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  • James Wheeling

Life as a passenger on a ship going around Cape Horn in 1849

And what of the passengers on a California-bound ship in 1849? What could they expect? First class passengers’ fare was around $150 ($5,700.00 approx. in 2022) but during the Rush, it wasn’t unheard of to have the fare go to $400 ($15,000.00 approx. in 2022). This fare bought a berth under the raised poop deck with a main salon, which held a long, narrow, dining table, benches on either side, perhaps a library and lounge, and a small room that served as a toilet (bucket) and washing room. Sometimes there was a ladies room partitioned off in the same area occupied by the mates and steward where there was more space. Some of these quarters were paneled in mahogany, rosewood, satinwood, and had papier mache carvings decorated with gilding.

The steerage passengers paid from $25 ($950.00 approx. in 2022) to $40 ($1,500.00 approx in 2022) but in 1849, the price was higher. This for the privilege of living in stall-like partitions in the ‘tween decks: they were packed in like sheep, only allowed on deck during fair weather. If bad weather hit, the hatches were closed and they were sealed below decks in a close, unventilated hell. In most situations, the steerage passengers weren’t allowed on board until each could show that they had the necessary outfit with which to eat and cook their own fare.

Food and water were usually fine at first since they could take live animals with them and slaughter them along the way. After a while, though, things were pretty awful, even for those paying first-class fare. Each adult was severely rationed on their weekly diet, down to the ounce, which consisted of bread or biscuit, flour, oatmeal, rice, peas, beef, pork, potatoes, tea, sugar, mustard, ground black pepper, salt, and vinegar. No green stuff. No dried fruit. Nothing special to make it taste better.

Water was another challenge. Everything had to be barreled, including water, for easy storage. Some captains would allow beer and limited amounts of other spirits but the smart captain kept those under lock and key. The challenge with water was it going stale or rancid. The barrels, no doubt, imparted a flavor after a while. We all know, when you are thirsty, water is water. But, in the middle of the ocean, fresh water is precious.

Imagine being on a ship for a couple of months with no refrigeration. Any meat or cheese was eaten first, then the animals would start being slaughtered. There are accounts of the biscuits and flour crawling with maggots, and mold on almost everything. By the time the ship had endured the trial of Cape Horn, everyone was cold, wet, and really hungry. Valparaiso, Chile would have been the ship’s first stop for a replenishment of food and water.

It would have also been the first time the passengers would have left the ship after the potentially month-long trip around Cape Horn. There are accounts of unruly passengers who had caused trouble being put off the ship by the captain in Valparaiso, left behind to find passage on another ship with no refund of their passage fee. As mentioned in an earlier blog, Elizabeth Farnham was put off the ship with her two young boys in Valparaiso because she had so irritated the captain with her demands. She eventually made it to San Francisco on another ship.

Some passengers were so beat up by the Cape Horn passage that the short stop in Valparaiso was too brief and they took their chances of finding passage on another ship headed to California. I will talk more about Valparaiso in an upcoming blog and its temptations for staying put rather than continuing on to California for some passengers.

The Pacific leg of the trip had to have been extremely challenging for the passengers. Not only were they closer to their goal but they were tired of each other and being cooped up on the ship. Patience had to have been wearing thin and there were instances of brawls and confrontations that forced the captain to lock people in their berths or chain them up in the steerage for the duration of the trip.

There are also some great stories of passengers becoming very creative at entertaining themselves. Contests of all sorts were common: singing, poetry recitation, debates, and skits were all part of the daily routine. It is easy to imagine that gambling was common, poker and other card games within the realm of possibility. Passenger accounts talk of journals being filled with their own stories and sketches — anything to pass the time.

When they finally came within sight of the California coast, many say they stood at the railing and imagined the wealth they would find in the hills. The sight of San Francisco Bay had to have also been memorable… a bay filled with rotting ships with no one to sail them away. The scene is described over and over again as a “forest of masts” on sinking decks.

And then, the adventure began.

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