Information in this post was adapted from the Sacramento Bee gold rush website that is no longer published.
As news of James Marshall's 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill spread, people from around the world began making the trek to California to seek fortune. In 1849, the steady stream of people from within the United States had established three main routes to California.
The overland route
TRAVEL TIME: about 4 months
DISTANCE: approximately 2,000 miles
COST: $600-$700 for a family of four
Travel often began by steamboat up the Ohio or Mississippi River to reach the trailheads. The most common "jumping off" point was Independence, Missouri. The Oregon trail had been traveled by fur trappers for decades.
The biggest killer along the trail was disease. According to the National Parks Service, of the 350,000 people who traveled by land, they estimate 30,000 people died of disease over the 20-25 years the Emigrant Trail was active. The most common was cholera—a bacteria that caused severe diarrhea and dehydration killing many. Some got it and died before even leaving Independence. Dysentery, from dirty drinking water, also killed many.
A common fear was attack from the Native People, though this almost never happened. This fear, however, meant the overland travelers were well armed. Inexperience with guns and cheaply made weapons were a problem, and gunshot wounds were common. Hunting along the route was necessary (and often done just for fun, too) so hunting accidents occurred and diaries of the journey often mention someone shooting themselves while mishandling their own gun.
At that time, most people didn't know how to swim. Many died from drowning at river crossings as they tried to get animals and wagons across. If it had recently rained, rivers would be larger and more dangerous, so wagon trains sometimes waited for several days for the river's flow to lessen.
Gunshot and drowning weren't the only accidents that happened. Walking 10-15 miles per day, every day, for months, meant people and animals were exhausted, which made them careless. Examples of other accidents that happened include being kicked or dragged by oxen or horses or crushed by wagon wheels.
The weather on the plains could be severe. Tornadoes, prairie fires, lightning, and hailstones big enough to kill a man were recorded. Crossing the desert meant incredible heat and dehydration. The mountain crossings meant even more problems as snow often occurred, even in summer months.
Supplying your wagon train
Most overland travelers joined a wagon train, banding together for safety and to share resources. They often made sure to have people from many different occupations and abilities along so they would have experienced people to do things like hunt, repair broken wagon wheels, or set a broken bone.
Plates, silverware, pots and pans were kept in a special box on the back of the wagon.
Space in the wagon was limited, so hooks and ropes tied to the wooden frame of the canvas covering the wagon or the outside of the wagon itself held milk cans, guns, etc. The sloshing milk in the can even churned butter as the wagon rumbled along the trail!
Some brought chickens. Eggs were stored in flour barrels, where they were safe from breaking as long as they didn't touch.
A bucket of grease was hung between the wheels. It was used to lubricate the wheels and axles of the wagon.
Two routes by sea
#1 Around the horn
Traveling by ship by going "around the horn" meant sailing all the way down the eastern shore of South America, and around the southern tip of the continent, known as Cape Horn. Costs and travel time varied greatly depending on circumstances. Nicer rooms that weren't as far below deck sold for more than hammocks strung between beams amongst dozens of other (usually) men. As demand for the sea route increased, so did prices. Travel time varied depending on the weather. Storms could mean an additional month at sea. Sometimes, when wind and currents were not favorable, ships would have to travel as far a Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands) before being able to travel northward to San Francisco. This could add months to the trip.
Most of the ships along this route were not designed as passenger ships. They were cargo ships that were quickly converted to carry passengers as more and more people began trying to get California.
TRAVEL TIME: about 5 months
DISTANCE: 18,000 miles
COST: from $600 to more than $1,200 per person
Cholera was a problem on this route, too. Some died, but not nearly as many as on the overland route. Scurvy—a disease caused by lack of vitamin C—made some very sick and killed a few. Sea sickness was a big problem, but almost no one died from just being seasick.
Being out at sea meant there was no shelter from storms. Lack of wind was also a problem, which could leave a ship stranded for days or weeks. As food and water supplies were used up, this could quickly become a dangerous problem.
supplying the ship
Keeping the ship stocked with supplies was difficult. Supplies might include: Salt pork, salt beef, ham, hard bread, salt, 40 pounds of butter and cheese, tea, sugar and spices. One advantage of this route was that the ship could stop at ports along the way to resupply.
#2 crossing the isthmus
TRAVEL TIME: at first, this route would take as little as 3 months, but by 1850 when ships were added along the Pacific coast, the trip was only 6 - 8 weeks
DISTANCE: 10,000 miles
COST: the cost varied greatly—it was about $400 to get from New York City to the east coast of Panama and then across the isthmus to Panama City on the west coast. They sometimes had to wait weeks before a ship arrived with room to take them from Panama to San Francisco. Not only did they have to pay for this, which was sometimes very expensive, but they often had to wait weeks or even months for a ship came along with room to take them. While waiting, they had the additional expense of having to have a place to stay in Panama City.
This is an 1850 illustration by Charles Christian Nahl of a boat taking travelers up the Chagres River in Panama.
Like the other routes, disease was a major problem. Cholera and dysentery killed some, but crossing the isthmus also meant many got yellow fever or malaria from mosquito bites. Thousands died along this route of disease.
Afong, Lai. “Guangzhou, Chinese Boats by Lai Afong, Cа 1880.” Wikimedia Commons, 2015, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guangzhou,_Chinese_Boats_by_Lai_Afong,_c%D0%B0_1880.jpg. Accessed 23 Feb. 2022.
“The American Experience | Wayback: Gold Rush | Journey of the Forty-Niners: Around Cape Horn.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, http://www.shoppbs.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/kids/goldrush/journey_capehorn.html.
“Antiope.” Https://Npgallery.nps.gov/ , National Parks Gallery , 1893, https://picryl.com/amp/media/antiope-built-1866-bark-3m-commencement-bay-wa-circa-1893-1905-010fcb. Accessed 23 Feb. 2022.
Bayer, Alicia. Around the Horn, 2010, http://magicalchildhood.com/games/aroundthehorn.htm.
Bonfield, Lynn A. “When Money Was Necessary to Make Dreams Come True: The Cost of the Trip from Vermont to California via Panama.” Vermont Historical Society, 2008. https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjQrLrhvpb2AhV7IUQIHRloBQUQFnoECBgQAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fvermonthistory.org%2Fjournal%2F76%2FVHS760202_130-148.pdf&usg=AOvVaw37S6RL8D-vF-xQW93EGoLH
“Cholera: A Trail Epidemic (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/cholera-a-trail-epidemic.htm.
“Death and Danger on the Emigrant Trails (U.S. National Park Service).” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/death-on-trails.htm.
Famartin. “Humboldt Basin.” Wikimedia Commons, 18 May 2015, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2015-04-18_15_36_28_Panorama_of_the_Humboldt_Sink_from_the_West_Humboldt_Range_in_Churchill_County,_Nevada.jpg. Accessed 22 Feb. 2022.
Ford, Dixon, and Lee Kreutzer. “Overland Journal.” 2015.
“Gold Rush.” Internet Archive, The Sacramento Bee, https://web.archive.org/web/20210114193358/http://www.calgoldrush.com/.
Kemble, John Haskell. “The Gold Rush by Panama, 1848-1851.” Pacific Historical Review, vol. 18, no. 1, 1949, pp. 45–56., https://doi.org/10.2307/3634427. Accessed 23 Feb. 2022.
Nahl, Charles Christian. “Der Isthmus Von Panama Auf Der Höhe Des Chagres River.” Wikimedia Commons, 2008, Berkeley, California, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nahl_1850,_Der_Isthmus_von_Panama_auf_der_H%C3%B6he_des_Chagres_River.jpg. Accessed 23 Feb. 2022.
Rydell, Raymond A. “The Cape Horn Route to California, 1849.” Pacific Historical Review, vol. 17, no. 2, 1948, pp. 149–163. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3635514. Accessed 23 Feb. 2022.
Tentotwo. “Fort Hall Location.” Wikimedia Commons, 18 Oct. 2015, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fort_Hall_Location_Map.png. Accessed 22 Feb. 2022.
Unknown author. “Unidentified Tall Ship near Cape Horn.” Wikimedia Commons, National Library of Australia, 2011, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Unidentified_tall_ship_near_Cape_Horn_-_Nla.pic-vn3299637-v.jpg. Accessed 23 Feb. 2022.
Unknown author. “Wagon Train.” Wikimedia Commons, 19 Aug. 2007, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wagon_train.jpg. Accessed 23 Feb. 2022.
I often struggle to find websites with thorough explanations in simple language to help kids understand historical events or scientific concepts, so I decided to create some of my own!