Coming of the Argonauts

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, thence on 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 a vexatious wait at Chagres had to be endured. 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 the 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 afterwards brought in by natives who were satisfied with a 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 church yard 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 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; afterwards those from South America, and finally as many as possible from among the first applicants for passage at the office in Panama. On the 1st of February the California sailed for San Francisco with three hundred and fifty passengers. The ship was so crowded it was difficult to move about, either on deck or in the cabin.

San Francisco, 1849

San Francisco, 1849

It was on the 28th of February that this modern Argo 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 the 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 wind swept 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 war ships 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 new comers a hearty welcome and celebrated with ardor the establishment of steam communication with the world.

There was nothing lofty in the motive that brought this band of adventurers to these shores and nothing particularly remarkable about the men who composed it. They were strong, courageous, undaunted. They came to make a fortune and return; they remained to create an empire. It was the part the Argonauts played in founding and building a great commonwealth on the Pacific coast that gives significance to their coming. Among this first band were De Witt Clinton Thompson, who commanded a California regiment in the war of the Rebellion, John Bigelow, first mayor of Sacramento, Rev. O. C. Wheeler, who erected the first Baptist church, Rev. S. W. Willey, founder of the State University, Pacificus Ord, judge and member of constitutional convention, Wm. Van Voorhies, first secretary of State, Rodman M. Price, member of constitutional convention, later governor of New Jersey, William Pratt, surveyor general of California, Eugene L. Sullivan, collector of the port, Lloyd Brooke, one of the founders of Portland, Oregon, Alexander Austin, Asa Porter, Samuel F. Blaisdell, Henry F. Williams, Richard W. Heath, Robert B. Ord, William P. Walters, Edwin L. Morgan, Malachi Fallon, B. F. Butterfield, A. M. Van Nostrand, Charles M. Radcliff, Samuel Woodbury, Isaac B. Pine, and Oscar J. Backus. Alfred Robinson, who had been appointed agent of the Pacific Mail, also returned on the California, and Major General Persifer F. Smith and staff were on board. Hardly had the ship come to anchor when her crew deserted, only one engineer remaining faithful to his obligations.

When the California sailed away from Panama she left behind a multitude of emigrants, all disappointed, some filled with rage, some with despair. A few sailing vessels were chartered to carry the adventurers to California and it is said that a few tried in log canoes to follow the coast only to perish or be driven back after futile struggles with winds and currents. The Oregon, second steamer of the Pacific Mail, arrived at Panama about the middle of March. The crowd had doubled. The Oregon took on about five hundred, and reached San Francisco April 1st. Profiting by the experience of the California, the captain took the precaution to anchor his ship under the guns of a man-of-war, and placed the most rebellious of his crew under arrest. With barely enough coal to carry him to San Blas he sailed April 12th, carrying back the first mail, treasure, and passengers. On the 1st of May, the California having obtained a crew sailed for Panama. The Panama, third steamer of the Pacific Mail, arrived at San Francisco June 4th, sixteen days from Panama. The Oregon brought John H. Redington, Dr. McMullan, John McComb, Stephen Franklin, Ferdinand Vassault, George K. Fitch, A. J. McCabe, S. H. Brodie, John M. Birdsell, Joseph Tobin, and many others well known in California, while on board the Panama were Wm. M. Gwin, first United States senator from California, John B. Weller, boundary commissioner, D. D. Porter, Major W. H. Emory, of the boundary survey. Lieut. Colonel Joseph Hooker, Major McKinstry, T. Butler King, agent of the United States to California, Hall McAllister, Lieut. George H. Derby (“John Phoenix”), John V. Plume, P. A. Morse, Lafayette Maynard, H. B. Livingston, Alfred De Witt, Andrew G. Gray, surveyor of the boundary commission.

Ships now began to arrive from all parts of the world, crowded with treasure seekers, and by the middle of November upwards of six hundred vessels had entered the harbor and the larger part of these were left swinging at their anchors while their crews rushed to the gold mines. Colonel Mason advises the adjutant general of the arrival of a ship at Monterey loaded with ordinance stores and says that it will cost more to unload the ship than the total freight from New York to Monterey.

Death on the Trail

Death on the Trail

The sufferings of the emigrants who came by sea, great as they were, were as nothing compared with those who came by land. Not since the crusades of the Middle Ages, has there been anything approaching the overland emigration in magnitude, peril, and endurance. It is estimated that during the year 1849, forty-two thousand emigrants came overland to California, of whom nine thousand were from Mexico. Eight thousand Americans came by the Santa Fé Route and twenty-five thousand by the South pass and the Humboldt river. The horrors of the Camino del Diablo have been portrayed in a previous chapter. Bayard Taylor writes: “The emigrants we took on board at San Diego were objects of general interest. The stories of adventures by the way sounded more marvelous than anything I had heard or read since my boyish acquaintance with Robinson Crusoe, Captain Cook, and John Ledyard. The emigrants by the Gila route gave a terrible account of the crossing of the great desert lying west of the Colorado. They describe this region as scorching and sterile — a country of burning salt plains and shifting hills of sand, whose only signs of human visitation are the bones of animals and men scattered along the trails that cross it. The corpses of several emigrants, out of companies who passed before them, lay half buried in sand, and the hot air was made stifling by the effluvia that rose from the dry carcasses of hundreds of mules. There, if a man faltered, he was gone; no one could stop to lend him a hand without a likelihood of sharing his fate.”

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