In headed West to a place very few
In the Early 1840’s a wealthy man by the name of John Sutter headed West to a place very few people had ever seen or heard of, called California. His plans were to start his own private empire.
He was well on his way building his kingdom, until January 24th 1848 when one of his workers James Marshall caught something glittering in the riverbed on the American River. Marshall reached down and grabbed the shiny pea sized rock and after taking one look at it he was certain it was gold. He tried to forget about it and go back to work, but kept stumbling into more gold. Unable to believe that it was actually gold that he found he took samples back to Sutter. Sutter confirmed that his findings were gold, but wasn’t happy about it. He didn’t want the word to get out to people that there was gold in the river because he knew that crowds of people would come and destroy his empire. Marshall and Sutter decided to keep it a secret, but it didn’t last long.
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Rumors of a gold strike spread across the country fast. Sam Brannan, a merchant in California, saw opportunity in the situation. After buying every pick axe, pan, and shovel in the region, Brannan ran through the streets holding up a bottle of gold dust shouting about the gold strike. “It was a masterstroke that would spark the rush for gold and make Brannan the richest man in California” (www.isu.
edu/trinmich/discovery.html). In 1849 thousands of people from all around the world left their families and homes for California hoping to return rich. “They were dubbed “forty-niners” because they left their homes in 1849. When they were to return home was another matter entirely” ( Fisher and Holmes, 191).The first problem that the forty-niners faced was that California was a long ways away and there was no easy way to get there. They had two choices, either to take a ship around the tip of South America, or a 2,000 mile hike across the rugged American terrain.
Those that chose to go by sea faced seasickness, food that was full of bugs and maggots, water that was almost impossible to drink, and extreme boredom. They were trapped on a ship for months and months with nothing to do except think about gold and what they had left behind. The other route was a trail across the country made several years earlier known as the Oregon Trail. This was a shorter route to California, but not faster. They traveled in covered wagons at a speed of two miles per hour for up to six months.
The biggest problem that the forty-niners had on the trail was that there wasn’t enough water available. Lots of people died of thirst. When people in California heard word of this problem they headed out with barrels of water and sold it to the needy travelers for up to a hundred dollars a drink. Those that didn’t have the money would be left to die. “It was a lesson of supply and demand that would be repeated many times over in frontier California”