California Golden Rush Shortly after the acquisition of California from Mexico a man by the name of John Sutter arrived in East San Francisco Bay in 1839. Born in Germany he had to leave because he was unable to pay his creditors. With plenty of charm and letters from friends he convinced the Mexican governor of California to award him a land grant of more than 50,000 acres. John Sutter built a stockade and a fort and soon after became referred to as Captain Sutter, and his riverbank establishment Sutters Fort. Sutter chose a location on the south fork of the American River, 50 miles to the south of his fort, to build a sawmill. (Pic.
1) A millrace was dug and wooden gates were opened periodically so that the current would widen and deepen the channel. During his inspection on January 24, 1848 James W. Marshall found the first piece of gold at the end of the race. Over the next decade his discovery would have a profound effect on the experiences of hundreds of thousands of individuals, their families, their communities, and ultimately the nation as a whole. By the winter of 1848, whispers of a gold strike had drifted eastward across the country but few easterners believed it.
The gold discovery needed validation, and President Polk was just the one to deliver it. In his opening address to Congress on December 5, 1848 Polk said that at the time of the California acquisition it was known that “mines of the precious metals exsisted to some extent. Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by authentic reports.” (Johnson, 38). With Polk’s address making headlines around the world Gold Fever had begun.
The future forty-niners now under the influence of Gold Fever had to overcome a cruel journey, miserable living and working conditions, and coming home boom or bust. The trials and tribulations they faced are many and forever carved into American history. Polk’s simple words, backing up the claim of gold in California, were a powerful call to action. Farmers left their fields, merchants closed their shops, soldiers left their posts, and all made plans for California. The departing gold seekers faced an immediate problem. There was no railroad to take them there, nor was there a river route. The journey proved to be a incredible test of endurance.
There were two ways to get to California either by land or by sea. By land they faced a 2,000 mile trip across rugged landscape (Map 1). Almost everyone going to California overland travelled with a group, which were democratic in nature. Contracts were signed that spelled out rules of conduct, especially with respect to participation and sharing of duties. The journey across the plains varied in length and difficulty, and because it was so severe a test it was one the gold seekers would never forget if they survived it. There were tens of thousands of men and women on the trail and all they could think about was gold as they crept along at two miles per hour on the dusty trail.
At first it was an adventure, but as they pushed farther westward their enthusiasm turned to fear of the indians along the trail. The real danger of the overland journey wasn’t the indians, but the lack of water especially the last 200 miles through the deserts of Nevada. Goods and food were cast aside along the trail to lighten the load. “At the beginning of the final stage on the Humboldt River, many 49ers left their wagons and proceeded on foot, using as pack animals the stock horses they had brought for breeding.” (Rohrbough, 65). The journey by land was rough but so was the sea voyage.
The sea route (Map 2) around the tip of South America often took more than six months and seasickness was rampant in the beginning. The accomodations were severely overcrowded “men were accommodated in tiered berths, usually three men sleeping abreast on platforms barely two feet apart, one above the other.” (Johnson, 64). Boredom soon took over and the men took to gambling from morning to night. “Cards and gambling not only drew veteran players, but also rapidly seduced those heretofore innocent of such vices.” (Rohrbough, 59). The food was often full of bugs, and the meat was often rotten. Water stored for months in the ships holds took on a foul taste, and was often diluted with molasses or vinegar so it could be kept down.
The weather in the Cape passage was very perilous. The sea was very rough and it was bitterly cold. At night the passengers wore all their clothing and shivered in their bunks, praying they would make it through the night. There was another route that was partly by sea and partly by land. By sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to Panama the forty-niners could then cross over the narrow land bridge between North America and South America.
Finally continuing their journey by sailing the Pacific Ocean to California. This was not as easy as it sounded though for crossing the jungles of Panama many travelers picked up aches and fevers including cholera and malaria. For those who remained well and luck was on their side the journey took about five days. The first leg of the crossing was by canoes, navigated by the natives, on the Chagres River. After travelling as far as they could by canoe they finished the trip on foot to Panama City.
Waiting in Panama City for passage to California could take several weeks and the numbers of gold seekers piling up in Panama City was staggering. There were simply not enough ships to handle the mass of people waiting to go to California. Many ships would take a load of passengers to California and the crew would stay leaving the ship abandoned in San Francisco Bay. By the mid 1850s more than 500 ships lay rotting in the bay, many still full of cargo that no one had taken time to unload. Regular steamer service between Panama and California helped relieve the situation in Panama but never remedied it. After securing passage to California the journey was over but few men had any idea of the hardships they were going to face.
Prior to the gold rush California had little community life on which to build on. When thousands began flowing into California settlements sprang up overnight in the mining fields. According to Paul, “The most common was the camp: a straggling settle- ment that might vary in size from a few houses to a small town. A more impressive place was the mining town, a community that was larger in size than the camp, and usually had a few buildings that could make some pretentions to substantiality.” (California Gold, 72). In the beginning nearly everyone was camping out, under shelter of a tree, a crude tent, or a lean to made of canvas.
By 1850 log cabins were being built in the developing settlements. For the common miner construction costs were so high that most buildings were made of wood frame with canvas stretched over it. Such methods of construction produced communities that were wiped out by fires several times. Miners set up a camp close to where they were digging, it could be set up in a few hours and taken down in even less time. This was an important part of their lifestyle since they were constantly on the move from one location to another.
If the daily living was rough the work was then severe. Work began on the streams at daylight, and as the miners dressed and prepared them- selves for a hard day of labor the cook made their breakfast. After breakfast the miners made their way down to the streams with their picks, shovels, pans, and buckets. After arriving at the claim the miners began the routine of digging, shoveling, carrying, and washing until sunset. (Pic.2). This routine was carried out at least six days a …