Zachary Taylor (1849 to 1850): The Rush to California

Once a year, the sergeant at arms in the U.S. House of Representatives introduces its guest of honor with the legendary phrase, “Mr. [or Madam] Speaker, the president of the United States.” The president then strides through a sea of applause, vigorously shakes hands with members of Congress, and reports on the state of the union. In the 19th century, the presidents’ updates to Congress lacked pomp and ceremony; they simply sent over an annual message in writing.

As Zachary Taylor prepared his annual message to Congress in December 1849, he was considering transportation improvements that would connect California with the rest of the country. That is not surprising since he was a war hero during the Mexican-American War. As part of the 1848 treaty that ended the war, the U.S. took control of California along with Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico.

There was another reason President Taylor was thinking about California — the discovery of gold nearly two years earlier at Sutter’s Mill, approximately 50 miles east of present-day Sacramento. A gold rush was underway, unleashing the largest migration in U.S. history, up to that time.

Over the next several years, more than 300,000 people made the treacherous journey to seek their fortunes. The most expensive and arguably the safest mode, was sailing around the southernmost coast of South America, approximately 13,000 miles from New York to San Francisco. The trip took between four and eight months and travelers had to overcome high waves, gusty winds, and frigid temperatures.

Advertisement for one-way trip from New York to California

Another option was sailing to the Isthmus of Panama, the narrow strip of land that lies between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, and links North and South America. Crossing the isthmus via a combination of mule, horse, and canoe cut up to 8,000 miles of ocean travel and a few months from the trip. Although this was the fastest route, thousands were sickened and many died of malaria, yellow fever, and cholera in the mosquito-infested jungles.

The third and least expensive way, was by land along the Oregon-California Trail. Travelers’ belongings were pulled by oxen or mules (horses were rarely used because they lacked the strength and endurance to pull a wagon thousands of miles.) Although many travelers were afraid of getting attacked by native Americans along the trail, they were more likely to die from cholera or diphtheria.

The Oregon-California Trail spanned 2,400 miles (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

The route of the California Trail passes through ten States and spans 2,400 miles

The discovery of gold fueled grand aspirations by prospectors, industrious Americans, as well as the occupant of the White House. President Taylor told Congress in December 1840, “The extension of the coast of the United States on the Pacific and the unexampled rapidity with which the inhabitants of California especially are increasing in numbers have imparted new consequence to our relations with the other countries whose territories border upon that ocean.”

The president noted “the great mineral wealth of California and the advantages which its ports and harbors and those of Oregon afford to commerce, especially with the islands of the Pacific and Indian oceans and the populous regions of eastern Asia, make it certain that there will arise in a few years large and prosperous communities on our western coast.”

The president’s predictions proved accurate. The population of San Francisco grew from fewer than 1,000 before the Gold Rush to nearly 150,000 twenty years later. Likewise, eight times as many people lived in Oregon two decades after Taylor’s 1850 inauguration. San Francisco became an international trading hub along with Hong Kong because travel time between those two cities was faster than between America’s east and west coasts.

Taylor encouraged new connections from coast to coast. “It is our policy,” he said, “to encourage every practicable route across the isthmus which connects North and South America, either by railroad or canal, which the energy and enterprise of our citizens may induce them to complete.”

In his address to Congress, he referred to two recent conventions that were held in St. Louis and Memphis, where businesses and citizens promoted building railroads to the Pacific. Taylor then said that a transcontinental railroad would be “a work of great national importance and of a value to the country,” but he understood it would be an “undertaking of vast magnitude and expense, and one which must, if it be indeed practicable, encounter many difficulties in its construction and use.” Before determining whether the federal government should help fund it, he recommended “as a preliminary measure a careful reconnaissance of the several proposed routes by a scientific corps and a report as to the practicability of making such a road, with an estimate of the cost of its construction and support.”

The rush for gold created economic incentives for transportation entrepreneurs. Shipbuilders designed and built ships for speed at the expense of cargo-carrying ability. One famous clipper ship, the Flying Cloud, set a record in the 1850s for an 89-day run from New York to San Francisco, a time that was not beaten for 135 years. In California, new roads, wharves, and bridges were constructed along with new ferries, shipyards, foundries, and factories.

In 1849, Taylor expressed his support for granting California statehood, whose new constitution prohibited slavery. The southerners in Congress, however, feared that adding new representatives from California (and New Mexico) would tip power in Congress toward the free states. When southern leaders broached the topic of secession, he said he would hang anyone who rebelled against the union “with less reluctance than he had hanged deserters and spies in Mexico.”

Taylor did not live long enough to see the Panama Railroad or the Panama Canal open, or California become a state. He was sworn in as president in March 1849 and he died in July 1850 after suffering five days of acute stomach pains. His body traveled by railroad to Pittsburgh and then along the Ohio River aboard a steamboat to his final resting place, underground in Louisville, Kentucky. After his death, another form of travel began to flourish, a secret escape route for slaves that that was neither “underground” nor a “railroad.”

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