The 49’ers
Evelyn Wells and Harry C. Peterson 1949

273 pages


One of Harry Peterson’s short part-time careers was as a columnist for the Oakland Tribune. For a few years he filled the columns with the stories he heard traveling the Mother Lode towns of California.

The 49’ers is a collection of sixteen stories was extracted from the Oakland Tribune archives and reshaped into a narrative of the Gold Rush in California by Evelyn Wells, a few years after Harry Peterson had died. It includes a myriad of anecdotes.

The men who came west and the year 1849 is the first story and puts the Gold Rush, for individuals, in perspective.  The 1840’s had been a lackluster decade. Americans were adventurous but by the 1840’s there was no outlet for that spirit – until the Gold Rush.  That changed everything, “And every lad among them with the price of a ticket and the courage to face the unknown could sit in on this millionaire’s game.”

This is a fun book, full of stories of the Gold Rush and the people prospecting and serving the prospectors.  Each chapter starts with parts of contemporary songs and there are interesting facts.    For example, in 1841, years before the population boom in California, there were 150 “foreigners.”  100 were Americans. Imagine.  In 1844 Mexico knew there was gold in California, but apparently the world was not ready and no one did anything with the knowledge.  Cleaning  house for miners meant moving the tent to get a clean floor.

Stories cover how people got to California and what they needed to take.  The bellows was the simplest of all gold hunting devices that were needed. “Just point it at the ground and blow – all the dirt blows away and leaves acres of clean gold.”  No wonder everyone was aiming for California and we can note here that people in the past were just like us.  Confidence men were trying to take advantage through scams and were successful because of regular folks’ gullibility.  As a result, “Forty Niners remembered with bitterness the cruel disappointments and treacheries of the opening months of the great gold stampede.”

Through all the stories there is a myriad of details and evocative descriptions.  At the Isthmus of Panama crowds waited for ships for the final leg to California.  “Every ship going south brought word of continued big strikes in California. The first northering ships found them aboard, as feverishly anxious as they had been to leave the East….”

“Through sickness, boredom, and storm the young men clung to their dreams. Those who took the long way, around Cape Horn, found the ship a savage enemy, determined to spew them into Antarctic water where it ran with bare sails and wheels lashed at the mercy of the sea. And yet, in calmer seas, how slow the ship – and how wild the plunging pistons home in young veins.

“Oh, hurry, hurry, before all the gold was gone!”

Since we are Donner Summit we should focus on the wagon trains.  By May of ’49 “twenty thousand men, many with families, were encamped along the Missouri River with ox teams, horses, pack mules and wagons, and ‘food and supplies to last as year.’ Tents mushroomed the land, fields and woods were vast encampments, whole canvas towns sprang up along this ‘far Western’ frontier, and the road westward as far as the eye could see, were ribboned darkly with wagon trains and men…”

“There was bustle and hammering and the shrilling voices. There was a fevered fitting of goods into wagons, breaking in of teams, burnishing of firearms, whetting of knives, grating of axes on grindstones turned by hand. A vast baking of bread, and the smell of broiling meats, to be eaten cold on the trail, and hung over the fresh Missouri land.”  Imagine what that must have been like.

The book is a compilation of stories put into a logical narrative.   There are stories of hardship, success, failure, pathos, joy, accident, and Indians.  There is the man and wife caught by early snow.  He put her on a horse and set out in the storm for town.  The horse fell.  The man carried the wife until he could go no more.  “A rescue party found the two lying in each other’s arms waiting death in the snow.”  They survived.  Other anecdotes tell about the founding of Auburn and other towns, Joaquin Murietta, hangings, salting claims with gold, drunken activity, gambling, having to move cemeteries, the lucky and the luckless, large nugget finds, gamblers, and naïve greenhorns and how they got separated from their money.

One jokester salted his pan with a nugget as he showed others how to pan. The spectators saw the nugget and stampeded off to file claims.  The jokester began to empty the pan and saw gold, a lot of gold at the bottom.  It was indeed a rich spot “but there was not an inch of land left” to claim by the time he got to town.

Hotels in 1849
“There are no real hotels yet,  just boardinghouses, attached to each there is a large apartment littered over with flea-filled hay. For one dollars you could spread your blankets in the straw and enjoy a night’s sleep, if you do not mind countless insects, dozens of drunken, snowing men around you, not to mention those who fell over you.”

Sometimes they merely planted their heavy boot in the pit of your stomach, or hit their toe against your nose, nor was it at all unusual to wake up in the morning to find your blankets profusely decorated with a choice assortment of designs from various tobacco chewers.”