When Illinois Residents Moved West During California Gold Rush

Remember that old computer game, the Oregon Trail? This was the game that introduced many of us (if we’re old enough to remember it) to the perils of the wilderness before paved roads. Although the trail itself ran from Missouri to Oregon, not everyone hopped on at exactly the same point. People arrived at the closest possible point from anywhere in the United States, hoping to find better. And life hadn’t changed much when the California Gold Rush occurred. The journey west was always fraught with dangers most people didn’t expect.

Holcomb Valley was home to the largest rush of new settlers during this period — but modern day residents will know it as part of the San Bernardino National Forest. People from all around the country left the life they knew for the unknown in hopes of making it big mining for gold. Exceedingly few were successful. And Illinois residents are as likely as anyone to make the trip.

Why was the trip so dangerous? Maybe it wasn’t as dangerous as you expect: only one in ten died making the trip on the Oregon Trail. The push west to California was similar.

Well, you can start by imagining a time without common preventative measures like vaccines, water filters, or seat belts. These people didn’t have bear spray to ward away dangerous animals. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Those who perished on the journey died mostly of illness: dysentery, smallpox, flu, or cholera. They did their best to prevent others from falling for the same reason. When there was an outbreak among a particular group of travelers, they would leave messages behind for those who arrived later. This was especially important when the danger was external, such as hostile Native Americans. 

One common problem? When a wagon wheel surrendered to the pressures of the trail, the break would be sudden and violent. Usually, drivers and passengers would be ejected from the vehicle and deposited on the ground — sometimes with broken bones. Without a doctor to properly set the bone or a cast to help it heal, even these common injuries could be fatal. Many travelers were crushed by wagons for lack of paying attention or when trying to change one of the aforementioned broken wheels. 

In earlier times, there were no bridges to make river crossings safer. Many travelers were likely to drown (not everyone knew how to swim back in the day). 

There were also very few towns along the way. Mostly, the journey west was open wilderness. This is how the image of the American outlaw and cowboy became fully realized. Looking for the law? You wouldn’t find it out there. You were on your own when the shooting started or the bandits came. Because these dangers were so common and expected, everyone owned a firearm. Another common cause of death? Accidental discharge (of the gun variety). 

As time wore on, the journey became easier. Bridges were built. Towns sprung up over months and years, providing travelers with places to rest and relax or resupply.

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