Argonauts arrived in California by three major routes:
The Overland Route:
The bulk of migrants to California arrived overland. It was the most affordable route. Many farmers already owned a wagon, a team, a gun, and could easily obtain the flour and salt-pork they would need to sustain them by slaughtering their hogs and grinding their wheat crop. The production of guidebooks to California quickly became a cottage industry. The best guidebooks essentially plagiarized the writings of men who had been to California, such as John C. Fremont and Lansford Hastings. Many writers however demonstrated shocking ignorance. One guidebook with a map sold for 25 cents, or 12 and 1/2 without the map. Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft , who made the overland trip himself, sardonically noted that the 12 1/2 copy was the better deal.
The standard departure point was the Missouri River, in towns such as Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri, where would-be miners gathered and waited for the winter to end so that they might depart. They organized into parties, often consisting of relations and neighbors, and elected leaders. Timing the departure was a delicate matter. Leave too soon, and there would not be enough spring grass for the oxen. Depart to late, and one ran the risk of being trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the winter snows, a fate that befell the infamous Donner Party three years previously, forcing the hapless pioneers to resort to cannibalism in order to stay alive. Yet what concerned most Argonauts was not the prospect of starving to death in the Sierra, but rather the worse prospect that all the gold might evaporate by the time they arrived. Thus most parties jumped off as early as possible.
The journey was a difficult one. The treacherous Platte and Green rivers had to be crossed, often with mishaps and drowning. Two forty-mile spans of deserts had to be negotiated; both of which became littered with the cast off supplies from desperate wagons trying to lighten their load. The Argonauts were invariably heavily armed to ward off Indian attacks. None came, although the desert Paiutes caused considerable troubles by thievery: for these impoverished tribes the material rich wagon trains were a godsend.
Disease was the greatest hazard on the trail, and the hoards of miners spawned a cholera epidemic that claimed thousands of lives. Others died of exposure, scurvy, firearm accidents, snakebite, homicide, and dehydration or from one of the innumerable other hazards of the trail. Those who finally reached the Sierra had to ford fast, frigid alpine streams. Many Argonauts arrived in California having abandoned their wagons and most of their supplies. Some latecomers would have perished in the mountains had not a system of relief been organized, some of it provided by John Sutter, who had previously seen to the relief of the Donner Party.
The primary route into California was the California Humbolt trail, with immigrants entering through Donner Pass in the Sierra. Other miners took routes through Texas, Mexico, and Arizona. The misfortune of one of these parties, the Jayhawker, resulted in the moniker of "Death Valley" to the area where four of its members succumbed to thirst.
Despite the dangers, the overland route brought the most people to California, on account of its affordability. For many 49ers, what did not kill them made them stronger, and thus they arrived at the gold fields hardened by their arduous journey and experienced in the ways of the wild.
Cape Horn Route:
Of the two major sea routes, the Cape Horn route was the most heavily traveled, as it was considerably cheaper than the route through Panama. It was, however, also considerably slower. The average trip took between four and eight months to cover the 18,000 nautical miles around the tip of South America. The record time was 89 days, 21 hours, set by the clipper ship Flying Cloud in 1851. Some skippers attempted to trim time from the voyage by braving the Straight of Magellan, but hazarding these rough waters often only added time, as one ship spent 70 days trying to maneuver through the treacherous passage. Argonauts suffered boredom, bad food, occasional disease, initial seasickness and scurvy. Few perished, however, other than an occasional man overboard. The Cape Horn route was undoubtedly the safest route, but many arrived at the gold fields soft and out of shape, unprepared for the unforgiving labor of mining.
The Cape Horn route was considerably less expensive than the Panama route, and thus men of modest means such as farmers, artisans, and laborers could afford to sail for the gold fields, assuming they were willing to invest their life savings (and usually borrow a little money on the side.) Most came from the eastern seaboard, especially from seafaring New England. Many who sailed the Horn organized themselves in to joint stock companies, in which men pooled their money to buy a ship and its cargo. They then sold their cargo, often along with the ship itself, in San Francisco, and distributed the profits among the members before they split up and went their separate ways in the diggings. The main cargo of most of these joint stock companies were flour and tobacco, to such an extent that they glutted the markets with these two essentials, while shortages in a variety of other staples persisted.
Panama Route: This was the quickest route to California, and also the most expensive. In 1849 two government subsidized steamship companies, the United States Mail Steamship Company and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, initiated mail service to the Pacific coast. The fact that Congress was subsidizing a steam mail line to a place as sparsely populated as California owed to the navy's desire to use the companies as platforms where officers could be trained in the still newfangled art of steam-powered seamanship. The timing proved fortuitous, as hundreds of miners eagerly clamored to be the first to steam to California. Initial Argonauts found long, desperate waits in Panama to catch the first California-bound steamer the SS California. Some were so anxious they paid over $1000 dollars for the privilege of being the first on board. When 69 Peruvians refused to relinquish their spots on the California, General Persifor Smith, himself seeking passage to the state as its next military governor, proclaimed, wrongly, that only American citizens were allowed to migrate to California. The Peruvians stubbornly refused to budge, and eventually sailed with the ship. Soon more ships were brought online to service the Panama route, some of them converted whalers or colliers hastily refitted for passenger service. Still, the Panama route remained costly, with the average fare running at about $300.
The Panama route was plagued by disease spread by mosquitoes and by the poor sanitary conditions of the temporary camps that sprang up to house the laid-over travelers. The Argonauts brought cholera, which reached epidemic proportions while the tropical swamps bubbled with mosquito-transmitted yellow fever. The trip across the Isthmus was dramatically improved by the completion of the Panama Railroad in 1855. Built at great cost in human life over the Panamanian swamps, the railroad was the first to link the Atlantic and Pacific coasts (here separated by a mere 47 miles), ushering the California bound traveler from sea to sea for $25.
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