Role in the Gold Rush
Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Map showing Central America
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
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,
5. Edited by June Allen Reading, consignments To El Dorado, Exposition
6. The Americanized Encyclopedia, 1898.