"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Miners From Oregon Were Early Gold Rush Arrivals

by Don Baumgart

Most of the men who heeded the siren call of California's Gold Rush came from the East coast, but some were already in the American West when that single magnetic word, "Gold!" drew them to northern California.

"In the month of July, 1848, the news of the discovery of gold in California reached Oregon," Peter Burnett wrote in his Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer. Word passed from San Francisco to Honolulu, to Fort Vancouver. "At that very time there was a vessel from San Francisco in the Willamette River, loading with flour."

For the young men of the northwest, their ship had arrived.

"I think that at least two-thirds of the male population of Oregon started for California in the summer and fall of 1848," Burnett said. Hitting the trail for the California Gold Rush took Oregon men south, but the region's early fame came from a trail that came to their territory from the east.

The Oregon Trail originally was opened by fur traders in the 1830s and grew in importance when gold was discovered in California. In 1841 100 settlers took the 2,000 mile trail from Missouri, heading for the rich farm land of Oregon's Willamette Valley.

To get to the promised land of gold, a trail south from Oregon was the ticket.

Most of the region's young men set off overland, using pack animals on rough trails. "No wagons had ever passed between Oregon and California," Burnett said, but he and a few companions went by wagon, coming down the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They crossed the mountain range in late October, 1848, having much better luck than previous travelers. It was much later, seated comfortably at a dinner table in Sacramento, when Burnett heard the horrifying tale of the Donner Party, trapped by snow and starving in those same mountains two years earlier.

Burnett recalls one night's camp on the California side of the Sierras, listening to arrivals from as far away as Missouri.

"I could hear the wagons coming down that rough, rocky hill until midnight. Some of the people...had been without water for nearly two days."

His relief at reaching his destination on the Yuba River shows in his words.

"Below, glowing in the hot sunshine and in the narrow valley of this lovely and rapid stream, we saw the canvas tents and the cloth shanties of the miners."

Burnett worked in the gold fields until December of 1848 when he set out for Sacramento, and then San Francisco, looking for business ventures that did not include digging. He witnessed the arrival of what would come to be called the 49ers.

"Within a few days of my arrival in San Francisco the sailing ships from the East began to arrive, full of gold seekers, who were well provided with outfits consisting of clothing, towels, brushes and other articles, many of which were not much used in the mines."

He saw dockside auctions as new arrivals unloaded their trunks. Many had brought gold washing machines, "...at great expense and labor, and upon arrival were only fit for fuel."

His time scratching for gold behind him, Burnett became a city dweller. But he kept in his head his first impressions of arriving at a new place during an extremely exciting time.

"While the settlement of a new country is full of perils, hardships, and privations...the first settlers find nature in a state of grand repose."


Copyright Don Baumgart, 2003

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