Meet Harrison. By 1849, he'd been in California for ten years. He came to the territory as a '49er during the earliest days of the Gold Rush and remained there until the end. Harrison was only 22 years old when he left his home. He worked for a Chicago storekeeper when gold fever hit the nation.
In January of 1848, tired people, poor folk, bored men and dreamers all heard about a little place out West called Coloma. That was the place where some settler, a New Jersey carpenter named James Marshall, was building himself a new sawmill. He saw a tiny snitch of gold while digging and that’s just how it all began. When Harrison read about James Marshall's incredible luck, it fired a dream inside of the young man. He whipped off his apron, snapped up every penny he could manage and tried to find a way to get to California. Harrison joined 90,000 people who set out for California during the next two years. By 1854, there were 300,000 treasure seekers on the move.
The first step of the voyage involved making a decision. The 15,000-mile journey by ship around the tip of South America would take five months to complete. Cutting across the Isthmus of Panama might take about three months. But Harrison heard terrible stories of cholera and malaria if a traveler went that way. If he crossed the country, the 2,200-mile journey from Missouri or Iowa might also take three or four months. Eventually, he decided to join the more than 500 ships that made the five month journey through fierce storms and rough seas.
Harrison noticed that his fellow adventurers came from all over the nation and later, almost every nation on Earth. Young men left their families behind. Their home towns soon became places where only women, children and older people lived. But the sacrifice was worth it to them. Year after year, everyone heard tales of those who’d struck it rich. Ordinary men, people just like Harrison, did great things. Men like Phillip Armour, the New York butcher, actually walked to California and started a meat shop in Placerville. He made enough money off the gold diggers to start his own meat packing plant. And of course, they all knew about the Indiana wheelbarrow maker, John Studebaker, who started a car company from his gold profits. Yes, it was there for the taking, but the work was frustrating and exhausting.
One bucket of washed dirt yielded Harrison about 10 cents in gold. So, he had to wash over 150 buckets a day to gain the price of an ounce of gold... about $16 an ounce. And the entire region soon became a very dangerous place. Many miners died from disease, the elements and by the deeds of a lawless population. Most of the 49ers were dead within six months after they arrived. In fact, the insurance companies would not issue policies for the miners. Also, prices were incredibly high. Just getting enough to eat and a few supplies cost Harrison a small fortune. Back home, Harrison bought bread for 4 cents a loaf, but he paid 70 cents per loaf in the gold town. He also paid two dollars for an egg and four dollars for an apple. His new boots cost ninety dollars a pair, an exorbitant sum for 1850.
As expected, eventually the gold supply began to dwindle. Then, newcomers were unwelcome. Many were attacked and sent packing back home. To stem the tide of immigration, taxes were imposed for foreigners who found gold. This new regulation sent many back to their own countries.
In the end, Harrison did not become an extremely wealthy man. However, he did manage to harvest enough profit to finance his own store. So, ten years after he left home, he remembered standing behind a counter in Chicago before he ran toward a golden star in the West.