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A Migration of Strangers
"Great talk about California gold region and I don't know hardly what to think of it. I have at times a mind to go...."
In midsummer 1848 city and small-town newspapers in the United States told of political debate in Washington over a plan to prohibit the expansion of slavery into the West and specifically into the territories recently conquered from Mexico. Fearful of angering voters on both sides of the controversy, the candidates in the upcoming presidential election, Democrat Lewis Cass and Whig General Zachary Taylor, hero of the war with Mexico, avoided making any statements on the subject.
In early August a more interesting story began to appear. A St. Louis newspaper on the 8th printed part of an article brought overland from San Francisco, where it had appeared in the April 1 issue of the California Star. The news told of gold "collected at random and without any trouble" on the American River. A letter from California in the New York Herald, August 19, predicted "a Peruvian harvest of precious metals." Other major newspapers the Baltimore Sun, the New Orleans Daily Picayune printed similarly colorful letters and reports from "the gold regions." Editors across the country impatiently sought whatever news of California could be found. The New York Journal of Commerce ran a letter from the alcalde of Monterey which told of miners digging "eight to ten ounces a day." He concluded by characterizing the miners as "men who open a vein of gold just as coolly as you would a potato hill." On September 14 the Philadelphia North American printed another letter from the exuberant alcalde in which he boasted, "Your streams have minnows and ours are paved with gold."
Across the country Americans read and talked of gold and felt increasingly envious of miners who could dig their fortunes in a matter of days or weeks. For farmers in Massachusetts or Kentucky and city folk in Cincinnati or Savannah discouraged by their prospects, for others restless after returning home from the war with Mexico, or those weary of marriage or fearful of growing debts, these first reports of gold and the resulting expectations of quick fortune might have been enough to send them on their way to El Dorado. But for most potential goldseekers in the thirty states, far more tangible evidence was needed to overcome doubts and scoffing neighbors evidence strong enough to justify to wives and creditors, parents and business partners the expense and the danger of the long journey to California.
What the American people needed was an official endorsement of the California news. It came in December, directly from the two most trusted authorities in the nation: the President and the United States Army.
Having received Colonel Mason's official report of the diggings, President James K. Polk was prepared to speak with authority and confidence about the astonishing events in California. Mason had sent dramatic evidence (the 230 ounces of gold) to back up his report, and he set forth his judgment of California: "I have no hesitation in saying there is more gold in the country drained by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers than will pay the cost of the war with Mexico a hundred times over." Thus encouraged and more than willing to find additional justification for the recent war of conquest with Mexico, President Polk on December 5, 1848, delivered his message to the second session of the 30th Congress. Of the news from California, he stated: "The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by authentic reports of officers in the public service." With this endorsement of the seemingly incredible, with the gold on display at the War Department, and with the full details of Mason's report published throughout the nation, skepticism gave way to unrestrained enthusiasm.
After December 5 and through the winter and spring of 1849, there appeared in literally every newspaper in the country continuing reports of the ever-increasing emigration to California. Whether in New York or Iowa, editors wrote of the national drama in florid phrases and excited tones, as if the wonder and impact of the news might not otherwise be fully appreciated.
On January 11, 1849, the New York Herald trumpeted its judgment: "The spirit of emigration which is carrying off thousands to California so far from dying away increases and expands every day. All classes of our citizens seem to be under the influence of this extraordinary mania....If the government were under the necessity of making a levy of volunteers to the amount of two or three hundred thousand men for any purpose in California, the ranks would be filled in less than three months....What will this general and overwhelming spirit of emigration lead to? Will it be the beginning of a new empire in the West, a revolution in the commercial highways of the world, a depopulation of the old States for the new republic on the shores of the Pacific?
"Look at the advertising columns of the Herald or any other journal, and you will find abundant evidence of the singular prevalence of this strange movement and agitation in favor of gold digging on the Sacramento. Every day men of property and means are advertising their possessions for sale, in order to furnish them with means to reach that golden land. Every city and town is forming societies either to cross the Isthmus or to double Cape Horn....
"Poets, philosophers, lawyers, brokers, bankers, merchants, farmers, clergymen all are feeling the impulse and are preparing to go and dig for gold and swell the number of adventurers to the new El Dorado.
"The spirit which has been thus awakened in this country by the discovery of the gold mines in California and by the authentic facts published concerning them under the authority of the government in Washington exceeds everything in the history of commercial adventure that has occurred in many ages and can only be paralleled by that which sprang up in Spain and other parts of Europe by the discovery of the mineral wealth of Mexico and Peru by the expeditions of Cortez and Pizarro."
More influential than such editorial fervor, what nurtured hopes on farms and in villages and challenged the faint-hearted were personal reports direct from California letters sent home by settlers who had become California's first gold miners. Eagerly sought by local newspapers and then reprinted again and again by dailies and weeklies in other states, these statements written in the language of neighbors told of digging for gold along rivers called the American, Feather, Yuba and Mokelumne, where in a matter of months young men using methods that sounded simple, even haphazard, gathered fortunes totaling thousands, tens of thousands of dollars.
A letter from a man named McClellan written to his family in Jackson, Missouri, concluded: "You know Bryant, the carpenter who used to work for Ebenezer Dixon, well, he has dug more gold in the last six months than a mule can pack." In family councils at day's end, in churchyards after the Sunday sermon, in country stores and city saloons, men used Bryant's triumph or similar reports to argue in favor of going to California. Week by week the news gathered force, more men believed and their families agreed that if they could get to California success would be assured, success that required no knowledge of mining and only a few months' work.
As the frugality of generations gave way to a contagion of optimism and ambition, responsible family men found their jobs and prospects unrewarding when set against all that California could provide. They figured how much they could bring home after a year's sojourn in the gold fields and justified the cost of the journey and the length of their absence as an investment that would guarantee financial security. And it was not just ambitious men who dreamed. In January 1849 the wife of a struggling shopkeeper wrote to her parents: "Joseph has borrowed the money to go; but I am full of bright visions that never filled my mind before, because at the best of times I have never thought of much beyond a living; but now I feel confident of being well off."
In East Coast ports, shipowners announced sailing dates for steamers, schooners, brigs and old whaling ships resurrected to meet the sudden demand. Newspaper advertising columns announced the sale of businesses by men "overtaken by the gold fever." Manufacturers of money belts, tents, India-rubber wading boots and clothing, medicines, and gold testing and smelting devices proclaimed their products essential to success in the land of gold. And inventors attested to the infallibility of their patented mining machinery, including a "hydro-centrifugal Chrysolyte or California Gold Finder" and an "Archimedes Gold Washing Machine." Equally imaginative entrepreneurs announced an "aerial locomotive" capable of carrying fifty to one hundred passengers from New York to California "pleasantly and safely" in three days at a cost of $200 and they assured their readers that two hundred tickets had already been sold.
Those more aware of the realities of geography and commerce knew that the journey would require many weeks even months of arduous, possibly dangerous travel by wilderness trails or ocean voyages. For those on the Atlantic Coast with seafaring traditions, the ocean routes seemed the only way to go. For forty years New England merchants and whalers had sent their ships around Cape Horn, an 18,000-mile voyage, to the coves and harbors of California, there to trade or obtain fresh food and water. This commercial tradition helped build confidence in the Cape route (despite the distance and four to six months on shipboard), so much so that all but twenty-two of the 124 gold-rush companies that organized in Massachusetts during 1849 sailed around the Horn, taking a total of 6,067 emigrants from that state alone.
In contrast to the time that would be spent on board a ship sailing around South America, goldseekers could reach California in a matter of weeks by taking a steamer from New York to the town of Chagres on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama. From there it took two or three days through dense jungle to reach the ancient Pacific port of Panama City, where another line of steamers tried to accommodate the ever-pressing demand for passage to San Francisco. If they sailed from New York to Panama in January, February or even March, they could be in the diggings before the first overland emigrants even set out from the western frontier. In all, about 6,500 emigrants took the Panama route in 1849; but disease, exorbitant costs, overcrowding and too few steamers on the Pacific route caused delays of weeks and sometimes months throughout that first year of the rush.
For those who lived inland and had farming as a background, the ocean voyage seemed fearful, the overland trails practical, even familiar. The well-known history of travel from the Missouri frontier to Santa Fe and to Oregon increased their confidence. During the winter and early spring of 1849 tens of thousands of men throughout the United States prepared for the overland trek that would begin with the first good weather in April or May. In cities and country villages they organized joint-stock companies, each member paying an equal amount to provide funds for the company's purchase of wagons, teams and provisions. Organized as the Pittsburgh and California Enterprise Company, the Illinois and California Mining Company, the Sagamore and Sacramento Mining and Trading Company and many more, goldseekers joined together more as ambitious businessmen than as carefree adventurers. In Ithaca, New York, a company of fifty men, with a capital of $25,000 and a credit of $25,000 more at a local bank, planned to leave the western frontier in early April and reach the gold country in June. There, as the Ithaca Journal reported on March 21, 1849, "they will select a suitable location, erect cabins and proceed to rake in the dust."
In addition to reporting the financial arrangements of the overland companies, the local newspapers often printed each company's membership lists and their lengthy constitutions, or "Rules of Regulation," which more often than not prohibited swearing, drinking and violation of the Sabbath. Some companies issued uniforms, elected officers with military titles and drilled their members. Some purchased ships which carried cargoes of supplies and trade goods around Cape Horn to San Francisco, there to await the members' arrival by overland trail. One company included in its equipage eleven "gold finders" and a machine for making gold coins.
To raise money to join an overland company or to purchase a wagon, team and other "California fixings," goldseekers mortgaged or sold homes and farms, took out life savings, or borrowed from friends and fathers-in-law. The financial impact of this money raising caused concern in several states, with editors lamenting the loss of capital withdrawn from the local economy to support the sudden needs of men afflicted with gold fever. On March 27 a newspaper in Ann Arbor, Michigan, estimated that $30,000 had been taken out of Washtenaw County alone, with each man spending an average of $400 to pay for his outfit and transportation to the frontier. Many had to find additional money to provide for their wives and children until their return. A man in Ann Arbor, father of six daughters, sold his home to his brother for $1,200; a farmer on February 24, 1849, sold his acreage to his father-in-law for $1,300. More often, such funds came from mortgages, but some would-be goldseekers found that a mortgage was not always enough they had to enter into a contract to share equally with the moneylender the gold that would be found in California. Such contracts suggest the contagion of optimism that spring of 1849.
Ignorant of guns and camping life except for what they had heard or read in legend and literature, thousands of city and rural men studied John C. Frémont's famous Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842 and to Oregon and North California in the Years 1843-'44 and the accounts of other western travelers. In part motivated by such reading and by the traditional fear of Indians, these emigrants purchased a remarkable number of guns, an impulse encouraged by the U.S. War Department's February 1849 offer to sell pistols, rifles and ammunition at cost to California (and Oregon) emigrants.
In further preparation for their long journey, they probably bought one of the several "emigrant guides" issued that spring to tell the greenhorns how to find their way through the vastness of mountains and deserts. These publications, along with newspaper articles describing "Travel in the Far West," gave the goldseekers advice on what equipment and food they should purchase, whether oxen or mules made the best teams, where the Indians would be most dangerous. There were even tables of distances which set down the specific mileages from point to point water sources, river crossings, major topographic features. All this information reflected the fact that the trails from the western frontier across the wilderness half of the continent had been explored and traveled for many years by fur trappers and traders to Santa Fe since 1822, and to Oregon since 1812. Exploration or trailblazing would not be necessary for the crowds of inexperienced goldseekers or Californians as they were often called.
They had a choice of two primary routes: the Santa Fe Trail through territory newly acquired by conquest from Mexico, with various branches leading to southern California; or the far more publicized Oregon-California Trail, which since 1841 had been traveled by settlers headed for the Willamette or Sacramento valleys. Both of these well-established trails started at the major outfitting towns on the frontier, Independence and St. Joseph.
The goldseekers came to the frontier from every state in the Union, even from East Coast cities where the sea routes would have a strong appeal and from southern states where the routes through Texas and Mexico were open year-round. In all, at least 30,000 men, with possibly 1,000 women, traveled to the Missouri frontier. Never before had this country, or any other, experienced such an exodus of civilians, all heavily armed or intending to purchase rifles and pistols, mostly young men on the road for the first time, many organized into formal companies, others alone or with a few friends from their neighborhood. Impatient, curious, somewhat fearful of the uncertainties and dangers ahead, yet buoyed by their common expectations, they were not unlike a great volunteer army traveling from all parts of the nation to mobilize at the frontier.
Many who lived on farms and in villages and cities in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri packed their gear in their wagons and rolled down the nearest road, headed for the Missouri river towns. Thousands from farther east began their journey on river steamers down the Ohio and Mississippi, with typical cost $9 per man (including stateroom) for seven days from Pittsburgh to St. Louis. Others traveled west on the great Erie Canal across northern New York or across Pennsylvania on the Portage and Canal System. On Great Lakes steamers they often experienced their first bout of seasickness, while from East Coast cities they rode in crowded railroad cars to connect with river and canal transportation to the West.
Along the way some of these men kept their promise to write home, and thus began a dynamic process by which the entire nation was emotionally involved in the rush to California. Scores of thousands of Americans who stayed home wives, parents, sweethearts, relatives, friends who doubted the California stories, business partners and bankers who had helped finance the enterprise received, shared, or read in local newspapers letters sent back by the goldseekers. The first of these letters reached homes in March and April; they continued to come from St. Louis, then from the frontier, and later from military posts in the Far West; some from the Mormons' embryo city at Salt Lake, and finally from California. For some families, the letters came for years from husbands and sons who could not give up their quest for gold. Through these letters (and after the men came home, through their diaries) America saw the great West Indians, buffalo, deserts, the Rocky Mountains for the first time through hometown eyes and vicariously experienced life in the Sierra mining camps and in the astonishing cities of Marysville, Sacramento, Sonora and San Francisco.
One of the thousands who set out that spring of 1849 promising to write letters and to keep a diary was a man named William Swain, aged twenty-seven, from a farm near the village of Youngstown, New York, north of Niagara Falls. He had read of California's gold in the local newspapers. By February, California had become the focus of his future.
Swain's past, his family history and his pre-gold-rush prospects were representative of a large class of Americans who lived a rural life as comfortable inheritors of their fathers' frontier enterprise. Swain's father, Isaac, born in England in 1759, emigrated to eastern Pennsylvania in 1794 and finally settled in western New York in 1805 with his first wife and children on eighty acres near a cluster of cabins later known as Youngstown. After serving two enlistments in the Army during the War of 1812, he returned in 1814 to find his farm had been burned and pillaged by British troops. With $200 he received from the state of New York "for the relief of the late sufferers on the western frontier," he built a cabin near the ruins of his old home, and there two sons were born to his second wife, Patience: George in 1819, and William in 1821.
With summer help from his boys, Isaac slowly reestablished his farm, and in the spring of 1836 he hired two masons to help with the construction of a new home. Using cobblestones George and William had gathered and red clay from the shores of the Niagara River, the masons, sons and helping neighbors labored all summer under the supervision of Isaac, aged seventy-seven. With the two-story house completed before the first snow, Isaac imbedded in the hearth a relic found in the ashes of the first home he had built on this site the door to the Franklin stove that had warmed his first wife and children. In 1838 Isaac died, leaving the farm to Patience, George and William.
In April 1840, William graduated from Lewiston Academy. Having given up his military ambitions, he studied for his teacher's certificate and spent his winters as a schoolmaster in Niagara County. At his school's spelling bee in the spring of 1846, he met Sabrina Barrett, dark-haired, slim, twenty years old. A seventh-generation American (her ancestors settled in Connecticut Colony in 1640), she had graduated from Leroy Academy in Theresa, New York, east of Youngstown. Through the summer of 46 William often left the work of the farm to George so that he could ride his horse to the village of Lewiston and up the ridge to the Barrett farm. There he courted Sabrina. Often they walked through her father's fields to a secluded place which commanded a sweeping view of the Niagara River Gorge and north across the valley to Youngstown? They talked of their future, and William told Sabrina of his and George's plans to enlarge the Swain farm, plant scores more peach trees and become major farmers in the valley.
Married July 6, 1847, William and Sabrina moved into the cobblestone house with Patience and George; and there on June 18, 1848, Sabrina gave birth to Eliza Crandall Swain.
Through the summer of 1848 William and George worked the farm, repairing fences around their fields and clearing part of the surrounding forest to enlarge their orchard. George's ambitions in Niagara County politics took him with increasing frequency to Buffalo and the towns of Niagara Falls and Lockport during the political campaign. He brought back the local newspapers and sometimes New York City papers, which were shared with neighbors when they came to the Swain home, a center for political discussion? Following the November elections, the newspapers and neighborhood talk returned to more mundane affairs. Then on December 5, 1848, President Polk delivered his endorsement of the report from California.
The newspapers in Buffalo, Niagara Falls and Lockport carried the President's message. During the weeks thereafter they reprinted whatever the New York papers reported about California. On January 26, 1849, the Buffalo Morning Express published an editorial entitled "The Gold Excitement": "We are quite sure that it is the duty of newspapers to use all the means in their power to repress rather than stimulate the prevailing excitement on the subject of gold in California. But we must publish all the authentic intelligence from that region and of what avail is sedate or sage or admonitory comment in the face of the glittering, dazzling news? According to the New York papers the inhabitants of that city are wild with excitement. The New York Express says 'We have seen in our day manias, fevers and excitements of all sorts, but it can easily be said never were people so worked up, so delirious as they were here and elsewhere yesterday when they read the gilded telegraphic dispatches from Washington chronicling the reception there of intelligence from El Dorado....The fact is, this last gold news has unsettled the minds of even the most cautious and careful among us.'"
The January 30 issue of the New York Herald carried a dispatch datelined Liverpool, England: "The gold excitement here and in London exceeds anything ever before known or heard of. Nothing is heard or talked about but the new El Dorado. Companies are organizing in London in great numbers for the promised land. Fourteen vessels have already been chartered."
Most eagerly awaited through the winter of 1849 were the astonishing reports direct from California. The Buffalo Morning Express, February 8, published a letter dated "Monterey, California, November 16, 1848" which explained that "gold is found pure in the native soil here and is worth more, just as it is taken from the ground, than an equal weight of coined gold from any mint. It occurs in the form of small leaves or irregular masses....The stratum of gold is unbroken and extends over a tract 120 miles in length and seventy miles in breadth."
Such was the dazzling news that appeared in newspapers during January and February 1849. The Buffalo Daily Courier, February 7, ran a column with the heading "Ho! for California" which advised that "another company of emigrants to California started from our city on Thursday evening. We learn that several sober-minded citizens, businessmen not before 'suspected,' are also making preparations to start for the gold country."
Day after day columns in the newspapers carried headings that read "Routes to California," "From the Gold Country," and "Gold Regions: Highly Important to Emigrants!" Here were discussed the best routes by land and sea, the proper equipage and the cost of a "California outfit." As well, there were reports of success direct from the gold fields. One such letter advised: "Many men who began last June  to dig for gold with capital of $50 can now show $5,000 to $15,000."
In the stores and streets of Youngstown, Lewiston and other farming towns in western New York, as in cities and villages across the nation, passing conversation turned from the weather, farming or business problems to the thrilling subject of gold in the Sacramento Valley. At the Swain farm George and William came in from their chores and talked at dinner and later before the fire with Sabrina and their mother about the latest newspaper reports. Through George's political contacts and from salesmen and others arriving by the Erie Canal at Lockport, sixteen miles to the east, they kept informed of the latest reports and rumors from Washington and New York City. News from western states, from the frontier and St. Louis, came with passengers on lake steamers that docked each day in Buffalo from Chicago.
Given the Swain brothers' educational background and the fact that since student days they had read the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the poems of Wordsworth, had memorized long passages from Shakespeare and each Sunday had read from the Bible, it was natural for them to turn to books for further information about California and the West.
One of the most widely circulated books of the time, What I Saw in California by Edwin Bryant, published in 1846, told in vivid detail what it was like to travel through the vast territory which most maps called "The Great American Desert." But more than any other account of trails and travel in the western wilderness, John C. Frémont's Report spoke to thousands of families about life in the West about the Platte River, Fort Laramie, South Pass and other places that a few months later would be seen by men whose reading of Frémont had helped them decide to go. The Swains owned a copy of Frémont, and they must have turned its pages many times during January and February. Their talk centered ever more sharply on William's growing determination to go to California on the overland trail.
Sabrina pleaded with him to stay home reminded him of the needs and demands of Eliza, not yet one year old. She turned to Patience Swain for support. But the mother left the decision to her sons. George favored William's ambitions, and it was his willingness to take full responsibility for the family and the farm that freed William to plan his journey.
With George he figured the costs of getting to California and the equipment that would be needed, and most important, they talked of who should accompany William on this dangerous expedition. As the older brother, a bachelor, a man of spirit and imagination, George would have been the ideal partner. But someone had to stay home to watch over Sabrina and her baby and their elderly mother and maintain the farm. In any case, George had hopes of a political appointment through his Democratic friends.
First, William and George approached their friend Frederick Bailey, Youngstown resident, aged thirty, married and father of a young son. He was eager to join William. Then they met with their neighbors on River Road, Dr. Benjamin Root and his wife Elizabeth. They agreed that their son, John, nineteen and a bachelor, could go. A few days later a longtime friend, Michael Hutchinson, came to Youngstown for one of his periodic visits from his farm south of Buffalo. A widower without children, he would be the oldest of the group, forty-three.
To reach the Missouri frontier, Swain and his three companions decided to take passage from Buffalo by lake steamer to Detroit, and then by rail and canal boat to connect with river steamers down the Illinois River and on to St. Louis. After considering the difficulties of taking their wagons and supplies from their homes, they concluded it would be far less expensive and much quicker to buy wagons, teams and necessary equipment and food at the frontier. The newspapers encouraged this plan with reports that merchants in the frontier towns of Independence and St. Joseph had large stocks of tents, kettles, rifles, flour, rice, wagons, mules and oxen, and all other "California fixings."
Swain and his family knew that when he left home he would be exposed to dangers that could cause sickness, injury or death. Of primary concern was the ubiquitous pestilence cholera. Little was known about the disease in 1849. Its cause was a mystery, its treatment a matter of choice. The suggested causes varied from "evening mists" to "a lack of electricity in the victim's system." The preventives were equally imaginative, including "Captain Paynter's Egyptian Cure for Asiatic Cholera" and "Dally's and Connell's Magic Pain Extractor."
Of course cholera might attack Sabrina or George or Patience, even Eliza, while William traveled westward; but somehow the danger seemed greater for him, far from home, in a migration of strangers. And there was news of cholera on Mississippi River boats and in St. Louis.
There were other dangers, more subtle, more ill-defined, but of great concern. William's moral health might be undermined during his absence by the influence of new companions, the snares and lures of sinful people and places. Without moral support and the elevating influence of his family and their religious commitment, without regular reading of the Bible, William might succumb to temptations of gambling, swearing, drinking, worse. Patience and Sabrina admonished him to read his Bible every day. To that end, his mother gave him a Bible with certain pages marked for his special attention.
Of importance almost equal to Bible reading, William would keep a diary a daily record of his life and all that happened. This discipline would serve as a reminder of family obligations and shared values and would attest to his purpose to return home. When the diary was read by his family, his adventures would be relived through its pages. Meantime, there would be letters Swain promised to write to Sabrina, George and his mother, to be sent home during the journey to the frontier, and especially from St. Louis and Independenc