The California Gold Rush began on January 24, 1848, when gold was found by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. The news of gold brought approximately 300,000 people to California from the rest of the United States and abroad. There was no easy way to get to California from the rest of the United States and the forty-niners (those arriving in 1849) faced hardship and often death on the way.
Below is a story about a family who sailed from Boston, Massachusetts to San Francisco by way of a voyage ship, the Edward Everett, around the southern tip of Cape Horn, South America. This was before the Panama Canal was constructed to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean.
Seaside Story: Abby Sails to California
My name is Abigale and I am 8 years old. Friends call me Abby. My home is in Boston, Massachusetts. My parents just told me that we are moving to California for the gold rush. I am really sad because all of my friends are going to be left behind in Boston, along with my teachers and the rest of my family.
My father is a sea captain. He just went together with some of his friends to buy a new cargo ship and start a new life in California. They formed a company called the Boston and California Joint Stock Mining and Trading Company. He plans to transport goods and people from Boston to California. My mother, little brother, Milton, and big brother, Elmer, are all going on this voyage, the first voyage on the new ship, the Edward Everett.
I watched as the carpenters built a beautiful little house, all complete with gingerbread trim. They carefully numbered all of the boards and then took it apart. Then the carpenters and their helpers put all of its pieces into the hold (bottom) of the ship. It seemed as though it took forever. Father told me that the carpenters are sailing to California with us and they will rebuild the house once we arrive! It just seems silly, but I guess there is no lumber prepared for building houses there, or so my mother says.
The day finally came when we set sail from the dock in Boston. We left on January 12, 1849. After hugging all of my friends and family at the docks, it began to sink in that I may never see Boston and our big, beautiful mansion there again. I wondered how we all would fit in that tiny house that lies below the deck on this ship. Tears began to stream down my cheeks as I thought of my beloved friends and family standing there on the dock, waving good-bye.
We sailed south, down the coast of the America. I have heard stories about the dangerous waters and gale-force winds at Cape Horn. As we got closer to South America, I was beginning to worry about that part of our voyage. As we came upon the southern tip of South America, the winds began to get stronger and the waves got higher! I started to get sick every day as we were tossed about on the ship like rag dolls. Father made Mother and all of us children stay in the Captain’s quarters down below the deck when the waves got really high. Water rushed over the decks of our ship making it seem so small in a great, great sea.
In this part of the world, huge gales come up so suddenly. All of a sudden it happened, the wind began to blow. Oh how it blew! It was the beginning of a gale. The ship rode the waves and wind like a bucking horse. The dishes and cargo were being thrown from one side of the ship to the other. Mother strapped us all into our bunks and began to pray out loud. The storm hit us with a force so strong that all we could do was hang on to the nearest post and pray for our safety. My brothers were crying and I wanted to, but was brave and just tried to comfort them. Mother was so pale and so sick. The cook could not prepare food and none of us could eat anyway. We all felt so sick. Our quarters were nicer than the focsle were the sailors stayed, but we were still bruised and battered from motion of the ship. I felt sorry for the sailors who had such meager quarters.
While we were starting around Cape Horn the seas got really rough. The sailors were shouting and running across the decks. We could hear them from within the captain’s cabin. Once I got out of my bunk and pulled myself up to look out the top cabin windows. Suddenly a line broke and the sail was flapping around so violently that we thought it would bring the mast right down and through the ship’s deck. I started to cry and right then I could see a sailor run up to the mast. He was dressed in his foul weather gear and had his rigger’s knife in his hand. The gallant sailor climbed aloft. While he clung to the mast he quickly cut the rigging lines that held that flapping sail. The sailor saved the mast with that one quick cut.
By this time, the water was rushing about three feet deep across the decks and I really thought the ship would sink. We would all be left out here in the terrible place in the ocean where the Atlantic meets the Pacific, Cape Horn.
After a whole month of this rough weather, we finally rounded Cape Horn and started up the Pacific coast of South America. Once the seas got calmer and the storms broke, my father, the ship’s Captain, took out the medical kit. He was no doctor and had to refer to his medical book often. Mother helped him with his studies. He had to tend to the wounds the sailors got while fighting the storm. They had slashed arms and legs. Some had cuts on their faces and heads. Mother actually used her mending needle to sew up one sailor’s leg. A large piece of a mast had cut through his leg. Whiskey was given to all hands to help them forget the pain they were suffering.
This Pacific Ocean is beautiful, sometimes it is really rough with lots of high waves and strong winds then sometimes it is mild and calm. I felt like we would never get there. I wondered what my friends were doing at home during this springtime when it is so beautiful in Boston.
As we sailed north up the coast of South America, there were whole days when the water was calm and the winds were soft. The sailors called this the doldrums. On those glorious days we were able to go out on deck to take in some sun and fresh air. The ship got rather musty smelling during those long voyages. On those days Mother took out a small metal tub and put my little brother Milton in it. She used a bucket of fresh water that had warmed in the sun and scooped cups of water to pour over him. Milton loved it and it was fun to watch. Then it was Elmer’s turn. Mother and I bathed in a similar way inside the cabin. We children were able to play on the ship’s deck on those days too. The rules on the ship were that we could not talk or make any noise. We made up all kinds of games that did not involve talking, such as Tag, You’re It!
Sometimes Mother would take out her sewing basket and med our clothes and the clothes of the ship’s mates. Father would have some extra time on those days too, since the seas were calm and the captain was not required to guide the crew. He would take out his slate board, gather all of us children together to teach us our ABC’s and numbers. I was learning to read so that someday I could read the Bible. I already know how to read some of the easier passages. Mother says that I might be able to attend the women’s college. I wonder about that since we are moving to San Francisco, a wild and untamed place. Would there ever be a college for women there?
Often in the later afternoons we just walked about the top deck to watch the crew as they worked. After the huge storms, many of the ship’s sails were torn. The sailors climbed up the rigging and pulled down ripped sails. The ship’s sailmaker sat on deck with his mending kit. That kit included a sailmaker’s palm and needle. He would mend the sails with his needle and thread, using his sailmaker’s palm like a thimble to help push the needle through the many layers of canvas. Once the sails were mended, the sailors would climb up the tall rigging and set the sails in place once again. This was a routine after every big storm.
Also, on the calm days we could see sailors using a large paintbrush to paint the places on the ship that needed some attention. If the wood was exposed, there was a chance dry rot (wood rotting because it was wet and not protected with paint) would set in. The ship’s crew was responsible to keep the ship in tip-top condition at all times.
One day while Milton was feeding the chickens, he tripped and fell on the deck. Just at that moment the ship hit a huge wave in the ocean and lunged to the port (left) side. Milton went flying across the deck and towards the Pacific Ocean! I screamed and before I could turn around a tall, powerful sailor leapt up and grabbed Milton. He also slid to the edge of the ship with Milton in his arms, but stopped just before going over the edge. When the first mate came around the corner, all he could see was the sailor with Milton crying in his arms. The first mate was furious. He thought the sailor was trying to hurt Milton. Immediately, a group of men took Milton away and grabbed the sailor. They put handcuffs on him and confined him to the chain locker after beating him senseless with a belaying pin. I saw everything and knew the sailor was just trying to help Milton, not hurt him. But, I was a girl and was not able to talk to the crew. I was taken below to the Captain’s cabin and locked inside. Finally mother came down and I burst into tears. “Oh, Mother” I cried, “That sailor saved Milton from falling into the ocean. I saw everything that happened!” So Mother listened to my story and then rushed to tell Father. He told the first mate the whole story and the man was freed. As a reward for saving Milton, the sailor was given the rest of the day free to do as he pleased.
Later that week I was out on the deck on another sunny day. The first mate handed me a beautiful piece of sailor’s fancywork. Often sailors with extra time on their hands would make fancywork from old scraps of rigging, sail, and line. This piece was very nice. The first mate told me that the man I saved from the chain locker made it for me! I was so touched. I shall keep that fancywork forever!
That day my brothers and I were able to move about the deck. I saw a sailor who had a small bottle with a ship in it. I asked Elmer to find out what it was. Elmer later told me that the sailors would take old bottles and carefully build tiny ships inside them. These ships were made from scraps of wood, rope and sail left over from damage done to the ship in rough weather and seas. Oh, how I longed to have one of those ships in a bottle. Elmer promised me that when he grew up to be a sailor, he would learn to make one for me. Later that week, Elmer sat down with a group of sailors who were working on making ships in a bottle and they showed him how it was done.
We pulled into port at Valparaiso, Chile to replenish our supplies. The ship’s cook made an order for the local markets. Fresh fruit was brought on board. We devoured that fresh food. It tasted so good after our meager meals prepared under rough seas. Soon we were off again sailing directly for the port of San Francisco.
There were many calm days with a few rough ones during our trip up the coast of South America. Father drew maps of North America and South America on his slate board to teach us what he called beginning navigation. He showed us how he used his sextant to navigate at dawn and at dusk. Mother helped him navigate when she could. They looked so happy standing together out there on the deck.
Mother’s duties were to take care of us and Father. With my brothers, that took a lot of her time. They could get into so much mischief! When there was extra time, Mother would knit, sew, and do fancy needlework. She seemed so peaceful at sea during those times. I could tell Father liked having his family aboard the ship. It took us almost seven months to go from Boston to San Francisco that trip due to the very rough seas at Cape Horn and a few days that were too calm coming up the Pacific Ocean.
One fine day we came around a bend and beheld the glorious opening to the Bay of San Francisco! It was a bit rough going into the bay, but once we were in the bay, what a sight! There were all kinds of tents spread across the hills with a few buildings scattered throughout. There were many buildings down by the wharf with dockworkers streaming along carrying goods. So much hustle and bustle going on! It was divine to be that close to land once again. The bay was filled with abandoned ships and boats. We found out that passengers and even the crews where just leaving their ships and catching small sailboats and steamboats up the Sacramento River to go where the gold could be found in the Sierra Nevada Foothills.
It was so exciting to set anchor in the bay. Father started to make the arrangements to have the ship unloaded right then and there, but we soon found out that we had to stay on the ship one more day and night because we arrived on July 4, 1849! The ship’s crew and lighters did not have to work that day. We all celebrated our great country’s freedom still on board the ship! The cook made a special meal with all of our left over supplies! What a feast, we had beef, pork, cheese, applesauce, doughnuts, gingerbread, plum cake, tarts and fresh fruit purchased on our stop in Valparaiso, Chile. The cook must have been so happy to prepare the ship’s meal on this anchored ship!
The next day we were able to leave the ship and it was wonderful to be on land once again. For the whole first day I still felt like the land was moving back and forth just like the ship! Mother took us children up to the nearest hotel and checked in. We had long baths and changed into the new clothes we had packed away in our sea trunks. Then we were free to explore San Francisco!
I watched as the ship’s crew unloaded all of the cargo we brought and our little house, board by board. They loaded everything in wagons and Father bought a wagon, food, horses and mules to pull the loads. Early the next day, Father and the carpenters jumped into the wagons and headed to Irvington so they could start building our new house here in California.
Mother and we children stayed behind in San Francisco to live at the hotel until our house is ready. Mother is going to enroll us in the private school here in San Francisco for now. Although I miss my grandmother and my friends back in Boston, it is going to be a great adventure to live here in San Francisco.