Ho! for California, Part 1

May 13th, 2016

Colored advertisement for clipper ships to San Francisco. Dates to the California Gold Rush

In September 1848, the Geneva Courier announced:

“ANOTHER MANIA. – According to recent letters from Upper California, the mania for gold-digging in that region equals any thing . . . From one to eight ounces, it is said, are collected in a day, by a single person!  . . . The farmers have thrown aside their ploughs, the lawyers their briefs, the doctors their pills, the priests their prayer-books, and all are digging gold… “

Gold, according to Wikipedia, was discovered on January 24, 1848, by an employee of John Sutter, near Sacramento.  Sutter was trying to build an agricultural empire, and feared that a mass rush of gold-seekers would ruin his plans.  He tried to keep the discovery a secret, but rumors circulated.  In March, San Francisco newspaper publisher and merchant Samuel Brannan confirmed – in fact, trumpeted – the news.  Word of the discovery spread slowly at first.  The first major Eastern paper (the New York Herald) reported the discovery in August, and by September the news reached Geneva.  About 300,000 gold seekers came to California, most of them from the Eastern US.  There were also tens of thousands from Latin America, Europe, Australia, and Asia.

While the total gold recovered would be worth tens of billions of US dollars today, it was not equally available to all.  Once the most easily recovered gold was gone, finding more required relatively complex technology, and meant that significant financing was required for mining.  Increasingly, large companies took over the industry and wealth was funneled to a very few.  Many of those who had to rely on simple gathering methods, such as panning, returned home with only a little more than they had started with.

Still, people’s hopes were high.  In December 1848, the Geneva Gazette reprinted an article from the New York True Sun about how people could get to the gold.

Ho!  For California.

What is the best route?  The safest and most expeditious is undoubtedly by way of Panama.   . . .  There are other routes – that of Cape Horn, distance 17,000 miles, to San Francisco, time in sailing vessels five months, and the fare including board from $100 to $300, according to accommodations.  As these vessels go directly to that port, it is the safest and cheapest route for shipment of goods.  Freight by this route is now $5.50 per barrel.   . . .

Another route is to Vera Cruz, and across Mexico to Acapulco, where the vessels going north generally stop.  But this route is very unsafe, on account of the unsettled state of affairs in Mexico, and the imminent danger – almost certainty – of being robbed.

Another route is from Independence, in Missouri, and along the caravan route to Sa[n]ta Fe, striking the Pacific at San Diego, and thence upwards to San Francisco.  This route requires five months, and is not safe except to large parties well armed.

 . . . The distance from New York, via . . . the Isthmus, to San Francisco, is about 5500 miles.  Passengers are conveyed up the Chagres river [in Panama] in canoes about forty miles, when they are transferred to the backs of mules, and carried twenty miles to Panama [City], where they take passage to San Francisco in whatever vessels they can find going.   . . .

The following is the charge made by steam vessels via Chagres, the most expeditious route:

From New York to Chagres, in saloon ………………….$150

               “            “                  “             cabin ……………………. 120

   “      Panama to San Francisco, saloon ………………… 250

               “            “                  “                 cabin …………………. 200

From Chagres to Panama, across the Isthmus …………   20

. . .  Persons going this way, can take very little besides their luggage; the heaviest bulk will have to be sent around the cape.

The time of the voyage is as follows: –

From New York to Chagres ……………………12 to 15 days.

From Chagres to Panama ……………………..           2   “

From Panama to San Francisco ………………         20   “

From New York to San Francisco (round the

                        Cape …………………………………..130    “

Persons taking the Panama route, must have their luggage and goods in packages of 150 lbs. for conveyance by mules.

The best time for arrival is about the first of March, as about the middle of this month the rainy season . . . closes.  The country is not unhealthy, but imprudence, exposure or excesses of any kind, will be much more likely to bring on sickness and death than in one’s native clime.  Each person going to the gold region should be provided with good blankets, tents, and necessary implements.  The clothing for next summer need be only a shirt, pantaloons, and chip [straw] hat.  The food should be good, the drink nothing but cold water.   . . .  Clothing, provisions, and every necessary and comfort of life . . . are now on their way to California from England, the United States and South America.   . . .  Hoes, pickaxes, shovels, and iron sieves, have been the instruments in common use in gold-digging and immense quantities of these articles have been shipped to California.  But each person should take all he wants for his own use.  It would be well to land with a supply of money . . . in half dollars.

On January 19, 1849, the Gazette printed the following:

We are authorized to state that it is in contemplation to form a company of not exceeding thirty persons, citizens of Ontario county, to be denominated the Ontario Trojan Band for California.  Every member will be expected to go personally to California, and the plan of the company will require that each member be able to command $300 in cash.  Several gentlemen, who have had this matter under consideration for some weeks past, expect to conclude their deliberations in season to present some definite propositions on the subject in our next week’s paper.  If the Band is organized, it will be constituted chiefly of farmers and mechanics, and not to exceed three professional men.  The government of the Band will approach somewhat to military discipline.

Next:  The Trojan Band

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