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Seeing the Elephant
Getting to the California Gold Fields 

Link to PBS On-Line The Gold Rush: The Journey

Link to Sacramento Bee's Gold Rush Series: The Road West

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What does it mean to 'See the Elephant'?

Once a farmer loaded his wagon with produce and headed to market. On his way to town, he encountered a circus parade, led by an elephant. The farmer was thrilled. His horses, however, were terrified. They bolted, overturning his wagon and ruining the contents. "I don't give a hang," the farmer said, "for I have seen the elephant." The expression "seeing the elephant" became a catch-phrase for those on the adventure of a lifetime, seeking gold in California. Those who turned back claimed to have "seen the elephant's tail," or "seen the elephant's track," and figured that was sufficient. As historian Malcolm Rohrbough put it, the term "characterized the Gold Rush as simultaneously exciting, elusive and potentially dangerous." "I have come back poor," said more than one "Argonaut of '49" upon returning home, "but I have seen the elephant."

Source: Sacramento Bee's Gold Rush Series

Getting to the distant new state of California proved to be as difficult as striking in rich in the gold fields. The journey was fraught with danger: from deadly cholera epidemics to malaria; from attacks by hostile native tribes to inept trail bosses; from swindlers and con-artists to violent acts of nature; from broken axles to shipwrecks; the list goes on.

Before the completion of the Transcontential Railroad, travelers from the East Coast had a choice of two difficult and dangerous routes to California:
  • By Sea - a long and arduous sea voyage down the Eastern seaboard, around Cape Horn, and then up the Western seaboard (17,000 miles that took five to seven months) or a shorter sea voyage to Panama, across the Isthmus, and continuing by sea (much quicker and only 4,000 miles, but very expensive)
  • By Overland Trail - via toilsome and treacherous routes that traversed the Great Plains, climbed over the Continental Divide, crossed scorching deserts, and headed up and over the Sierra Nevada (2,200 miles, depending on trail, that could take five to six months)


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