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New Orleans to San Francisco in '49

by Tabetha F. Bingham

As published in the August, 1892 Overland Monthly.
Transcribed by Russell Towle, February, 1995.

Leaving Home

I have heard and read the accounts of many journeys to California in the eventful years between 1840 and 1850; but the accounts were all given by those of mature years at the time of making those journeys. I made the journey to California in 1849. I was only a little girl in my tenth year at that time; but the journey was so fraught with trouble, hardships, and suffering, that it made an impression on my mind that forty-one years have not erased or dimmed.

At the time of the discovery of gold in California our family, which consisted of father, mother, and six children (two boys and four girls), was living on a large cotton plantation in Louisiana. My father was an invalid, having suffered greatly from inflammatory rheumatism for many years. His sickness had made him very whimsical, and when he became possessed of a notion he could be influenced by no one. He read all the marvelous reports of the discovery of gold, and though many of our friends doubted their truth, or thought the reports greatly exaggerated, he believed them all. In the early part of February '49 he received a letter from a friend by the name of Bartlett, who had accompanied Fremont on his last expedition. Mr. Bartlett gave a glowing account of the great gold fields. He told of great fortunes that had been made in an incredibly short time, and confirmed all the wonderful accounts which the papers had given. Father read the letter aloud to us, then turned to mother and said that we were all going to California.

Mother thought he was joking. But when she became convinced that he was in earnest, she used every argument that she was mistress of to induce him to give up the wild idea. It was of no use. Before he went to bed that night all his plans were laid for the trip. Friends came and told him of the absurdity of thinking of such a journey in his feeble state of health, especially with a family of helpless little children. All they could say was of no avail. He would go in spite of all opposition.

He immediately had an auction and sold off all his personal property, put the plantation into the hands of an agent, and started for New Orleans. He expected to take passage in the first ship that was to sail around the Horn, as his physicians had told him that he could not possibly live to make the journey by any other route. But when we arrived in New Orleans he found that although there were several ships fitting out to go to San Francisco via Cape Horn, none of them would be ready to sail in less than two weeks. His impatience to start was so great that he determined to take passage in a steamer that was to leave for the Isthmus of Panama in six days.

He then at once began to lay in a two years' supply of provisions and clothing for the family, together with a complete camping and mining outfit. He also bought s set of carpenter's tools and nails, locks, hinges, paints, oils, doors, and windows, sufficient for a good-sized house. These purchases necessitated the outlay of considerable money, which, had we gone via Cape Horn, would have been money well invested, as all the articles were worth at that time from twenty to a hundred per cent more in San Francisco than in New Orleans. But my father, like thousands of others in those days, did not for a moment consider how those things were to be carried across the Isthmus.

The steamer was ready to start in due time. Our goods were all on the levee, and looked like a fair-sized cargo. The excitement of the previous month had been such a strain on my father's nerves that he was nearly as helpless as a baby. Therefore he was obliged to hire a nurse to come along with us to help mother take care of him. The man he hired was an old bald-headed Irishman, Duncan Calhoun by name, who professed to be proof against sea-sickness, and used to traveling. The hour for starting came; eleven o'clock of the morning of the 16th of March. The last bell was wrung. The last kiss was given, the last sad farewell spoken, and our friends and relatives hurried from the steamer to the levee. The gang plank was drawn in, and the old steamer, "Colonel Stanton, " swung around, and started on her way to Chagres.

 

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