Argonauts and the Oregon Trail

The discovery of gold in California very nearly upset the world. No event of a like nature ever created such excitement. From every state parties and individuals set out for the gold fields on the other side of North America. Very nearly every man in Missouri who could do so started to California in 1849. Many of the companies were led by the men who had served under Colonel Doniphan in the War with Mexico. These gold hunters passed over all the branches of the Oregon Trail. Many thousands of them came up the branch which crossed at Topeka or Uniontown.

Major William Gilpin addressed one party of five thousand at the point where Lawrence was later founded. The branches from Leaven-worth and St. Joseph were choked with the Forty-niners. They started from Council Bluffs and from Bellevue, now Nebraska City. Many “cut offs” were made by the Argonauts along all branches of the trail. Men were mad. Women and children were sometimes abandoned on the plains after being robbed of their property—of which one Forty-niner told the author of two instances. From the high land between Lodge Pole Creek and the North Platte this same Argonaut saw teams, often four abreast, as far as the eye could carry in both directions. He himself had started with a complete sawmill to be set up on the Sacramento, but was prevailed upon to sell it to the Government at Fort Kearny for four times as much as it had cost him together with expenses of transportation. He sold out against his judgment, and regretted to the day of his death that he had not taken it through, saying that it would have made his fortune in one season in the gold-fields.

No such movement of people as followed this gold discovery had occurred before or since in all history. California had population enough for a State before she could begin to realize what was the matter “back East.” Men in the golden valleys sang “Joe Bowers” and “put in their biggest licks.”

The emigration caused by the discovery of gold continued for several years. In a way it was duplicated in Kansas in 1858, when gold was discovered in the streams about Pike’s Peak. “Pike’s Peak or Bust” was the slogan. It developed that the gold there was insufficient in quantity, and the thousands who crowded the Oregon Trail on the journey outward choked that historic highway on their return with this inscription rudely lettered on their worn and weather-beaten wagon-covers: “Pike’s Peak and Busted.”

On the discovery of gold in California, Major Gilpin said in an address at Independence as follows:

On July 4th, 1849, speaking by their invitation to the California emigrants about to depart from the Missouri River I used this language:

Up to the year 1840, the progress whereby twenty-six States and four Territories have been established and peopled, had amounted to a solid strip, rescued from the wilderness, 24 miles in depth, added annually along the western face of the Union, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

This occupation of wild territory, accumulating outward like the annual rings of our forest trees, proceeds with all the solemnity of a providential ordinance. It is at this moment sweeping onward to the Pacific with accelerated activity and force, like a deluge of men, rising unabatedly, and daily pushed onward by the hand of God.

Fronting the Union, on every side, is a vast army of pioneers. This active host, numbering 500,000, at least, had the movements and obeys the discipline of a perfectly organized military force. It is momentarily recruited by single individuals, by families; and in some instances by whole communities; from every village, county, city, and State of the Union, and by immigrants from other nations.

Each man in the moving throng is in force a platoon. He makes a farm on the outer edge of the settlements, which he occupies for a year. He then sells to the leading files pressing up to him from behind. He again advances 24 miles, renews his farm, is again overtaken and again sells. As individuals fall out from the front ranks, or fix themselves permanently, others rush from behind, pass to the front, and assail the wilderness in their turn.

Previous to the recently concluded war with Mexico, this energetic throng was engaged at one point in occupying the Peninsula of Florida and lands vacated by emigrant Indian tribes. At another point in reaching the copper region of Lake Superior; in absorbing Iowa and Wisconsin. From this very spot had gone forth a forlorn hope to occupy Oregon and California. Texas was thus annexed—the Indian country pressed upon its flanks, spy companies reconnoitered New and Old Mexico.

Even then, obeying the mysterious and inscrutable impulse which drives our nation to its goal, a body of the hardiest race that ever faced varied and unnumbered dangers and privations, embarked upon the trail to the Pacific coast. They forced their way to the end, encountering and defying difficulties unparalleled, with a courage and success the like to which the world had not heretofore seen.

Thus, then, overland sweeps this tidal wave of population, absorbing in its thundering march the glebe, the savages, and the wild beasts of the wilderness; scaling the mountains, and debouching down upon the seaboard. Upon the high Atlantic sea-coast, the pioneer force had thrown itself into ships, and found in the ocean fisheries food for its creative genius. The whaling fleet is the marine force of the pioneer army. These two forces, by land and by sea, have both worked steadily onward to the North Pacific.

They now re-unite in the harbors of California and Oregon, about to bring into existence upon the Pacific a commercial grandeur identical with that which had followed and gathered to them upon the Atlantic.

Hence have already come these new States; this other seaboard; and the renewed vivacity of progress with which the general heart now palpitates!

Will this cease or slacken? had the pouring forth of the stream from Europe ever ceased since the day of Columbus? had the grass obliterated the trails down the Alleghenies, or across the Mississippi? Rather let him who doubts seat himself upon the bank of the supreme Missouri River and await the running dry of its yellow waters! For sooner shall he see this, than a cessation in the crowd now flowing loose to the Western seaboard.

Gold is dug—lumber is manufactured—pastoral and arable agriculture grow apace—a marine flashes into existence—commerce resounds—the fisheries are prosecuted—vessels are built—steam pants through all the waters. Each interest stimulating all the rest, and perpetually creating novelties, a career is commenced, to which, as it glances across the Pacific, the human eye assigns no term!

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