On January 24, 1848, gold was discovered at Sutters Mill in Northern California. Soon after, thousands of men from all over the world, but mostly the east coast of America, set out to claim their share of the riches. Some traveled eight months by ship around Cape Horn; others made it in two months through the dangerous and disease infected Isthmus of Panama. Many others, like Lorenzo and his party of ten, came by covered wagon over the California Trail. Actually a branch off the Oregon Trail, the California Trail was first traveled in 1841 by the Donner Party. Although it was more direct and so less time-consuming, it was also more dangerous. Lorenzos party set out in 1848 from Fort Smith, Arkansas on the trail to San Diego, California. Once they reached Sand Diego, they took a ship to San Francisco. Lorenzo, at least, never got the gold he came for, but on the way home through Panama, he caught malaria. Soon after he returned home, he died of the disease.
Although tales of enormous over-night wealth were popular, stories like Lorenzos were just as common. Many 49ers (so called because most came in 1849), lacked the proper skills to live as a miner. The trip to California was treacherous: wild animals, disease, short supplies, weather, and hostile Indians. Once the miners made it to the gold, more problems awaited them. Besides a shortage of women (700 came in 1949 as compared to over 50,000 men), the gold-seekers also faced the dangers of the boom towns. Sprawling up quickly and without order or planning, the new cities were unsanitary, overcrowded and full of crime. Disease festered as thousands of people lived together without decent sanitation procedures. In the early 50s, over 1,000 murders occurred in San Francisco, but only one person was convicted. Even if they survived all this, miners often struggled to survive. Their new treasures which would have made them enormously rich at home, was just enough to meet there needs out West. Although they made an average of $1000, the merchants who followed them to California could charge any price they wanted--often as much as four dollars for a pound of coffee and $400 for a barrel of flour.
Pioneers also trekked to Oregon--but in search of adventure, financial and social freedom, and free land, rather than gold. Most came in covered wagons over the Oregon Trail, from Independence, Missouri to Fort Vancouver (now Vancouver, Washington). Parts of the trail were forged by explorers and traders in the early 1800s. But Oregon fever didnt break out until 1836 when Marcus Whitman, leading a group of missionary families, opened new sections of the trail. The first large group of settlers used the trail in 1843. By 1846 over 6,000 people had traveled the Oregon Trail, and by the time the transcontinental railroads came, over 350,000 people had traversed the trail. Many pioneers didnt make the trip. Running over 2,000 miles, finishing the trail took an average of 6 months. If the party left too early, they could die of heat on the prairies; if they left too late, they would freeze to death in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Just like the 49ers, pioneers faced disease, hostile Indians, and lack of food and water. As the folk saying went, the cowards never started and the weak died on the way.
Klondike and Comstock Lodes
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