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

by Don Baumgart

Much has been said about the men and women who crossed the prairies and climbed California's mountains in search of gold, but little mention has been made of the beasts of burden who carried their loads.

Immigrants about to leave Missouri for the West engaged in heated debate about which animal would best serve them on the arduous journey. Which would prove fastest and get the miners to the gleaming yellow nuggets in time to become rich? What animal was the best for fording rivers, a horse or a mule? And finally, which animal would the Indians be least likely to steal? Oxen were only of value to the native Americans as food and the buffalo still provided plenty of that.

Oxen could survive on the prairie grass found along the trails, while horses and mules needed grain, which had to be hauled along. And, oxen were cheaper to acquire, costing about $25 while a mule was worth $100. At trail's end the horses and mules were worth more than oxen in resale value, so that became a consideration for the westward bound.

Crossing the prairie most people walked alongside their wagons which were loaded with supplies and a lifetime's possessions. Horses, oxen, or mules moved the big Conestoga wagons westward.

The passage of wagons in the mountains was almost impossible. To bring goods to the little mining camps hidden in ravines and gulches near the gold-bearing streams, the sure-footed single mule became the mainstay of transportation. Thousands of mules were used to bring clothes, food, and something to "wet the miners' whistles" to the gold fields.

In 1852 as the Gold Rush blossomed there were 825 mules in Nevada County. As the single-file mule and pack horse trails became wagon roads that number dropped to 79. Teams of four to 36 animals pulled wagons bringing people and supplies to the gold country.

As new roads were built their costs were recouped by the charging of tolls. Several dozen toll roads are recorded, including the Grass Valley and Nevada Turnpike, Rough and Ready Turnpike, Dutch Flat and Donner lake Wagon Road, and the Grass Valley and Colfax Turnpike. In 1858 a six mule team paid $3 on one toll road, a horseman paid a quarter, and a horse and buggy, a dollar.

When silver was discovered at the Comstock Lode near Carson City, Nevada, thousands left the gold fields of California and headed east over the mountains. The demand for mining supplies and provisions grew sharply and the rough mountain trails posed a problem for the pack trains. The first good wagon road would reap a substantial toll income and intense competition immediately emerged. A new El Dorado waited to be served! And it would be the pack animals, unsung heroes of yet another bonanza, that would do the work.


Copyright Don Baumgart, 2007

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