Spreading the Word: A History of Information in the California Gold Rush

By Richard T. Stillson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
On the Trail
From Printed Guidebooks to Mountain Man Experts

As the goldrushers moved onto the plains in May and early June 1849, their communications with home and other goldrushers changed drastically as did their information sources. They could no longer get information from local newspapers, there were no new guidebooks or maps to consult, receiving letters from home was not possible, and unless they had hired a guide, there were no local experts such as William Gilpin to call upon. They were not alone, however; with twenty to thirty thousand emigrants all crowding on the same trails leading to the Platte River and then west to South Pass, the first half of the trip resembled a one-thousand-mile traffic jam of wagons, oxen, mules, horses, and people. The lonely wagon train image of some Hollywood depictions of western migrations was completely off the mark in the early summer of 1849.

Goldrushers frequently communicated among themselves and employed many mechanisms for obtaining information. Information concerning the trail ahead was the most important for the travelers, which they obtained from eastbound goldrushers who had given up and army units traveling east. These failed goldrushers, or “go-backers,” and the army also provided a way for emigrants to send letters home from the trail. The westbound travelers used communications techniques pioneered by fur traders and trappers and previous Oregon and California emigrants, such as writing notes on animal bones (the bones express), as well as by signs and notes along the trail. Some mechanisms, such as trail “post offices,” which ranged from a barrel to an abandoned shack, were elaborated upon and expanded. As the travelers reached roughly the halfway point, in current Wyoming, they began to encounter Mormons who had settled for the past year or two and were in business of running ferries and selling information in the form of handwritten guidebooks. Some of these people had been to California and provided information about the gold fields and the most

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