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History Snoopin’: Bags of gold

By August 1848, the secret was out. James Marshall had found gold along the American River in California.

It was a literal golden opportunity for those hearty souls who had crossed the Plains to the fertile valleys of Oregon.

Back East, while eyes widened and mad excitement began turning into greed, the desire to get rich fast without the usual daily routine of labor and business was irresistible — here, the Oregon boys were already on the move.

The ever-growing surge of immigrants arriving in Oregon slowed and nearly two-thirds of the state’s young men were rushing south. Five of those men would share a lifetime of experience in just two short years.

In April 1847, Jason Wheeler, James Chapin, Charnel Mulligan, Cornelius Hills and Lester Hulin arrived in St. Joseph, Missouri, about to cross the Plains to Oregon. After their arrival in Oregon City that September, each claimed land and began their new life.

First, they lived through a year that included the Cayuse Indian War and ended in a hurried 1848 overland trip to the golden rivers of California.

As their hands nearly froze while panning and digging for gold near Sacramento, a New York ship was on its way to San Francisco, sailing through the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America.

The schooner, W.L. Hackstaff, was a pilot boat of 80-90 tons that launched in 1842 and had been guiding ships into and out of Atlantic harbors. She wasn’t as big as the passenger-carrying sailing ships of the time, but she was fast ,and her owners, with golden dreams, realized they could make a lot of money by carrying miners along the Pacific Coast. She arrived in San Francisco Bay just before February 1849.

William White had been a talented ship’s pilot in charge of the Hackstaff while in the East. Although he had no navigation training, the owners didn’t care. They needed a captain now and quickly appointed White. With “two or more sailing masters aboard” to help him, White somehow made it to California.

By July, the five Oregon miners had done well enough and were ready to take their gold dust home. Together with 18 other Oregon men, they boarded the Hackstaff and sailed out through the Golden Gate. It was a happy band, each man’s bags carrying gold dust worth between $31,500 and $95,700 in current dollars.

A cruise up the Northern California coastline is never an easy thing. Sometimes the sun shines, the sea is as smooth as a lake, and the wind hardly a breeze, but even if the lighthouses on rocky cliffs aren’t hidden behind impenetrable fog or a swirling rainstorm, the sea is likely to surge higher than a house. Gale force winds rip through the waves, and unseen reefs tear hulls apart.

Facing those winds, inexperienced Captain White was promptly lost. The trip to Astoria should have taken only five or six days. After 18 days on the ocean, they were nearly out of food and water.

Seeing a river entering into the sea, and believing he could sail into its mouth, White steered toward shore only to run into a sandbar. It was impossible to float the ship off the sands without help from the passengers, but they refused, tired of the captain’s incompetence. They’d take their chances on land.

Chapin had been to Southern Oregon the previous year and believed he recognized some of the landmarks. He was chosen guide and led them east, the men carrying their own bags of gold on their back, living off the land and avoiding any Indian contact.

Eighteen days after abandoning the ship they reached the immigrant road between Oregon and California, near Myrtle Creek. They headed north where the going became easier. They stopped whenever they reached a settlement or came upon a settler’s home.

After 40 days, they all safely reached what would become the town of Eugene — their suffering over, each still carrying their gold on their backs.

Years later, one of the men was asked about the hardships he had faced.

“Hardships?” he said. “Yes, lots of them, piled thick and deep they were, but I never had more sport on any trip in my life.”

Spoken like a true pioneer.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.