Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How did they get here?

Click on map to enlarge

Emigrants to America
during the period of the
Gold Rush entered through Eastern seaboard ports or
New Orleans. New Orleans welcomed the second greatest
number of emigrants during this time frame (the largest
was New York). In fact, during the 1830's and 1840's, a
Jewish community was already established in New Orleans.
It's not surprising, given the French settlement of that port
and the political turmoil of the French Revolution that
extended into the early 1800's and reverberated throughout
Europe, that many of these Jewish emigrants were from the
Alsace Lorraine region of France and the German states
along the Rhine.

After an emigrant arrived on the Eastern seaboard, travel to the west coast was accomplished by one of three methods.

Overland Routes
The earliest travelers went overland by covered wagon or stagecoach. The Butterfield Overland Stage carried mail and passengers starting in 1858. It departed from Missouri and Tennessee, met at Fort Smith, Arkansas and continued through Indian Territory, New Mexico and Arizona to San Francisco. The western fare one way was $200, a very large sum in those days, and the trip took 22 days.

In 1861 this route was replaced by one from Missouri directly to Placerville (Placerville was one of the two mining towns in the Gold Country with an actual synagogue building). Stagecoach runs to the northern mining camps continued until the arrival of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.

There is little documented evidence of many Jews taking this route, perhaps because many of the earliest Jews to the Gold Rush were coming directly from Europe through New York or New Orleans. Later Jewish arrivals did come from the Eastern states, but by then transcontinental rail lines had been laid.

Sea Routes
The other alternatives were by sea. A hopeful miner could board a ship at an eastern port and sail around Cape Horn. The 18,000 mile voyage around the Horn took from five to eight months and traversed treacherous sea waters. Many died en route from disease and inadequate provisions.

This map is based upon one drawn during an 1849 voyage (note spelling of countries' names). Click to enlarge

More commonly, travelers went by a Federally subsidized U.S. Mail Steamship to Nicaragua, or to Chagres, on the east coast of the Isthmus of Panama. They disembarked, boarded a native “bungoe,” and were poled through malarial waters partway across the Isthmus. At Gorgona Station they joined a mule-train through the jungle, enduring heat and the contagion of cholera. The construction of the Panama railroad in 1855 slightly shortened the travel time and lessened some of the hazards of this portion of the trip.

At the west coast port of Panama City, emigrants waited for a Pacific Mail Steamship, sometimes for weeks. The town was comprised of brothels and gambling halls, and was rife with cholera. During the peak of the Gold Rush it was crowded with gold-seekers who waited and slept in tents or blankets on the beach.

A gifted reporter for the New York Tribune, Bayard Taylor, recounted his cholera-beset journey of 1849 in Eldorado, Adventures in the Path of Empire (reprinted by HeyDay Books, Berkeley, CA). The journey from New York to San Francisco took 51 days and included an overland trip by mule through the Isthmus of Panama.

Maps © Victoria Fisch 2010

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