Discovering the Adventure:
49ers Travel Around the Horn to
San Francisco

Around the Horn in 1849 with the 49ers

This sounds so daunting to us today - boarding a sailing ship in the 1840s and 1850s to travel 16,000 miles around the deadly tip of Cape Horn with its monstrous waves, terrifying winds, and frigid temperatures.

The Journey Around the Horn

1849 Era Clipper Ship; Artist Unkinown1849 Era Clipper Ship; Artist Unkinown

Some of the gold rushers traveled around the horn - particularly those who lived near the Eastern Seaboard or arrived there from foreign lands.

American ships' captains had excellent reputations for traversing the vagaries of both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans in relative safety.

And many of the ships of the day were equipped with steam engines, giving them a distinct advantage over vessels that were governed by wind alone.

It was about 16,000 miles to travel the Atlantic from New York, Boston, or New Orleans along the Eastern coast of the three Americas around the Horn, then north along the Western coast of those same Americas before reaching San Francisco - the Gateway to the Goldfields.

But the journey took no more than the four to six months it would take to travel overland (and sometimes took much less than that - the record was 89 days, set by the Flying Cloud).

Plus, it was considered to be a safer, and much more comfortable trip. The ships were built to withstand the vagaries of the oceans' weather, and during good weather the men had the advantage of enjoying the beauty of the sea and stops in exotic ports along the way.

One of the downsides of this trip however, was that the men did not (could not) bring their families with them. Those who traveled overland by covered wagon at least had the option.

There were stops along the way to resupply, with the ships taking on food, water, and wood for the steam engines.

Between stops were long spells of boredom that were occasionally interspersed with periods of abject terror - as when the ship traveled through dense fogs, bringing on fears of collision, or through fierce storms and heavy seas, leading to visions of the ship being rent asunder with all hands lost at sea!

A shorter route, but one wrought with its own perils, was to cross the land at the Isthmus of Panama.

Those who chose this path disembarked at Chagres, Panama, used river canoes and mules to cross the Isthmus through rainy, seemingly impenetrable jungle, and reached Panama City on the Pacific side within about three days.

If they didn't contract a tropical disease like malaria, and if a ship was waiting for them in Panama City, the timing for the total trip could be as little as six weeks - twelve weeks at most!

All in all, sailing to San Francisco seemed like a good idea to many - over 25,000 traveled via sailing ship.

And, it didn't cost any more than going overland; both trips could be done for about $400.

If you're interested in how other 49ers got to California, check here:

  • Going to California
    There were basically two ways to get to California during the Gold Rush.
  • Overland by Covered Wagon
    The other way to get to the California goldfields was to spend up to 6 months walking alongside a prairie schooner.

For what they did once they arrived, try these articles:

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