Rushing to the gold fields in 1849

The word spread remarkably fast after gold was discovered in California near Sutter’s Mill in 1848. When the news finally made it back to the East Coast of the U.S., the nation’s first real gold rush was on, and miners by the thousands began heading west. Some “49’ers” made the trek overland by wagon train, and others by ship, either around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, or braving the not infrequently fatal journey across the Isthmus of Panama.

Three young Massachusetts residents—Henry C. Cutter, age 19, his elder brother James, and a brother-in-law, James Porter—caught a serious case of gold fever after hearing about the riches to be had in the California gold fields. In October 1849 they left their home near Boston to try their luck.

Combination sail and side-wheel steamers were the height of modern seagoing transport in 1849. The SS California, shown here, was operated by the same company that owned the SS Falcon on which the Cutter party traveled from Havana, Cuba to Panama in the fall of 1849.

Combination sail and side-wheel steamers were the height of modern seagoing transport in 1849. The SS California, shown here, was operated by Pacific division of the same company that owned the SS Falcon on which the Cutter party traveled from Havana, Cuba to Panama in the fall of 1849. (U.S. National Postal Museum)

As noted above, the Cutter party was not traveling in a vacuum. An estimated 80,000 gold seekers—mostly men, but some with women and children in tow—headed for California in 1849, each determined to strike it rich. Some, including a surprising number of Kendall County residents, established formal, well-organized traveling parties and took the long route overland. Others decided one of the faster water routes, either around Cape Horn on sailing ships or aboard combination side-wheel steam and sailing ships through the Caribbean, across the disease-plagued Isthmus of Panama, and up the Pacific Coast to California, was either safer, quicker, or both.

No matter which route they chose, the investment of time and treasure in such a journey in 1849 was substantial.

After some study, the Cutter party decided on the Caribbean route as the lesser of all evils. Traveling by rail to New York, they boarded a steam and sailing ship for the first leg of the trip, to Havana, Cuba. After two days’ rest, the group boarded the U.S. Mail Steamship Company’s steam and sail ship Falcon bound for the mouth of the Chagres River in Panama.

In 1849 the Panama Canal did not yet exist—in fact, Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t even a gleam in his father’s (let alone his mother’s) eye. So the arduous journey had to be made across the Isthmus to the Pacific coast. The party boarded canoes and were paddled 60 miles up the Chagres River by hardy Panamanians. The trip up the jungle river took three steaming, insect-plagued days, during which the travelers endured heavy tropical rains and severe flooding. Leaving the river behind, the Forty-niners rode burros and hiked the rest of the way over the remote mountains of central Panama, finally arriving at Panama City on the Pacific.

There, they were given the frustrating news that the coastal steamer for San Francisco would not arrive for another month. A month was too long to wait—the travelers gathering at Panama City were interested in gold not in consorting with hordes of insects, and reptiles, not to mention a better than even chance of contracting Yellow Fever. So the Cutters and about 80 other impatient Americans pooled their resources and bought an old sailing ship, determined to sail themselves to California.

After loading water and provisions aboard, the party set sail, aiming the bow of the leaky old ship north. Unfortunately, the usually dependable trade winds were unusually undependable that year. After creeping along for two weeks, the miners found their water supply had leaked out of poorly made casks. Suffering from thirst under the hot Pacific sun for several days, they finally made their way to a port on the Nicaraguan coast, where supplies were replenished. Then, a few days later, they were forced to put ashore yet again, this time on the Guatemalan coast.

That was the last straw for many of the would-be mariners. About half the ship’s company decided to walk to Acapulco, Mexico, while the rest decided to sail on. Ironically, the two parties arrived at Acapulco at the same time.

There, they rested and had a very good time indeed. In fact, they had such a good time that, in high spirits, they decided to fire a salute with the ship’s canon on their way out of port. When Henry Cutter’s brother-in- law, James Porter, touched off the old, overloaded cannon, it blew up, killing Porter. The now-subdued group returned to Acapulco, buried the unfortunate Porter, and set sail once again for California. A few days later, they ran into a severe gale that damaged their old ship so badly it began to sink.

Henry C. Cutter, in a portrait taken long after he gave up one last trip to the California gold fields to settle on a farm just south of Oswego.  The Cutter House is today preserved in the grounds of the historic Lyon Farm and Village near Yorkville. (Little White School Museum photo)

Henry C. Cutter, in a portrait taken long after he gave up one last trip to the California gold fields to settle on a farm just south of Oswego. The Cutter House he built is today preserved on the grounds of the Kendall County Historical Society’s Lyon Farm and Village near Yorkville. (Little White School Museum photo)

Putting into Mazatlan, Mexico for repairs, dockyard workers confirmed what everyone suspected—the ship was an unrepairable wreck. This time, the party split up for good. James Cutter decided to wait for the coastal steamer to arrive. Brother Henry, disillusioned with his run of bad luck at sea, bought a dependable-looking horse and with several of his weary and leery compatriots, started overland for San Diego. After reaching the southern California village, he and his friends sold their mounts and booked passage on a steamer bound for San Francisco. Cutter’s brother, James, who had decided to wait at Mazatlan for the coastal steamer, had arrived at San Francisco several weeks ahead of his brother. Patience, it seems, actually does occasionally pay off.

The brothers were reunited in a mining camp called Soldier’s Gulch, located several miles east of San Francisco in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, modern Tuolumne County. During the next year, by admirable thrift, hard work, and a large helping of luck, they managed to earn $10,000, which they split 50-50.

After an uneventful trip home, the pair reached Boston in April of 1852. Apparently Massachusetts proved too tame for the brothers after their adventures heading west because in August of that same year, the brothers decided to try their luck again. This time, though, they figured they had had enough maritime adventures to last a lifetime, and so this time they headed west overland.

But when they reached Illinois on their way to the gold fields, they were so impressed with the rich farmland in the Fox Valley they decided to settle here and let others look for gold in California. They prospected along the Fox River and finally decided on land near Oswego, then the seat of Kendall County. They bought land from Levi Arnold, one of the village’s founders, divided the parcel in half, and began to farm. James eventually returned to Massachusetts, but Henry’s family stayed and prospered in farming and business in the area along the Fox River where their descendants live to this day.

 

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Filed under Farming, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Transportation

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