In Search of Gold
by Terry Hogan
The gold rush of 1849 that gave us the legends of the "49ers" was the opportunity for the poor to become rich. It was a "get rich quick" opportunity, not unlike the more recent high tech stock frenzy. Such opportunities typically make the early-in folks rich and the late-in folks even poorer. The search for gold in California actually began before 1849 and lasted well beyond it. These "49ers” had plans to get rich quick and come back home as rich gentlemen. Little is said about where these folks came from. Some were long-time Americans. Some were relatively fresh off the boat. A few were even from Bishop Hill, sent by the religious colony to try to get a quick infusion of badly needed cash. Each carried his own story, his own dream of what the gold riches would make of his life.
Some came from Galesburg, Knoxville, and the surrounding cities, towns, and farms. A few made it rich; most did not. Some could not find claims of their own and ended up working for very high wages for others. Many made good wages in California but found that a high cost of living took it right away. The news of easy gold and easy money (often inflated) was not limited to America. Even Sweden got word of wealth beyond imagination, waiting only for a little hard work and a little luck. Expeditions of hopeful Swedes left Stockholm and Halsingborg for California. Swedish newspapers, like Lamar's Posten, carried stories of wealth beyond dreams - two farmers who "…left Sweden three years ago for California and have returned with pure gold to the value of ten thousand crowns." (Hokanson, 1942).
Some Swedes started for California from Illinois. A Swedish minister, Victor Witting, left Illinois in 1848 with 11 Swedish men, bound for California. They took mules, oxen, wagons and food and headed to California by land. They spent several years in California, without success.
Bishop Hill had two groups leave for California. The first group of eight followers left in 1848. They settled in Hanktown and consisted of Jonas Olson, P. O. Blomberg, P. M. Blom, Peter Jansson, E. O. Lind, C. M. Myrtengren, Sven Norlin and Lars Stohlberg. They had no luck with gold and returned without bringing financial relief to Bishop Hill. A second group had left Bishop Hill in 1849 for California. This group established itself at Placerville, California, near Sacramento. It also failed to find riches and most of them returned to Illinois in 1850. While they were trying their luck for gold, their leader Eric Jansson's luck had run out, as he was shot and killed. Jonas Olson left California earlier than the rest of his group to return to Bishop Hill, upon learning of Jansson's death. The gold for Bishop Hill did not materialize. The religious colony fell on hard times. Its stacks of sheets of unsigned Bishop Hill currency, issued by the Western Exchange Bank of Omaha, became worthless with the demise of this "wildcat bank" that became infamous for issuing currency without assets.
Victoria (Illinois) also had its own Swedish representation seeking wealth in California. Jonas Hellstrom and Charles Petterson left Victoria in 1850 to find riches. Their success is not recorded, so one is forced to draw his own conclusions. Knoxville found at least two of its own Swedes heading west - Daniel Ackerson and Erik Quick, who left in 1859. They must have wanted to think things over. Like any good Swede, they probably didn't want to make a rash decision. (They didn't want to be mistaken for those rascal Norwegians!)
Two brothers from Kewanee left for California in 1857. They had little success in California. But they went next to British Columbia. They were successful. They returned to Sweden with nearly one hundred thousand crowns.
Because of the wealth found by some miners, it was necessary to pay high wages to entice men to work as labors rather than trying to strike it rich on their own. However, high wages and scant manufactured goods in California meant high costs. Miners made outstanding wages, in the range of $12 to $16 per day. But they had to pay a dollar apiece for potatoes, eggs, and onions. An ax cost eight dollars. A pair of shoes would set back a gold digger a princely sum of $16. Thus, a laborer's pay didn't spend a lot of time in his pocket.
Bad luck came in many forms, if only fleeting. One of the early Swedish miners found success in searching for gold nuggets. He carefully hid his stash of gold nuggets in a bag that he concealed by hanging it high in a tree. He returned to find that squirrels had gnawed into the bag. His gold was scattered across the ground.
Perhaps some were driven to seek gold in an effort to compensate for hard times and personal tragedies incurred traveling to America from Sweden. For example, Jonas Anderson was a farmer from Abyggeby in Hille Parish, Sweden. He left Sweden with his family on the Cobden in 1849. They sailed from the eastern Swedish seaport town of Gavle. They arrived in New York Harbor on September 23, 1849. The family headed for Andover, Illinois. His wife's name was Christina Ersdotter. A son, Anders Andersson, age 11, died of cholera in Chicago while the family was in route to Andover. A daughter, Helena Andersson, only 5 months old, died of cholera soon after they arrived in Andover. Two other sons, Erik and Jonas, and a daughter, Stina, survived the trip. The next year (1850), Jonas Anderson left his family for the gold fields of California. He returned east in 1851. By 1860, he and his sons were living in Colorado. His wife must have stayed behind. She died in Andover in 1917. Apparently, Jonas did not find a change in luck in California.
All in all, few of the gold seekers from Illinois returned with great wealth. Some found death along the way, or in California. Many found limited wealth that was consumed in the high costs of daily living in California. Many found disappointment and were forced to return home as poor or poorer than they had left. A notable few were successful and made the gold rush famous.
As is often the case, whether it is gold, farm land, or land in the cities, it is the "early worm" that finds success. Those who come after, unless very resourceful, find heartache and disappointment.
However some did not return home. They stayed and formed new communities. Often immigrants sought others from their homeland. Thus California found itself settled by little pockets of Swedes who came, dug or panned, failed, but stayed. They contributed a little Swedish culture and Swedish genes to the California melting pot that was, like Illinois, not made of gold.
Hokanson, Nels. 1942. Swedish Immigration in Lincoln's Time. Harper & Brothers. New York and London.
Olsson, Nils William. 1967. Swedish Passenger Arrivals in New York 1820-1850. Swedish Pioneer Historical Society. Chicago, Illinois.