Coming of the Argonauts to California

San Francisco, Broadway Wharf, by Lawrence and Houseworth

Twelve days after issuing the foregoing proclamation the governor received notice of the ratification of the treaty of peace between the United States and Mexico and he at once ordered the New York volunteers — Stevenson’s regiment — mustered out, their term of service ending with the war. The Mormon Battalion had been previously mustered out on expiration of their term of service. This left the commander but two companies of regular troops — F company, 3d artillery, numbering 62 officers and men, and C company, 1st dragoons comprised of 83 men, a total in California of 145 soldiers, with the ranks being depleted daily by desertions, and not a warship on the coast of the province. The governor, without the machinery of civil government, with no civil officers, save the few alcades he had appointed, and unsustained by adequate military force, was compelled to exercise control and maintain order in a country extending over 600 miles in length by 200 in width, over a community composed of about equal numbers of Californians and foreigners, the latter largely made up of runaway sailors and men accustomed to a lawless life, jealous of each other and of the Californians, all wrought up to an intensity of excitement by the gold discoveries, and now increased by a thousand soldiers discharged without pay.

It was a case requiring skill, judgment, and determination. All the complex responsibilities of a civil administration thrust upon a military commander, without council or legislative support, were to be met and the honor of the United States government maintained. The trial of criminals, the establishment of port duties, the registration of vessels, the making of custom-house regulations, the examination of ship’s papers, the collection of duties, the appointment of collectors, alcades, judges, etc., the prevention of smuggling, represent a few of the responsibilities of the governor.

On August 14, 1848, Major Hardie wrote the governor from San Francisco that the deficiency of force to support the civil organization at that place was likely to be productive of the most serious consequences. That the lower classes of the community were of the most lawless kind, and when their ranks were swelled by disbanded volunteers, freed from the restraints of discipline, there would be no security for life or property.

Captain Folsom, assistant quartermaster, wrote the same day that acts of disgraceful violence were of almost daily occurrence on board the shipping in the harbor and the officials had no power to preserve order; that his “office is left with a large amount of money and gold dust in it, and the volunteers are discharged without pay.” “We collect port charges, etc.,” he writes, “from both foreign and American vessels, and in return, we are under the most imperative obligation to protect trade.” It is not to be wondered at that Mason, as colonel of 1st dragoons, applied to the War Department November 24, 1848, to be ordered home, having been absent from the United States for two years.

In addition to the outrages committed by lawless men, the disbanding of the Mormon Battalion and the Stevenson regiment, together with the absence at the mines of a large portion of the citizens, left the country defenseless against inroads of hostile Indians.

In the attempt to stay the desertion of his men Colonel Mason granted furloughs permitting them to go to the goldfields for periods of two or three months. These soldiers met with varying degrees of success. One of them, private John K. Haggerty, of F Company, 3d artillery, came back from the mines with 60 pounds of gold ($15,000).

Throughout the Americas and Europe, the most astonishing reports were received from the goldfields of California. General Smith writing from Panama January 7, 1849, says that none of the accounts received were exaggerated; that there had been brought to Valparaiso and Lima before the end of 1848, gold valued at $1,800,000; that the British consul at Panama had forwarded 15,000 ounces. ($240,000) across the isthmus, and that the commander of the Pandora, Royal Navy, informed him that the truth was beyond the accounts he had heard. General Smith was also informed that hundreds of people from the west coast of South America were embarking for the goldfields. In a subsequent letter, he says that he has learned from many sources that there was a great emigration of people of all nations to California and that many are going off with large quantities of gold. He says that on his arrival there he shall consider everyone, not a citizen of the United States, who enters on public land and digs for gold, as a trespasser and shall so treat him.

On April 12, 1848, the Pacific Mail was incorporated with a capital of $500,000, and contracts were entered into for the building of three steamers; the California, the Oregon, and the Panama. The California was completed first and sailed from New York on October 6, 1848, under command of Cleveland Forbes.

Meanwhile, the reports from California of the extent of the goldfields, and the marvelous quantities of the metal obtained by men unskilled in mining and without capital were received in the eastern states and in Europe. In November 1848 came Lieutenant Loeser of the 3d artillery, with dispatches from the military governor of California, confirming the most extravagant reports from the goldfields, and bringing tangible evidence in the shape of a box filled with gold dust.

The gold was placed on exhibition at the war office and the president embodied Mason’s report in his message to Congress on December 5th. The entire community went wild with excitement. Mason’s report with the president’s endorsement was published in the principal newspapers throughout the world. The “gold fever” was on and from all parts of the world companies were fitting out for California. From Sonora in Mexico, thousands of men came overland, while from the coasts of Chili and Peru as many more came by sea.

Thousands started from the Atlantic ports of the United States for Panama, for Vera Cruz, and for Nicaragua. The steamer Falcon from New Orleans landed at Chagres the first adventurers for California, several hundred in number, all determined to board the steamer California at Panama, if possible. The route across the isthmus was a fearful one; by canoe up the Chagres River to Cruces, the head of navigation, then by mule, if one was to be had, or on foot to Panama.

There was an insufficient number of boats to carry the adventurers up the river — a journey of several days — and consequently, people had to wait at Chagres. From Cruces to Panama the baggage had to be carried on the backs of men. The excessive rains, the trouble, vexation, and exposure caused a vast amount of sickness and few escaped the “Chagres fever.” To augment their troubles, cholera made its appearance followed by a number of deaths. This caused a stampede when all baggage and property of every description was abandoned and left on the route while the panic-stricken emigrants fled to Panama. Their belongings were afterward brought in by natives who were satisfied with reasonable compensation for their faithful services. The Falcon brought to Chagres Major-general Persifer F. Smith appointed to command the Third (Pacific) Division. Captain Elliott and Major Fitzgerald of his staff were taken with cholera, and Elliott died and was buried in the churchyard at Cruces. Arriving at Panama there was a long wait for the steamer, while the numbers of emigrants increased daily and the inhabitants of the city became alarmed at the prospect of pestilence and famine. Provisions rose to famine prices and there was much distress and suffering among the emigrants. At length, the long looked for steamer was sighted and anchored in the harbor on January 17th. All was excitement and many hurried off to the ship thinking to secure passage, but they were not permitted to board and were obliged to return. The ship had accommodation for seventy-five, cabin and steerage, and fifteen hundred clamored for passage. She had stopped at Callao and had taken on fifty passengers for San Francisco, although it was understood that none were to be accepted until Panama was reached. It was decided that the New York passengers holding through tickets should be first provided for; afterward those from South America, and finally as many as possible from among the first applicants for passage at the office in Panama. On February 1st, the California sailed for San Francisco with 350 passengers. The ship was so crowded it was difficult to move about, either on deck or in the cabin.

On February 28,  the California steamed past the rugged cliffs of the Golden Gate into the warm sunshine of a California spring, past the green slopes of Marin and the purple heights of Tamalpais, past the islands of the bay and Alta Loma, and cast anchor before a most disreputable collection of adobe houses, wooden shacks, and tents — the outpost of this new Colchis — with its background of windswept dunes, bleak and desolate. The weary Argonauts were joyfully welcomed. The ships in the harbor donned their gayest bunting; the guns of the Pacific squadron boomed while the yards of the warships were manned with blue jackets. The rains of winter had driven the miners to cover and the town was full. Gold dust was plenty and the gambling houses ran day and night. The people were rough and uncouth but they gave the newcomers a hearty welcome and celebrated with ardor the establishment of steam communication with the world.

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