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When The World Rushed In was first published in 1981, the Washington Post predicted, “It seems unlikely that anyone will write a more comprehensive book about the Gold Rush.” Twenty years later, no one has emerged to contradict that judgment, and the book has gained recognition as a classic. As the San Francisco Examiner noted, “It is not often that a work of history can be said to supplant every book on the same subject that has gone before it.”
Through the diary and letters of William Swain—augmented by interpolations from more than five hundred other gold seekers and by letters sent to Swain from his wife and brother back home—the complete cycle of the gold rush is recreated: the overland migration of over thirty thousand men, the struggle to “strike it rich” in the mining camps of the Sierra Nevadas, and the return home through the jungles of the Isthmus of Panama.
In a new preface, the author reappraises our continuing fascination with the “gold rush experience” as a defining epoch in western—indeed, American—history.
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.
Excerpted from The World Rushed In by J. S. Holliday. Copyright © 1993 J. S. Holliday. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Posted June 11, 2008