Argonauts and the Gold Rush
The New York Herald published the first news release of the discovery of gold in California in August, 1848. The announcement was not followed by a public frenzy. The first prospectors to venture into California came from Latin America and the Sandwich Islands. More details of the vast wealth of the California gold fields leaked out over the following months, and when President James K. Polk announced the discovery in his message to Congress on December 5, 1848, the great trek to California began in earnest.
Migrants flocked to San Francisco from Europe, Asia, and Latin America as well as the United States. Some villages in New England became virtual ghost towns as farmers and merchants rushed to book passage on ships destined for San Francisco. The Illustrated London News of February 10, 1849, proved to be a clarion call to British and other Europeans to venture in search of El Dorado:
"THE accounts which have been received this week from the United States convey intelligence of increasing interest from California. The Washington Union contains a letter from Lieutenant Larkin [Thomas O.], dated Monterey, November 16, received at the State Department, containing further confirmation of the previous despatches, public and private, and far outstripping all other news in its exciting character. The gold was increasing in size and quality daily. Lumps were found weighing from 1 lb to 2 lb. Several had been heard of weighing as high as 16 lb., and one 25 lb...."
- According to the report in the Illustrated London News, what impact did the discovery of gold in California having on naval and military operations?
- According to this report, what role did Native Americans play in the Gold Rush?
- What did the reporter for the New York Herald mean when he wrote that "labour of every description commands exorbitant, prices?" Why was this?
- How did the discovery of gold in California impact the U.S. Government's interest in that territory?
- To what extent were news reports of the California gold fields exaggerated?
Search on gold for logbooks, letters, articles, and images that illustrate migrants' journeys to the gold fields and their experiences in California. Several of these travelers write about the storms, sea sickness, accidents, and deaths experienced aboard ships such as the Odd Fellow, Sweden, and Sarah, on their lengthy voyages to the golden state. Traveling from New Bedford to San Francisco aboard the Magnolia, Horace Williams wrote the following in a letter to his sister:
"Head winds prevailed so, for weeks following, that the Captain decided to alter the course for the Straits of Magellan, + we had a few days of congratulating ourselves on escaping Cape Horn — When we were just at the entrance of the Straits the wind changed again, and a violent snow + hail storm drove us off to the South East — I turned in to my berth + laid there five days, reading by a lamp.
The wind was fair at last for Cape Horn, and we came round with every sail spread — fairly round — and then, one more, last gale — very severe — and dangerous because we were near a lee shore — the rocky + desolate coast of Patagonia — The land reached out north of us, leaving our only chance in running back south — Day after day it blowed so that the ship could hardly bear sail enough to keep off shore — It was piercingly cold — the masts + rigging were covered with frozen sleet — the deck so slippery that no one could stand without holding on to something — the cold water flying over us, every few minutes — the ship roling & pitching & creaking — that was one of the gloomy times, Harriet —"
These writers also record the anticipation of their fellow gold-seekers in their conversations about the gold fields and in their preparations, such as making tents and other tools. Benjamin Bailey, traveling from Boston to San Francisco on the Sweden, wrote of the excitement on board upon receiving news confirming the vast wealth awaiting prospectors in his July, 10, 1849, journal entry.
- What were the challenges and dangers of the voyage to California?
- How long did it take the forty-niners to make these voyages?
- What would life on a ship during one of these voyages have been like?
- How did forty-niners pass the time during these voyages?
- What did these Argonauts expect as they traveled to California?
In The Adventures of a Forty-Niner, Daniel Knower provides a detailed reminiscence of the Gold Rush, from the machines and processes people used to find gold, to the boom town culture of San Francisco:
". . . more changes took place there in a month than in most any other place in a year. Every thing was done by the month. Buildings were rented by the month; money was loaned by the month; ten per cent per month was the regular interest. There was but one bank, called the Miners', on the corner of the plaza, owned by three parties. . . . Steamers coming in but once a month, they brought the last news from the East. The New York papers were peddled at $1 each. Long lines of people were formed to get the mail, and you had to take sometimes half a day before you could reach the office. . . . There was no scarcity of meat-plenty of beef and grizzly bears were hung out at the doors of the restaurants as a sign, and plenty of venison. I can recall now to my mind, venison steaks that we would get in the evening with their rich jellies on it. The luxuries of Asia were coming in there. Many China restaurants with their signs from Canton or Pekin. But there was a great scarcity of vegetables. Onions and potatoes sold for forty cents per pound."
- Why was everything "done by the month" in San Francisco?
- What schemes did Knower come up with for making his fortune?
- How successful were people in making fortunes through gold?
Search on San Francisco for more images and descriptions of the town during the Gold Rush, such as journals by Isaac M. Jessop and Rev. George Denham, who traveled from Homes Hole, Massachusetts, to San Francisco aboard the schooner Rialto. A prospector and itinerant minister, Denham, like so many other prospectors, returned home with little or no material wealth to show for his perilous trip to California. He closed his logbook with the following entry on Sunday, December 4, 1849:
"Since coming to this place I find myself widely differently situated from what I have been heretofore — and I am coming to long exceedingly to go home I fear that my expedition to this country must prove an entire failure. If so my situation will probably be much more trying & dangerous than ever before. O for a heart to place all confidence in God and leave all my interests there for this life and the next — but my spirit is too much bound up in this world and its things, and the vision of things spiritual and unseen is too dim to make me as resigned as I should be. If this fruitless expedition has the effect to release my fettered soul and allow me more freedom from the world selfish things than heretofore I shall bless God that ever I came to California. May God sanctify my disappointment to His wholesome end ——"
- Why do you think so many people made long and dangerous voyages to prospect for gold in California?
- How did the Argonauts' experiences in the gold fields of California differ from their expectations?
- How did these experiences affect the Argonauts?
- How did the Gold Rush impact the development and reputation of California?