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  • William Swain (1821–1904)
  • UNITED STATES
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Forty-Niners

William Swain (1821–1904)

A prospector whose journals and letters captured a vivid picture of the era.

William Swain read about the discovery of gold in California in his hometown newspapers in Youngstown, New York. Leaving his wife and children behind, the 28-year-old Swain set out to find his fortune in April 1849, traveling overland to California with several friends and relatives. His idea was to gather at least $10,000 in gold in California and then quickly return home. Luckily for us, Swain kept journals and wrote letters about his adventures. His accounts provide us with a vivid picture of the era.

Swain made only about $500 but retained what many miners had lost in the quest: health and life. He left California in late 1850 and returned home to his family.

The following accounts are drawn from J.S. Holliday's The World Rushed In (1981). Swain's diary and correspondence are now owned by Yale University Library.

From Buffalo, New York: “All my things being ready last night, I rose early and commenced packing them in my trunk, preparatory to leaving home on my long journey, leaving for the first time my home and dear friends with the prospect of absence from them for many months and perhaps for years. … We had bad roads and altogether a gloomy day of it, the thoughts of leaving home frequently filling my bosom with emotions which I was unable to suppress. This evening reason has assumed governing power, and I calm my feelings with the reflection that duty and the interest of my family call for this separation." (April 11, 1849)

From Peru, Illinois: “We are all well and enjoy ourselves and are encouraged rather than discouraged as we near the scene of our fitting out. We learn that great numbers have set out and that many are getting tired on the journey and giving up. We have heard considerable about the cholera at St. Louis, but as we are nearing the place we hear less about it.… It is among the emigrants who come up from New Orleans as steerage passengers — filthy, dirty, and corrupt from all manner of disease. We have no fears. However, we are careful of ourselves, for one ounce of preventative is worth a pound of cure. We are careful to have our meals regularly, our sleep ditto, and eat nothing that we deem improper." (April 22, 1849)

On the Missouri River: “Today is the Sabbath, and I am on the Missouri River far from the home that keeps my relatives. They are now preparing for divine services while I am surrounded by the hum and noise of travel, the wild scenery and the uncultivated shores of this great river." (April 29, 1849)

From Independence, Missouri: “Here I am in camp with arrangements made for my start across the plains…. We have spent our time in getting all the information we could, and the result is that we have concluded to cross the plains with ox teams. All those experienced in prairie life think this the best way." (May 5, 1849)

From along the California Trail, present-day Kansas: “This morning Mr. Lyon, who was taken sick with the cholera last night, is dead. His mess and the doctor who attended him seemed to take but little care of him; otherwise he might, in all probability, have been saved. A gloom appears on the company." (May 28, 1849)

From outside Fort Kearney: “We are now passing through the territory of the Indians and the buffalo, but neither have been seen by our train, although the bones and horns of the buffalo line the track of our road. But we have seen and killed some few antelope. The number of [wagon] trains passing has scared the buffalo from the road; but we intend having a lick at them before leaving the plains. We are truly out of civilization, never hearing from the States and knowing nothing at all about things in our own country." (June 14, 1849)

Along the Sweetwater River: “I have been very unwell today. Fortunately for me our [wagon] train camped at two o’clock. Soon after we had pitched our tent, a cold rain and wind from the mountains came up. I got wet and took cold, with a chill, fever, and diarrhea. Was very sick all afternoon and night." (July 22, 1849)

Near Lassen’s Cut-Off, present-day Nevada: “The early morning was cold, and while I was herding, the frost made my hands ache. But the day as usual will be hot. This valley of cold nights and hot days will soon be among ‘the things that were’ with us, as today is our last day’s travel in it. We expect to come to the forks of the road today, when we shall make our debut for the mountains. It will be a hard tramp, but let it come, the sooner the better." (September 19, 1849)

On the Black Rock Desert: “On this night’s route [across the Black Rock Desert] a destruction of property beyond my conception lined the road. Wagons and carts were scattered on all sides, and the stench of the dead and decaying cattle actually rendered the air sickening. Some idea can be drawn from the fact that in one spot could be seen 150 dead creatures." (September 23, 1849)

Near Mount Lassen, in California: “The storm increased as the day advanced. The clouds were dark and lowering on the mountaintops. The snow descended as it descends only in a mountainous region, and the thick foliage of the dark, mammoth firs and pines was loaded and bowed with snowy crescents rising one above another, as limb succeeded limb, to the tops of those magnificent spires, among which the driving clouds frequently mingled." (November 6, 1849).

On the South Fork of the Feather River in California: “We arrived at Lawson’s Ranch on the 8th day of November…. We rested three days and put out for the Feather River mines…. We judged the South Fork of the Feather River to be the most likely to yield a pile another summer, for the following reasons: the main part of the Feather River and all the southern rivers have been overrun and consequently the best and richest placers found and worked. The South Fork of the Feather River was reported to be rich, and the gold on it coarse and not much worked…. If there is no gold, we shall be off to another place, for there is an abundance of gold here, and if we are blessed with health, we are determined to have a share of it. We found the most extraordinary state of morals in the mines. Everything in this country is left where the owner wished to leave it, in any place no matter where, as such a thing as stealing is not known." (January 6, 1850).

On the South Fork of the Feather River in California: “The ‘redskin’ who four months ago roamed in his nakedness, the undisputed lord of the mountains and valleys, may now be seen on the hilltops gazing with surprise upon the scenes below — the habitations, the deep-dug channels and the dams built. The sound of the laborer’s ax, shovel, pick and pan are sounds new to his ear, and the sight one to which his eye had never been accustomed. The natives of these mountains are wild, live in small huts made of brush and go naked as when they are born. They subsist on acorns and what game they kill with their bows and arrows. They are small in stature, and their character is timid and imbecile. When they visit the camps of the miners, they evince the most timid and friendly nature. They are charged with killing miners occasionally when they find one alone, away among the hills hunting. The miners, especially the Oregon men, are sometimes guilty of the most brutal acts with the Indians, such as killing the squaws and papooses. Such incidents have fallen under my notice that would make humanity weep and men disown their race." (January 16, 1849)

On the South Fork of the Feather River in California: “Last fall I was proud of the miners as a body, both for their honesty and their sobriety, but the rapidity with which they have retrograded only proves more clearly the necessity of religious restraint and the great influence of well-organized and moral society. Drinking has become very prevalent, swearing a habitual custom, and gambling has no equal in the annals of history." (March 17, 1850)

On the South Fork of the Feather River in California: “Thousands who one month ago felt certain that their chances were sure for a fortune are at this time without money or any chance of any and hundreds of dollars in debt. Certainly such a turn of fortune is enough to sicken the heart of any man … I have been at work in company with Henry Hill on the Kanaka Bar and have done middling well, making some $200." (August 12, 1850)

In San Francisco: “I have made up my mind that I have got enough of California and am coming home as fast as I can." (November 6, 1850).

Song possibly heard by Swain (a member of his party wrote about it), sung to the tune of “O, Susannah, Don’t You Cry":

We’re sons of gallant fathers, boys And mothers kind and true, Who whispered as they wrung our hands “God bless and be with you." Wives, scores of sympathizing friends, Who wish us hearty speed, Besides the world to back us, if Our steps to fortune lead. Chorus: Oh California! Thou land of glittering dreams, Where the yellow dust and diamonds, boys, Are found in all they streams! And all of us — have we not left Our best of life for this? But cheer we up! We will return Laden with gold and bliss! Then saddle our mules! Away we go With hopes by fancy led, To where the Sacramento flows Over its glittering bed!