The conditions in California during the latter half of the year 1849 were as transitory as they were marvelous. Tales of human endurance were recorded that have seldom been paralleled in American history.
A great many personal incidents and views of society as it existed then in California were noted by travelers of the time. They have been added to by those who came later and there now exists a very large literary account of the period from 1848 through 1850.
Most of the travelers were drawn to the Californias by the discovery of gold and sought to emulate some of the earlier, most successful mineral discoveries themselves. There were others, however, who had no purpose in visiting California other than to take part in a great experience.
Late in August, 1849, a young man from New York named Bayard Taylor was taking his leisure on the deck of a steamship slowly working its way up the Pacific Coast. His attention was drawn to the beautiful sunrise behind the mountains that lie to the east of San Diego. He was startled out of his musing by the excited cry, “We are now in California!” Rushing to the rail with other passengers he saw the extremity of Point Loma flanking the mouth of the bay to the left and watched with great interest as the ship was expertly guided into the narrow entrance. In less than an hour she was brought upside Ballast Point and anchored before the Hide Houses.1
These large, old wooden repositories for leather hides and tallow and other trade materials were built at the foot of the hill just inside the bay. San Diego was then situated on a plain three miles distance and barely visible from the anchorage, but there was a fine road along the shore that led to the town.
Above the houses, situated on a little rock prominence, several tents had been raised and a short distance up the slope one could see several recent graves surrounded by a small wood paling fence.
A number of people were clustered on the beach and long boats, laden with passengers and freight, were instantly sent out to the ship. A few minutes after the anchor was down the small signal cannon on the vessel was fired and almost immediately horsemen could be discerned coming down the road from San Diego at full gallop.
The first boat to reach Mr. Taylor’s vessel contained Col. Weller, who was the U.S. Boundary Commissioner, and Major Hill of the army detachment at San Diego. They were followed by a number of men, described by Mr. Taylor as wrinkled and weather beaten. All of these individuals appeared much alike with long, uncut hair and beards. On their faces was the rigid expression of suffering which was scarcely relaxed as they hurriedly climbed aboard the vessel and looked about them with the excited air of men who had, after a long struggle, reached a particularly important and major goal in their lives.
The new passengers were the first of the overland immigrants to travel by way of the Gila Route.
Several days before, they had straggled into San Diego with their clothing in tatters and their boots in many cases replaced by Indian moccasins. Except for some small packages rolled in deerskin and the ever present rifle or pistol, they now had nothing left of the abundant stores which most of them had carried when they left home so many months earlier.
The vessel stayed only half an hour at the landing, taking on about fifty passengers. At slow ahead she passed out beyond Point Loma and clearing the harbor, lay on a northerly course to the land of promise.
The passengers were fascinated by the overland immigrants. Because of the general interest they aroused, they were immediately pressed for news of the gold fields.
The stories of their adventures sounded more marvelous than anything the passengers had ever heard or read before. The voyages of Captain Cook, the adventures of Robinson Crusoe and others paled in significance when compared with the average experience of these men who were part of the thirty thousand immigrants who crossed the great plains in the year 1849. The amount of suffering that was endured in the high mountain passes and in the barren deserts of the interior could not be told in words.2
Some of the immigrants had come by way of Santa Fe along the savage hills of the Gila. Some had crossed the great stake desert starting from the Red River and had taken the road from Paso del Norte to Tucson in Sonora. Some had passed through Mexico and after spending one hundred and four days at sea, had run into San Diego and given up their vessel. Some of these men had landed weary with seven months passage around Cape Horn, and some finally had reached San Diego on foot, having unbelievably walked the entire length of the Baja California Peninsula.
The Gila Route traveled by the immigrants in 1848 and 1849 was established for the most part by elements of the Kearney Expedition of 1846 to California.
General Kearney, after conquering New Mexico, proceeded west from the Rio Grande from near present day Caballo, New Mexico. He then went to the important copper mining town of Santa Rita. Continuing west from there he came upon the Gila River. The troops followed the river as it crossed Arizona and finally made its junction with the Colorado.
Under Cooke, one element of the group followed later with the famous Mormon Battalion and its wagons. Part of his orders were to establish a wagon road to California in order that communications would be open between that land and the United States.3
Cooke proceeded west from the Rio Grande to Santa Rita in New Mexico and then turned southwest near the south end of the Elephant Butte Reservoir. He found the going much easier toward Sonora.
At that time, the term “Sonora” included all of southern Arizona below the Gila River. He arrived in Tucson on December 16th, and departed on the 18th. Here his troubles began. Water holes were scarce and the guides were unreliable and could not find them. On one occasion Cooke’s mules went fifty-six miles without water.
The road from Tucson was the most extensive desert Cooke and his men had ever seen. He described it as being “without water, game or wood.”
After traveling some seventy-two miles, on December 21st, the battalion reached the Gila west of the present town of Florence. Here they came upon Kearney’s trail and with much relief set out to follow it to California.
There were a great many stories told by the immigrants on the passage from San Diego up to San Francisco. Those who came by the Gila route gave an account of the terrible crossing of the great desert lying west of the Colorado River.
It was a country of burning salt plains and shifting hills of sand whose only signs of human habitation were the bones of men and animals scattered along the trails that crossed it. The region was scorching and sterile. Occasionally the small groups of
travelers passed the corpses of immigrants from companies who had passed before
them. In addition to these terrifying sights were the carcasses of hundreds of mules who died from lack of water. The hot air surrounding these areas was made stifling by the smell of decay.
Few men reached out to help another under these trying conditions. The preservation of one’s own life and equipment after months of travel became the foremost thought in everyone’s mind. If a man faltered, he was lost. No one would stop and lend him a hand. The likelihood of sharing the unfortunate’s fate mitigated against acting the good Samaritan.
Thus, many strange and terrible dramas were played out on the sands of the great desert. One of the immigrants told Bayard Taylor about the following incident. A very sick man riding a mule trailed his group all the way from New Mexico. This poor fellow could not keep up with the party and yet no one stayed behind to help him on his way. Day after day, although he was unable to keep a steady pace with the others, he always managed to arrive at the evening camp a few hours after everyone else had settled in. This drama was played out night after night until it had lasted so long that very little attention was paid to him. When the time came that he did not appear one night, no great apprehension was excited in the company. Three days passed and he still did not show up. There was some talk about his absence, but no one was moved to investigate. The evening of the fourth day found the group refreshing themselves at a desert stream when a Negro traveling alone and on foot staggered into camp. He was in very bad straits from lack of water and food, but after awhile he recovered sufficiently to tell the company that many miles behind he had come upon a man lying beside the road who was in great distress.
The man had begged a little water from the Negro and then asked him if he would hurry on and catch up with the party in order that they might return and bring him assistance.
The following morning a group of Mexicans rode into the camp, bringing word that they had also found the man and that he
appeared to be dying. No one offered to return. Indeed, no one even thought of re
turning. As the camp was broken and the party unashamedly moved out again
across the desert, they left the Negro standing behind, distressed with seeing them go with the memory of the dying man still so vividly in his mind, and yet apparently unable to follow them. He turned back, and carrying as much water as was possible, he retraced his steps some forty miles and came upon the sick man.
He arrived just in time to observe the poor man breathe his last. The mule, which had been tied to a cactus by the side of the victim, was already dead from thirst and hunger. After burying the man, he returned along the route to the stream camp. A week or so later he again caught up with the party and traveling with them told the sad end to his humane attempt to rescue the sick man.
Perhaps the most remarkable of all tales told by the overland immigrants and one that profoundly interested the hearers on board the vessel, was the story of the man from Philadelphia. This gentleman, after crossing Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean side at Tampico to San Blas on the Gulf of California, embarked for San Francisco. But, feeling that the ship was not proceeding fast enough and having more confidence in his ability to travel rapidly on land, he ordered that he be put ashore at the very tip of Baja California.
Two or three other passengers heard of his plans and decided to throw their lot in with him. Thus, it came about that the party was landed on the coast at Cabo San Lucas. Due to their ignorance of the great distance that they would have to travel and the kind of terrain over which they would have to proceed, they set off in high spirits feeling they might make the journey to San Diego in thirty or forty days just by following the coast. They soon found out, however, that the only supply of water was within the mountains of the interior and they were obliged to proceed on foot to the Valley of San Jose on the eastern portion of the tip of the peninsula and follow the trail from there up to La Paz on the Gulf of California side.
Leaving the relatively civilized community of La Paz, they wandered in a nearly opposite direction to Todos Santos Bay on the Pacific side where they were able to exchange some of their firearms for horses. The route now led in a zigzag direction across the mountain chain from one watering place to another with frequent long journeys being made without any water at all. Some of the stretches between waterholes were thirty and forty miles long and on one or two occasions, they were sixty miles in length.
As they proceeded up the peninsula, the rigors were increased considerably by the changing and frightening desolation of the country. There were deep gullies and arroyos which ran across the trails. In many cases it took hours to penetrate and rise out of these depressions. In some areas they would lose the only trail and it would take them many hours of searching to recover their route.
There was some food along the way, but it was not always palatable. Their principle sustenance were the leaves of certain succulent plants they found and the fruit of cacti which fortunately were ripe at this time.
After a month of very difficult travel they reached the Bay at San Ignacia, just short of being half-way to San Diego. Their horses failed at this point leaving them with no recourse but to make the remainder of the journey on foot.
The peninsula of Baja California is about eight hundred miles long. Later, these hardy travelers estimated that in order to cover that distance they had to travel in actual distance more than fifteen hundred miles. It was a great day of rejoicing for them when, paralleling the route along the coast for the last hundred miles or so, they came upon the end of the Bay of San Diego just as Father Serra and Portola had many years before.
At San Diego in 1849 one would constantly meet with companies of immigrants arriving from the Gila on their way to the diggings. Many were on foot, having had their animals taken from them by the Yuma and Mojave Indians at the crossing of the Colorado.
The Yuma and the Maricopa Indians, which included large elements of the Mojave, were the most dangerous to travelers. It is estimated that about two thousand warriors had combined from these tribal entities and had taken hostile positions within the hills near the Colorado River crossing. There were, consequently, many skirmishes between them and small bodies of immigrants throughout the year 1849. A considerable number of casualties were taken on both sides. In one incident a company of men from New York lost five members in one short action.
It is interesting to note that these immigrant companies on the Gila route met with no difficulty when passing through Apache country and, with the exception of some thieving, the Pima tribes proved to be friendly also. Next to the Indians, the greatest difficulty was the large number of Mexicans who lived in the territories which are now Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.4 Some of the travelers reported that these people constantly attempted to steal their mules as well as their provisions. Others, however, who reached these territories quite destitute were often kindly treated and assisted along the way by these same people.
Local San Diego residents were constantly stopped in the streets or in the stores by newly arrived immigrants who were filled with questions about the gold regions. The reports of these old San Diego residents all tend to indicate that none of the immigrants had very definite plans in mind. There was always, however, a curious and almost pitiful desire and eagerness to hear golden reports of the country. Hardly any of the new arrivals could engage in a conversation without betraying personal interest in the amount of fortune in gold he secretly expected to make. Questions most common to local residents were, “Where would > you advise me to go?” “How much can I dig in a day?” All of these questions, of course, were given general and vague answers by their hearers, mainly because there was no way of knowing the physical strength and endurance or the geological knowledge of the individual asking the question.
Taylor states that there was no way of really answering these questions and that he invariably refused to give them any kind of answer, telling them instead that it depended entirely on themselves, but he goes on in his journal to state that this was no way of escaping the questioning when the very next one would be, “Well how much do you think I can dig in a day?” He said he was usually obliged to satisfy them sooner or later by replying, “Well, perhaps a dollars worth, maybe five dollars worth, perhaps nothing.”
Nearly all of the people traveling the Gila route spent at least seven months on the march. It was reported that there were about ten thousand persons on the Gila by the middle of 1849. Most of the original companies of men who set out together broke up because they were too large for convenience on the march and because of the variation in the physical abilities and equipment among the members of such parties.
The importance of the Gila route to San Diego was evidenced by the fact that thousands of men going to the gold fields passed through the city and its environs. It is obvious from many of the references and personal accounts that the authors found the area to be most pleasant and desirable. They were able to transmit to others these very thoughts. Indeed, in some cases, whether due to the hardships of continuing the journey or to the physical attractions of the San Diego area, an appreciable number of these travelers discontinued their journey and became permanent residents. Others, later disillusioned by the failure to achieve wealth in the gold field, turned their thoughts to settling in the new land and many returned to San Diego.5
It is from the sons and daughters of these individuals that some of the most progressive and significant developments in San Diego city history are derived.
1. Taylor, Bayard, Eldorado, George P. Putnam, New York, New York, Vol. 1, 1850.
2. Ingersoll, Ernest (Senior Editor), The Crest of the Continent, R. R. Donnelley & Sons, Chicago, 1889.
3. Bieber, Ralph P., Exploring Southwestern Trails, 1846-1854, A. H. Clark Company, Glendale, 1938.
4. Mattison, Ray H., Early Spanish and Mexican Settlements in Arizona, New Mexico Historical Review, Vol. 11, No. 4,. 1944.
5. Hufford, Kenneth, Travelers on the Gila Trail, 1824-1850, The Journal of Arizona History, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1967.
James Robert Moriarty, III is one of the foremost authorities on archaeology in the Southern California area. He is currently an Assistant Professor of History and Anthropology at the University of San Diego.