In May, Samuel Brannan, a storekeeper at Sutter's Fort and the publisher of a newspaper, The California Star stirs up excitement about gold by running up and down the streets of San Francisco shouting "Gold! Gold! Gold! From the American River". He sells 2000 copies of a special edition of The California Star.
It takes until August of 1848, for the New York Herald to publish a story about the discovery of gold. Interestingly, it's also not until August that the end of the Mexican war and acquisition of California from Mexico, is reported. News was clearly slower then!
By October, the steamship California, the premiere ship of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, left New York for California. Gold seekers don't ship out of New York for California until November of 1848.
On April 1, 1849, the steamship California arrives with the first mail. By this time Sutter's Mill has attracted crowds of Chilean, Mexican and Peruvian immigrant gold seekers who are periodically driven away by vigilantes. Also in April 1849, the first wagon trains depart Missouri and Iowa for California.
In May the sailing ship Grey Eagle with 34 passengers arrives after a 113 day journey around the Horn. By June, The Pacific Mail Steamship Company has set up runs from the west coast of Panama to San Francisco.
By June 1849, the three major routes for American gold seekers are established. Those with little money bought a wagon and supplies, joined a wagon train and made an arduous five month overland journey. At the end of the trip they could recoup some of their investment by reselling the wagon and any remaining oxen. Folks with lots of money and an appetite for risk took steamships or clippers from New York to Panama and crossed the isthmus overland picking up another ship on the west coast for the final leg to San Francisco. This was the fastest route but the land portion was a pretty miserable journey with significant disease risks.
In the middle of the economic and risk spectrum were those who booked passage on the clipper ships, the great transportation sensation of their day.
A Brief History of Clipper Ships
John Lienhard of the public radio show "The Engines of Our Ingenuity" says "clipper ships were not a specific design; they were a state of mind. And that state of mind lasted only a decade." Until 1845, capacity was more important than speed for the movement of cargo by ship. Ships had high capacity and low speed. Two factors, the development of San Francisco as a profitable port (even before the discovery of gold) and the tea trade stood this balance on its head.
In America, clippers were first notable for their ability to run blockades during the War of 1812 although the first "clipper" in the U.S. was the Baltimore Clipper, a topsail schooner built before the American Revolution.
Clippers were built for high-value seasonal trades in tea and spices and for relatively fast passenger transport. Speed competition amongst clippers was highly newsworthy. The trade cards shown on WESTPEX's souvenirs for 2008 represented the first significant use of color in American advertising.
Although clippers provided significant transport to the gold rush the color trade cards actually came several years later when the demand for clipper transportation had fallen off. During the height of the gold rush, handbills and notices in the newspaper were sufficient to fill the ships.
The decline of the clippers came with the Panic of 1857 and the gradual introduction of the steamship. While clippers were faster than the early steamships, they depended on unpredictable winds and weather so the steamships were more reliable..