The California Gold Rush



On the cold, snowy morning of April 16, 1849, 120 citizens of Fayetteville, Arkansas, gathered in the town's central square to bid farewell to family and friends and set out on the difficult, dangerous, overland trek across the wild Midwest and Rocky Mountains to California, in search of gold. Edward Freyschlag and several of his siblings joined this group, as did the young adventurer, William James Hawkins.

After arriving in California, many of the prospectors had modest success panning for gold in the Sierra Mountain creeks, at least enough to support themselves for a while. Young James Hawkins wrote several letters to his mother, Jane Curl Walker Hawkins; these letters survive and are part of the Jane Curl Walker Letter Collection. James wrote of his dream of finding enough gold to help his mother improve her circumstances, and he also hoped to become wealthy enough to be able to woo one Sallie Wilson, his heartthrob back in Fayetteville. James found the Indians in California especially friendly and wrote of having spent a lot of time socializing and dancing with them.

At some point, the mountains of California became prospected out, and most "49ers," the gold prospectors' nickname, returned home. We do not know if James returned to Fayetteville before embarking on his next adventure as a filibustero, or mercenary soldier, in Mexico in 1855. That fateful adventure is recounted in his mother's biography (See "The Biography of Jane Curl Walker").

Edward Freyschlag returned to Fayetteville around 1851. He evidently did well enough prospecting that he was able to take the safest, most comfortable route back to Arkansas: by ship on the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco, all the way south around Cape Horn, and back up to New Orleans; from there up the Mississippi and the White rivers to Fayetteville. The water route sounds like, and was, a long journey, but it was the preferable way to return from California.

There were two other options for travel between California and Arkansas, both less expensive and more dangerous than the Cape Horn voyage. A modestly expensive option was to travel by ship to Nicaragua, then to cross the Central American isthmus on land, and finally travel by ship to New Orleans. The land route across the isthmus was somewhat dangerous because of malaria and thieves.

The least expensive route from California was to return by land across the Rocky Mountains and central plains, but unless one could travel with a large, armed group, this crossing was treacherous because of the constant threat of hostile Indians and thieves.

Not all of the "49ers" left California. Edward's brother Christian Freyschlag did quite well in the gold rush but not as a prospector. Christian took supplies by mule train to the Sierra foothills and sold shovels, pick-axes, and the like to the gold hunters. At least one of Christian's sisters ran a boarding house for miners. Christian and several of his sisters remained in California for the rest of their lives.