Around the horn on a clipper ship, 1849

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President Polk acknowledged the gold finds in California in front of congress on December 5, 1848 and men across the east coast frantically booked passage on any and every available ship. America was a sea power and for those in New York and New England a voyage was the fastest way to the gold fields. The ships were quickly loaded with both passengers and supplies of all kinds to sell at inflated prices in a burgeoning land in need of practically everything. The brig J. W. Coffin was the first to sail, leaving Boston on December 7 with Saltillo and Carib close behind.

But the route around the tip of South America was fraught with danger. There were 17,000 miles of ocean between New England, Cape Horn and on to California, and in those miles were almost every type of climate known to exist, the gusty, cold North Atlantic, the calms of the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, the frigid, violent Antarctic gales off the Cape, and then almost an exact reversal as the ship sailed up the west coast of South America and on to San Francisco.

Clipper Flying Cloud

The voyage was long, averaging six months. Fresh water and other supplies could be hard to get. The Straights of Magellan took three to six weeks to cross in narrow channels with unpredictable tides, winds and currents that could dash a wooden ship onto nearby rocks, stranding crew and passengers alike. Many of the brigs and schooners shunned the straight and opted to sail the cape itself. If the ship and its rigging stood up to the constant storms it could take a month or more of westward travel before they could swing north and head for California.

Champion of the Seas

Often forced far into the Pacific by the baffling and contrary winds of the Torrid Zone, many clippers came close to Hawaii, but most hove to for San Francisco where the Farallon Islands, a graveyard for several ships, waited just offshore, and the rocks around the fog shrouded Golden Gate were the death knell for several more. But once inside the bay a watchman on Telegraph Hill reported the ship’s arrival to the citizens of San Francisco by semaphore.

In the first weeks of 1849 alone Englishmen invested more than one million pounds in emigration companies. The Irish, suffering greatly from the potato failure of 1846, bought tickets for as far as their funds would take them. Germans, unhappy with the outcome of the revolution of 1848 and looking for economic opportunity, sailed from Hamburg and Bremerhaven. But all the Europeans who left for California were only a fraction of the number of Americans who sailed around the horn.

Farallon Island





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