The Gold Rush
“There’s gold in them hills!” The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California gave many a man gold fever and about 70 men from the area are known to have answered the cry of the west. History relates that none of the men struck it rich, but several wrote accounts of their experiences upon their return. One of the most detailed stories of local involvement in the Gold Rush was written by Dr. William McCollum who wrote a book about his travels, “California as I Saw It.” McCollum joined with other area men to form the “Organization of Twenty.” The Doctor stated it was his spirit of adventure, more than the lust for gold that made him give up his practice of medicine and make the arduous trip. McCollum stated, the men were selected “for fixed purpose, determined wills, with stout hearts and nerves.” Each of the men contributed $80 for passage and packed pistols and bowie knives for protection.
From Niagara County to California in those days was a long and difficult trip. You could either cross the plains in a covered wagon, “California or Bust,” or go by ship around Cape Horn. The trip overland was thought most dangerous because there were few marked trails west of the Mississippi River and those adventurous enough to make the trip had to hire professional guides to circumnavigate Indian territory. If a party was caught in the Sierra Nevada’s in the fall, they could become snowbound and die from starvation or exposure to the sub-zero weather.
Dr. McCollum and his expedition chose the water route from New York to Panama where they trudged several days overland across the Isthmus and awaited passage on a whaling ship on the Pacific to San Francisco. The expedition’s stores and supplies were shipped separately around Cape Horn. Arriving at Panama on February 24, 1849, they had an eight-week wait before a whaling ship arrived. There were 2,000 to 3,000 “prospectors” awaiting passage and room for only 250 onboard. During the wait, eleven of the twenty men became sick and one man, Chauncey Harrington, died and was buried there. Two other men became discouraged and returned home, reducing the expedition to 17 men.
When finally gaining passage on the whaling ship, the boat encountered a terrible storm and was blown 1,200 miles off course, so it was July 5th before the men reached San Francisco. Dr. McCollum described the scene in the harbor as a graveyard of deserted ships, their masters and crews having left the boats for the Gold Rush. Once in Sacramento, the Niagara County group split up so that each was free to find his own fortune. McCollum reported that on his best day, he may have found an ounce of gold worth about $16. But for the most part, he labored many days and weeks with no return. On his last attempt to strike it rich, he teamed up with a few other Niagara County men and traveled several days by horse and pack mule. They worked a full week with no results and decided they would be better off with their former daily grind in Niagara County. After a year away from home, one by one, most of the men returned to their native land. Earning an ordinary living turned out to be less adventurous, but more rewarding, than panning for gold.
Douglas Farley, Director
Ann Marie Linnabery
Erie Canal Discover Center
24 Church St.
Lockport NY 14094