Gold!

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Animals already in poor condition collapsed and were left to die. In many cases, companies tried to save weakening animals by leaving their wagons with a guard and driving their mules or oxen without loads on to the river, hoping that two oi three days of rest, water, and gooil grass would revive them so that they could go back into the desert and haul the wagons the rest of the way. Forty-niner Joshua Breyfogle spent more than three days on the Forty-Mile Desert guarding his company’s wagons while waiting for the nude teams to be brought back. “From twelve o’clock till sunrise the emigrants are passing in crowds, nearly perishing for water,” he wrote in his diary while he waited, “and are leaving mules, horses and oxen to starve on the plains for they can’t drive them on. I don’t know what will become of the back trains.” At the end of his last night on the desert he noted: “This is the most horrid night 1 ever passed. The road was strewd with the carcasses of dead mules, horses and cattle, and most of them with pieces of ilesh cut out by the Indians.…” And two days later, after safely crossing the desert: “There is about four thousand wagons behind that will have to pass about three hundred miles without any grass and very little water. There must hundreds perish on the plains. The forty-five mile stretch is now almost impassable because of the stench of the dead animals along the road which is literally lined with them and there is scarcely a single train or wagon but leaves one or more dead animal, so that it must be getting worse every day.”

That, too, was part of rushing for gold. And having got through the desert, they had the Siena Nevada to cross, once again a land of ups and downs, where wagons had to be worked through boulder-strewn canyons and eased down steep slopes with ropes. Some of the gold seekers no longer had any wagons. After the crossing of the desert, there were groups that salvaged so few animals that they had to give up their wagons and use their remaining beasts as pack animals. Some lost all, and slung packs on their backs, and went on foot with what few miserable possessions they could cany.

And so, finally, they crossed the last mountain barrier and came down the American River to Sutter’s Fort and the new boom town of Sacramento, where potatoes and onions were selling for a dollar each. But what did it matter?—prices meant nothing to a man who would soon be up in the hills where there was gold waiting to be picked up from the ground.

How many miners came to California in 1849 is not known, and estimates differ widely. By the overland trails, at least 35,000 is a plausible guess. The ships around Cape Horn brought 15,000 more; another 6,000 arrived by way of Panama. How many died on the plains or in the jungles or left their bones at the bottom of the sea cannot even be guessed, but it reached tens of thousands before the gold rush ended, late in the 1850’s. The tide of gold seekers continued as high during the next three or four years, but there never was another year quite like 1849, when the gold fever still raged, when hills and streams still lay untouched and waiting, and no disillusion had yet thrown the slightest shadow over the most fantastic visions of great and sudden wealth.

What happened to these gold-fevered men when they finally reached California? Most of them worked harder than they had ever worked before, and suffered a large variety of ailments and injuries which youth and clean living usually helped them to survive. A few found enough gold to make themselves wealthy, but most probably just managed to break even.