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An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)


Denver, June 20, 1859.

For some ten years past, vague stories affirming or implying the existence of gold in our country’s principal chain of mountains, have from time to time reached the public ear; but they seemed to rest on very slight or insecure foundations, and attracted but limited and transient attention. An Indian’s, or trapper’s, or trader’s bare assertion that, in traversing the narrow ravines and precipitous heights of our American Switzerland he had picked up a piece of quartz lustrous with gold, or even a small nugget of the pure metal, was calculated to attract little attention, while California was unfolding her marvelous treasures, and while the fact stood forth clear and unquestioned, that not one pound of the precious dust from all the region watered by the Missouri’s mountain tributaries had ever been known to swell the world’s aggregate of the all-desired metal, and not one company, or individual even, was known to be seeking the yellow idol on this side of the backbone of our continent. So far as I can learn, the first three parties ever organized to search for gold in all this Rocky Mountain region, were fitted out in the spring of 1858, from the Cherokee nation from Missouri, and from Kansas (Lawrence) respectively; and these, though they carried home or sent home large stories of the auriferous character of the country they “prospected,” took with them precious little gold. But their reports aroused a spirit of gold-seeking adventure in others, so that the ensuing (last) fall witnessed a rush of three or four hundred, mainly men of broken fortunes from the dead mushroom “cities” of Nebraska and Kansas, to the region watered by the South Platte and the more northerly sources of the Arkansas. For some reason, this point —the junction of Cherry Creek with the South Platte—became the focus of the gold-hunt; here those who staid through the autumn and winter busied themselves in putting up log cabins, and writing home to their friends in the states, accounts of the richness of this region in gold—a metal which, except in very minute quantities, they had seen but with the eye of faith. I doubt that three thousand dollars’ worth of gold in every shape, had been taken out by the five or six hundred seekers who came to this region in hot pursuit of it, down to the first day of last month —May, 1859. I doubt it, not merely because I have never seen any reliable accounts of that much gold being sent or received from here prior to that date, but because the gold does not exist where it had almost exclusively been sought down to that day. Cherry Creek, though its extreme sources are near Pike’s Peak, is so headed off from the mountains by the South Platte, that I can hardly realize that it should bring down any gold at all; and, at best, washing for gold the sands of either of these streams near their junction, seems to me much like washing the banks of the Amazon, in Maritime, Brazil, for the gold of the Andes. Yet nearly all the gold-hunting of this region, up to last month, had been done in the sands of these creeks, most of it miles distant from the mountains. There is testimony that several dollars’ worth of dust per day to the hand was thus washed out in certain happily chosen spots; but such successes were transient; and, despite all the glowing accounts set forth in letters to the states, it is clear that all the gold-washing done throughout this region up to last month, had not paid an average of fifty cents per day’s work; while the cost of each man’s subsistence, while thus employed, cannot have fallen short of a dollar per day. And the high waters of the streams preclude advantageous washing in the spring, even were gold far more abundant and enduring in their sands than it has yet been proved.

Such was the actual state of things when the first flood of gold-seeking immigration began to pour in upon Auraria and Denver two months or more ago. Many of the seekers had left home with very crude ideas of gold-diggings, impelled by glowing bulletins from writers who confounded sanguine expectations with actual results, and at best spoke of any casual realization of five to ten dollars from a day’s washing as though it were a usual and reliable reward of gold-seeking industry throughout this region. Many who came were doubtless already wearied and disgusted with the hardships of their tedious journey—with sleeping in wet blankets through storms of snow and hurricanes of hail, and urging hollow and weary cattle over immense, tree-less plains, on which the grass had hardly started. Coming in thus weather-beaten, chafed and soured, and finding but a handful of squalid adventurers living in the rudest log huts, barred out from the mountains by snow and ice, and precluded from washing, the sands of the streams on the plains by high water, they jumped at once to the conclusion that the whole thing was a humbug, got up by reckless speculators to promote selfish ends. They did not stop to reason, much less to explore; but, spurred by a laudable even if untimely longing to “see Nancy and the children,” they turned their cattle’s heads eastward and rushed pell-mell down the Platte, sweeping back nearly all they met. I estimate the number who have started for “Pike’s Peak” this season and turned back at not less than forty thousand, and their positive loss by the venture (in time, clothing and money) at not less than an average of fifty dollars each—or, in all, two millions of dollars.

Meantime, a few of the pioneers of this region—mainly experienced gold-miners from Georgia, California, and even Australia—were quietly proceeding to prospect the mountains, so fast as the disappearance of snow and ice would permit—and, before the snow was fairly off the hither ranges, while it still lay solid and deep on the central and higher chain, Mr. J. H. Gregory, a veteran Georgia gold-digger, had struck the lead on a branch of Vasquer’s Fork (Clear Creek) some thirty miles west of this place by an air-line and forty-five by trail, which has since been the main focus and support of the gold-fever. Other leads have since been opened in the same ravine and its vicinity; Mr. Green Russell (another Georgian) is reported to be doing exceedingly well in his “gulch diggings” three miles south-west of Gregory’s; we have various reports of good leads struck at sundry points ten to fifteen miles west, south and north of Gregory’s; and we have a further report that quartz of marvelous richness in gold has been found on the other side of the snowy range, some sixty miles west of Gregory’s, and not far from the Middle Park, whence the water flows to Grand River, and thence, through the Colorado, into the Gulf of California.

I indorse none of these reports as absolutely true, though all but the last are probably so. Tens of thousands will vainly ransack these mountains for gold through weeks and months, and leave them at last raged and despondent, as hundreds are leaving them now; yet rich leads will continue to be struck, veins to be opened, sluices to be constructed, through years to come; and I shall not be disappointed to find the district yet prospected a mere corner of the Rocky Mountain Gold Region, of which the center is very probably a hundred miles north or south of this point. It may be north of Laramie even. All that has yet been done toward the thorough development of the gold-producing capacity of the Rocky Mountains is very much what tickling an elephant’s ear with a pin would be toward dissecting him.

But will disemboweling these mountains in quest of gold pay? A very pregnant question. I answer—It will pay some; it will fail to pay others. A few will be amply and suddenly enriched by finding “leads” and selling “claims;” some by washing those “claims;” other some by supplying the mountains with the four apparent necessaries of mining life—whisky, coffee, flour, and bacon; others by robbing the miners of their hard earnings through the instrumentality of cards, roulette, and the “little joker;” but ten will come out here for gold for every one who carries back so much as he left home with, and thousands who hasten hither flushed with hope and ambition will lay down to their long rest beneath the shadows of the mountains, with only the wind-swept pines to sigh their requiem. Within this last week, we have tidings of one young gold-seeker committing suicide, in a fit of insanity, at the foot of the mountains; two more found in a ravine, long dead and partially devoured by wolves; while five others, with their horse and dog, were overtaken, some days since, while on a prospecting tour not far from Gregory’s, by one of those terrible fires which, kindled by the culpable recklessness of some camping party, finds ready aliment in the fallen pine leaves which carpet almost the entire mountain region, and are fanned to fury by the fierce gales which sweep over the hill-tops, and thus were all burned to death, and so found and buried, two or three days since—their homes, their names, and all but their fearful fate, unknown to those who rendered them the last sad offices. Ah! long will their families and friends vainly await and hope for the music of footsteps destined to be heard no more on earth! Thus, Death seems to be more busy and relentless on these broad, breezy plains, these healthful, invigorating mountains, than even in the crowded city or the rural district thick-sown with venerable graves.

It is my strong belief that gold is scarcely less abundant in the Rocky Mountains than in California, though it seems, for many reasons, far less accessible. It is, first. Much further from the sea-board, or from any navigable water or means of easy approach; second. Belted by deserts and by regions on which little or no rain falls in summer, so that food, and almost every necessary of life, will here be permanently dearer than in California; third. So elevated (six thousand feet and over above tide-water) that little can be done at mining for a full half of each year; and fourth. Most of the gold which has been broken down and washed out of the veins by water-courses has been so swept along and dispersed by the fierce mountain-torrents that very little of it can be profitably washed out; hence, mining here must be mainly confined to the veins, and will thus involve blasting, raising by windlass, etc., etc., and so require large investments of capital for its energetic and successful prosecution. While, therefore, I believe that these mountains will soon be yielding gold at the rate of many millions per annum, I say most emphatically to the poor men who want gold and are willing to work for it,—This is not the country for you! Far better seek wealth further east through growing wheat, or corn, or cattle, or by any kind of manual labor, than come here to dig gold. One man may possibly acquire wealth faster in this gold-lottery than in New England or Kansas; but let one thousand poor men come hither to mine, while the same number resolve to win a competence by eminent industry and frugality in the east, and the latter will assuredly have more wealth at five years’ end than the former—and will have acquired it with far less sacrifice of comfort, health and life.

And here let me say, in closing up the subject, that I think the report made by Messrs. Richardson, Villard and myself, of what we saw and learned at Gregory’s Diggings, is fully justified by more recent results. For example: we gave the first four days’ product of W. Defrees & Co. from Indiana (running one sluice) at $66, $80, $95, and $305 respectively—the four following days not returned. I have since obtained them; and they range as follows: $257, $281, $203, $193—or $388 more than those of the four days for which we gave the returns. This company then sold out their claim for seven thousand dollars, and on the eighth of June opened a sluice on another, which in four days produced as follows: $31, $205, $151, $213. Another Indiana company, miscalled Sopris, Henderson & Co., in our report, ran two sluices on the 9th and 10th, realizing about $450 per day, and on the 11th had three sluices in operation for the first, and cleaned up $1,009 (really worth about $900) from the product of that day’s labor of twelve men. Some scores are doing well, though few quite so well as this; but of the thousands who are doing nothing—at least, realizing nothing—who shall report? Some of these issue daily from the mountains, out of provisions, out of means, out of heart; and, between this and snow-fall, thousands like them will come out, still more hungry, weary, forlorn, and take their way down the Platte as gaunt and disconsolate as men ever need be. But this, and much more, will not dissuade new thousands from rushing to take their places, so long as it is known that the Rocky Mountains contain gold.

P. S.—A friend just in from the Mountains, who had a narrow escape from the flames, confirms our worst rumors of disaster and death. He says not less than fifteen* [* Another friend just arrived says certainly seventeen.] men have fallen victims to the conflagration, which is still raging, and threatens even the dense crowd of tents and cabins at Gregory’s. My friend informs me that the fire began very near where we camped during my first weary night in the Mountains, and would seen to have been purposely set by reckless simpletons curious to see the woods in a blaze! He thinks the victims were generally, if not uniformly, smothered before the fire reached them—the dense, pitchy smoke at once shrouding the vision and obstructing respiration. He says the flames swept through the pines and above their tops to a height of two hundred feet, with a roar and a rash appalling even to look on. He was obliged to run his mule at her utmost speed for two or three miles, in order to effect his escape. If this drouth continues—as it is likely to do for months—the mountains this side of the snowy range will be nearly burned over for at least fifty miles north and south of the Gregory trail, driving out all that is left of game, killing much of the timber, and rendering the country every way more inhospitable—a most superfluous proceeding.

I hear of still further discoveries further up in the Mountains—some of them gulch or water-course diggings, which are said to pay very well. They have just begun to work the sand of Clear Creek at the point where it issues from the mountains. Another friend just from Gregory’s, says he fears the victims of the fires now raging in that quarter will number one hundred. The limbs of the green pines are burned off close to the trunks, and the columns of roaring flame seem to fill the sky. The Gregory settlement was in some danger when my informants left it yesterday.

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