The California Gold Rush began on this day in 1848, when the foreman of workers constructing a sawmill on the American River near Coloma, California uncovered several large pieces of gold: when it was over, more than 300,000 people had gone west, including many from Salem. In the first two years after the strike, two joint-stock mining companies were organized by Salem men (of 124 from Massachusetts alone), and at least seven Salem ships departed for California, filled not only with potential prospectors but also lots of stuff to be sold there: this was an entrepreneurial opportunity in more ways than one! Here again you see Salem’s local history intersecting with a national event: the city’s trading economy had been on the decline for several decades so this would have been a very welcome opportunity as well, for both those who wanted to go west and those who were in a position to transport them there. The news of the strike spread like wildfire, and there seems to have been an immediate effort to retrofit ships as quickly as possible to carry eager passengers to San Francisco. The last of the great Salem ship captains, John Bertram, prepared his bark Eliza for the voyage,and she became the first gold-rush vessel from Massachusetts to sail for California, departing on December 2, 1848 with a cargo of “flour, pork, sugar, dried apples, bread, butter, cheese, rice, figs, raisins, pickles, boots, shoes, stoves, axes, picks, domestics, and a variety of small articles, lumber, a store, and materials for building a boat or scow, for dredging the rivers or on sand bars, together with a small steam engine, a lathe, and tools for repairs” along with passengers.
Company certificate, California State Library; a caricature of the eastern “independent gold hunter”, 1849, American Antiquarian Society; The Bark “Eliza” from a 1920 catalog of paintings in the Peabody Museum; model of the “LaGrange”, Peabody Essex Museum, New York and Boston “Witchcraft” clipper ships, c 1860, Library of Congress.
The Eliza reached San Francisco but never made it back; this seems to have been the fate of most of the Salem gold rush ships: they were sold, dismantled, and/or repurposed. The most dramatic example of a repurposing of a Salem ship was the LaGrange (see model from the Peabody Essex Museum above), which sailed on March 17, 1849 and ended up as a prison ship in Sacramento! We have insights into the financing of gold rush voyages from the diary of Salem forty-niner William Berry Cross, a member of the “Salem Mechanics Trading and Mining Association”, which purchased the ship Crescent for passage to California in 1850. Cross’s diary includes a complete roster of his fellow passengers, an inventory of the cargo, and the revelation that the enterprise was to be financed by the profitable sale of both the cargo and the vessel upon arrival in San Francisco.Over the next decade, celebrated clipper ships like the two Witchcrafts above would sail west and return to their eastern home ports, but these first Salem ships seem a lot more disposable.