The Bonniwell party’s prospectors had gone to the California gold fields via two very different routes. The 1849 party went west using a combination of land and water transportation to get from Milwaukee to El Dorado via steamship from New Orleans, then across the Isthmus of Panama by foot, mule and canoe, and then another steamer to San Francisco. Compared to the overland route, it was quicker, more reliable, and safer, but more expensive.
The larger Bonniwell party of 1850, led by “Captain” William T. Bonniwell, took the shorter but more strenuous—and risky—overland route. After fitting out their wagon train at Independence, Missouri, they headed west, across the vast plains and the great western desert, and then struggled up and across the Sierra Nevada. This route was much less expensive, and much less secure. They faced constant dangers, including lack of adequate food and water, unpredictable weather, equipment failure, the threat of bandits, and the possibility of Indian attack.
Both Bonniwell parties survived their journeys and made it to the gold region. They appear to have had some success, mixed with much tedium and many futile efforts. Eventually, our Wisconsin prospectors—like many, if not most, California gold seekers—decided to return home. And then the question became: how to get home safely, economically, and reasonably quickly? For most adventurers, especially those with even a modest amount of gold dust or specie in their baggage, it was clear that the overland route was too long, impractical and dangerous. So some kind of (mostly) ocean voyage seemed like the best bet, and the San Francisco newspapers were full of enticing deals for homeward travelers.
San Francisco to Panama, and beyond
San Francisco newspapers regularly featured advertisements for competing steamship lines. Here’s one from the Daily Pacific News of January 21, 1850, for the Empire City line, promoting the trip from San Francisco to Panama [City] on their newest ship, the Sarah Sands.
This 1850 lithograph, like the ad above, suggests the iron ship Sarah Sands was new, modern and cut a sleek line through the sea. Just the thing for a returning miner’s comfortable trip homeward:
Walters, Sl., artist, et.al., Empire city line. Pacific iron steam ship Sarah Sands, 1500 tons Captn. Wm. Thompson, lithograph, pub.Louis R. Menger, New York, 1850. Library of Congress.
As the advertisement notes, after arriving in Panama City, and making the traverse of the isthmus by some combination of foot, canoe or mule travel, eastbound passengers (and their freight) could board one of the company’s Atlantic ships, the Crescent City or Empire City to complete the journey home to New York and “intermediate ports.”
Another “all-in-one” option
That same January 21, 1850, issue of the Daily Pacific News advertised several other options for the eastbound traveler, including this package deal from the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, offering a quick “through line” trip from San Francisco to Panama City on the steamer Panama, followed by a direct voyage from Chagres to New York City on the U. S. Mail Steamer Cherokee.
I don’t have a picture of the U.S. Mail Steamer Cherokee, but I do have this color lithograph of another ship on the Chagres-to-New York route, the somewhat newer but similarly sized U.S. Mail Steamer Illinois.
Parsons, Charles, U. S. Mail Steamer, Illinois. Published by Endicott and Co., 1835-1861. Hand-colored lithograph on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Public domain, CC0 license.
How fast was the trip?
In the second edition of his 1853 book, Naval and Mail Steamers of the United States, author Charles B. Stuart made these observations about the engines and speed of the U.S.M.S. Illinois on the Chagres to New York City run:
The maximum performance of this vessel, as taken from a log of her trip from New York to Chagres and back, via Havana, in May, eighteen hundred and fifty-two […] is as follows:
Average pressure of steam, seventeen pounds; average revolutions, eleven; average consumption of coal, sixty tons per day; average speed, eleven miles per hour; maximum speed, thirteen and one-half miles per hour. Running time from Havana to New York, ninety-four and a-half hours, from dock to dock ; distance run, one thousand and thirty-two miles; greatest run, per day, (in Gulf Stream,) three hundred and thirty-seven miles.
On another occasion, this vessel ran from Chagres to New York, (estimated distance, one thousand nine hundred and eighty miles,) in six days and sixteen hours, being an average of nearly twelve and a-half miles per hour, the whole voyage.
More options from Panama to the U.S.
Once you got to the Caribbean side of the isthmus, you had other choices for the remainder of your trip. Also in that January 21, 1850, issue of the Daily Pacific News, the United States Mail Steamship Company advertised several options, featuring their newest ships, the Georgia and Ohio.
As you can see from this print, the Ohio and the Georgia appear to be fine ships, indeed:
Unknown artist. U.S. mail steam ship company’s, ships. , ca. 1850. Library of Congress.
How and when did our prospectors return?
I don’t have all the details for all the members of the Bonniwell expedition. But I have been able to trace the ships and dates that several of our Clark neighbors sailed on in 1850 and 1851, when they returned to the eastern U.S. I’ll share that with you next time.
If you want to know a lot about the naval and mail steamships of the United States, from Robert Fulton’s Demologos of 1813 to the elegant U.S. Mail Steamers of the early 1850s, then you need this book:
Charles B. Stuart’s Naval and Mail Steamers of the United States, second edition, London, 1853, is filled with ship history, technical specifications, and detailed illustrations of ships, hull profiles, engine designs and more. The block quote, above, is from pages 134-135. And the whole book, with thirty-six fine engravings, is available as a free GoogleBook. Enjoy!
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