New Perspectives on THE WEST
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The People
Empire Upon The Trails
Speck of the Future
Death Runs Riot
The Grandest Enterprise Under God
Fight No More Forever
The Geography of Hope
One Sky Above Us
Speck of the Future


Gold Fever

My Share of the Rocks


Stay at Home

The Diggings

The Right of Conquest

This Land of Gold & Hope

Emporium of the Pacific


The Day of Forty-nine

THE WEST Speck of the Future

My Share of the Rocks

By the beginning of 1849, over 50,000 American goldseekers had decided to head for California. The only question was how to get there. Since it was impossible to go overland until spring thawed the prairies and mountain passes, the most impatient prospectors started off by sea -- 14,355 nautical miles -- all the way around the tip of South America. But most of the Americans decided to wait and go by wagon train.

April 11, 1849
All my things being ready last night, I rose early and commenced packing in my trunk, preparatory to leaving home on my long journey, leaving for the first time my home and my dear friends with the prospect of absence from them for many months and perhaps for years.
William Swain

William SwainWilliam Swain was a twenty-seven year old farmer's son from Youngstown, New York, utterly convinced he would find riches in California. His wife, Sabrina, was against his going West. She did not know if she and their infant daughter, Eliza, could bear to be apart from him. William's older brother George was for it. If pickings were as easy as the newspapers said, he would go West, too, the following spring.

Swain's plan was to take the overland route to California, make a quick $10,000 in the gold fields, and return home. He carried with him a guidebook to the Overland Trail, a Bible -- and his diary.

I had fortified my mind by previous reflection to suppress my emotions, as is my custom in all cases where emotion is expected. But this morning I learned by experience that I am not master of my feelings in all cases. I parted from my family completely unable to restrain my emotions and left them all bathed in tears, even my brother, whose energy of mind I never saw fail before.
William Swain

J.S. HollidayHe is a farmer. He lives a simple life. He's pretty well educated. He's read Shakespeare, he's read Wordsworth. His wife is a teacher. They have a very comfortable life. They don't have anything to complain about in eighteen forty-nine. This is a key point. They did not have anything that would cause them distress. His expectations were perfectly comfortable expectations of an average family, a farming family in America. The Gold Rush changed that. Suddenly he wanted more. Suddenly he wasn't satisfied.
J. S. Holliday

April 12th, 1849
Sabrina SwainAt half past two o'clock we took passage for Detroit on the steamer Arrow. The lake is very smooth, and the boat shoots along like an arrow, and as she leaves, far in the distance, objects familiar to me and bears me on to those that are strange, I feel that she bears me and my destiny.
William Swain

April 15, 1849
Dear, dear William,
I feel as though I was alone in the world. The night you left home I did not, nor could not, close my eyes to sleep.... William, if I had known that I could not be more reconciled to your absence than I am, I never could have consented to your going. However, I will try to reconcile myself as well as I can, believing God will order all things for the best.

May 6, 1849
Independence, Missouri
We came up from St. Louis with a company... from Marshall, Michigan. They are got up on the joint stock principle and are going with ox teams. They proposed that we should join them by paying $100 each into the fund, furnishing a wagon and thus becoming members of their company... which we have done.
William Swain

The members of Swain's company printed "Wolverine Rangers" on their wagons with axle grease. Other companies had their own nicknames: "Wild Yankee," "Rough and Ready," "Live Hoosier," and "Never Say Die." But in honor of the momentous year they believed would change their lives, they all proudly called themselves "'49ers."

Thirty thousand people -- that's not an exaggeration -- in the spring of 1849, take off from Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri, and travel along the Great Platte. Hundreds of miles of wagons. You can look to the west and as far as you can see on a dusty day, there are wagon trains, way off into the distance. And you turn around to look back, and they're stretched all the way back as far as you can see.

J.S. HollidayThe men who traveled to California in the Gold Rush years had a conscious sense of the need to organize. There are rules. For instance, no swearing -- literally! They have constitutions, they have these rules and orders: No swearing. No drinking. We will observe the Sabbath. Many a company broke up over the argument of whether or not to observe the Sabbath. 'How can we observe the Sabbath? Here it is the middle of June, we're already behind. These people are passing us on Sunday, they're rolling. How can we sit here?' So they have arguments about it, and companies split up over the moral question of whether to observe the Sabbath or not.
J. S. Holliday

For thirty days, the Forty-niners crossed rolling prairie in what is now Kansas and Nebraska. It was Indian Territory, where tribes from the East had been relocated a decade earlier. Fears of Indian raids proved mostly groundless: men were more likely to die by drowning at a river crossing, or by an accident with their own guns, than they were at the hands of Indians. The Sac and the Fox, the Pawnees and Kickapoos, charged tolls at bridges and fords. The Potawatomis sold the emigrants bacon, beef and vegetables, and charged from one to five dollars to ferry emigrants across the Kansas River.

The real danger on the plains was cholera -- with its soaring fevers, chronic dysentery and ghastly death from dehydration. Cholera was rampant all across the United States in 1849, and quickly spread through the wagon trains. Some 1,500 of the goldseekers who set out for California that spring died from it on the trail.

Youngstown, New York
Dear Brother William,
We... were in a perfect fever of anxiety about you.... We know the cholera will be with you in crossing the plains.... Do write as soon as you get there.
George Swain

Sabbath, May 27, 1849
In violation of our principle, we travel today on account of the sickness on the route.

May 31, 1849
I was attacked at noon by dysentery very badly. I... got Reverend Hobart to make me a composition tea.

June 1, 1849
Still taking medicine, opium and astringent powders... Today I have thought much of home and of my little girl, who is today one year old.

June 7, 1849
I am... on the gain, but very weak.... My appetite is good but I cannot eat hearty for fear of the consequences.
William Swain

On June 13th, William Swain and his companions passed Fort Kearny on the Platte River. By early July, they reached Fort Laramie, in what is now Wyoming. They had gone nearly 700 miles from Missouri. But they still had more than 250 to go before they reached South Pass, which would take them through the Rocky Mountains. And nearly 1,000 more before they actually reached the gold fields.

July 4th, Independence Day
Dear Sabrina,
Letter To SabrinaI have just left the celebration dinner table, where the company now are drinking toasts to everything and everybody and cheering at no small rate. I enjoy myself better in conversing with you through the medium of the pen....

I am hearty and well, far more so than when I left home.... I am also more fleshy. Notwithstanding these facts, I would advise no man to come this way to California.

Kiss my little girl for me, give my love to George and Mother, and tell them I am determined to have my share of the rocks. Your affectionate husband until death,

William Swain

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