- Historic Sites
November 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 7
Mills booked a passage to San Francisco via Panama on the steamer Falcon in the Atlantic and, for the Pacific leg of the journey, the new steamer California, which had been sent around the Horn. The virtue of the Panama route was speed. It was thousands of miles shorter than the one around South America. Except for the ghastly trek by dugout and mule back across the rain-soaked and fever-ridden isthmus itself, it was far more comfortable as well. Setting off from New York, Mills expected to be steaming through the Golden Gate in seventy days.
When he reached Panama City, on the Pacific coast of the isthmus, however, he found no California waiting for him, and, in fact, no northbound ships at all. Instead he found three thousand people camped out in the muddy streets of the dismal little provincial capital, all desperate to get to San Francisco by any means available.
Mills realized that he might wait forever if he did not take action himself, so he took passage on a ship headed southward. He hoped to find in one of the ports on South America’s west coast a ship that he could charter. But both Buenaventura, Colombia, and Guayaquil, Ecuador, had been swept clean of shipping. Finally, in Callao, Peru, a full fifteen hundred miles south of Panama, he found the bark Massachusetts. Her captain agreed to transport one hundred people from Panama to San Francisco for one hundred dollars apiece. Mills purchased supplies in CaIlao that he thought would find a market in California and then, never one to sit idle, went off to see the sights of nearby Lima.
After fitting out, the Massachusetts proceeded on her passage to San Francisco. The voyage turned out to be a nightmare. Instead of the normal two or three weeks, the trip took fully two months because of contrary or nonexistent winds. For sixteen straight days the ship was entirely becalmed, her sails flapping idly as she rolled heavily and slowly in the long Pacific swells beneath a merciless equatorial sun.
Even when the Massachusetts finally arrived off San Francisco there was more delay. The captain refused to enter the bay and anchor. Perhaps he was afraid that his crew would immediately desert and rush to the gold fields. Certainly the bay was choked with ships whose crews had done exactly that. Refusing to wait further, Mills had a boat lowered and, helped by a flowing tide, was rowed through the Golden Gate and landed, at last, in California on June 9, 1849. The trip, which had been scheduled to take seventy days, had taken nearly six months. And instead of arriving in the luxury of the spanking new steamer California, Mills had stepped ashore in San Francisco from a rowboat. But he was there and, it turned out, he had beaten his brothers. When they finally arrived after a nine-month passage around the Horn, one of the first people they encountered was the brother they thought they had left behind in Buffalo.
D. O. Mills got hugely rich in the 1849 gold rush without ever finding so much as a single ounce of precious metal.
When the Massachusetts finally docked a few days later, Mills had already purchased a boat to carry his goods to Stockton, at the southern end of the mining area. It turned out that the merchandise he had bought in CaIlao was not what the miners needed, and Mills incurred a small loss on the venture after selling the boat. But he had learned what the miners did want and where they wanted it: Sacramento. Returning to San Francisco, Mills used his last remaining cash to purchase new goods. His new cargo nearly filled a schooner that was heading up the river for Sacramento.
The frenzied atmosphere of the gold rush had driven the price of everything to astronomical heights, including freight charges, and Mills had a five-thousand-dollar freight bill to pay for having his goods moved less than a hundred miles. He had only forty dollars in his pocket but, quite undaunted, Mills ordered the captain to start unloading and to prepare his bill. So great was the demand for merchandise in Sacramento that by the time Mills’s cargo was completely unloaded, he had sold enough to pay his freight bill in gold dust. In the next six months the twenty-four-year-old Mills made a profit of about forty thousand dollars, a moderate fortune by the standards of the mid-nineteenth century, very roughly equivalent to five hundred thousand dollars today.
Mills fell in love with both California and its opportunities. He closed out his interest in the Buffalo bank and used his trading profits to open the Bank of D. O. Mills & Co. in Sacramento, long the city’s leading financial institution. And he was soon instrumental in founding the Bank of California in San Francisco as well, for many years the state’s largest bank.
D. O. Mills, a forty-niner to be sure, but never a miner, had seen his opportunities in the California gold rush. Because he was free to take ‘em, he became one of the richest and most respected men in California long before he was thirty.