Coming of the Argonauts to California

San Francisco, California by Henry Firks, 1849.

San Francisco, California by Henry Firks, 1849.


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 the founding and building a great commonwealth on the Pacific coast that gives significance to their coming.

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 500 and reached San Francisco on 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 May 1st, the California, having obtained a crew sailed for Panama. The Panama, the third steamer of the Pacific Mail, arrived at San Francisco on June 4th, 16 days from Panama. The Oregon brought several other important men, some of whom would leave their mark on the Golden State.

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 ordnance 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, 42,000 emigrants came overland to California, of whom 9,000 were from Mexico. Eight thousand Americans came by the Santa Fé Route and 25,000 by the South pass and the Humboldt River. Bayard Taylor wrote: “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 River. 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.”

The rendezvous for overland emigrants was usually IndependenceMissouri for both the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. Throughout the eastern states, the winter of 1848-49 was one of preparation. Emigration parties were formed in almost every town, each member contributing a fixed amount for the outfit. These were as elaborate as the taste of the members suggested or their means permitted. Provisions for the journey and for one or two years in California with every known implement for digging and washing gold, arms, ammunition, large supplies of clothing, blankets, etc., and in some cases, goods for barter or sale, characterized the equipment of the emigration of 1849. Vehicles of every conceivable kind and quality were seen, from the ponderous “prairie schooner” drawn by three yokes of oxen to the light spring wagon; riding horses and pack mules; together with relays of animals for heavy hauls.

Albert Bierstadt's Oregon Trail, 1869

Albert Bierstadt’s Oregon Trail, 1869

Arriving at the rendezvous the small parties were joined in a large party together with such individuals and families as came in singly, a captain was selected and the caravan set out on its two thousand mile journey. The northern route was by the so-called Oregon Trail, up the north fork of the Platte to the Sweetwater, up the Sweetwater, through the South pass, to the Green River, down the Bear to Soda Springs, to Fort Hall on the Snake River, to the Humboldt, down the Humboldt to the sink, across the desert to the Truckee River, over the Sierra Nevada to the headwaters of the Bear River, then down the river to the Sacramento and to Sutter’s Fort. From the sink of the Humboldt, three routes offered themselves: northerly to the Pitt River pass; west, across the desert to the Truckee, and southerly to Carson Valley, where grass and water were, and then over the Sierra to the south fork of the American River.

It is estimated that by the end of April 1849, twenty thousand emigrants were in camp on the Missouri River waiting for the grass on the plains to be high enough to feed. Many companies had started earlier and by the middle of May, the trail from the Missouri River to Fort Laramie presented a continuous line of wagons and pack trains. Through the valley of the Platte, cholera broke out, claiming many victims and spreading terror through the ranks of the emigrants. This began to disappear as they approached the Rocky mountains. At last, after some days of travel through a rugged and broken country where high bluffs force them from the river to make long detours, Fort Laramie is reached and the first stage of the journey is completed.

South Pass, Wyoming

South Pass, Wyoming

For the next 300 miles the country is a desert, with little grass and less water, through the forbidding Black Hills, up the Sweetwater River, across the continental divide by the South Pass, at an elevation of 7,085 feet; then through a somewhat better country, the Green River Valley, to Bear River, which here flows northward, making a horseshoe around the mountains. Down the Bear River, they traveled for a distance of about 90 miles to Soda Springs. Here, the Bear turns southward and the emigrants proceed westerly to the Portneuf River down which they travel to Fort Hall, Idaho on the Snake River. The route is now down the Snake to Raft River, then over the hills to Goose Creek and up Goose Creek to the headwaters of the Mary, or Humboldt, as the river now began to be called. This was the regular route. There were a number of short cuts which saved the travelers from one to two hundred miles of distance, but cost them weeks of extra time to get through; short cuts which were all right for pack-trains, but all wrong for wagons.

On reaching the Humboldt the traveler has two-thirds of the whole distance behind him and is on the last stage of his journey. And what a journey it has been, and how changed he is from the one who set out so blithely from Independence three months ago. How bright the anticipations then! how cozy the snug family retreat within the great canvas-covered “prairie schooner!” how jolly the conversation and the stories around the campfire! the song and music after the day’s toil was over.

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