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America First—100 Stories from Our History by  Lawton B. Evans

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CROSSING THE CONTINENT

THE great rush to the gold fields of California took place in 1849. The "gold fever," as it was called in sport, broke out in many parts of our country, and, indeed in many parts of the world, and thousands of people started for the West. Those who went to California at that time were called "Forty-niners."

The demand for ships was great. Any kind of seaworthy craft was fitted out for the voyage. Even old whale-boats were used, crowded to their limit with passengers. The streets of the seaport towns presented an odd appearance, with men dressed in red woolen shirts, slouch hats, and cow-hide boots, carrying rifles on their shoulders, and wearing pistols and knives in their belts.

Ship after ship sailed on its way around Cape [336] Horn, or bore the passengers to the Isthmus of Darien. Men of all classes were aboard,—lawyers, doctors, scholars, clerks, farmers, business men,—for all kinds and conditions of men had caught the fever. Love for gold is a magnet that levels all distinctions of society.

The sailing of ships was followed by the march of thousands across the plains. Like colonies of ants, the long trains of wagons crept along the roads, crossing the dreary deserts, climbing the mountains, dragging their weary but hopeful freight of human souls on the long quest. It was a dreadful journey, but there were many at that time who undertook it.

Generally, the gold-hunters started out in a caravan of a dozen or more big canvass-covered wagons, drawn by teams of horses, loaded with provisions for the journey, and with tools for digging. The women and children rode in the wagons, while the men were astride their own horses, carrying guns and pistols for protection.

The caravan usually started from St. Louis early in the spring, so as to get good weather and grass for the teams. Months would pass, however, and winter would be on them before they arrived at their destination. Slowly they wended their way along, the women talking, the children [337] sleeping or playing, and the men riding ahead. It was a long and tiresome trip.

At night, the caravan would stop at some place where there was water. The teams would be unhitched; the horses fed and watered and bedded for the night. Camp-fires were then built, and supper was cooked and eaten. As soon as it was dark, everybody went to sleep in the wagons, except those who kept guard.

By daylight, the caravan was astir, and, after breakfast was over, and the sun began to show its first rays, the journey was taken up again. Another twenty or thirty miles were added to the number already traveled.

Sometimes, a band of murderous Indians would sweep down on the caravan, bent on robbing the wagons, and even on killing the travelers. Then would ensue a long battle between the men and the savages. Covered by the wagons, the men would shoot at their assailants, and often drive them away. Sometimes, however, the Indians were so numerous and fierce that nothing was left of the caravan except smoking wagons and the dead bodies of men, women, and children.

If the caravan escaped, there were the blinding sand storms to be encountered, when the trails would be covered, and the travelers would lose [338] their way. In this manner, many perished of hunger and thirst.

Then, there was the danger from wild beasts that often stampeded the horses or killed them outright. Sometimes water was hard to find, or the grass gave out, or the provisions spoiled, or the teams died. Long after the gold fever had subsided, there might be seen along the plains abandoned wagons or the skeletons of dead animals.

But there were thousands of caravans that made the journey safely. After many weary months, Salt Lake City was reached—a new and small town just founded by the Mormons. Here, the weary emigrants tarried a while to rest and to recruit fresh animals for the remainder of the journey. The Mormons were hospitable, and glad of a chance to make a little profit by caring for travelers.

Then to the road again, struggling through the parched valleys, where horses almost died of thirst, and the women and children cried out in their distress! Up the granite sides of the Sierra Mountains they went, almost dropping from exhaustion, till they came to Sacramento Valley, and Mount Shasta burst upon their view!

At last they were in the land of their dreams, the land of untold wealth for some, and of bitter [339] disappointment for others! They found San Francisco a city of tents and shanties, scattered about a few wind-swept sand-hills. Everything was rude and disorderly, and everybody lived in great confusion. Rooms cost seven to ten dollars a day. Food was scarce and high. There were no men at work anywhere, and the few women in town wanted exorbitant prices for board.

In this confusion, every man was his own protector, and he placed his trust in his own right arm and quick fire. So long as he was peaceable he was safe, but justice was swift to those who broke the law of the camp.

Thus, the emigrant crossed the land, or sailed the waters, to find the gold fields of the New World.


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