Picture Source

In 1849, the news of a gold discovery in California was announced in President Polk’s last state of the union address. That news sent hundreds of thousands of young men to leave their homes and farms and to walk, ride mules or horses, or take wagons to California. Very few found gold and while many men stayed in California, most returned home with empty pockets.

Those young men joined a large movement of people already underway, families heading to Oregon and California to get a new start on new land. Because this was an adventure for everyone, goldrushers and overland trail families, and because everyone left friends and families at home, they wrote letters and kept diaries about this moment in their lives. The young men, and a few women, who went to find gold, had different expectations and problems when they began traveling and when they reached California. The families who traveled, mostly multigenerational and from the Midwest, had money and experience that goldrushers didn’t, but everyone faced new situations. –Prof. Anne Hyde

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Primary Sources: Original Documents from the Time

Allen, Eleanor. “Diary of Esther Belle Hanna, March 1852.” In Canvas Caravans. North American Women’s Letters and Diaries Database. Portland, Or: Bingords & Mort, 1946.

Delano, Alonzo. Life on the Plains and among the Diggings, Being Scenes and Adventures of an Overland Journey to California with Particular Incidents of the Route, Mistakes and Sufferings of the Emigrants, the Indian Tribes, the Present and Future of the Great West. New York: Miller, Orton and co, 1857.

Duniway, David, and Kenneth L. Holmes. “Diary of Mariett Foster Cummings, June, 1852.” In Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails. North American Women’s Letters and Diaries Database. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Swain, William, and Swain, Sabrina. “Letters,” 1849-1851 . New Perspectives on the West. PBS.org. (Companion Canvas page.)

Watson, William J. Journal of an Overland Journey to Oregon Made in the Year 1849. Jacksonville: E.R. Roe, 1851.

Secondary Sources: What Historians Have Written

Carter, Robert W. “‘Sometimes When I Hear the Winds Sigh’: Mortality on the Overland Trail.” California History 74, no. 2 (1995): 146–61.

Holliday, J. S. “Preface.” In The World Rushed in: The California Gold Rush Experience, 2–12. Red River Books. Norman University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. (Companion Canvas page.)

Keyes, Sarah. “‘Like a Roaring Lion’: The Overland Trail as a Sonic Conquest.” The Journal of American History 96, no. 1 (2009): 19–43.

Johnson, Susan Lee. “Bulls, Bears, and Dancing Boys: Race, Gender, and Leisure in the California Gold Rush.” Radical History Review 1994, no. 60 (October 1, 1994): 5–37.

Reid, John Phillip. “Punishing the Elephant: Malfeasance and Organized Criminality on the Overland Trail.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 47, no. 1 (1997): 2–21.