On the Water

Van Valen’s Gold Rush Journey

Introduction

The gold rush drew wealth-seekers from around the world. More than a third came by sea.

Glittering rumors of gold for the taking spread from California around the globe beginning in 1848. Tens of thousands of people left homes and families to chase the dream of quick riches. For most of the world, the ocean was the only way to reach California. For Americans, it was the fastest way. In 1849 alone, 42,000 Americans headed west over land; 25,000 took to the waves.

A Gold Rush Journal

This journal was written and illustrated by Alexander Van Valen of New York, who set sail in January 1849 to join the California gold rush. He and four partners had formed a company to dig gold, financed by two other New Yorkers. Leaving behind his wife Susan and four daughters, Van Valen planned to be gone for two years.

The group booked passage on the bark Hersilia, which reached San Francisco later that year. Van Valen’s experience was typical of many East Coast adventurers. But his account of the voyage and his observations of San Francisco and mining operations are remarkable in their detail.

Follow Alexander Van Valen’s journey and discover the stories of people who experienced the gold rush (and its effects) first hand.