Discover the Adventure:
Going to California for Gold

After the Discovery of Gold
Going to California's Gold Fields Wasn't Easy in 1849!

In 1848 and '49, as word spread that gold had been found in amazing quantities in California, there were only two ways an adventurous Argonaut-wannabe could travel to California: by sea-going vessel around The Horn or overland - usually by covered wagon.

Both routes were long and arduous, often fraught with dangers and delay.

And, as if just getting to California wasn't hard enough - once they arrived, they still had a long way to go before reaching the actual goldfields.

The ocean travelers who arrived in San Francisco first, still had to cross the Coastal Mountains, traverse the vastness of the Great Central Valley, and make their way up into the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas.

Those who traveled overland usually stopped first at Sutter's Fort to rejuvenate and restock their supplies before heading across the Central Valley and up into the foothills.

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After the Discovery of Gold
Going to California in 1848 and 1849

San Francisco Harbor 1851; Photographer UnknownSan Francisco Harbor 1851; Photographer Unknown

Once a ship reached port in 1848 San Francisco after traveling around The Horn, the Argonauts - soon to be called 49ers in honor of the year when most first arrived - still had a journey ahead of them.

Whether they were headed to the Northern mines like Coloma, Auburn, and Georgetown; or the Southern mines like Jackson, Mokelumne Hill, and San Andreas, it was about 140 miles from San Francisco to the goldfields.

Both routes required getting through the Coastal Mountain Range and crossing the Great Central Valley to reach the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range.

There were supplies to be acquired and arrangements to be made for transportation. The competition was fierce!

Those traveling to Coloma, where gold was first discovered, and the Northern mines sailed up the Sacramento River to what's known as Old Sacramento today.

Those heading for the Southern mines sailed along the San Joaquin River to Stockton before heading South. Either way, they would continue across the Central Valley on foot, on horse- or mule-back, or aboard a wagon and up into the foothills.

In the meantime, one result of all these ships arriving in San Francisco Bay had a profound impact on the newly burgeoning city of San Francisco.

So many ship's crews caught the gold fever along the way and deserted their ships for the get-rich-quick promise of going to California's goldfields that the captains couldn't return to their home ports.

Instead they sold their sails for tents, rented out their ships for warehouses, shops, and hotels, or sold the ship for its lumber and/or to be used as landfill.

That's right - landfill! Much of what is now the City of San Francisco
is built atop what used to be the harbor!

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Upon the Discovery of Gold
Covered Wagons Going to California Arrived at Sutter's Fort

When travelers arrived at Sutter's Fort from the ships in San Francisco Bay, they most likely met up with those who had come overland in covered wagons, as John Sutter was known to be encouraging and helpful to California-bound immigrants.

Of course, Sutter had his own ulterior motives for being helpful. He wanted settlers who would stay in the area, use his products and services, and thus help him to grow his empire.

Once gold was discovered however, these settlers joined the rest of the 49ers in abandoning all civilized activities in favor of getting rich quick (or so they hoped)!

But they had a long ways to go to reach the goldfields too! It was about 50 miles just to reach Coloma, the goldfield closest to Sacramento. Beyond that - and progressively farther away - were Auburn, Grass Valley, and Nevada City to the North, or Placerville, Plymouth, Amador City, Jackson, etc. to the South.

Going to California to Find Gold
was the Goal of Tens of Thousands of People

Vial of Gold; © Jane A. SawyerVial of Gold; © Jane A. Sawyer

But whether they traveled by sea or by land; along the Sacramento River or the San Joaquin; they were a determined lot, and came they did!

They were the adventurers and they were taking part in what was to become one of the greatest human migrations in recorded history.

From 1848 to 1850, California's population increased from 14,000 to 100,000, growing to 200,000 by 1852, and exceeding 300,000 in 1853.

These 49ers also ultimately provided the impetus for the creation of
a Transcontinental Railroad which would bind the Eastern and Western seaboards of the United States and greatly hasten the settlement of the vast territories in between.

No longer would it take four to six months to get to California - the California Gold Rush had changed the world forever!

If you're interested in how the 49ers got to California:

  • Around the Horn
    One way of going to California and the goldfields was to traverse the Horn by sailing ship, which often took almost as long as the overland route.
  • Overland by Covered Wagon
    The other way of going to California and the goldfields was to spend up to six months walking alongside a prairie schooner.

For what they did once they arrived, take a look at these pages:

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Going to California