Wild West - Coming Soon
Heroes & Villains - Coming Soon

Send this article
to a friend!


Panama's Role in the Gold Rush

By Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff

Today when we think about the prospect of gold hunting, whether for a weekend venture or a weeks vacation, the hardest part of the ordeal might be loading the back of the station wagon with our gear or maybe just finagling the time off is the biggest chore. The destination is usually the same, California gold country. Sure there are other areas to gold hunt but if you consider all things a modern prospecting family has to contend with today, California will top the list in desirability. Climate, accommodations, accessibility, and gold are what the public wants.

Folks from the east coast think nothing of a six-hour flight to the west coast and then renting a vehicle to convey them into the gold country. People from western states might just tour out in an RV taking a few days to reach their destination.

Click To Enlarge
Jas. W. Marshall, discoverer of gold in California, Jan 24, 1848.

When you think about the gold rush of 1849 have you thought about how the '49ers got there? The news of Marshall's find at Sutters Mill spread out very slowly to the rest of the world by today's standards. Word of mouth or letters carried by rider or steamers brought the news to the rest of the world. From the time of discovery in January 1848 until the first part of June that year, 2000 miners had made their way to the gold fields. Within the next few months however the cities of San Jose, San Francisco, and Monterey were almost emptied by the news of the easy pickings. At Monterey a whole platoon of soldiers abandoned their posts and left behind only the company flag. By August settlers began heading south from Oregon to find the precious metal.

The military governor of California at the time was Col. Richard B. Mason. On August 17, 1848 he decided to get word to Washington. His messenger left Monterey for Panama and the Isthmus, made the crossing, and soon he was on the Atlantic side of the world. The ship hewas on stopped briefly in New Orleans where he first let out the word of the golden discoveries in California. As the messenger sailed around the coast to Washington the news spread up the Mississippi River and into the mid western states. Upon his arrival in Washington the messenger presented the Secretary of War with lumps of gold worth over $3,000.

The news was now official and undeniable. It spread like wildfire up and down the entire coastline of the Atlantic. News of the events in California read like one of the 1001 Adventures of An Arabian Night tales. Imagine gold just lying on the ground waiting to be picked up by some adventurous soul! People on the east coast were weary of farming and business. They were in need of an adventure. The Mexican War to was recently over and the people were restless. This was to be America's first great migration and by the end of 1848, 20 thousand miners had reached the gold fields.

1849 was the year however, that affected the entire world. Any man of means and property considered heading west. The routes were numerous and the risks were high. Many went overland to the Mississippi and took it south to get off at a spot where they could connect with caravans heading across the southern part of the Rockies. For some it was the Santa Fe Trail and a long, arduous wagon train trip complete with Indian attacks. Others paid up to $500.00 for a passage to Vera Cruz and then attempted to cross the Mexican Frontier.

Click To Enlarge
Map showing Central America and Panama

More popular were the trip around Cape Horn to San Francisco and the route to Panama across the Isthmus. The Cape Horn trip was 15,687 miles and the trip via Panama was 6063 from New York. It is easy to see why the trip of choice was the Panama connection. Advertisements sprang up everywhere by solid men selling off their possessions to purchase a ticket to Panama and beyond. This was a chance of a lifetime and few passed it up, but keep in mind as the trip is described further, that this was the passage of choice.

After selling ones worldly possessions to acquire the ticket to Panama the passenger would board the ship amongst much fan fare and hoopla. Those that could not go sent their best wishes at the docks. Once on board passengers would settle into their cabins a small 6 X 4 foot affair with little or no air circulation. Those were for the few that could afford a cabin while others would be crowded below decks to fight over hammocks. By the end of the first day most passengers were sea sick and feeling quite sorry they had set foot on a ship, but there was no turning back now. Onward they forged eventually stopping in Jamaica to fill the coal bunkers. This was a slow process as it was loaded by women carrying the black fuel in baskets on their heads.

Once back at sea the days and nights were filled with boredom. Many took to drinking which led to the occasional fight. A popular game of whist was played and songs sometimes sung, the most popular of which was "Oh, Susanna" by G. N. Christy. His song was the anthem of the gold rush. Occasionally a kite would be flown or a sermon preached both in the endeavor to keep spirits higher.

Finally after weeks at sea the steamers and sailing ships would anchor off the coast at Chagris on the Atlantic side of Panama. The men were excited to be so close to being on firm ground. On the bluff to the left was the large castle of San Lorenzo, whose cannons were rendered silent from lack of use. In the 17th century Henry Morgan the pirate attacked here, took the stronghold, and eventually went on to sack the city of Panama.

The natives row out to the ships and negotiate with the passengers to bring their belongings ashore and then up the Chagris River. The native laborers are dressed in white linen and most were naked above the waste including the women. The children wore no clothes at all. A typical fee might be ten dollars, however often times after the baggage was unloaded from the ship it would be stacked on the docks and the natives would go back on the deals choosing instead to dawdle in the shade and smoke cigars. Then it was a matter of competitive bidding to get the rest of the passage up the river secured. This fee often ran up to fifteen dollars. The first of many unexpected expenses they encountered.

The trip up the crooked Chagris River was a new experience for even the most seasoned traveler. The beauty of the jungle foliage completely emerged them into its world. Sugar cane, giant lilies, mangos, and palms were everywhere. The colors previously unimaginable now caught the adventurers staring in awe. Much of the trekking was done between midnight and sunrise due to the extreme heat. If one treated the natives well, they were given fine diets of dried pork, chicken, eggs, and baked plantains along the way. Often however blowhards and bullies using the barrel of a gun took what they wanted leaving some of the river voyages very unpleasant for those to follow later.

Two days travel out of Chagris the river changed from its jungle character to that of one lined with cultivated fields. Along this part of the river the rains swelled the river and caused rapids that were very difficult to maneuver. The natives would have to get out of the boats and pull them along. Sudden squalls came up quite often which had no effect what so ever on the natives but our travelers covered themselves as best they could to avoid the pelting rain.

Usually the boats would stop at Cruces and the passengers would take a mule path across the lower mountain ranges directly into Panama City, but the word had reached them that the town was full of cholera. Gorgona was the next best stop. The trip from here was much rougher and had to be made by way of horse or mule packing you and your belongings across rugged mountains for nearly 24 miles. So, here was to be another expense. Ten for a mule and even more for the baggage. Fifty cents for a meal and twenty-five cents for a place to lie down under the cover of a tent was not uncommon. Many travelers not having the money for the extra expenses took only the bare necessities and headed out on the tail by foot. Sometimes even this was a difficult way to go for the hard clay soil held the water from the daily rains and the trails became gullies of mud that went as deep as horses bellies and chest high on some men.

Soon the sign they had waited for arrived. The Indian guide would stop, wash up, and then put on fresh white trousers. It meant the end of the mountain trip was near. Soon the backbreaking days of exposure, bad food and tropical rains would be over. Next stop Panama City and a steamer to San Francisco, or so they thought.

At the crumbling Panama City men from all over the world were converging at once. The governments of Europe were having rough times and revolutions had shaken up most of these old world countries sending Germans, French and Englishmen to seek their fortunes in the gold fields. Most of these men along with Americans, Chinese, and Australians passed through Panama City. At any given time in 1849 there would be two thousand or more Americans and at least seven thousand others awaiting passage to San Francisco. Yes, awaiting passage. For this is where the problems started to heap up. All these people converging and not enough steamers to carry them all.

A person could take a windjammer north but this trip would take seventy or eighty days at sea causing one to lose precious time from the gold diggings. People decided to wait for the steamers, and wait they did, some for weeks and some for months. Those that didn't budget for the extra time and money gave up and sailed out on cramped sailing ships and the long sea voyage. Those men of solid means were forced to fight for hammocks at night and food at the table if they wanted to eat on these sea voyages.

Those that waited for the steamers faced the news of sickness and death of other Americans by dysentery, yellow fever and cholera. The travelers found themselves cursing the Pacific Steamship Company because the few ships promised were either being repaired, booked solid or just simply hadn't
arrived on schedule. Often the crews upon reaching San Francisco would desert and join the others in the search for their fortunes leaving the captains to round up new crews for the return trip to Panama City.

In Panama City the travelers made the best of their stay. High rents on rooms and scarcity of good food made life rough. During the rainy season the water streamed down the streets, but in the dry season the water had to be hauled into the city by mule. A room would cost a dollar a day and it included only a table and a cask of water. There were no cots or mattresses available. Shortages of everything were evident.

During the day men roamed the streets, drank and frequented the many gambling establishments. Although the national pastime seemed to be cockfighting, the gambling houses had roulette wheels, faro banks, and monte boards also to amuse everyone. Many men hung around the ticket agencies waiting for news of steamers arriving and still others followed the agents themselves so no actions would go unnoticed.

Finally two reports from a cannon at sea would bring the whole city to life. It meant a ship was finally at hand. Thousands would take to the streets yelling and carrying on. They all hoped there would be enough room for everyone but usually this was not the case. If the ship didn't need weeks of repairs it might only have room for 1500 passengers. The other thousands would have to wait.

Sometimes a lottery would be announced. Persons wanting a ticket would register their names and lots would be drawn. If a blank paper was drawn it meant waiting until the next steamer came in or jumping on a sailing ship for seventy days. Drawing a winning slip would be cause of a lot of cheering and hand shaking all around for that lucky soul was leaving.

From 1848 to 1869 375,000 people crossed the Isthmus of Panama to the west and 225,000 people crossed to the east. You can hardly imagine what that amount of people converging on a small city can do to it. Despite the hardships the economy was boosted by the gold rush for the first time since Henry Morgan's ravaging of the city in 1671 and it wasn't long before the railroads and engineers started work on the systems that now connect the Atlantic and Pacific.

As for our adventurous travelers, they steamed up the coast and after being turned away at Acapulco for fear of cholera; they pushed on until sighting San Diego where their depression seemed to lift knowing that they would soon land in San Francisco to search for their fortunes. New adventures would await them there.

By the end of 1849 100,000 men were in the gold fields and by the peak in 1852 there were almost 225,000 at work. More then $200,000,000. in gold went to build the great country we have today just during the gold rush years of 1848 to 1852 much due to the brave souls that passed through the connections at Panama.


1. John Haskell Kembell, To California and the South Seas, The Huntinton Library, 1966.
2. Sandra W. Meditz and Dennis M. Hanratty, Panama a Country Study, United States Government 1989.
3. Joseph Henry Jackson, Gold Rush Album, Bonanza Books, 1949.
4. John and Laree Caughey, California Heritage, Ward ritchie Press, 1962
5. Edited by June Allen Reading, consignments To El Dorado, Exposition Press, 1972.
6. The Americanized Encyclopedia, 1898.

Home Search - Coming Soon Search - Coming Soon Search - Coming Soon