”The accounts of the abundance of gold in California are of such extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by authentic reports of officers in the public service.” So said President Polk to Congress in December 1848. His words started an uproar, a fever, a fire in the hearts of so many men that it far outshone the one already blazing among those in California, the new west coast of the United States. The well-known newsmen Horace Greeley added his particular fuel to the raging flame of gold fever when he said, “Fortune lies upon the surface of the earth as plentiful as the mud in our streets. We look for an addition within the next four years equal to at least one thousand million of dollars to the gold in circulation.”
Those who could pay the fare took passage on a clipper ship and sailed around the horn. Those with fewer resources must travel by land across the vast, unsettled American west. It would be the greatest spontaneous migration in human history. They came by horse or wagon across the country, by riverboat or raft down the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, then up the Missouri to towns like Independence or St. Joseph, the last outposts of civilization before the 2000 mile trek began in earnest. But many never made it this far. A cholera epidemic had rampaged up the rivers for months. In St. Louis the disease had a solid foothold. At the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers the steamer Monroe ran aground with nearly all of it’s 100 cabin passengers dead.
There were many critical choices to be made before leaving. How much food should be taken? Too much weight would exhaust the animals; too little food and the travelers might starve. Should they use horses, mules or oxen to pull the wagon? Horses were fastest but hadn’t the endurance. Oxen were ponderously slow but could pull a heavier load longer. Mules were faster than oxen but could pull less and might give out sooner. Most of the 49ers had left family behind. They traveled light. Getting to the gold as soon as possible was the driving factor. Most chose mules. Once they were outfitted, and after a ferry ride across the Missouri and a long climb up from the river, they were on the vast, open grassland of the Kansas prairie, their great trek finally underway.