In the winter of 1849 Hiram and Sara Pierce were living in Troy, New York with their seven children. Hiram was a blacksmith, but in poor health. His doctor had recommended a sea voyage to convalesce. Moreover, like Americans up and down the east coast, Hiram and Sara were reading reports about the discovery of gold in California. The Pierces began the difficult conversation about whether or not Hiram should embark on the long journey to improve the family's fortunes.
High Stakes Gamble
For Sara Pierce, Hiram's absence would mean she would become de facto head of household and assume sole responsibility for the family's well being. Going to California was a choice that the Pierces had never imagined they would confront.
The Isthmus of Panama
On March 6, 1849, Hiram took a train to New York City and then sailed to Chagres, Panama. At the end of the month, Pierce marched across the steamy Isthmus of Panama, decades before a canal or alternate form or transport would be built. The journey took only a few days, but the trail was muddy and the thick jungle trapped the steaming heat. Pierce counted 40 dead mules on the way. One night, a man shot a tiger near their camp. The Panamanians who had been hired to transport the gear could be coaxed to finish the job only with a pistol.
A Shocking Place
On the Pacific coast of Panama, thousands of Americans sought passage to San Francisco. Pierce waited six weeks before a filthy ship took him aboard. Conditions were rough and Pierce was often seasick and homesick. One member of his party died after suffering a burn and was buried at sea. After two months, San Francisco was a welcome sight, but the city was a shocking place. "Went ashore and found such a wild state of things as almost to intoxicate a person without giving 50 cents a glass. ... San Francisco is a miserable dusty dirty town of some 5,000, out of every kindred tongue and people under Heaven," Pierce wrote in his journal.
Life in the Mines
Pierce paid $25 (about $600 in 2005 dollars) for a "cradle," a device that separates dirt from gold. At Mormon Bar, he found the diggings worked over and poor. To make matters worse, prices were very high. Boots went for $16 and cheese cost $2.50 a pound (about $60 in 2005). Every day more miners arrived. Pierce worked six days a week and observed the Sabbath. Yet he barely made enough money to meet expenses. When Hiram and his partners divided their assets after a month in the diggings they each got $39.49.
Pierce spent a very wet winter in the mining camps of the Sierra Nevada. He built himself a log cabin for shelter from the constant rain, but was frequently ill. On New Year's Day 1850, he dined as usual on hoecake and coffee. Before long, Pierce felt his teeth loosening. To fight the onset of scurvy, he ate grass. "Ten months since I left home, and have not made a dollar but am in debt for my board, and my health seems insufficient for the task. ... Oh the loneliness of this desolate region," wrote Pierce.
By early April, Pierce was $100 in debt. He had been unable to send money home to his family. Faced with difficult prospects, Sara Pierce proved resourceful. She rented out the blacksmith shop, called in debts owed to Hiram and borrowed money from family members. In one of her frequent letters to Hiram, Sara gave news of their children and wrote, "Mr. Groat has not paid a cent indeed I have not seen him in almost a year. I have repeatedly dunned Smith and finely for a note payable on demand, I mean to tease it out of him yet, Mr. Hale has paid $5 and Mr. Waller $60 ... the rest have paid all."
Last Ditch Effort
With nothing to lose, Pierce joined a mining company. He and a dozen men expended about $3,000 in labor digging a 700-foot canal next to the Merced River, into which they planned to divert the river so they could mine the bed. They moved more than a ton of dirt and boulders by hand. As they waited anxiously for the river's water level to drop, Pierce and a friend named Mr. Howard prospected together. Some days they found only a few dollars. One day, they got $16. Pierce noted in his journal they were doing better than the average miner.
When the water finally dropped, the riverbed was chock-full of immense boulders. By summer's end, Pierce and his partners declared their mining operation a failure and their investment lost. In early October, Pierce sold his belongings and rode out of the mountains on a mule train. He sailed from San Francisco on October 13. Going home, he fell ill. By the time he arrived in Troy in January 1851, he was so physically changed that friends hardly recognize him.
Hiram Pierce went back to blacksmithing, but his health and business declined during the Civil War. His daughter Frannie wrote to her brother George, "He has talked over the plan of going to California and buying a farm near Mr. Howard and it is on the banks of the river and only thirty miles below the best mining district in California ... and he would spend two or three months of the year in the mines and the rest on his farm. You know he never got over his California fever."
In His Footsteps
Hiram Pierce died in Troy four years later, on May 19, 1866, before realizing his dream to go west again. However, several of his children later followed in Hiram's footsteps and began lives in California.
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