|Home -> Other California Books -> History of California -> Chapter 8 - The Great Stampede|
The Great Stampede
The rush of people to the Pacific coast after the gold discovery may well be called a stampede. The terrible overland journey, over thousands of miles of Indian country, across high mountains and wide stretches of desert, was often undertaken with poor cattle, half the necessary supplies of food, and but little knowledge of the route. On the other hand, those who preferred going by water would embark in any vessel, however unsafe, sailing from Atlantic ports to the Isthmus.
In New York the excitement was especially great. Every old ship that could be overhauled and by means of fresh paint made to look seaworthy was gayly dressed in bunting and advertised to sail by the shortest and safest route to California. The sea trip is thus described by an elderly gentleman who made the journey when a boy of ten: -
"Together with the news of the discovery of gold came also reports of a warm, sunny land which winter never visited, where life could be spent in the open air, - a favorable spot where sickness was almost unknown. It was, I think, as much on account of my mother's health as to make his fortune that my father decided to go to California. The water route was chosen as being easier for her.
"The saying good-by to our relatives had been hard; but by the time we were three miles from home we children ceased to grieve, so interested were we in new sights and experiences.
"I had never seen salt water until that morning in New York, when we boarded the gayly trimmed brig, the Jane Dawson, which was to carry us to the Isthmus. To my sister and myself it was a real grief that our vessel had not a more romantic name. We decided to call it the Sea Slipper, from a favorite story, and the Sea Slipper it has always been to us.
On the deck there were so many unhappy partings that we became again downhearted, a feeling which was intensified in the choppy seas of the outer bay to the utter misery of mind and body. We got ourselves somehow into our berths, where, with mother for company, we remained for many hours. Finally the sea grew calmer and we were just beginning to enjoy ourselves when off Cape Hatteras a severe storm broke upon us. The vessel pitched and rolled; the baggage and boxes of freight tumbled about, threatening the lives of those who were not kept to their berths by illness.
"Although I was not seasick I dared not go about much. One night, however, growing tired of the misery around me, I crawled over to the end of the farther cabin, which seemed to be deserted. Presently the captain and my father came down the stairs and I heard the officer say in a hoarse whisper. 'I will not deceive you, Mr. Hunt; the mainmast is down, the steering gear useless, the crew is not up to its business, and I fear we cannot weather the night!' I almost screamed aloud in my fright, but just then a long, lanky figure rose from the floor where it had been lying. It was one of the passengers, a typical Yankee.
"'See here, captain,' he said, 'my chum and I are ship carpenters, and the other man of our party is one of the best sailors of the Newfoundland fleet; just give us a chance to help you, and maybe we needn't founder yet awhile.' The chance was given, and we did not founder.
"Some days later we anchored in the harbor of Chagres. There were many vessels in the bay, and a large number of people waiting to secure passage across the Isthmus. They crowded around the landing place of the river canoes and fought and shouted until we children were frightened at the uproar, and taking our hands mother retired to the shade of some trees to wait.
"It was almost night when father called to us to come quickly, as he had a boat engaged for us. It lay at the landing, a long canoe, in one end of which our things were already stored. Some men who were friends of father's and had joined our party stood beside it with revolvers in hand watching to see that no one claimed the canoe or coaxed the boatmen away. Mother and Sue were quickly tucked beneath the awning, the rest of us tumbled in where we could, and at once our six nearly naked negro boatmen pushed out the boat and began working it up the stream by means of long poles which they placed on the bottom of the river bed, thus propelling us along briskly but with what seemed to me great exertion.
"To us children the voyage was most interesting. On either side the banks were covered with such immense trees as we had never dreamed of. The ferns were more like trees than plants, and the colors of leaves and flowers so gorgeous they were dazzling. The fruits were many and delicious, but our father was very careful about our eating, and would not allow us to indulge as we desired.
"The night came on as suddenly as though a great bowl had been turned over us. For an hour or more we watched with delight the brilliant fireflies illuminating all the atmosphere except at the end of the boat, where the red light of a torch lit the scene. After we had lain down for the night the moon rose and I could not enough admire the beauty of the tropical foliage, with the silvery moonlight incrusting every branch and leaf.
"The second day we left the boats and took mules for the rest of the journey. To my delight I was allowed an animal all to myself. Sue rode in a chair strapped to the back of a native, and our luggage was taken in the same manner, the porters carrying such heavy loads that it did not seem possible they could make the journey.
"To my sister and me, the city of Panama was amazingly beautiful, with its pearl oyster shells glittering on steeple and bell tower, and the dress of the people as magnificent as the costumes described in the 'Arabian Nights.' In Panama we waited a long time for a steamer. The town was crowded and many people were ill. My mother was constantly helping some one until my father forbade her to visit any stranger, because cholera had broken out and many were dying.
"It was a joyful morning when we boarded the steamer California, steamed out on the blue Pacific, and headed northward. We had more comfortable quarters and better food than when on the Atlantic; but never on the steamer did we feel the sense of grandeur and power that came to us on the brig when, with white sails all set, she rushed like a bird before the wind.
"Toward the close of the voyage there was so much fog that our captain did not know just whereabouts we were, and for that reason kept well out to sea. One morning there came a rap at the stateroom door, and a loud voice cried, 'Wake up, we shall be in San Francisco in less than an hour.' What a time of bustle followed! The sea was rough. Sue and I fell over each other and the valises in our eagerness to get dressed. I, being a boy, was out first. The sun was shining as though it was making up for the days it was hidden from us. The water was blue and sparkling, the air warm and delightful after the cold, foggy weather.
"We were steaming due east, and almost before I knew it we had passed through Golden Gate and were in the quiet water of the bay. By the time mother and Sue were on deck, we were nearing the wharf. I thought then that San Francisco was rather disappointing in its looks, with its unpainted houses of all kinds of architecture, and the streets like washouts in the hills, but soon I learned to love it with a faithfulness which was felt by many of the pioneers and will end only with life."
Such were some of the hardships and discomforts endured by those who traveled to California by water during the period of the gold excitement. Yet those who made the journey by land often suffered even more.
The first immigrant train to California started in 1841. It brought among its members a young man named Bidwell, afterward United States representative from California. Describing this journey in the Century Magazine (Vol. 41), Mr. Bidwell says: -
"The party consisted of sixty-nine persons. Each one furnished his own supplies of not less than a barrel of flour, sugar, and other rations in proportion. I doubt whether there was a hundred dollars in money in the whole party, but all were anxious to go.
"Our ignorance of the route was complete. We knew that California lay west, and that was all. Some of the maps consulted and supposed to be correct showed a lake in the vicinity of where we now know Salt Lake to be, that was three or four hundred miles in length, with two outlets, both running into the Pacific Ocean, either apparently larger than the Mississippi River. We were advised to take along tools to make canoes, so that if we found the country too rough for our wagons, we could descend one of these rivers to the Pacific." It was two years later that Fremont, the pathfinder and roadmaker of the West, surveyed the great Salt Lake and made a map of it. The Bidwell party after many hardships reached California in safety.
The unhappy Donner party, also home seekers, made the journey in 1848. They lost their way and became snow-bound in the mountains. A number of them died from cold and starvation, but the remainder were rescued by relief parties sent out from Sutter's Fort. Their sufferings were too terrible to be told, and yet they started with fair hopes and as excellent an outfit as any party that ever crossed the plains. The following is from an account of the journey written by one of their number for the Century Magazine (Vol. 42): -
"I was a child," says Virginia Reed Murphy, "when we started for California, yet I remember the journey well. Our wagons were all made to order, and I can say truthfully that nothing like the Reed family wagon ever started across the plains. The entrance. was on the side, and one stepped into a small space like a room, in the center of the wagon. On the right and left were comfortable spring seats, and here was also a little stove whose pipe, which ran through the top of the wagon, was prevented by a circle of tin from setting fire to the canvas. A board about a foot wide extended over the wheels on either side, the full length of the wagon, thus forming the foundation of a large roomy second story on which were placed our beds; under the spring seats were compartments where we stored the many things useful for such a journey. Besides this we had two wagons with provisions.
"The family wagon was drawn by four yoke of choice oxen, the others by three yoke. Then we had saddle horses and cows, and last of all my pony. He was a beauty, and his name was Billy. The chief pleasure to which I looked forward in crossing the plains was to ride on my pony every day. But a day came when I had no pony to ride, for the poor little fellow gave out. He could not endure the hardships of ceaseless travel. When I was forced to part with him, I cried as I sat in the back of the wagon watching him become smaller and smaller as we drove on until I could not see him any more. But this grief did not come to me until I had enjoyed many happy weeks with my pet.
"Never can I forget the morning when we bade farewell to our kindred and friends. My father, with tears in his eyes, tried to smile as one friend after another grasped his hand in a last farewell. My mother was overcome with grief. At last we were all in the wagon, the drivers cracked their whips, the oxen moved slowly forward, the long journey had begun.
"The first Indians we met were the Caws, who kept the ferry and had to take us over the Caw River. I watched them closely, hardly daring to draw my breath, feeling sure that they would sink the boat in the middle of the stream, and very thankful I was when I found that they were not like the Indians in grandmamma's stories.
"When we reached the Blue River, Kansas, the water was so high that the men made rafts of logs twenty-five feet in length, united by cross timbers. Ropes were attached to both ends and by these the rafts were pulled back and forth. The banks of the stream being steep, our heavy-laden wagons had to be let down carefully with ropes so that the wheels might run into the hollow between the logs. This was a dangerous task, for in the wagons were the women and children, who could cross the rapid stream in no other way.
"After striking the great valley of the Platte the road was good, the country beautiful. Stretching out before us as far as the eye could reach was a valley as green as emerald, dotted here and there with flowers of every imaginable color. Here flowed the grand old Platte - a wide, shallow stream. This part of our journey was an ideal pleasure trip. How I enjoyed riding my pony, galloping over the plain gathering wild flowers! At night the young folks would gather about the camp fire chattering merrily, and often a song would be heard or some clever dancer would give us a jig on the hind door of a wagon.
"In the evening, when we rode into camp, our wagons were placed so as to form a circle or corral, into which, after they had been allowed to graze, the cattle were driven to prevent the Indians from stealing them. The camp fire and the tents were placed on the outside of this square. There were many expert riflemen in the party, and we never lacked game. I witnessed many a buffalo hunt and more than once was in the chase close behind my father. For weeks buffalo and antelope steaks were the main article on our bill of fare, and our appetites were a marvel." The Reed family was the only one belonging to the Donner party, it is said, who made the terrible journey without losing a member.
To the young people and men there was often much pleasure in crossing the continent in a prairie schooner, as the white-covered emigrant wagon was called; but to the women it was another matter, since they had to ride constantly in a wagon, attend to the little children, and do the cooking, often under great difficulties. Many of them learned to be experts in camp cooking, requiring nothing more than a little hollow in the hard ground for a range; or if there were plenty of stones, the cooking place might be built up a little. Over this simple contrivance, with the aid of a couple of iron crossbars, a kettle, a frying pan, and coffee pot, many a delicious meal was easily and quickly prepared.
Mrs. Hecox, in the Overland Monthly, says: "I am sure the men never realized how hard a time the women had. Of course the men worked hard too, but after their day's travel was over they sat around the camp fire, smoked, and told stories, while the women were tending the children, mending clothes, and making ready for the next day's meals.
"After we crossed the Mississippi, it commenced raining, and for days we splashed through the mud and slush. When we camped at night, we had to wade about and make some kind of shelter for our fires, and I was obliged to keep the children cooped up in the wagons. Here let me say that I never heard an unkind word spoken among the women all the way across the plain. The children were good, too, and never out of humor either, unless some cross man scolded them.
"At one place a drove of buffalo ran into our train and gave us a bad scare. I was in the wagon behind ours attending a sick woman when I saw the drove coming. I knew the children would be frightened to death without me, so I jumped from the wagon and ran, but I was too late. Finding that I had no time to get into the wagon, I crawled under it, where a wounded buffalo cow tried to follow me. I kicked her in the head as I clung to the coupling pole, and somehow broke my collar bone."
As soon as the grass began to get green in the spring of 1849, after the news of the discovery of gold reached the States, the overland march began. In white-covered emigrant wagons, in carts, on horses, mules, even on foot, came the eager gold seekers. How poorly prepared were many of them, it would be hard to believe. They were a brave and hardy company of people, but they suffered much. It is estimated that at least eight or ten thousand of the young, strong men died before the year was over. Many of these deaths were due to overwork and exposure, to the lack of the necessaries of life at the mines, also to the fact that a great many of the gold seekers were clever, educated people, quite unused to extreme poverty, and therefore lacking in the strength that comes from self-denial.
Those who remained formed the best material for the making of the state. To this class belonged those who endowed the two great universities which are now the glory of California. For many years the highest position in public life was held by men who came to the Golden State over the plains or by the uncomfortable ocean route in the days of '49.