Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 11. The Gold-Seekers

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XIV. Travellers and Explorers, 1846–1900

§ 11. The Gold-Seekers

The year following the conclusion of the Mexican War, which completed the sway of the United States over the entire West between the Gila River and the forty-ninth parallel, one of the large events of the world happened. A certain Marshall was employed by Sutter in the construction of a saw-mill up in the mountains, and one morning in January, 1848, when he picked from the sluiceway a particle of metal half the size of a pea, shining in the sun, it made his heart thump, for he believed it to be gold. Gold it proved to be. The great news was quick in reaching the outermost ends of the earth, calling men of all kinds, of all nationalities, pell-mell to Eldorado to pick up a fortune. Men of Cathay, men of Europe, men of the Red Indian race, all mingled on common terms in the scramble. Centuries of creeping along the fortieth parallel had at last tied together the far ends of the earth. “Marshall’s Own Account of the Gold Discovery” appeared in The Century Magazine, vol. XIX. Gold had been discovered some years before, but the psychological moment had not arrived for its exploitation. A vast literature developed on the subject, one of the earliest books being The Emigrant’s Guide to the Gold Mines, and Adventures with the Gold Diggers of California in August 1848 (1848), by Henry I. Simpson, of the New York Volunteers. This book has become rare. Another early but not scarce “gold” item is Theodore T. Johnson’s Sights and Scenes in the Gold Regions, and Scenes by the Way (1849)

The gold seekers got as far as Salt Lake over the Oregon Trail by Bear River; or from Ft. Bridger by the new way Hastings had found a little farther south, and more direct, through Echo Canyon. From Salt Lake the chief trail west led down the Humboldt River to the Sierra and over that mighty barrier by what became known as Donner Pass to commemorate the Donner party and the shocking result of their miscalculation, the details of which are given, in The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate (1911) by Mrs. Eliza P. Donner Houghton. “The Diary of one of the Donner Party” by Patrick Breen, edited by F. J. Taggart, is given in Publications of Pacific Coast History, vol. v. (1910); and C. F. McGlashan published a History of the Donner Party(1880). This ill-fated caravan originated in Illinois. John Carroll Power in a History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County, Ill. (1876) gives the daily journal of the “Reed and Donner Emigrating Party.”

The difficulties of travel by ox and mule team, the necessity of obtaining communication better from a military point of view, and other considerations led to talk of a railway to California. George Wilkes published in 1845 a volume now rare, Project of a National Railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, for the Purpose of Obtaining a Short Route to Oregon. In 1848, Asa Whitney made addresses, memorials, and petitions for a transcontinental railway, and he gave his plan in a Congressional document, Miscellaneous 28, Senate, 30th Congress I: “Memorial of Asa Whitney for grants of land to enable him to build a railway from Lake Michigan to the Pacific.” Whitney issued a volume in the same line, from personal exploration: Project for a Railroad to the Pacific with Reports and Other Facts Relating Thereto (1849).

No one was more enthusiastic or confident of the feasibility of a railway than Frèmont, unless it was his father-in-law, Benton. They were both positive that neither rivers, nor hot deserts, nor the deep mountain snows of winter would interfere seriously with the operation of trains. Frèmont projected his fourth expedition especially to prove that winter would be no obstacle, and he attempted crossing the highest mountains in the winter of 1848–49. He met with sad disaster in Colorado, for which he blamed the guide for misleading him. This dreadful experience he describes in his Memoris, and it is related in other books on Frèmont’s expeditions; and Micajah McGehee, who was of the party, gives all the terror of then struggle in “Rough Times in Rough Places” in The Century Magazine, vol. XIX. After this catastrophe Frèmont proceeded to California by the far southern route of upper Mexico and the Gila, arriving just as the great gold excitement was in its first heat.