The Argonauts

When gold was discovered at Johann August Sutter's Sawmill on the American River on January 24, 1848 by James W. Marshall, the news spread rapidly. Sutter tried unsuccessfully to hide the fact that gold had been discovered, fearful of the effect it would have on his business and workers. By June, ships bound for the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) and Oregon in July, carried the news of Gold. The Atlantic coast received the news by August of the same year. On December 5, 1848, President Polk announced the discovery. The rush to California was on. There were three basic routes for the Gold Seekers on the Eastern part of the United States to get to California. The gold seekers inevitably came to be called the Argonauts, after the classic Greek tales of Jason and the Argonauts (seekers of the Golden Fleece).

 Replica of Sutter's Sawmill. -  Photo courtesy of Allen Wrenn

The Overland Route, required crossing the Great Plains and Deserts of the West. The traveler would have to Walk and/or Ride across more than 2,000 miles of the US. Wagons and carts were pulled by mules or oxen, and sometime horses. Starting somewhere along the Mississippi River, the  trip would take between 4 to 12 months by wagon. The mortality rate was very high on this route, with ten percent of those going by land, never completed the trip. The greatest death toll was due to diseases and accidents. Even with all of its difficulties, this was still the most popular route, and in 1849, an estimated 35,000 people went overland. It offered a way for a man, of very little means, to move his whole family to California.

Some of the travelers took the Southern trails, which included the Sonora Trail, which would swing into Mexico. Others took the Santa Fe Trail, and its many extensions. The majority of the travelers went by the Oregon and Mormon trails. These two trails, ran parallel to each other, on different sides of the Platte River, across the Great Plains and over the Rockies. Once over the Rockies, these trails headed to California, by numerous other trails.

The trip did have its limitations and a very ridged timetable. You had to start your trip in the early Spring, to ensure that there was good green grass on the prairie to feed their livestock. They had to be over the Sierra Nevada mountains in California, before the first snows. Otherwise, you would have to spend the Winter somewhere on the trail. If they had not started their journey by the middle of June, they would have to find a place to spend the winter. The most popular place, was Salt Lake, because there was a growing Mormon community there, and supplies could be purchased.

Covered Wagons, headed West

I have a copy of the dairy of Martha Morgan who was a member of a Covered Wagon Train, that across the Plains in 1849. Her party consisting of 65 wagons, left St. Joseph, Missouri on May 24th, 1849 to California via Salt Lake . They arrived in valley of Salt Lake on October, 12th of 1849. They wintered in Salt Lake, and continued their trip to California on April 22nd, 1850. They arrived in Pleasant Valley, California on July 4th, 1850, 13 months after they started. This does not include the time it took them to get to St. Joseph. They suffered great hardships, and loss of life along the trail. She mentions the many wagons, they found abandoned by Gold Diggers and other Settlers along the way. On August 5th, they met five wagons of Gold Diggers, on their return home. They had lost some of their men, and got discouraged.  The greatest cause of casualties was due to accidents, and stampede's of their cattle, along the way. The dairy does not mention how many wagons and settlers arrived in California. But it does tell of most of the casualties, and how some members became discouraged and turned back, some were killed and many of the wagons were abandoned due to accidents and break-downs, and other problems.

A well equipped Argonaut heads to the gold fields of California. Painting by Albertis Browere

This photograph was taken in 1849 of San Francisco harbor, showing the masts of hundreds of abandoned ships in the background.

Another route, was the Cape Horn Route was sailing around Cape Horn and the Straights of Magellan in South America, which took 6 to 12 months. A distance of over 13,600 miles. This route was shorter and quicker, than the overland route and also filled with hazards. Sailing through the Straights of Magellan was a very dangerous procedure, with the rough weather, currents and tides. Quite a few ships were lost making this passage. Due to the danger, there were not very many ship captains that were willing to navigate those waters. Another problem with this route, was that in 1849, most of the ships available to make this trip, did so. Any ship was could sail, whether it was equipped for the hazardous trip or not, was pressed into service. Those that had been retired, due to leaks or other problems, were quickly patched up and were maid available for the California run. Most of the whaling fleet of New England, was diverted for use by the Argonauts. Many of these ships were ill prepared for the harsh environment, and was lost at sea. No body knows how many of these ships went down, but it is believed that there were many that met their fate in Davy Jone's Locker. 

Once in San Francisco, the crews tended to abandoned the ships, so that they could dig for gold. A sailor (and Captain) could make more money in one day of digging for gold, then in a whole month on ship. Soon, San Francisco Bay, became filled with abandoned ships, without crews and captains to sail them back. 

This map was drawn by a passenger on the clipper ship, Apollo, which took the typical 8 months to complete. The passenger marked their position each day of the trip. Due to its dependence on the prevailing winds and currents, the Apollo almost reached Africa. After spending many days  getting around Cape Horn, once in the Pacific, she was blown off course. Normally they would sail along the coast of South and Central America, then on to San Francisco. The Apollo sailed past San Francisco, and had to spend many days sailing back. 

The easiest route Central American Route, which was sailing from cities on the eastern coast of the United States to Central America, Then crossing overland to the Pacific Coast of Central America and  then continue by ship onto California. This was the quickest and easiest of the three routes with distances of about 5000 miles and taking between 1 to 2 months to complete..

There were three primary way to accomplish the Central American route.

The most difficult, and longest of these routes is via the Tehuantepec Route. This route started on the Gulf of Mexico, at the town of Barra. This required crossing by foot, mule or horse through Mexico.

Another route was the Nicaragua Route. This required that you sail from the east coast of the US to the San Juan River on the Atlantic coast to the town of Grey Town (British name) or San Juan del Norte (the Nicaraguan name). They would go by boat up the San Juan River past a small series of rapids, into Lake Nicaragua at the town of San Carlos. Once on the lake, there were two alternative routes, each requiring some type of boat. One goes to the north corner of the lake where you had to cross overland a short distance to Lake Managua. Navigating through Lake Managua, reaching the Monotombo Valley, on the north coast. A short overland cross gets you to the town of Leon and the Pacific Ocean. This over river, land, and lake trek through Nicaragua, was 278 miles long.

The other route, goes to the western coast of Lake Nicaragua to the town of Laguas. Here you cross overland over a small mountain range, to the San Juan del Sur River. By boat, you go down the river to the town of San Juan del Sur on the Pacific Ocean. This route, was 172 miles, through Nicaragua. From New York to San Francisco, the Nicaragua Route, was about 4,900 miles, and took from 2 to 3 months to complete.

In 1850, Cornelius Vanderbilt secured a concession from Nicaragua for the privilege of transporting passengers by steamer and road or canal across the country. He promised to build a canal from Lake Nicaragua to the Pacific, but this was never done. Vanderbilt proposed to have a small steamer that would passed through the rapids and shallows of the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua. He had his own ships running from New York and New Orleans to Greytown and from San Juan del Sur on the Pacific side to San Francisco. Passenger service was inaugurated during the summer of 1851 going up the river in small steam boats, were transferred to lake steamers at San Carlos and sail across the lake to Virgin Bay. For the thirteen miles of overland transit to the Pacific coast, Vanderbilt constructed a macadam  road over which travelers rode in some brightly painted, blue-and-while coaches with the seal of Nicaragua painted on the side. Although this route sounded ideal, it had a big problem with consistency. It was not working more often then it did. People would get stranded at Greytown for weeks, before they could find transportation up the river. This happened during all legs of the journey.

Between the years of 1848 and 1869, approximately 373,000 passengers going to San Francisco from New York, went via the Panama Route. Through the Nicaragua Route, there were 68,000 passengers. This averaged to 17,800 passengers a year for Panama and 3,200 passengers per year for Nicaragua.

1864 Map of Nicaragua, showing the proposed routes for a Nicaragua Canal. This route is also the same one used by the Argonauts, on their way to California.

 The Port at Chagres

Walking the Las Cruces Trail

The third alternative was the Panama Route. This route required that you sail from the east coast of the US to the mouth of the Chagres River, in Panama. You would then go by boat up the Chagres River, to the town of Cruces. From Cruces you would go overland to Panama City, where you could catch a ship bound to San Francisco. The total distance for this trip was about 5,200 miles, with about 50 of them in Panama. This trip would take, about 1 weeks to get to Panama from New York, 1 week crossing Panama, and another 2 weeks sailing from Panama to San Francisco. Once the Panama Railroad was completed in 1855, the trip across the isthmus would take less than a day, and the whole trip, from New York to San Francisco, could take as little as 30 days

Mouth of the Chagres River in 1850 and the town of Yankee Chagres

Isthmus Guard - with the inflow of a large amount of people crossing the Isthmus, going and coming from the gold fields of California, a large number of criminals and desperados were attracted to the Isthmus. The local citizens and some foreigners, organized a force to control the problem, since Colombia was not doing anything about it. They hired a Texas Ranger by the name of Ran Runnels and gave him a free hand in taking care of all those committing illegal acts. After catching some of the criminals and executing them, the rest of the desperados, quickly left the country. After the problem went away, the Isthmus Guard was dissolved.

Nobody knows how many people went to California during 1849. It is estimated that approximately 35,000 used the Overland route. Another 15,000 arrived, via the Cape Horn passage. About 6,000 used the Panama Route, the first year of the rush. The number of Argonauts that died on the trip is also difficult to determine. Most historians believe that the number reached tens of thousands, between 1849 and 1869.

Mountains and Molehills by Frank Marryat 1 Frank Marryat was an Englishman who crossed the Isthmus of Panama, on route to California in 1850.
 Mountains and Molehills by Frank Marryat 2 This is Frank Marryat's second trip across the Isthmus in 1852.

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Bruce C. Ruiz
February 15, 2002