To California by sea

At the onset of the gold rush of 1849 America was less than seventy-five years old, but the generations of self-government had already made this country one of the happiest and most powerful on the face of the earth. The westward growth of the nation had been in progress since the beginning, but was, in reality, mostly the expansion into adjacent territory. But California, almost a whole continent away and at the time of the gold discovery still regarded as conquered territory, was a totally new challenge. In a sense then California was America’s first colony. It is a testament to the character of the thousands of diverse people who flocked west as soon as news of gold reached the east coast that chaos and anarchy in what would soon become the golden state were the exception and not the rule. The superior quality of the immigrants and their capacity for self-government was a saving grace for early California.

Brig off Sandy Hook by Edward Moran

The first adventurers to reach San Francisco boarded swift sailing ships as soon as they heard of the discoveries and embarked on the long voyage around the tip of South America, or sailed to Panama, crossed the isthmus, and there, until the Pacific Mail Steamers began regular service, they were forced to wait until one ship or another could take them north. The ability of these men to organize and maintain order was evident, in most cases well before they left the eastern ports. As would also happen with the wagon trains that would cross the country the next summer, they joined together in companies or associations complete with by-laws and constitutions designed to secure harmony and utilized the advantages of combined effort and mutual assistance in a far away land.

Clipper Flying Cloud

No doubt there were few of these pacts that survived for long, but the fact that they were first put in effect, then readily altered and amended as circumstance required, shows clearly the extraordinary aptitude of so many individuals to adapt to the basic principles of law. In the case of those enroute by sea these compacts mostly pertained to individual contributions to the expense of the expedition and the allotment of whatever gains that might be made. Some companies might contribute equally and then share the rewards equally as well, while in others each man was entitled to what he made once at the mines. Where one man had paid the lion’s share of the initial expenses, he would normally be reimbursed first or, in some cases, be entitled to a greater portion of the rewards. There were almost as many variations as there were different organizations of miners, but all had some type of agreement.

But those who came by ship were still under the maritime laws of the country under which flag the ship they were on sailed, so there was little or nothing said about how disputes should be settled or crimes punished. On board ship the captain ruled supreme. Villains would be thrown in the brig. And while every group of miners had its leader, a chairman or a president, and the will of the members was expressed by their vote, there had been little attempt to prescribe anything like a code of conduct that would rule over the punishment of criminal behavior. But such was not the case for those who would later make the laborious trek across the country.



  1. John,
    You bring the thrill of the adventure to life. Though I lived in California from 1951 to 2000 and thought myself a ture Californian, it wasn’t until I came to the MidWest and had to defend my “country” to those out here who have a bigotry against the right and left coasts as they call them – that I realized the reasons these people found Californians objectionable, were the very same reasons that made me proud to be one.
    The first immigrants to this region – not yet a state – were brave, bold, optimistic, and unafraid of hard work. They were dreamers with a vision. And those who stayed, which were many more than returned to their homeland, raised generations who held the same qualities. And those who came late, even into these very days are of the same ilk. I think this is awesome and if we are a little nutty and fruity, God bless the land of plenty. And thank you, John, for sharing what you have learned. I think you, too, are proud to be a Californian.

    • I appreciate all your nice comments a great deal, Susen. You’re from the gold country so I imagine gold fever is in your blood. But so many in America don’t realize the importance of the gold rush. In 1848 California was one of the most remote and hard to get to places in the world yet Marshall’s discovery sparked the biggest spontaneous migration in human history. Within a week of that discovery, with the signing of the peace treaty with Mexico, the boundaries of the continental United States, with the small exception of the Gadsen Purchase, were set into those we know today. By 1869, with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, America was linked from sea to sea, but more importantly, for the first time in human history, the whole world was linked in a way that finally made it possible to go “Around the World in 80 Days.” One way or another that affected every person on earth.
      By the way, I saw your invitation to the barbeque. I’d love the food and the music as well as the good companionship. I wish I could make it. Thanks!

Leave a Reply to John Putnam Cancel reply


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.