It was early spring in the year of 1849, when the face of Independence was changed forever in the moment of a heartbeat. The town had been a bustling little frontier community serving the Santa Fe traders and those bound for Oregon, but when word got out that gold had been discovered near Fort Sutter (Sacramento) in the California foothills of the High Sierras,
Independence soon became a bedlam of activity as men scrambled from absolutely everywhere to make their fortunes in the gold fields.
There were no gold mines in Jackson County, but Independence, being the jumping off place and the trail head for the westbound travelers, became a gold mine for local merchants as gold seekers with the California fever swarmed over Independence like a plague of locust.
Practically overnight, Independence was mixed and full of people from nearly every state in the Union, and even some from countries abroad. The gold fever caused lawyers to abandon their practices and shop keepers to close up shop, caused husbands to abandon their families. Some farmers sold their lands at ridiculously low prices and others simply abandoned their crops.
You could find the mechanic, shopkeeper, the artist, honest men and the less than honest men all arriving in town together in the same company looking for a wagon train to tie up with. Even preachers donned woolen shirts, put pistols in their belts and muskets on their shoulders, and started out looking for a wagon train.
The weather had been lousy that spring, as it had been rather cold and a lot of rain, so the streets and so-called roads were muddy everywhere about town. The grass out west got a slow start that year, so was not yet tall enough to sustain the livestock of the wagon trains, so the '49er's had a long delay before leaving Independence. They had to find a room in town or a campsite out of town so as to hang out for a while.
Some men were too antsy to hang around and struck off by themselves or in small groups on horseback, but it was a nearly 2000 mile trip across Indian country, the prairies, mountains and deserts from Independence to the gold fields, so most of the 49er's hoped to tie up with a wagon train for safety sake, if nothing else.
Andrew Duhring wrote a letter back home to his wife, Mary, while in Independence, dated May 5, 1849. In the letter he stated that all the hotels were full and encampments lay all around the city in every direction. He said he was lucky to find what was considered very good accommodations – room and board for seventy-five cents a day.
“We have been sleeping six persons in a small room with two beds, comfort of course was not the question, and I took the precaution to have the window hoisted.”
There were many old hardy looking mountain men roaming the streets who would be going along as guides or teamsters. Besides the hotels being very crowded there was the daily influx of people coming into town from the many encampments to complete their outfits, or maybe to buy what they had forgotten. Coffee houses, wagon shops, blacksmiths, and grocery stores were all doing a brisk business, and those saloons that seemed to be on every corner were busy selling everything from the finest imported wine from the continent, to the homemade brew that was called “skull varnish.”
Many of those 49er's that passed through Independence struck it rich, some were never heard from again, and many died from mountain fever or possibly gun shot wounds, but one thing for sure – Independence would never be the same again.
Reference: “Jackson County Pioneers” by Pearl Wilcox.
-- To reach Ted Stillwell send an email to Ted@blueandgrey.com or call him at 816-896-3592