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Collection California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849 to 1900

The Forty Niners

In the next year, close to 100,000 people went to California from the United States, Europe, and every other corner of the globe. Gold-seekers from Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and China continued to sail across the Pacific along well-established trade routes. The journey was far more complicated for citizens of the United States. A voyage from the East Coast to California around Cape Horn was 17,000 miles long and could easily take five months. There was a shorter alternative: sailing to Panama, crossing the isthmus by foot or horseback, and sailing to California from Central America's Pacific Coast. However, until 1850 there was no regular steamship travel in the Pacific, and passengers might find themselves stranded in Panama for weeks or months waiting for a ship to California. In 1849, approximately 40,000 people poured in from one sea route or another. Most of these came to the port of San Francisco, once known as Yerba Buena, and the tiny town boomed.

Illustration VII: Emigrants Crossing the Plains. Photocopy of engraving by H.B. Hall, Jr. after drawing by F.O.O. Darley. Copyrighted by D. Appleton & Co., 1869. Lot 11505. #LC-USZ62-730

For those without money for a sea passage or with heavy cargos of household goods, the only route to California lay overland across the Plains and through one of the mountain passes on California's eastern border. In 1849, 25,000 to 30,000 men, women, and children followed these routes, while a few thousand more came across Mexico and the southwestern corner of the United States to reach California.

Not everyone who came to California during the Gold Rush planned to earn a fortune by using a pan or a pickaxe in the gold fields. Many enterprising young men and women realized that there was just as much money to be made by providing the gold miners with goods and services. From professional men and merchants to dance hall girls and cardsharps, they gave the miners a way to spend their money--and quickly. In addition, many who came to mine gold found that business and farming in California were more satisfying and reliable sources of income.

Both the sudden expansion of population and accompanying exploitation of new Californians by enterprising businessmen became hallmarks of California history. Both phenomena made it clear that order had to be imposed on this explosive, money-making new society as soon as possible.