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
William 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.
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.
April 12th, 1849
April 15, 1849
May 6, 1849
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.
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.
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
Sabbath, May 27, 1849
May 31, 1849
June 1, 1849
June 7, 1849
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
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,
Program | People | Places
| Events | Resources | Lesson
Plans | Quiz
© 2001 THE WEST FILM PROJECT and WETA