Panama, the easy route to California

As soon as trains ran regularly along the Panama Railway between Panama City and Aspinwall, and passengers were not delayed more than a few hours in either direction or more than a day or two across the whole isthmus, the journey between New York and San Francisco became a relatively pleasant, but expensive trip. The railroad charged very high fares and those on the Pacific Mail Steamships were also steep, but to residents of gold rich California back then these cost mattered little. With … [Read more...]

The Panama Railroad

The news of the failure of Page, Bacon & Co. in St. Louis reached San Francisco by way of the newly completed Panama Railroad. In February 1855 the fastest means of communication between the east coast of the United States and California was by Pacific Mail Steamship and the Panama Railroad. Work on the railway began in 1850. From it’s terminal in Aspinwall, today’s Colon, to the end of the line in Panama City was only forty-eight miles and while there were no difficult engineering obstacles … [Read more...]

Mutiny on California ships

When passengers for California made a bargain with a ship captain for passage they expected that the terms of that agreement be adhered to fairly and honestly. This was not always done. Many ship captains were as corrupt on land as they were despotic at sea. With the prices in California as high as they were, many captains tried to skimp on their agreements for food and provisions in order to profit from the high prices in the gold rush. Many then found themselves hauled before an unsympathetic … [Read more...]

Crossing Panama

Many of the gold seekers who came by way of Panama differed from those who came around Cape Horn as well as from those who crossed America by wagon. A good number simply hoped to avoid the hardship of the other routes but, while there were great numbers of first class passengers, a whole grab bag of the riffraff of eastern cities, including gamblers, cheats, and swindlers, also came by way of the isthmus. It was noted that some of these men “chewed tobacco at a ruinous rate and spent their time … [Read more...]

The voyage around Cape Horn

The gold seekers who chose to sail to California by sea also had their experiences with what might be called Lynch law. But the men who opted for the long route, around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, were a different class than those who took the shorter route across Panama. Mostly from the east coast of America, these were men accustomed to life aboard a ship and were generally more orderly. A great many were of an independent mind and would not tolerate a great deal of imposition, and … [Read more...]

Justice on the wagon trains

It was said to have started with a Virginia farmer named Lynch who caught a thief then tied the man to a tree and personally flogged him instead of handing him over to officers of the law. Lynch, it seems, had little regard for the capabilities of the law or for the efficiency of the local courts and so dispensed his own justice and thus bypassed the technicalities and delays of the legal system. This summary administration of law by irresponsible and irregular individuals and tribunals in … [Read more...]

Gold rush wagon trains

The forming of the great wagon trains of the 49ers was a mighty spectacle and, for almost all who went west with them, a tremendous experience well worth the toil, hardship and danger they encountered. Nothing like this had happened before and it was unlikely that it would ever happen again. It was something a man would remember, and talk about, for the rest of his life. For endless miles, as far as the eye could see and farther still, long lines of canvas topped wagons moved west through the … [Read more...]

Hardship on the trail west

While the gold fever lasted, from 1849 to about 1855, the true caliber of the men and women who crossed the country was sorely tested by the many trials and tribulations they faced. A man’s bad qualities were sure to come to the fore with all the hardship of the long, difficult trek. One young man from Missouri said it this way, “If a man has a mean streak in him half an inch long, I’ll be bound if it don’t come out on the plains.” While the trip did have it’s pleasures and romance and a great … [Read more...]

Lynch law and the wagon trains

On May 16, 1842 one of the first organized wagon trains, with one hundred and sixty souls, half of them armed men, left Elm Grove, Missouri for the Oregon Territory. At some point on their way one man proposed to steal an Indian pony and the rest of the group, worried about the consequences, decided to try the man before the entire company. But since he had only talked of stealing the horse and had actually done no wrong he was acquitted. This event caused much discussion about the need for … [Read more...]

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 … [Read more...]