Gold!

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The trip around South America was long and expensive, but it was passably comfortable for a man on a good ship with an able skipper and a fair break in the weather. One Franklin Buck who left New York on January 18, 1849, 1^d not reach San Francisco until August 6; but he passed the time without undue tedium: he had included in his baggage a backgammon board, a library of 250 volumes, and a good supply of wine. As the demand for ships grew, all possible vessels were diverted to carrying California-bound passengers. The New England whaling fleet was taken over almost in its entirety. Merchant vessels were, for the most part, only minimally converted for passenger comfort (but this was not vital if these ships were sound and well-handled). What was criminal was the way in which get-rich-quick operators dragged rotten-bottomed ships out of retirement, patched the worst of their leaks, and, as often as not, gave command of them to incompetents or drunks who could no longer hold a berth under normal conditions.

But it made no difference to the clamoring crowds of Argonauts: they would board anything headed for California. Many ships went down, especially in the stormy passage around Cape Horn—how many no one knows—and gold-rush diaries frequently record sighting the wreckage of some unfortunate craft, and speak of the chilling effect it had on those who saw it.

The Panama route was much shorter and, in terms of actual traveling time, faster: six to eight months via Cape Horn, six weeks by way of Panama. The only trouble was that there were often months of waiting mixed in with the six weeks of traveling. The Argonaut landed at Chagres on the Isthmus, crossed the seventy-five-mile stretch of jungle, partly by native boat on the swirling, treacherous Chagres River and partly by mule train along narrow, dripping, insectinfested trails fetid from the rotting carcasses of mules, and finally reached the moribund city of Panama on the Pacific, whence another ship could be had to take him on to California. But there were few ships on the Pacific, especially in 1849, and as fast as they arrived in San Francisco, their crews deserted them to go mining. Argonauts found themselves stranded in Panama for weeks and months while the floating population of the town continued to swell—for passenger agents back East went on selling tickets with bland assurances of connections at Panama. Hundreds died of malaria, cholera, and other diseases as a result of the inevitably unsanitary conditions. Some men, as foolhardy as they were impatient, started up the coast in various small craft. Most were never heard of again.

When a ship did come, four or five times as many men crowded aboard as the vessel was meant to carry. As a result, the passage was usually miserable. Hiram Pierce, a dour, middle-aged blacksmith from Troy, New York, who left a wife and seven children to go after gold, described mealtime as an alfresco affair on deck with sailors carrying food between a double row of passengers while everyone grabbed: “Many behave so swineish that I prefer to stay a way unless driven to it by hunger.” The ship’s doctor was a drunk; one night he got himself entangled in his hammock and was suspended with his head dangling. Another time, “The same worthy took a dose of medecine to a patient 8c haveing a bone in his hand knawing, he took the medecine & gave the bone to the patient.”

Most of those who came by sea arrived at San Francisco. The town had gained back all the population it had lost to the mines, and thousands more. It was an ephemeral place of tents and wooden walls with canvas roofs, changing so fast that the diary-keeping Argonaut, passing through and then returning three or four months later, invariably noted that nothing was as it had been. San Francisco was the great warehouse of the gold fields, the port of debarkation for gold seekers, the place where a miner down from the hills could purchase various pleasures more titillating than anything he had dreamed of back home.

The strange hysteria that gripped men, many of them sober, levelheaded citizens until that moment, was variously known as gold fever, yellow fever, California fever, California mania, and gold mania. The term “fever” seems to fit it best because, like a real fever, its peak or crisis could almost be pinpointed and the period of recovery charted. In the Atlantic coast states it raged at its height from December of 1848 into the following March and then began a slow decline through the rest of 1849. In the Mississippi Valley it was a little later getting started, reaching its peak from February through May of 1849.

To those living in the Mississippi Valley, the natural route was overland (although many gold seekers from seaboard stales also joined the wagon companies). A number took various southern routes, such as the Sonora Trail, which swings down into Mexico, and the Santa Fe Trail and its westward extensions. But by far the overwhelming majority followed the Oregon and Mormon trails, which parallel each other on opposite sides of the Platte River over the Great Plains; once through the Rockies they swung down toward the California passes along various routes and cutoffs, none of them easy.