On your mark, get set, gold

By Sam Stanton
Bee Staff Writer
Published Jan. 18, 1998

They came by the tens of thousands from around the nation, riding on horseback or wagon train, steaming around Cape Horn, hacking their way across the isthmus of Panama or walking through the desert scrubland of northern Mexico.

The destination was Northern California, their goal was gold, and for many, the hardships meant little when compared with the riches that awaited them in the gold fields.

The 49ers, as they came to be known for the massive migration westward that started in 1849, after word of the gold discovery had filtered back East, may have represented some of the hardiest travelers ever. But they hardly knew it at the time.

From farmers to aristocrats who traveled in style, few understood the nature of the trip they were embarking upon, and many gave up after only a day or two on the trail, earning themselves the humiliating sobriquet of "backed out Californians" as they backtracked to their homes and farms.

For the hardy thousands who persevered and made it, the trip alone was as educational as the arrival in the strange land called California.

Many took what they assumed was the easy way, the migration by sea that continued from 1849 for a decade. The trips typically began anywhere along the Atlantic Coast with ships sailing southward around Cape Horn and back up to San Francisco.

Others sailed only as far south as Panama, where travelers disembarked, then made a three-day trip by mule and canoe across land to the Pacific side, where they boarded another ship for the trip north to San Francisco.

It was along these seagoing journeys that many got their first tastes of life in the tropics and Latin or Catholic cultures, Malcolm J. Rohrbough noted in his history of the era, Days of Gold, The California Gold Rush and the American Nation.

"The voyage to California provided most seagoing 49ers with their first contact with the tropics, new cultures and new values," Rohrbough wrote. "The revelations included flying fish, swarms of birds, strange aromas, and brilliant sunsets and sunrises."

Those who made the overland trek across Panama were treated to even more exotic sights, Rohrbough noted, including the "howling of monkeys and chattering of parrots."

But the sea routes were hardly vacation excursions. Many of the travelers sailed around Florida and through the Gulf of Mexico to Texas, where they disembarked and made a harsh land voyage across Mexico's deserts and into California.

One group that included Sacramento Bee founder James McClatchy made that 4,000-mile journey, and McClatchy later recounted how he and his traveling companions survived by eating everything from toads to berries to rattlesnakes to mules as they walked for 26 days before reaching San Diego.

The sea voyages continued year-round without regard to season and could last for months, depending on the winds and the weather.

But the 2,200-mile overland trips had to be timed properly, with most typically beginning in mid-May in places on "the edge of the prairies outside St. Joseph or Independence, Missouri," Rohrbough wrote.

These wagon trains often were composed of like-minded folks. It was not uncommon to find one group that would not travel on Sundays out of respect for the Sabbath or another made up of people from the same area of the Northeast, Rohrbough notes.

And there were just as many who simply signed on with professionals who would agree to guide them across the Plains for fees of about $200 each.

But no one had an easy overland trip.

Some foolishly fell for East Coast advertisements for gold-digging devices or machines that they tried to transport by wagon or pack mule across the nation, and the result was inevitable as they realized how overloaded they were.

"The 49ers littered the California Trail with discarded food supplies and heavy gold-mining equipment, often fancy gold-washing machines," Rohrbough wrote. "They began to throw things away at the beginning of the journey, littering the trail for a thousand miles to and past Fort Laramie."

But just getting to California did not mean the end of traveling, especially for those who came by ship, because the gold was still inland near Placerville, far from the port of San Francisco where the ships docked.

For some travelers, the mere arrival at San Francisco was too much to bear. When some saw the city of gambling dens and bars they had come to, they bought tickets back home and never ventured inland.

Others took part in experimental travels along the Sacramento River and through the Delta.

The first large ships to make that voyage journeyed to Sacramento in March or April of 1849, "demonstrating the feasibility of the trip," wrote Joseph A. McGowan, a history professor at the then-Sacramento State College whose history of the time was titled History of the Sacramento Valley.

One of those ships landed on May 2, 1849, after a 140-day voyage from New York, and soon such ships were making the weeklong trip on regular runs.

But there were inconveniences involved with even those trips, largely because gold fever was so strong.

"Frequently, crews abandoned their ships as soon as they were docked and joined the crowds going to the mining regions ... ," McGowan wrote. "Soon Sacramento's riverfront was lined with abandoned ships tied two-deep to the bank and being used for a variety of purposes."