Transporting Gold in 1850

One of the problems I’ve had to deal with in my soon-to-be-published novel, Now I’m Found, is how gold was transported in California in 1848-50. The gold flakes and nuggets had to get from the mines where they were panned from the water or dug from the ground to the surrounding towns, then ultimately to shipping ports to be sent to the mint.

Here are a few facts and figures:

  • The amount of gold reserves found in California in this era was astounding. From a total gold yield of $890,000 in or before 1847, U.S. gold increased to $10,000,000 in 1848, to $40,000,000 in 1849, to $50,000,000 in 1850. (And that wasn’t the end of the California Gold Rush; it’s just the end of the period covered in my novel.)
  • Despite the incredible riches mined during the Gold Rush, there was no bank in San Francisco until January 1849, and the early banks weren’t much to speak of. Merchants were the only businesses that owned safes, so they became the first bankers. The bankers held deposits of gold in their safes, and shipped gold wherever the owners directed—to local exchanges, to the mint in Philadelphia, or to the miners’ families in the States or elsewhere. The same banking practices were true in Sacramento as in San Francisco.
  • stagecoach11

    No Wells Fargo in 1850

    Wells Fargo was the first express company to operate in California, but it did not begin until 1852. According to the page on the company’s website describing its history, Wells Fargo offered banking services (buying gold and selling paper bank drafts as good as gold) and express (rapid delivery of the gold and anything else valuable)
  • Despite these primitive commercial practices, a lot of gold got moved in California. In November 1848, the first large shipment of gold departed by ship from San Francisco to the mint—a shipment of $500,000. In May 1850, another ship left San Francisco with $1.5 million worth of gold. ($500,000 would be worth more than $15,000,000 today, which means that these two shipments alone carried over $60,000,000 in today’s dollars.)
  • Regular steamship service between Sacramento and San Francisco began in August 1849. Before then, boat traffic was chartered or irregular, and the alternative was to make a week-long overland trip around the south end of the bay past San Jose.
  • The transcontinental railroad connecting California to the East was not completed until 1869.

All this research still left me with the question—how did the gold get from the mines to San Francisco?

In my novel, I created a business that began in 1850 to haul gold from the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas to Sacramento, and a second business that ferried the gold from Sacramento to San Francisco. I know the ferry route existed down the Sacramento River as early as August 1849, but I don’t know whether it was used to transport gold.

I haven’t found any definitive support for a gold transport business existing in 1850, but it seems reasonable to me to think that some type of enterprise would have been created to handle this transportation. Maybe it’s fiction only, maybe it’s not true. But I like to think it’s at least “truthy.”

Authors, when has your research for your writing been stymied?

Posted in History, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , .


  1. When reading my great-grandfather’s diary, I wondered at his phrase,” We went to talk to the government agents about the sufferers.”

    Oklahoma wasn’t a state on the date he wrote this entry in December 1890 so they couldn’t have been speaking of voting.

    I held that question in my head until I made my first trip to the Logan County Genealogical Society in Guthrie, OK. There I discovered the sufferers were the farmers who had undergone a terrible drought and then prairie fires. What crops that didn’t die of drought, burned in the prairie fire. They had nothing to eat but turnips, which grow underground. They were starving to death.

    They went to the school house to petition the U.S. government to send them trainloads of wheat seed to grind as flour and to plant. Otherwise, they would have to migrate back to the States. This would leave the railroads with no goods to haul into the Oklahoma Territory and no crops to haul back to the States. The government agents agreed to grant their request and so saved the farmers and their families from starvation. The locals dubbed this year, “The Year of the Turnip.”

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