"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with
the people who lived it."
by Don Baumgart
Friedrick Gerstaecker hit San Francisco in autumn of 1849. "You for the mines?" asked the weather-beaten face of a miner back for some of the town's rowdy brand of civilization. Getting an affirmative answer from Gerstaecker and his companions the miner launched into his warning. "Well, boys...if you'll listen to reason -- what I don't expect you will, though -- you had better stay here in town during the rainy season. If you go up to the mountains for to wash gold...more likely you would get washed -- you understand me?" "But it was a singular fact," Gerstaecker jotted down, "that every body we spoke with about the mines had an opinion of his own, differing entirely from the next..." The miner's warning did not, however, differ from the actual conditions Gerstaecker and friends met heading for mines along the Feather River. "The rain was pouring down in torrents," he recorded in his ever-present diary. "The road consisting in fact of nothing else but a solid bed of mud, ankle deep, with holes in it where mules sank to their girths." Nothing was easy for the Forty-Niners. One would-be miner wrote about his arrival in Stockton heading for the gold fields. First a tent was set up near where the boat from San Francisco had put them ashore. Then they set about fixing dinner. "Our first meal was cooked by us. None of us knew how to cook. We had coffee blacker than burnt molasses; pork dripping with salt, ashes and grease; bread a bullet couldn't pierce..." It quickly got worse...and more expensive. In fact, more money was to be made in stopping-off places like Stockton and Sacramento, and more surely, than in nugget-chasing. One man bought a pair of mules and made $8 to $10 a day hauling supplies from river ship docks to the canvas-and-stick stores. A teamster made a good living and a the merchants made fortunes...all without digging a shovelful of gravel.
"It was the month of September, 1849, when at the age of seventeen years, I bade good-by to father, mother and friends..." This is how Charles Ferguson describes his departure for the gold fields. He left Cleveland on a lake steamer bound for Chicago. "It was not the Chicago of today," Ferguson wrote, "for I think the population did not exceed seventeen thousand." From Chicago the young man travelled eighty miles by canal to Ottawa. There he "...found the gold excitement as intense, if not more so, than in Ohio." A steamer took him down the Illinois River to St. Louis; another 300 miles up the Missouri to St. Joseph. "We were much disappointed at the appearance of this then famous town. Our ideas of its size and importance had been greatly exaggerated." Ferguson and his companions had taken wagons and horses with them on their water travels, and now they were ready to put the wheels and hooves on the road to California. "Our first day's land journey was uneventful, but favorable, and we made about 25 miles, pitched our tents on the bottom land near a small creek; fed the ponies; cooked our supper; told stories and talked over our plans for the hundredth time." Ferguson described another attempt to live off the land. "We saw a badger and killed it. We boiled him, but when we tried to eat him one might as well have undertaken to put his teeth through a piece of leather as any part of that badger. So we drank the broth, or rather the water he was boiled in, for it did not rise to the dignity of broth, even to us famished men."
Before ending his part in the great event, that other Forty-Niner, Friedrick Gerstaecker, while describing a family that had journeyed to the gold fields, set down his epitaph for the yellow metal and what it did to its seekers. "And gold -- vile gold alone -- had driven this man from his peaceful home, exposing his family to all the dangers and hardships of such a long and tedious journey -- to the burning sun and the fevers of the plains, the icy winds and dangers of the snowy mountains."
Don is a former daily newspaper reporter, now a magazine journalist living in Nevada City, California. He has written articles for national publications taking readers to such diverse experiences as dining aboard California's Wine Train and a Nevada burger stop for outer space aliens.