The Vagaries of Mail Service During the Early California Gold Rush

Grimes ltr San FranOne of the issues I have dealt with in my novel about the California Gold Rush is long-distance communications in the West between 1848 and 1850. I have characters living in Oregon, others in California, and they have relatives in Missouri and Massachusetts. The only way people could communicate over distance was through letters, but mail delivery was slow and often unreliable.

The difficulties of communications in the mid-19th century provides some interesting plot turns in my novel. In real life, it led to frustration, disappointment, and uncertainty, and the same is true in my story.

From California to either Oregon or the East Coast, the quickest way for a letter to be delivered was by ship. But regular ship schedules were not established until about the same time that news of the Gold Rush reached the East. The Gold Rush caused its own complications in mail delivery.

The Pacific Mail Steamship Company was founded in New York in April 1848. Its ships were intended to travel north as far as Oregon, but just as the company’s first ships were launched in the spring and summer of 1848, the Gold Rush intervened, and the ships had all they could do in transporting people and goods between Panama and California. Oregon was only an afterthought.

Mail service was overwhelmed by demand after the Forty-Niners invaded California. According to accounts in A Year of Mud and Gold: San Francisco in Letters and Diaries, 1849-1850, edited by William Benemann (1999), after a ship docked in San Francisco bringing mail to California, the Post Office closed for two or three days to sort the mail the ship had brought. Think of the difficulty of sorting the mail, when the address might simply be a name and “Sacramento City, Upper California”. One man wrote in February 1850 that the San Francisco Post Office had received 95 bags of mail after a month with no deliveries.

Bidwell ltr Sutters Mill

Once the Post Office reopened, men spent hours in line waiting for their mail. One poor man got in line at 5:00am, with one hundred men in line ahead of him. It took him an hour to get inside the Post Office. Another wrote of 600 men waiting in the A-K line, and 600 more in L-Z. Some men paid others to wait in line for them.

I read one account stating Sacramento didn’t even have a Post Office until around September 1849. Stores and fort trading posts served as mail depositories in the absence of facilities under contract with the U.S. Postmaster General.

And mail service was slow and unreliable. In 1850 a letter sent from the East to California in early March didn’t arrive in San Francisco until mid-May—which was fairly rapid delivery for the times. Sometimes ships wrecked with mail on board. In 1850, the Samuel Roberts, a schooner bound from California to Oregon went down off the mouth of the Rogue River in southern Oregon. The Oregon Spectator edition for July 11, 1850, reported problems with mail and paper deliveries in the territory. Mail was supposed to come from Portland to Oregon City twice a week, but there was no contract in place at the time for that route, so the mail was placed on private boats to be forwarded.

us 5c stampToday’s consumers complain about the high cost of postage, but we don’t have it so bad. In the 1840s, U.S. postal rates varied by the distance the letter was sent. In 1845, two mail rates were established in the States, with additional rates for mail sent to the West Coast. Letters sent less than 300 miles cost 5 cents per half-ounce, and letters sent over 300 miles cost 10 cents per half-ounce. Starting in 1847, letters to and from Oregon or elsewhere on the West Coast to the States cost 40 cents per half-ounce. In 1848, another rate for letters between points on the West Coast was set—12.5 cents per half-ounce. Ship fees were added on top.

So emigrants paid 40 cents or more to send a letter back home, in a time when a laborer’s wages in San Francisco were $8/day, with skilled carpenters making $14/day and a blacksmith $20/day. And a man worth $40,000 was considered wealthy.

us 10c stampThe United States issued its first postage stamps in 1847—for 5 cents and 10 cents. Before that time, all domestic mail was “stampless” with the rates, dates and origin of the letter being either written by hand (manuscript) or sometimes in combination with a handstamp device.

Mail service between the coasts didn’t improve substantially until the Pony Express, which cut mail delivery across the continent to ten days. The Pony Express didn’t start until 1860, and it became obsolete with the establishment of the first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861.

With all this, it’s amazing that any communications got through at all between the coasts in the late 1840s. Yet residents of the West longed for these letters from back home. High prices and waiting in line for hours seemed small prices to pay for word from their loved ones.

Based on all these historical variables, I felt justified in allowing letters the characters in my novel sent to arrive or be delayed as my plot required. My rule of thumb was that letters between Oregon to California should take at least a month to deliver. Letters from the East Coast or Missouri to the West would take at least two months after steamship service was established, and could take six or more months before then. One crucial letter never arrived. I could point to some historical occurrence to support any of these delivery decisions.

When have you been frustrated by slow communications?

Why Don’t I Write About the Chinese During the California Gold Rush?


Chinese Gold Miners, from Wikipedia

The novel I’m currently writing alludes to race relations between whites and Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans during the California Gold Rush years. However, I do not touch on the Chinese influx into California. Why not? Because my novel takes place in 1848-1850, before the large wave of Asian immigration to California began.

The U.S. Census in 1848 reported that there were three Chinese men in San Francisco. One source states there were 54 Chinese in California in February 1849, then 791 by January 1850, and around 4,000 by the end of the year.

Word of the discovery of gold in California reached China sometime in 1848. A few Chinese men set out for California to seek their fortunes, just as prospectors from around the world did. They sent back word to their home provinces that California was a “Gold Mountain” where the precious metal lay on the ground waiting for them.

It wasn’t until these reports reached China that the Chinese began immigrating to California in large numbers, reaching the new U.S. in 1851 and after. Around 2,700 Chinese came in 1851 and 20,000 arrived in San Francisco in 1852. By the end of 1852, there were 25,000 Chinese in California. See The Story of California From the Earliest Days to the Present, by Henry K. Norton (1924). By the mid-1850s, the Chinese were the largest single group of Gold Rush immigrants to California other than whites.

One article states:

“The typical Chinese gold seeker was in his late teens or early twenties, male, single, and uneducated. His purpose was to return to China as soon as he had accumulated his wealth. He did not intend to assimilate into the California community and he assiduously protected his traditional life style. Customs, clothing, language, food, and the traditional queue set him apart from his fellow miners.” 

chinese man 1851 oakland museum silver-chman

Chinese man in 1851, from Oakland Museum of California

Because the Chinese workers’ intent was to amass their fortunes return to China, they were incredibly hard workers and were willing to do work that many others did not want to do. They worked gold claims that whites had already abandoned. They worked as cooks and in laundries. They started small businesses supplying miners. They accepted wages far lower than white workers, who had better opportunities in the gold fields.

Another reason the Chinese were not particular about the work they did was that there was a strong prejudice against them. This was true of attitudes toward other foreign miners, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, but the Chinese were visibly different and kept to themselves.

According to most reports, the Chinese kept to themselves more than most other immigrants to California. White prospectors tended to mine by themselves or in small groups. By contrast, Chinese worked in larger communities and so retained their conspicuously different language, food, hair and dress, religion, and other customs.

African American and Hispanic laborers were also easily identifiable, and often were kept separate both legally and socially, but the longer history between whites and these groups meant that they were more easily assimilated into Western life than the Chinese.

Starting in 1850, the California legislature passed laws taxing foreign miners. The Foreign Miners’ License Law imposed a tax of $20/month on all foreign miners, but this immediately took workers out of the mining camps. A destitute population returned from the mines to San Francisco, causing social and fiscal upheaval. The law was repealed in 1851.

But in 1852 California instituted a new tax on foreign miners who were not U.S. citizens. Although this tax was lower—three dollars per month—Chinese miners made only six dollars a month. Moreover, Chinese could not become U.S. citizens, so the tax effectively precluded the Chinese from mining, while permitting white foreigners to become citizens and avoid the tax. As a result, the Chinese had to earn their keep otherwise.

Although some Chinese sought legal protections in the California courts, in 1854, a California Supreme Court decision declared that they could not serve as witnesses in court proceedings. Section 14 of the Criminal Act stated “no Black or Mulatto person or Indian shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against, a White man.” The court found that this law was intended to preclude all non-white persons from testifying against whites.

After this decision, the Chinese immigrant communities became even more insular, deciding most disputes among themselves. As a result, they were viewed as having their own secret laws—which, of course, they did, because it was the only way they could find any justice.

About the time the Gold Rush bonanza declined, the railroads needed workers. The Chinese became the primary labor force for the railroads in the West in the 1860s. They laid most of the tracks from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Chinese immigration came to an abrupt halt in 1882, with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act—the first U.S. immigration law excluding a specific national or ethnic group, though similar acts followed against other racial and ethnic groups. This act remained on the books until 1943, but quotas for Chinese immigrants remained impossibly low until 1965.

As I researched this post, I found many parallels between treatment of the Chinese in the 1850s and how some think we should treat Muslims today. Conspicuously different religions and cultures have always been difficult to assimilate. This topic may not be an issue in my novel, but writing this post has given me a new perspective on history, and on our politics today.

When have you learned something about history that you see reflected in today’s society?

How Much Gold Was Enough in the California Gold Rush Years?


1850 California Gold Rush miners

In my research into the California Gold Rush, I’ve read about prospectors who struck it rich and returned to their homes wealthy men, about others who made a fortune and then spent it, and about still other men who never made a dime. And I started wondering how much it took to become wealthy in 1849-50.

One article I found, “The Financial Situations of Those Who Dug for Gold,”  indicates that $10,000 to $15,000 made a man successful, and some prospectors acquired as much as $60,000 to $75,000.

Consumer Price Index 1800-2005

Consumer Price Index 1800-2005

Keep in mind that $100 in 1849 would buy about $3,055 today—a more than 30-fold increase.  So $100,000 would give a man the equivalent of more than $3,000,000 today. It only took $33,000 to have the equivalent of $1,000,000 today. So a man making $60,000 in the gold fields would have around $2,000,000—success, yes, but many people have been more successful.

Then, as in any land-dependent activity today, the important thing is LOCATION.

One story tells of a man who made $83,500 in two hours time. An hourly wage of $43,250 is more than enough to match the income of most business tycoons today!

Another anecdote tells of one pan of dirt yielding $1400 in the spring of 1850.

And here’s a description of the gold finds around what is now Placerville, California:

. . . The first discovery was made in Hangtown Creek, near the mouth of Cedar Ravine, the latter being the first ravine worked, and found to be very rich, yielding upwards of $1,000,000. The next discovery was in Bedford Avenue, at that time called ‘Log Cabin Ravine,’ and a large amount of gold was taken from it . . . . [One man] took home with him about $25,000. From this ravine had been taken altogether, as near as can be determined, about $250,000. . . .


An early miner

And here is the tale of another ravine in the vacinity:

The very richest ravine that was discovered up to this time, the spring of ’51, around Hangtown, was the Oregon Ravine. This ravine was first discovered by two men from Oregon named Yocum. They first worked a narrow strip up through the ravine about three feet in width, . . . . Their method of working was of the most primitive kind. One would with pick and shovel remove the dirt from the surface to near the bed rock, which was about three feet in depth, and the other, with an old knife or a sharp stick in one hand, would stir up the dirt, and as the bright pieces of gold showed themselves, would pick them up and drop them into a tin cup, which he constantly carried in the other hand. This was their slow method of working, and although they realized a fortune by this process, they did not glean as much as they should have done. How much these two men realized was never known, for they were very cautious; but it was supposed that they took home with them about $100,000 each. Old man Harper, who also worked in this ravine, was said to have made out $60,000; several others also, have made large profits here. They all left for home in the fall of ’49. Soon after my arrival, there were at least 200 men at work in this ravine, and all doing well, for the ravine was wide and paid richly from bank to bank. Dr. Ober was very successful, and as he passed along down at night among the miners who were at work below him, with a smiling countenance showed his tin cup in which he carried his gold. I found that about $150 was his average day’s work. In my opinion, Oregon Ravine yielded at least $1,000,000 if not more, and considering its size was the richest one in this portion of the country.

As this description indicates, the early miners—some of whom left even before the Forty-Niners arrived—were more likely to strike it rich than those who came later. The most fortunate and the wisest made their bundle, then left California.

Other anecdotes tell us that men made fortunes from serving the prospectors also:

 . . . Fortunes were realized from Spanish, Murderer’, Big and Michigan Bars, where Ex-Governor Stanford had his little store in ’52, the germ from which sprang the Great Overland Railroad. . . .

Thus, the fortune that created the great Stanford University, where I went to law school, began in a store serving Gold Rush miners.

My current work-in-progress describes work in gold fields such as these. Some characters keep their fortunes and others never find their fortunes or lose them. Still other characters lose their lives.

Would you have been wise and left California, or would you have spent your fortune in the saloons?

Researching the Etymology of Words for Historical Fiction

miners big_8543bc4ba3

Miners in the Gold Rush era

I try to keep the language I use in my historical novels true to the time period I’m writing about. This is particularly important in the dialogue between characters and in the thoughts of my point of view character. The accuracy of the language I use is as important to the verisimilitude of the novel as the settings I describe in my books.

But it is a constant battle. My current work-in-progress takes place between 1848 and 1850. I’ve caught myself using a lot of modern idioms as I’m writing, and my critique partners also help me find and eliminate these anachronisms.

For example, in a recent draft of the book, I wrote that my protagonist “tuned out” other characters who were squabbling in his presence. One of my critique partners told me that phrase didn’t sound appropriate for 1848. So I googled “tune out first use”. Merriam-Webster told me the first usage was in 1908. I rewrote that sentence.

On another occasion, I wrote that a character “updated” my protagonist about his family’s activities. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “update” was first used as a verb in 1944, and wasn’t used as a noun until 1967. Out it went.

In a recent submission to my partners, I had one character say he was not “suited” to another. My partners questioned this language, but this is an old usage. In fact, it “suits” my time period perfectly. I kept that—at least for this draft. Who knows what the final text will read?

In another chapter I wrote that one character “blasted” another (meaning he spoke angrily). When I was asked about this, I had to admit it sounded wrong, so I researched it. In fact, “blast” meaning “to belch forth” dates back to Old English, and has been used even to mean “to blow up by explosion” since the 1750s. (Though “blast off” dates only to 1950.) Still, I might change this in the final version.

A novelist friend and former newspaper writer swears by the Oxford English Dictionary.  I don’t have a subscription to the venerable OED, but I would never dispute its accuracy. I do use the free version sometimes.  But my favorite online resource for researching first uses of words and phrases is the Online Etymology Dictionary.  It doesn’t tell me everything, but it tells me a lot.

A writer friend recently told me about how to use Google Books to research the time periods in which words and phrases have most been used most frequently. Pull up the Google Ngram Viewer in your browser and type in the word or phrase you’re curious about. You’ll see in an instant how often your term has appeared in books over time.

ngram blast

Google Ngram Viewer

Making sure my language can be understood by modern readers, yet evokes the era I’m writing about, is a difficult task. Almost every page in my manuscript presents a challenge. People may not have changed much in 160 years, but our language has changed a lot.

Writers, when have you been caught using an anachronism?

How the Great Fires Shaped Early San Francisco

The last survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake died earlier this month. William Del Monte was three months old when the earthquake struck and 109 when he died on January 11. Reading the news articles about his life and death brought to mind all the novels I’ve read about the earthquake and the fires that followed.

I learned a lot about history through reading historical fiction. One of my favorite authors from childhood into my young adulthood was Phyllis Whitney. She wrote at least two novels about San Francisco during 1906—The Fire and the Gold and The Trembling Hills. The saga of the beautiful city crumbling into rubble, followed by days of burning buildings fascinated me, both as a child and as an adult.

I first visited San Francisco when I was about ten, though I’d been to the airport earlier on trips to visit my grandparents. San Francisco always seemed not only beautiful but exotic—Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, and cable cars—all attractions that didn’t exist in my small town life. On one of his business trips, my father bought me a Chinese outfit (black trousers and brocade shirt that buttoned with frogs) which I wore for Halloween for a couple of years.

I’ve visited San Francisco several times as an adult, but my early impressions of the city came back to me when I began researching my current work-in-progress, part of which takes place in California during the Gold Rush years. In my research, I learned that the fire after the 1906 earthquake was far from the first conflagration in San Francisco’s history.

December 1849 - First Great Fire

December 1849 – First Great Fire

Frequent fires shaped the development of both San Francisco and Sacramento, and the years of 1849 to 1851 were a particularly fiery time in the history of both towns. My novel takes place between 1848 and 1850. Sacramento is one of the primary settings of the novel, and some scenes are set in San Francisco as well. So I decided learning something about the San Francisco and Sacramento fires would be good background. This post focuses on San Francisco.

The First Great Fire of San Francisco occurred on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1849. The fire started at Dennison’s Exchange on Kearny Street between Clay and Jackson Streets. The Exchange was a three-storied building used as a saloon and gambling hall. Allegedly, a black man started the fire after a white Southern bartender beat him when he ordered a drink. The fire spread rapidly and destroyed over fifty buildings (most of the city at that time), causing $1,500,000 damage.

Within days of the First Great Fire, the city organized a variety of fire companies, and in less than a month, San Francisco rebuilt. The hasty reconstruction shows what a boom town San Francisco was—plenty of labor and plenty of money to throw up buildings to generate profits from the Forty-Niners flooding into California.

4may1850fire SF

May 1850 – Second Great Fire

Less than five months later, on May 4, 1850, a Second Great Fire broke out. This one started in the United States Exchange, another saloon and gambling house, built on the same site as Dennison’s Exchange. This time, paroled Australian convicts were blamed for the fire. This fire burned 300 buildings and caused $4,000,000 damage. By this time, the city had a fledging police department that controlled looting, but the fire department was still inadequate to the task.

A week after the Second Great Fire, construction began on the city’s first brick building, and more fire companies were started. But just a few weeks after the second fire, on June 14, 1850, the Third Great Fire occurred. This fire began in the Sacramento Bakery in the Merchants Hotel at Clay and Kearny Streets, probably because of a faulty chimney. It destroyed 300 more buildings, with damages estimated at $5,000,000.

17september1850fire SF

September 1850 – Fourth Great Fire

More fire companies resulted, staffed by experienced firemen from the East. But on September 17, 1850 the Fourth Great Fire destroyed 150 buildings with losses of $500,000.

Although these four fires were called the Great Fires, 1850 saw other conflagrations also. In late October 1850 the City Hospital burned, though the 150 patients were saved. Loss was $40,000. And in mid-December 1850 a fire started in the Cooke Bros. and Co. Building, causing damage of $100,000.

Then on May 3, 1851, a fire began in a paint shop. The fire consumed wood buildings, then reached a three-story brick store. The citizenry thought the brick building would hold, but it did not. Over 1500 houses were destroyed, many people died, and the losses were $12,000,000.

Another fire in June 1851 destroyed many wood and adobe landmarks of Old San Francisco, and cost another $3,000,000 in damage.

Each time, the city rebuilt. The boomtown could do no less. If the original landowners would not build, squatters would take their place.

Fifty-five years later, when the 1906 earthquake and fires hit San Francisco, some residents of the city would have remembered these conflagrations from 1849-51. So we are just two lifetimes away from these great early fires—from the witnesses of the original fires to William Del Monte to 2016 it has been 167 years, but just two lifetimes.

Thinking of these great disasters reminds us how short modern history is. We are just two lifetimes removed from the Gold Rush.

We usually do not remember the role that fire has played in creating our modern cities. Fires and earthquakes and floods and mudslides can overcome all our human ingenuity and productivity in an instant. It takes far less time to destroy a city than two lifetimes.

And still we rebuild.

When has a natural disaster impacted you?

Sacramento in July 1849

Sacramento Waterfront, July 1849

Sacramento Waterfront, July 1849

As I searched for a topic on the California Gold Rush to write about this month, I came across issues for the Sacramento Placer Times in July 1849. At that time, Sacramento was a burgeoning outpost at the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers. It still was not an incorporated town. The location had been established where John Sutter had built an embarcadero on the American, and it had become the gateway to the gold fields.

Placer Times p 1 7-7-1849Gambling houses and saloons were just coming into town in the summer of 1849. The issues of the Placer Times that July trumpet the wholesome nature of the town. The July 7, 1849, edition, describes the recent celebration of Independence Day:

The Fourth of July. — The Anniversary of our country’s independence was duly observed by the citizens of Sacramento City. — There was the usual display of fireworks and salutes in honor of the Day. At half past 1 o’clock a respectable audience assembled in the edge of the beautiful grove of oaks skirting the plain and in rear of the city, to listen to an address from Rev. Dr. Deal, recently from Baltimore. The exercises were opened with prayer by the Rev. S. C. Damon, from the Sandwich Islands; next followed the reading of the Declaration of Independence by Mr. McClellan, of this city. The address or Dr. Deal was highly appropriate and delivered with eloquence. As the audience was expecting the exercises to conclude with remarks by the Hon. Mr. Gwynn, the speaker very judiciously made his address quite brief. The remarks of Mr. G. (formerly U. S. Senator from Mississippi.) were designed to urge upon the citizens of California the importance of immediately organizing a State Government. The day passed off with order and quietness. As succeeding years roll away may a goodly number of patriotic American citizens be found, in this growing city, who will duly honor and becomingly celebrate the anniversary of our county’s independence.

And such were the hopes of the editors for the growing town of Sacramento City. A week later, on July 14, 1849, the paper describes the town’s growth and prospects in a series of paragraphs:

Our City — Our little city is growing with a rapidity unequalled by any modern town save San Francisco, in Alta California; and one can scarcely keep trace of the daily improvements which labor and genius are exerting to raise a magic city, where a few months ago the deer and buffalo grazed unmolested upon the banks of the beautiful Sacramento. And ours is a real city too, not a paper town, like many we could name; not a 36 Buffalo water lot speculation, but a genuine timber and canvass city, replete with industry, enterprise, trade and commerce;—and so thoroughly Americanized are we, in all our customs, that already one fancy’s himself in the states. You may purchase your breakfast at the Washington Market, dine at Sweeny’s, and drink your glass at the Shades. You will meet with but few or no idlers, each seems intent on making his fortune and that speedily. Loads of Yankees are arriving hourly, and the retail trade established by the new adventurers will almost rival Chatham or Catharine streets.

Morality in the Mines — We will venture to affirm that the standard of morals among the miners is much higher than in any town in the states south of Boston. We speak from knowledge of the mines tributary to the Sacramento; of those on the San Joaquin we learn that quite the reverse exists; but on the branches of the Sacramento every man’s rights are scrupulously respected. Very seldom you meet with a drunken man, less often with gambling or quarreling. Indeed, the good order and respect for rights is a theme of general admiration by all new comers.

Turning Rivers. — Large companies of miners are engaged in turning the course of streams in which gold may be found. On the North Fork of the American river the stream is being turned at four points. Also on the Middle Fork, and at Mormon Island. The probability is that the companies will reap large rewards for their outlays, but the chances may be against them—in which case they will loose their whole summer’s arduous labor.

Sacramento waterfront, circa 1849

Sacramento waterfront, circa 1849

Such, then, is what the editors of the Placer Times wanted to see in Sacramento. Yet, on July 21, 1849, the paper was obliged to print a less positive view of the area, in a notice submitted by John Sutter himself:

Notice to squatters

All persons are hereby cautioned not to settle without my permission, on any land of mine in this territory: said land is bounded as follows; [detailed description of the property] . . . JOHN A. SUTTER

It seems, then, that the people around Sacramento were not quite as wholesome as the Placer Times editors led readers to believe.

Moreover, there was dissension among the residents of the city, as one resident sends a testy letter to the editor in response to an earlier article. This letter was published in the July 21, 1849, edition:

Mr. Editor: Sir—In No. 10 of the Placer Times, the author of the article signed ‘ L ‘ complains of the free trade principle as injurious to his individual interests, (touching his most sensitive point,) and I presume to say that no candid man in this community will deny his sincerity. But as to his having purchased a lot and house and intending to become a permanent resident of this city being an argument for complaint against other men’s right to buy and sell goods as best suits their individual interests, is no argument whatever; and I ask, is ‘L.’ an intelligent citizen of the United States and ignorant of the fact that what he considers, as he expresses himself, (against natural if not legal right,) is and has been permitted on the Atlantic side of this republic since its foundation? Yours, LAR.

Perhaps the editors of the Placer Times in July 1849 were determined to be civic boosters, touting the benefits of their town in terms more laudatory than truth and human nature deserved.

I am always amused when I turn to the pages of these 19th century newspapers and see how little has changed in the past 160 years.

When have you noticed conflicts between news accounts and truth as you knew it?

Banking in the American West in the 1840s—Before and After the Gold Rush

I’ve blogged about some boring topics related to my research for my Oregon Trail and Gold Rush novels, but this post may discuss the most boring—banking. Yet one of the biggest problems I had in plotting my novel was how my protagonist could move money from the East Coast to Oregon, and then between California and Oregon.

My hero is a wealthy young man from Boston. He seems to have money to spend whenever he needs it. He was the son of a banker in Boston, so he would have had a sophisticated understanding of how to move money in the 1840s. But how did he move it from place to place? And how did he keep it—did he carry coins or paper or something else?

1840-C_T1_5 gold eagle coinThe easy part of my research was determining what coins were in circulation in 1847-1850. The hard part was describing how emigrants in the West bought things or paid debts when they did not have coins or could not readily transfer them (from California to Oregon, for example).

In the 19th century, many citizens disliked banks even more than today’s citizens do after the Great Recession. It wasn’t necessarily distrust of financial exchanges that led to the distaste for banks. Rather, financial institutions were disliked as much because they were corporations as because they lent money—all corporations were distrusted. The agrarian society of the 1840s saw little need for corporations or for lenders, preferring to rely on their hard work and the produce of the land to pay their way through life.

In my research I learned some fascinating anecdotes of what people really did to move their money. Prairie schooners were sometimes built with false bottoms in the wagons.  Most people put food or tools in this extra space. But one emigrant to Oregon (a free black man, named George Washington Bush) supposedly filled his with $2,000 in gold coins and bullion. When I read that, I thought of his poor oxen which had to carry all that gold over mountains and through rivers.

Today we are in the middle of a revolution in our monetary system. We are moving from hard currency and paper checks to electronic transfers of funds and even exchanges via our smartphones. Soon we may have greater use of Bitcoin and other quasi-monetary forms of exchange.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the U.S. was moving just moving beyond the barter system. There was hard currency, but few people saw much of it. There were private letters of credit, but those often traded at substantial discounts.

There was no bank in San Francisco for several years after the Gold Rush of 1849. Oregon prohibited banking in its constitution until 1880, when the state constitution was interpreted only to prohibit bank notes being used as forms of exchange. (This was probably an erroneous interpretation of the Oregon legislators’ intent, but it did allow banks to develop.)

In the gold fields, gold dust served as a means of exchange, but it traded at different values, and was always subject to the purchaser determining its purity.

stagecoach11 wells fargoGold that wasn’t spent in or around the Gold Rush boomtowns had to be physically hauled overland. The prospectors took their dust and nuggets to express companies, which served as clearing houses of sorts, moving the gold from place to place. Wells Fargo grew out of one of these early express companies.

Determining even this much information took me months of sporadic research. I finally found a book I thought was on point, Banks & Politics in America, from the Revolution to the Civil War, Bray Hammond (Princeton University Press, 1957), but even that was not as detailed as I wanted.

Still Hammond’s book told me how bills of exchange were traded and used as collateral for loans. These bills of exchange were discounted to reflect their risk, and purchasers of the bills had to be careful they weren’t counterfeited. (Think about taking someone’s personal check today, but not really knowing if there was a bank behind the printed check. . . . let alone whether the person giving you the check had funds in his or her account.)

Promissory notes were another form of exchange, and these were also traded at a discount.

Businesses not called “banks” also functioned as banks, by extending credit, exchanging notes or bills of exchange, and discounting the notes they took.

Mercantile establishments issued credit by running tallies for their customers, requiring that the account balances be satisfied periodically, either when the crops came in or when customers had currency. Often, however, these accounts kept going for years.

Also, these store account balances operated like bank ledgers. Someone with a credit balance at the store might transfer some of his account to another person in the community with a debit balance to satisfy a debt between the two parties. Cash rarely exchanged hands.

In fact, in Gold in the Woodpile: An Informal History of Banking in Oregon, by O.K. Burrell (1967), the author discusses how merchants acted as bankers, because money was extremely rare in pioneer Oregon. In fact, an Oregon law passed in 1845 made “orders on solvent merchants” legal tender. And “good merchantable wheat at the market price” was also legal tender. Farmers were more likely to have wheat and other crops to deposit than coin.

Thus, means of exchanging funds beyond barter developed, even in the wild, wild West of 19th century America.

At least, that’s how I’m depicting it in my novel.

There were times when these systems broke down, just like today. In February 1855, the Adams & Company Express Company had just declared bankruptcy. Louis Remme had just deposited his gold in their San Francisco office when he learned the news. But their Portland, Oregon, office didn’t yet know. If he could beat the ocean steamship that had just left for Portland with the news, he could withdraw his funds in Portland and save his fortune. He rode the 700 miles to Portland in six days, just beating the steamship. He gladly paid the 1/2 percent fee to withdraw his funds in gold. As he exited the Adams Express office, the man reporting the bankruptcy entered. (For a riveting description of Remme’s journey, see Remme’s Race for a Fortune.)

Any readers who see errors in how I have described banking and systems of exchange in the 19th century, please leave me a comment. It’s not too late for me to correct my book! Thank you.