Getting to the Gold Fields Gold was discovered in sparsely population areas of western states and territories, sometimes thousands of miles from large population centers. Fortune seekers could spend months just trying to reach the gold fields, and the hardships they faced were at times unbearable. But still they came. They had two ways of getting to the gold—by land and by sea.
The overland journey required careful planning and preparation. No matter where the gold was found, a traveler had to wait until spring to leave for the gold fields. By spring there was enough grass on the plains to feed the animals pulling their supply wagons. If travelers left too early, their animals would starve to death and the supplies, with nothing to haul them, would be left behind. Leaving too late in the spring could also be dangerous. A gold rusher could get caught in an early snow while crossing the mountains and quickly perish.
Many miners purchased supplies and wagons and then formed mining companies so that they could travel together. Some people paid $300 to join one of these companies.
Even with careful planning a traveler still needed some luck. The overland trails were lined with broken wagons, abandoned supplies, and the carcasses of dead animals. Thousands of people died along the way from disease, especially cholera, and many miners in their haste to get to the gold tried taking short cuts that had disastrous consequences.
Another way to the California and Alaskan gold fields was by sea. Ships were in great demand. When all the safe sturdy vessels were filled, unscrupulous merchants began to book passage on ships that had been abandoned for years. Many were not seaworthy, with rotting hulls. Anything that could stay afloat was pressed into service. All the ships took either the Panama Route or the Cape Horn route.
Gold rushers taking the Panama route sailed to Panama, marched through jungle to the Pacific side, and caught a ship going north to San Francisco. At first, this route was the fastest way to the gold fields, but later, the travelers experienced long delays. When they reached the Pacific Ocean, they found thousands of gold hunters waiting there for a ship to take them north! Many of the sailors who brought the miners to San Francisco did not want to sail back to Panama. Instead, they joined the gold rush. Ship captains had a difficult time getting crews to sail south. Meanwhile the gold rushers stranded in Panama had to wait weeks, even months, for a ship to take them north.
Cape Horn Route
Ships taking the Cape Horn route sailed from the East Coast, around the tip of South America (Cape Horn) and north to San Francisco. It took six to eight months to make this voyage, and it was dangerous. Many of the ships that attempted to sail around the Horn crashed into the rocks and were destroyed. For most miners this route was too slow, and they avoided it, but for voyagers who needed to get large amounts of supplies to the Pacific Coast, it was the best choice.
Getting to the gold fields was not easy or safe. The gold rushers had to cope with great distances, harsh weather, poor transportation, and disease. Perhaps the greatest danger came from dishonest people who promised quick, safe transportation but did not honor their promises. In spite of the many difficulties and hardships, the miners continued to come. Gold was a magnet drawing thousands of fortune seekers from all over the world.