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  • James Wheeling

Just how many options did a gold-crazed opportunist have for getting to California?

For many on the East Coast of the United States during the California Gold Rush, sailing around Cape Horn was a very popular option partly because it was already an established route. Despite the challenges of duration and the difficult passage around Cape Horn, many saw it as their best option. It wasn’t cheap to travel by sail and it all depended on what kind of comfort the traveler wanted…steerage was around $75 ($2588 in today’s money – updated from a previous blog for 2020’s valuation to be $1.00 in 1849 is now worth $34.50) which meant you bought and/or brought your own food, slept below decks and was allowed a duffel-sized bag for your stuff, maybe some bedding.

For those who wanted to go in style the price could go from $400 to $1200 ($13,800 to $41,400 in today’s money). For this you would get all of your food served to you, and a rope cot in a private berth, bedding provided, where you could store as much baggage as you wanted to live with for a while. There were risks associated with sailing around Cape Horn, the most obvious being the Cape itself, which could take a good captain a month to six weeks to navigate. There were other issues with food spoilage, scurvy, cabin fever, traveling companion drama, crew problems, ship malfunction and/or shipwreck. Considering the length of time aboard (4 months was considered a quick trip), the amount of area for exercise and cramped conditions in the company of complete strangers or families with small children, sailing might have seemed fast but it wasn’t necessarily comfortable or healthy.

The cost of sailing was usually the limiting factor but there was also the origination of the traveler to consider. Someone in western Virginia wouldn’t necessarily consider going to the east coast to catch a ship, but rather might just set out from where they were using their own wits, or a seasoned guide (cost ranged from $100-$400), to get them to California.

Many would start by using the inland river and established trail systems:

  1. Saint Joseph, Missouri (Ohio River to Mississippi River to Missouri River to Saint Joseph, Missouri west to join the Oregon Trail).

  2. Council Bluffs, Iowa (Mississippi River, to Nauvoo, Illinois to Council Bluffs, Iowa west to join the established Oregon Trail).

  3. Independence, Missouri could go either via Oregon Trail or Santa Fe Trail.

  4. Two southern routes out of Arkansas and Texas that led to either Santa Fe or El Paso and then joined the Santa Fe Trail and the Gila Trail to southern California. Most of these trails had the advantage of a U.S. fort system for protection, rest and resupply with only the southern routes being truly on their own in 1849.

The southern routes would have also been used by anyone coming from the Gulf Coast and Caribbean. If arriving in New Orleans via sailing ship or riverboat off the Mississippi, the emigrant could sail to the Texas coastline before jumping off and heading to San Antonio and joining the trail.

Given that the Mexican War had just ended, there were some established military routes made by Col. Kearney, one being Cooke’s Mormon Road built in 1846 which cut a direct line across the open Colorado Desert starting at the Gila River in Texas and finished at San Pedro in California. It was a difficult trail since 89 miles of it were waterless. Northern Mexico is wide open and arid country and many travelers on this route experienced less-than-successful passages.

Another route an emigrant from the Gulf Coast could use was the Panama Passage which entailed sailing to the coast of Honduras and travel by land to the Chagres River. There they would find a water vessel to transport them and their belongings 25 miles across the Isthmus of Panama. Once on the Pacific side, the traveler would have to hail another northbound sailing ship to take them to California. This route was only a 30-day commitment but it was loaded with difficulty including the chance of catching malaria, yellow fever, dysentery or cholera.

Thanks to a family friend, I learned of yet another route taken from the eastern coast of Nicaragua known as the Mosquito Coast. From there the traveler would take a river boat up the San Juan River, across Lake Nicaragua to the town of Rivas. Once in Rivas, it was a 12-mile carriage ride to San Juan del Sur port where they would meet a California-bound ship. This route and how it came to be will be discussed, in-depth, in an upcoming blog. Just know, it involves an American tycoon, international government wrangling and political intrigue… it’s really fascinating and I can’t wait to share it!

South Americans, especially Chileans and Peruvians, beat a quick path to California, mostly by getting passage on a California-bound sailing ship. By the end of 1849, over 500 ships had sailed through the port of Valparaiso, Chile using it as a stopping point after the horrors of the Cape Horn passage. It was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in South America. Steam ships were forced to make stops along the coast of South America for fuel, so many smaller ports allowed for those wanting to cash in on California gold to hitch a ride.

The Pacific Rim countries: Australia, New Zealand, China, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and other Polynesian Islands, would have all come in by sailing ship toward the end of 1848-early 1849 and on.

Europeans had a different opportunity. They could come to California from the west, around the Cape of Good Hope, Africa and across the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. I’m sure there were plenty of folks along the way who wanted to hitch a ride on those sailing vessels. Russians came from modern day Alaska following existing trade and fishing routes.

Like metal filings to a magnet, the discovery of California gold country and its lure of instant riches proved to be a nation changing event.


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