no vegetables, and this spartan diet encouraged widespread outbreaks of scurvy, causing the deaths of miners throughout the foothills.

Franklin Street wrote one of the many booklets springing up in the East describing routes to the gold fields of California. He called his, which was published in Cincinnati, a Concise Description of the Overland Route.

Street had this to say in 1850 about the health conditions that awaited users of his guide:

"There was much suffering in the former year from scurvy, which was sometimes accompanied by diarrhea, when it generally terminated fatally." He too named exposure and diet as two of the contributing causes to sickness in the gold fields. "Fresh meat was rarely to be met with, and vegetables were seldom seen. Consequently hard bread and salt meat constituted the principal ingredients in the bill of fare."

Men poorly fed working all day in chilling water, sleeping in the open air, were in bad shape to resist whatever disease the next wave of gold seekers was bringing up into the foothills. Hundreds of arrivals were hit with diarrhea and dysentery, Street said, "which led to many untimely deaths."

Back East some were calling the westward gold lust a sickness. It would turn out to be one of many the Forty-Niners would battle.

Fall of 1849 brought the rains and more illness. The gold fields were a terrible place to be sick. A sick miner quickly took his toll of his partners' patience and supplies.

It was a fate the young, hopeful gold seekers had not even considered. They had thought only about how they would spend their riches, and very little about what they would endure in the getting.

"The most striking fact about California may be that its myth survived everything -- delirium and devastation, not just the Gold Rush but the morning after as well," Donald Jackson wrote, looking back from the 1980s. "The myth of a land of perpetual plenty, of a heaven-blessed province where food grew wild and disease was unknown, had begun before the rush and it lingered when the stampede was past."

— end —
(Copyright 2001, Don Baumgart)


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