With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails to the Mining West, 1849-1852

With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails to the Mining West, 1849-1852

by Will Bagley

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During the mid-nineteenth century, a quarter of a million travelers—men, women, and children—followed the “road across the plains” to gold rush California. This magnificent chronicle—the second installment of Will Bagley’s sweeping Overland West series—captures the danger, excitement, and heartbreak of America’s first…  See more details below


During the mid-nineteenth century, a quarter of a million travelers—men, women, and children—followed the “road across the plains” to gold rush California. This magnificent chronicle—the second installment of Will Bagley’s sweeping Overland West series—captures the danger, excitement, and heartbreak of America’s first great rush for riches and its enduring consequences.

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University of Oklahoma Press
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Overland West Series , #2
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With Golden Visions Bright Before Them

Trails to the Mining West, 1849-1852

By Will Bagley


Copyright © 2012 Will Bagley
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8777-8


Men of Enterprise and Adventure

The Rush Begins

California's gold was no secret to the Californios, who—along with their Native allies and enemies—formed a large majority of the population when the United States acquired the province in February 1848. This knowledge was already a generation old when they flocked to San Feliciano Canyon in 1842. A year later the agent of Yankee trader and Mexican citizen Don Abel Stearns deposited 18.34 ounces of placer gold from these mines in the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. The sight of a glittering nugget, such as the one James Marshall noticed in the tailrace of a sawmill he was building in January 1848, was nothing new, but Marshall's discovery started California's second bout with gold fever. Not much happened until May, when Samuel Brannan, a retired Mormon preacher and partner at a trading post in the former bunkhouse at Sutters Fort, bought up every pick, shovel, and Indian basket he could find. Brannan was nobody's fool, but until that point his business had to rely on gold from the pockets of travelers "wishing to cross the mountains with pack animals" and barter; "California banknotes"—cattle hides worth about a dollar—served as his primary medium of exchange. Rumors about gold were already rampant, but the gold dust coming over his counter and a quick visit to the mines confirmed its existence. No one in San Francisco had paid much attention to the stories, but when Brannan charged up Montgomery Street on 10 May 1848 waving a bottle of gold dust in one hand, swinging his hat with the other, and shouting, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" everything changed. By the middle of June "the abandonment of San Francisco was complete," Brannan's newspaper announced.

California's military governor, Colonel Richard Mason, set out for the goldfields in July 1848 to investigate the wild stories coming from the American River and see where most of his soldiers had gone. The stories were all true; he reported on his return to Monterey, "the most remarkable part of it is that it is not exaggerated." Four thousand men were scattered along the river's South Fork digging from one to three ounces of gold per day from the streams and gulches. One small ravine disgorged gold worth upward of $12,000. "I could not have credited these reports, had I not seen, in the abundance of the precious metal, evidence of their truth," Mason wrote. Even his officers could hardly credit "the gold-digger's stories" the colonel brought back.

Lieutenant Edward Ord asked permission to go and see for himself, along with Captain A. J. Smith of the First Dragoons. On their way, they found farms and villages almost deserted. The officer in charge of the port of San Francisco had already collected $40,000 in duties, all paid in raw gold. The officers dined with "twenty well-dressed happy-looking civilians" who all downed one or more bottles of champagne, each worth three days of Ord's pay. Smith and Ord sailed for Sacramento with Sam Brannan, now well on his way to becoming California's first millionaire. They ascended the Sacramento River with "some half-dozen runaway sailors and a grogshop keeper or two" to a landing, where "half a dozen motley set of vagabonds, (whites, Indians, negroes, kenakas, Chinese and Chilenos)" greeted their launch. John Sutter helped the officers find horses. By sunset they were riding toward the Mormon diggings along the American River. The next morning they went to see "the gold washers at work."

At Mormon Island, named after the Mormon Battalion veterans who made the first big strike, the officers found three hundred men digging, panning, and rocking primitive cradles that produced two ounces per man for a morning's work. "We looked on in wonder and astonishment for a hour, to see by what a simple process men were all around us getting rich," Ord wrote. Mormon families camped at every spring or patch of grass, "perfectly contented with their luck." The officers spent the evening chatting about their prospects "in the newly established city on the shores of the Salt Lake." The Saints, as they called themselves, were preparing to leave El Dorado to join Brigham Young in their new Zion in the Great Basin, saying they "had gold enough." Within a month they had blazed a wagon road over Carson Pass.

On Sunday Ord visited the dry diggings. Working with a borrowed washer, in fifteen minutes the officers extracted more than an ounce of pure gold from less than a peck of dirt. Ord estimated almost every man along the American River's South Fork was, without exception, "making from two ounces to two hundred dollars per day, when they chose to work." Three fourths of them "were either runaway sailors or soldiers, or men who had left home suddenly, and might be called a drinking, fighting but not a working population." Under "the enterprising gold-loving Yankees," Ord predicted California would export from six to ten million dollars' worth of gold annually within ten years. Men from Oregon, southern California, and then Mexico and Chile soon joined the frenzy, and the craze for the shiny metal left the army without enough men to guard its ordnance. Ord saw "towns without men—country without government, laws or legislators—and, what's more, no one disposed to stop to make them." Even the grizzly bears and great herds of wild elk and antelope near the well-traveled road to the goldfields had "not had time to get out of the way of the tide of gold hunters rolling over the plains."

These Immense Additions to Our Territorial Possessions

As his presidency came to its end, James K. Polk struggled mightily to persuade Congress to provide a government for the Mexican-American War's greatest prize—Alta California, the vast territory south of the 42nd parallel stretching from the Continental Divide to the Pacific. California's mineral wealth "and other advantages" would attract a large population, but Polk feared that "among the emigrants would be men of enterprise and adventure" who would "probably organize an independent Government, calling it California or the Pacific Republic, and might induce Oregon to join them." Sectional politics complicated the issue, since the fate of slavery was inextricably bound up in the future of this newly conquered province, but Congress took no action to prevent losing California to a band of reckless and ambitious opportunists.

The president rode to his successor's inauguration at the U.S. Capitol with the president-elect, Zachary Taylor, who "was free in conversation." The subject of California came up, "which drew from Gen'l Taylor the expression of views & opinions which greatly surprised me," Polk confided to his diary. California and Oregon were "too distant to become members of the Union," Taylor said: it would be better for them to form an independent government. Although aghast at the implications of Taylor's rambling, Polk said nothing. If Congress failed to extend the protection of law to California, "there was danger that that fine territory would be lost to the Union by establishment of an Independent Government," he wrote. "Gen'l Taylor's opinions as expressed, I hope, have not been well considered." Polk, of course, was horrified that all his work to build a continental nation was about to be squandered and undone. He concluded Taylor was a well-meaning old man, but the general was "uneducated, exceedingly ignorant of public affairs, and, I should judge of very ordinary capacity."

In his last message to Congress on 5 December 1848, President Polk had already announced news that would forestall his successor's vague plan to abandon the lands the United States had purchased from Mexico with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. "The Mississippi, so lately the frontier of our country, is now only its center," Polk observed. The acquisition changed not only the frontier—as Richard White quipped, the place where white people got scarce—but the very definition of the American West, which now encompassed all the lands between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean. Its conquests made the United States nearly as large as the whole of Europe. "It would be difficult to calculate the value of these immense additions to our territorial possessions," he added. Polk then confirmed the news the New York Herald first reported in August. "It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition," Polk noted. "Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated." He went on to say that the extraordinary tales of gold would "scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service." Colonel Mason confirmed the stories and estimated the gold in the conquered province would pay for the war with Mexico a hundred times over. Two days after Polk's message, the War Department put on display physical proof of the president's claims: a tea caddy containing 230 ounces—more than fourteen pounds—of California gold that Mason had sent to Washington.

Cholera would kill James K. Polk three months after he left the presidency. If he had calculated that his announcement of the gold discovery would promote a surge of emigration to the West Coast, the result could not have pleased him more. The California gold rush created one of the largest voluntary migrations in history. By early June 1849, a Fort Laramie trader told John W. Gunnison, eleven thousand wagons and forty-four thousand emigrants were on their way to Oregon, California, and Utah. Along with the older settlers, a convention in Monterey expressed their desire to become part of the Union when it created a state constitution on 13 October 1849. A month later, voters elected Oregon Trail veteran Peter H. Burnett governor of the provisional state of California.

The gold rush began a new era in overland trail history. The previous decade had seen the creation of well-established wagon roads to the Pacific, but fewer than 20,000 people had used them to venture west before 1848. (By contrast, between 1840 and 1850 the population of Illinois swelled by 375, 287 souls.) The trails to Oregon and California continued their dynamic evolution for the next twenty years, but by 1849 the era of heroic pioneering was over. More than 100,000 people would set out for the West Coast in 1849 and 1850 to test whether the trail blazed by Indians, fur traders, explorers, missionaries, soldiers, speculators, and farmers was a viable "Road across the Plains." Gold mania added new routes to the California Trail. For the first time, westbound wagons used the Salt Lake Cutoff to return to the main trail at City of Rocks. In July 1849, the Hudspeth Cutoff supplanted the northern detour to Fort Hall. Cherokee gold seekers from today's Oklahoma opened two entirely new ways to get from the South Platte River to Fort Bridger in 1849. Known as the Cherokee Trail, the new traces followed the Arkansas River to Pikes Peak and crossed the Continental Divide along the general line of today's Interstate 80. Like other alternates, these additions relieved the immense pressure livestock and people put on pastures and springs along the main trail.

The disease that killed the retired president at Nashville crept up the Mississippi River Valley, slaying thousands in the unhealthy river towns. Cholera swept through the crowded hordes of gold seekers, who carried it to the tribes of the Great Plains. In a year that marked an explosion of American energy and enterprise, the devastating epidemic of 1849 proved a grim harbinger to the peoples of the plains.

As Contagious as the Itch: Gold Fever

As cholera worked its insidious way up the Mississippi, another equally potent epidemic was sweeping America. "We want words to convey an idea of the extent of the gold fever in New York," the Philadelphia Public Ledger reported on 22 December 1848. "At church, in the theatre, at the table, in every hotel, the talk is of California."

Before 1848, no wagon had ever passed between Oregon and California, overland veteran Peter Burnett recalled, but the fever struck Oregon early enough for Burnett to begin organizing a train late that summer. "It occurred to me that we might be able to make the trip with wagons," he wrote, so he asked former Hudson's Bay chieftain John McLoughlin if he thought it was practical. "Without hesitation he replied that he thought we could succeed." On 10 September 1848 Burnett led a party of forty-six wagons and between 150 and 200 men south from Oregon City. Forty miles north of the Sacramento Valley, they met the lost, starving, and disorganized remnant of the train Peter Lassen had led west from the Humboldt. The Oregonians saw no "evidence of any work having been bestowed upon the road by the emigrants." Burnett's pioneers easily cleared the trace of fallen timber and loose rock. By the end of October they had blazed a wagon road from the Willamette Valley to the Sacramento Valley. Perhaps two thirds of Oregon's male population followed before year's end. This was not good news for the women and children left behind. "Every thing was prosperous until the breaking out of the gold fever in California, when the men, most of them left the plow and the ax in search of the glittering dust," Betsey Bayley wrote from Yamhill County.

Back in the States, "The gold excitement spread like wildfire, even out to our log cabin in the prairie, and as we had almost nothing to lose, and we might gain a fortune, we early caught the fever," recalled Luzena Wilson. "It sounded like such a small task to go out to California, and once there fortune, of course, would come to us." Incredible fantasies of instant wealth animated an astonishing number of Forty-niners, and credible sources fed the mania. "I have seen the gold; I have handled it; I have it now in my possession to the amount of thousands of dollars; and what is most cheering, the quantities appear to be inexhaustible," wrote Donner party veteran James F. Reed. "All who have worked in digging gold, from 4 to 6 hours in a day, have from 800 to 2000 dollars, collected within the last 60 days. This is difficult to be realized, but it is true."

The hysteria became a worldwide phenomenon, attracting thousands from Central America and Polynesia, spreading to South America, crossing the Pacific to Australia and China, and finally infecting Europe. "Many die unheeded, many come off rich," wrote California's military governor, "but there are ten arriving from each quarter of the globe to replace every one who goes—Chinese, Sandwich Islanders, Chilians, Peruvians, Prussians, Mexicans, French, English, Irish, outnumber as yet the Americans, but the latter will soon have their share." As Malcolm Rohrbough observed, "When California discovered gold, the world discovered California."

Gold fever, John Berry Hill recalled, "was as contagious as the itch. If you took it, brimstone and grease wouldn't cure you. The only remedy was to go to the mines and try your luck." Why did Americans respond so enthusiastically to the call of California's gold? Some claimed the noblest of motives. "Our object is to endeavor to make something in California so as to support them in their old days as well as to enable us to remove them from unpleasant recollections," wrote Alexander Graham, seeking to justify abandoning his aging family. Francis A. Hardy said he was leaving all that was dear to him on earth "to procure the means (if possible by industry, honesty and persevereance) to render my family (a wife and infant son) comfortable and happy."

The dismal state of the capital-starved American economy, still mired in a deep depression brought on by the Panic of 1837 that even the war with Mexico did little to dispel, provided a bottom-line motive for individuals to head to California. "It was a period of National hard times and we being financially involved in our business interests near Clinton, Iowa, longed to go to the new El Dorado and 'pick up' gold enough with which to return and pay off our debts," recalled Catherine Haun, rather delicately obscuring the mountain of unpaid bills she and her new husband left behind. James A. Tate set out for "the much famed Land of Gold in California, to repair a ruined fortune." Dr. Charles E. Boyle felt "determined to make one mighty effort to disenthrall myself from the slavery of the detested sin of being poor, and here I am on my way to California."

"The fever has got a deeper hold on me," Joseph H. Purdy confessed as he contemplated the risks and rewards of a trek to the mines early in 1849: he decided to cut in half his previous estimate of the required time and personal risk. A man could not make a better investment than to grubstake an underfunded Argonaut, he assured his brother. His joint-stock company's charter guaranteed the repayment of any investments and one half of the profits. "By this you will see," Purdy wrote, "that the capitalist risks nothing but the interest on his capital." Purdy's surefire moneymaking machine never left Ohio, but he was spinning a golden dream that would become a model for generations of Americans. The desire to get rich quick was not yet embedded in the country's soul, but El Dorado's dazzling promise of financial liberation without great effort had wide appeal.


Excerpted from With Golden Visions Bright Before Them by Will Bagley. Copyright © 2012 Will Bagley. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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