Perkins, Elisha Douglass

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Perkins, Elisha Douglass

Excerpt from Gold Rush Diary: Being the Journal of Elisha Douglass Perkins on the Overland Trail in the Spring and Summer of 1849

Written between May 1849 and February 1850

Published in 1967

Edited by Thomas D. Clark

In 1848 the discovery of gold in California created a wave of excitement across America. The news of gold in California spread through the United States like wildfire, and the migration to California increased. The New York Herald reported that "the great discovery of gold has thrown the American people in a state of the wildest excitement. Gold can be scooped up in pans at the rate of a pound of pure dust a scoop. 'Ho! For California' is the cry everywhere." Similar announcements appeared in newspapers across the country.

By the summer of 1848 other westerners—Hawaiians, Oregonians, Mexicans, and Latin Americans—caught wind of the discovery and set out for California. Late in 1848 the Oregon Spectator reported that "Almost the entire male population has gone gold digging in California." In July 1848, the number of gold seekers stood at two thousand; by October there were five thousand; and by year's end they numbered eight thousand. Yet there were more to come. Many of the first Californians to reach the gold mines—known as the '48ers—wrote letters to eastern relatives. These letters, filled with boasts of vast treasure troves, were often dismissed as rumors. The rumors were first confirmed in July when copies of Sam Brannan's special edition of the California Star reached Missouri. Other papers reprinted the story, creating a buzz in many cities throughout the eastern states. Still, many refused to believe the stories until they received some official confirmation. That confirmation came on December 5, 1848, when President James K. Polk told Congress that "the accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by authentic reports of officers in the public service." Polk's message left no room for doubt: there was gold in California.

Many people succumbed to the desire to "strike it rich" and set off over land or sea to California. One such person was Elisha Douglass Perkins. His diary tells of experiences that were typical for many people who braved the overland trails in search of gold. Perkins conveys the excitement of the time and the strong sense of boundless possibilities, but he also describes the reality of his situation with vivid detail.

The Marietta Gold Hunters

Perkins was intrigued by the prospect of earning his fortune in the gold mines of California. To fuel his interest, he read the first edition of Edwin Bryant's What I Saw in California, the best-selling account of John C. Frémont's western explorations, and a couple of the popular guidebooks to the overland trail. The possibilities seemed worth the risk. With five other men, Perkins soon formed the "Marietta Gold Hunters." By May 8, 1849, the Marietta Gold Hunters had assembled two wagons full of supplies and departed for St. Louis, where they transferred to the Missouri River steamer Highland Mary II and continued on to St. Joseph, the main point of departure for the overland trails. In St. Joseph they purchased mules and horses to make the trip. As he had done on his previous journeys, Perkins recorded his daily travels. His diary provides an accurate picture of the conditions of overland travel and the excitement of the time.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Gold Rush Diary:

  • Perkins was one of many diarists who recorded their experiences on the overland trail. The accuracy of his account has been verified against other diaries. J. Elza Armstrong, John Banks, J. Goldsborough Bruff, David DeWolfe, Elijah Farnham, and Charles Glass Gray were among the diarists traveling a day ahead or a few days behind Perkins, who recorded similar experiences. Taken as a whole these accounts paint a vivid picture of the way the gold rush experience shaped lives.
  • Two of Perkins's traveling companions, Samuel E. Cross and Zebulon Chesebro, crossed the trail in eighty-five days—almost record time—by following Edwin Bryant's advice to limit their supplies to the bare necessities and move along the trail quickly.
  • Throughout the diary Perkins misspells words that can be understood if sounded out.

Excerpt from Gold Rush Diary

May 9–May 21, 1849.... Having decided upon undertaking a journey across the Plains by way of the South Pass of the Rocky Mtns. to the far famed valley of the Sacramento, I left my pleasant home & dear friends in Marietta, Ohio—on steamboat DeWitt Clinton—Wed. May 9, 1849, in company with five good fellows. S.E. Cross, Z.L. Chesebro, Jos. L. Stephens, J.L. Huntington & J.Q.A. Cunningham. Our trip down the Ohio & up to St. Louis was without incident worthy of record. The scenery of these rivers has been over & over again described every one has heard of their rapidly growing cities & towns. In St. Louis we met with an abundance of that scourge of the world thecholera, but were ourselves preserved from any personal acquaintance with it....

At Jefferson City we saw a most melancholy monument of the ravages of the cholera in the steamer Monroe. This vessel left St. Louis last week with about 100 cabin passengers & 50deck, all well, at the mouth of the Missouri the Cabin passengers began to beattacked & before reaching Jefferson City 150 miles—70 of them died; at the city the boat was deserted & all fled for their lives. Of the 100 passengers only three are now living & well!...

Tuesday May 29. Struck our tent this morning and packed it with the saddles&c, on our pack mules, harnessed up our team & by 12 oclock were ready to move. Doct Riggs not being ready we waited for him till 8 when we finallybid adieu toSt. Joe & took up our line of march for the far distant gold region. Day hot & pleasant, Wind West.


Cholera: An infectious disease of the small intestine that is characterized by profuse watery diarrhea, vomiting, muscle cramps, and severe dehydration.


Deck: Passengers who rode on the deck throughout the journey.


Attacked: Came down with cholera.


&c: Etc.

Bid adieu

Bid adieu: Said goodbye.

St. Joe

St. Joe: St. Joseph, Missouri.


Flattering: Encouraging.

Our commencement was not veryflattering. We had hardly gone 1 mile when we came to a little hill, but very steep almost perpendicular, & there gave it two fair trials our mules could get only half way up when they would give in & commence backing down. There was no way but to unload so at it we went & after getting one wagon up the hill packed our goods up on our backs & loaded again. Twas about the hardest days work I ever did & gave us a veryfair insight into our future. Out of this scrape we went on without trouble to the ferry, four miles where we arrived about sundown & finding we could not get acrossed camped....

Elisha Douglass Perkins

Born on March 23, 1823, Perkins traveled a great deal as a youth as his father pursued various trades. Ultimately the family settled in Marietta, Ohio, where Perkins's father opened a drugstore. Since his father was a member of the professional class, the young Perkins had the luxury of attending an academy to prepare for college. He first studied in the Farmington Academy in Connecticut, but he found the winters too harsh and damaging to his health. He left school after three years to recover his health in Illinois. After his recovery, Perkins joined his family in Ohio and went back to school. He worked with his father in the drugstore and even invented an alcohol-fired steam engine that turned mixers and pounders. On May 11, 1847, Perkins married Harriett Eliza Hildreth.

His father's drugstore proved too small to support Perkins, his wife, and soon-to-be-born baby, so Perkins struggled to find a suitable career. In 1848 he traveled to New Orleans and Florida in hopes of finding a good place to set up his own drugstore, but he returned discouraged. Shortly after his return, however, the Marietta Intelligencer reported the discovery of gold in California and the opportunities in the western territory. Soon people were discussing the possibilities of digging fortunes out of the hills in California. By February, the yearning for gold and the belief that it was really available inspired several Ohioans to form gold-hunting companies to organize and prepare for the overland journey to the gold fields.

Friday June 1. Morning clear & pleasant. Woke up feeling very dizzy & weak & on attempting to rise was very sick at my stomach. Sent for Doct Riggs who said I must take somecalomel & morphine & left some powders. Had a bed made up in the wagon & all being ready was helped into it & we started at 8 oclock. As we left it clouded up & a drizzling rain fell which continued at intervalsthro the day. The jolting of the heavy wagon did me no good & my sickness increased, but I said nothing & took my powders every two hours.... In afternoon owing to some bad & dangerous places in the road was obliged to get out & crawl along myself for a short distance.


Calomel: A white or brown compound used to evacuate the bowels.


Thro: Misspelling of through.

....Distance today 20 miles. Here we first saw wild Indians, a small portion of the Sacs being in the vicinity, who came galloping round us,& with their fine horses & red blankets made quite an imposing & military appearance. They dismounted & threw themselves flat on the ground to watch our proceedings, leaving their horses to graze at their pleasure. In general they were a fine looking set of men & rather exceeded any previously formed opinion of the tribe of Black Hawk the Prophet. The mission at his place have some 30 to 40 Indian youth whom they are educating & some of our boys went up & took supper with them. They represented them as being very orderly & well behaved & at the supper table everything was like clock work....

Met today two or three returning Emigrants on horseback & they undertook to deposit our letters at St. Jos. for which we were very grateful. Said they turned back because they wanted to, a reason which there is no arguing against.

Wednesday July 11. Morn clear & warm, breeze East. Wind has changed at last & the disagreeable west wind, raising such clouds of dust has left us. I hope never to return....

When we left the frontier we were told great stories about the selfishness & want of feeling among the Emigrants that the hardships and uncertainties of the journey had soured what "milk of human kindness" they might have possessed. I wish to bear my testimony against this slander. Never have I seen so much hospitality & good feeling anywhere exhibited as since I have been on this route. Let any stranger visit a camp no matter who or where, & the best of everything is brought out, he is fed, &caressed almost universally. If at meal time the best pieces are put on his plate & if the train has any luxuries they are placed before him. Nor have I seen any man in trouble, deserted, without all the assistance they could render. There are of course individual exceptions to all this, & such men are known to almost every train following. One fellow left an old man on the road without money or provisions. He was picked up &brot along by the next train, & I have not overtaken or fallen in with any companies yet but in course of conversation had something to say about this affair. "They would like to catch the fellow out alone." Some "would give him five hundred lashes." "We damn him Id go in for hanging him up to the first tree" &c....


Caressed: Treated kindly.


Brot: Misspelling of brought.


Sutter's: Sutter's Mill was the first place gold was discovered in California.


Capt: Captain.

Having determined to pack from this place. I have spent this afternoon in making pack saddles arranging provisions &c. I shall take only 90 lbs each of bread & meat, being allowance for 60 days though the mountaineers tell me I might go through in 40. Once started I shall push on with all possible expedition. My cart I turn over to Cross & Co as being far superior to their own....

Monday July 23.... Our reflections on "passing the Pass" are rather of an agreeable nature. We are now considerably more than half-way through our journey, with fine road & grass most of the remainder & down hill. From here toSutter's is something less than 800 miles, & I hope to make it in 30 days....

With most persons the first part of the journey is expected to be very pleasant. They intend to hunt, fish or have plenty of provisions some luxuries & perhaps enjoy themselves much. From now, however, stern perseverance without regard to personal comfort is necessary. Your provisions are reduced to hard crackers & bacon. No more game of consequence to find animals pretty well worn down & yourself considerably tired of your undertaking & you have nothing cheerful to look forward to but the getting through. The temptation is great to find some cool shady place to waste time in listless idleness. Many are so dallying now & most of these with ox teams too, & I am much mistaken if they do not have to pay for their comfort now by spending the winter in the mountains. How many have provisions to keep them in case they are compelled to do so I know not but vast quantities have been thrown away....

Friday August 3.... Counted seventeen dead oxen today. Being out of the alkaline region pretty much, I have neglected keeping account of dead cattle, we however pass usually from 5 to 12 every day. How much further this will continue I cannot tell. Probably however more or less will be seen all the way to California "given out" for some reason or other....

Monday August 27.... A very fair hoax was played off this afternoon opposite our camp by theCapt of the Cherokee train which was some two or three miles back. He had been forward to look for grass & was returning when he met at our camp several trainswhich had stopped for water & was Being dressed in half Indian costumes, with buckskin pants, moccasins &c, & rather dark complexion, he was taken for a French mountaineer, of who there are numbers through this country, & was immediately beset by a crowd of Emigrants anxious to learn the latest news from the "diggings." In answer to their inquiries he told them that he was just from California having left Sutters just three weeks ago yesterday, that Gold was plenty, and one fellow asking him how much a man could dig in a day he replied that "a man not used to very hard work but pretty industrious could easily get 500$ per day," "Ah," says the questioner rubbing his hands with a great deal of satisfaction, "thank God I've been brot up to hard work all my life." After a number more such yarns he left them as he was in a great hurry to reach Green River. To discuss the wealth in prospect & knots of them could be heard for two hours talking over the good news & disputing about what "the mountaineer" said & what he did not say. Everything of course becoming more & more exaggerated the more it was repeated. We happen to know the Capt as we had passed his train & the wholething was exceedingly rich & afforded us great amusement to watch the excited looks & gestures of the eager dupes, & hear their different versions of "the news" to new comers.

Wednesday Sept 12.... At 4 p.m. we emerged from thecanon into what is called the Mist Valley, a beautiful level plain covered with fine grass, some 10 miles across & formed by the widening of the mountain ranges. Through this valley the river winds after leaving the gorge on the other side, its course marked by a line of cotton woods & willows. Soon after entering the valley we took a trail leaving the road to the right & supposing it to be a "cutoff" as the road wound round a belt of marsh which crosses the valley nearby at right angles with the river. We followed this trail around the base of the fills & soon found ourselves going off quite in acontrary direction to the course of the road, & the marsh on our right was entirely uncrossable a perfectquagmire. There was nothing to do but go back some 3 miles or follow the path & see the End of the Adventure & the latter we decided to do, & adventure indeed it nearly proved to us. About 5½ we came upon an Indian fishing nets [sic] of willow twigs being set in the creek which wound through the marsh, & their camping place among the rocks close by having fresh ashes in its fire place, everything indicated their recent presence & gave promise of their speedy return.

This then was our "Cutoff" a trail which the Indians carried their fish to dispose of to trains. It was too late for us to return or better our condition. So we unpacked & picketed our mules in the magnificent & untouched grass which surrounded us & quietly cooked our supper hoping the"Varmints" would not discover us but very apprehensive lest they should. Guns & pistols have received special attention this evening & we have made every preparation to defend ourselves should the Indians resent this inroad upon their domains....

Wednesday Sept 26. Morn clear warm. Wind E. Night warm. Start 8. Met a mile from camp the first of the Government relief parties, & learned that some hundred thousand had been appropriated to be dispensed for the relief of those Emigrants whose late start or loss of cattle renders it doubtful whether they will pass the Nevada before winter. Hundreds of such there are as I know having passed multitudes who must now be 600 miles behind, & other parties will be joyfully hailed on their errand of mercy. Pity but the Government treasures could always be appropriated to a good purpose, in relieving misery instead of causing it.


Canon: Canyon.


Contrary: Opposite.


Quagmire: Soft land that sinks underfoot.


Varmints: Pests; troublesome people; Perkins is referring to Native Americans.

Arrived at Vernon a small town at the junction of Feather & Sacramento Rivers, at 9 a.m. & first beheld the stream whose name& fame are known all over the world & whose golden sands seduced me from all I hold dear into the wilderness. At this place the Sacramento is a clear still beautiful River about 1/4 or 1/3 of a mile across, the banks lined with oaks & various vines & bushes, willows &c. Its valley of the beauty of which we have heard & read so much, is a vast waste plain covered with a scanty wiry grass, with occasional marshes in patches of trees.

Never was there such misrepresentation as about this country, both as to the futility, fertility or capability of cultivation, & richness of the mines, & all that a few men might make fortunes. Among the Emigrants you will hear Bryant, Frémont, Robinson & others whose published accounts were the chief inducement to many to leave their comfortable home, cussed up & down, & loaded with all kinds ofopprobrious names. They have all amassed fortunes off of the Emigration they have induced. This valley presents few attractions to any one who has lived in the states. No beautiful forests, or rich meadows but very few singing birds, Except Owls, & these abound. There are some Elk in the plains & any quantity of wolves, also in the sloughs great numbers of cranes, geese, ducks &c, but every one without exception is disappointed both in the appearance of the country & the richness of vegetable or mineral productions.

We crossed the river at Vernon & a little town opposite called Frémont. I saw just below Frémont a sight cheering to my eyes, in the shape of vessels, schooners &c, which navigate this far up, with various cargoes at enormous prices. I felt as if we were once more within the pale of civilization & our desert journey was indeed at an end. Traveled down the Sacramento & encamped at 4. Distance 16 miles. Day hot, wind S.W.

Thursday Sept 27.... At 4 we turned to the left through the timber & came suddenly upon the banks of the River at the ferry & directly opposite the far-famed & busy Sacramento City, with its vessels & cloth houses & all the scenes & sounds of civilized life, Oh, how rejoiced we were at the prospect! & what a comfort there was in the anticipation of letters to be received & friends met, & many made!


Opprobrious: Scornful, abusive.

Crossed the ferry for which we paid the last 50 cents that could be scraped together, & took our way up the river through the streets, feeling a little awkward in our dirty & ragged prairie costumes, & encamped just in the edge of the city on the American River, under some large sycamores & overhanging vines, & here we are at last, at the end or our long & tedious journey, & having for the last time thrown off our packs & turned our mules out to graze. We laid ourselvesdown in the shade to luxuriate in the glowing thought. No more desert to cross & no more thirst on those deserts, no more getting up at daylight to swallow a cracker & pack up for a tedious days tramp through the heavy sand & in the hot sun. No more fear for the safety of the mules & ourselves & doubts as to our getting through, &c &c. Here we are at last through without a cent in our pockets, but here money can be made & we are in no danger of starvation, however I must see what I can hear of "Doc" [an earlier traveling companion] & whether letters are to be had & try to dispose of "Dav" [his mule] or "make a raise" some way, as our last flour goes into tonights baking....

On review of our journey & its incidents now that it is all over & our sufferings & privations at an end, I would not have it differ in any respect from what it was, we saw everything of frontier traveling that could be seen & struck the life in all its varieties, with wagon, packs & on foot, & the harder the times we had the pleasanter the retrospect, by contrast....

November 1. Well here we are in the gold mines of California, & mining has been tried "& found wanting!" We leftSac. City October 18, with our provisions &c in Chapins wagons en route for the Cosumne River distant some 28 or 30 miles & arrived here the 21. We are about S.E. from the city, in a rolling country & on a small rapid stream tumbling over a rocky bed. The appearance of the country through which we passed was somewhat better than that down the Sac. River, as we saw it, but yet I have not been in any part of the "beautiful valley" of which we used to hear. On locating here we immediately went to work making "washers." Doc & John being somewhat "under the weather" I did nearly all the work on the mine alone. I cut down a pine tree, cut it off the proper length peeled & cut down one side & with axe &adz hollowed it out till I reduced it to about ½ inch in thickness by nearly two days of hard labor & blistering of hands &c, & another day put in the "ripples" dash screen &c & took it down to the rocky bar where we are to commence our fortunes! & since have worked away like a trooper, rain or shine, with but indifferent success.


Sac.: Sacramento.


Adz: A tool used to shape wood.

The first three days Doc took hold with pick & shovel we excavated a hole about 4 feet deep & made in that time about 2.00! Here Doc broke down & was taken sick & John being about recruited he commenced with me in another place & we have made something everyday, the highest 11.00 lowest 3 each. This wont do & we shall probably leave soon for richer diggings next week. Tis terriblehard work, & such a backache as we have every night! We are below the bed of the creek & have to bale out water from our "hole" every hour, & work in the mud & wet at its bottom.

I am pretty well satisfied that fortunes in Cal. as anywhere else, with some exceptions, take time & hard work to get, & I must go home with out mine I'm afraid, as I would hardly lead this kind of life 5 years for any fortune, & I certainly would not be separated from H. [Harriett] that length of time....

Thursday Nov. Still in our camp on the Cosumne & poor as the "diggings" have proved are likely to remain here all winter. The rains have set in in earnest & teams cannot travel. Chapins teams went to town for our provisions & sundries & are stuck fast about 5 miles from here, not able to move a step. I fear we may have difficulty in getting anything to eat. Doc has finally left us for good, & will probably go home in the next steamer, couldn't stand the hard work & went to town last week. His leaving puts the finishing stroke to my list of disappointments "& now I'm all alone." Shall have to give up my expectations of accumulating sufficient to carry me home in the spring & be thankful if I get enough to pay my expenses this winter. Well I'm here & must take the country as I find it....

Saturday Feb 28. Have just returned from an expedition round the richest of the mines of which we have heard to see about our summers digging, & find however that all the rich accounts dwindle down as you approach their location into the success of some few lucky ones & am satisfied by my trip that the gold is pretty equally distributed through the country, & a man had better settle down somewhere & work steadily for what he can get & trust to chance for striking a rich hole.

I went through Weaverton, Hangtown, Georgetown, where the Oregon men did so well & came back by way of Colloma & Sutter's Mill & stopped to see the famous place where the first discovery was made—the news of which had set the American world crazy. The mill stands on the American river, is surrounded by immense & almost perpendicular hills, & the discovery of gold was made in the mill race some hundred or more yards below the mill. The race was dug by Indians employed by Sutter with white superintendants over them. One of the Indians in excavating picked up a lump of something yellow—metallic & heavy which was examined by the superintendant & finally taken to Mrs. Weimar wife of one of the white men. This lady boiled the lump in strong lye for two hours without tarnishing it at all. It was then sent to San Francisco analyzed & examined& pronounced to be fine gold & hence spread the news like wild fire which has filled the wilderness of California with enterprising Yankees.

The spring seems to have at last set in with beautiful weather & we are beginning to think of moving & shall probably move over into Matheney's Creek next week. We have had two heavy falls of snow since December & the tops of the high hills are still covered. One snow fell over two feet deep.

From the top of a peak ½ of a mile back of our cabin can be seen the Sierra Nevada range, white as snow itself, completely covered, shrubbery & all, distant from 30 to 50 miles East. While westward can be seen the valley of the Sacramento, with its boundary ranges of Cascade Mountains on the Pacific & the bay & entrance to San Francisco distant about 140 miles & the eye can follow the valley N.W. up some 200 miles. The view is Extensive & magnificent. During the late pleasant weather John & myself have been working in some of the little ravines & have made something over 100 dollars—better than nothing, though small wages. —End— [Clark, pp. 2, 12, 16–17, 60–2, 74–5, 87, 109–10, 124–5, 138–9, 142, 147–9, 150, 153–4]

What happened next . . .

Elisha Douglass Perkins's life was filled with failure. California was not the land of opportunity he had hoped for when he read about it in Ohio. In the end, Perkins found no fortune in gold. His trek across the country left him mourning the death of his traveling companions and regretting his inability to support his faithful wife. Disillusioned by his mining efforts, he quit looking for gold in 1850 and became the captain of a steamer, only to contract dysentery and to die virtually penniless in 1852. Though Elisha Douglass Perkins never made an important contribution to the development of the West, his faithful journal entries provide us with one of the clearest pictures of the trials and tribulations experienced by many of the overland travelers seeking their fortunes in gold.

Did you know . . .

  • People from more than seventy countries rushed to California in search of gold.
  • Cholera claimed the lives of thousands who attempted to cross the overland trails. It could sometimes kill people in a matter of hours.
  • Once people gathered the easy-to-find gold, many stayed in California to farm or engage in other industry for a living.
  • Big mining companies continued to search for gold with sophisticated equipment after individual prospectors gave up.

Consider the following . . .

  • Is Perkins an especially optimistic person?
  • How does Perkins deal with difficulties on the trail?
  • What cheers Perkins or gives him relief?
  • How does Perkins feel about his peers?

For More Information

Altman, Linda Jacobs. The California Gold Rush in American History. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1997.

Clark, Thomas D., ed. Gold Rush Diary: Being the Journal of Elisha Douglass Perkins on the Overland Trail in the Spring and Summer of 1849. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1967.

Van Steenwyk, Elizabeth. The California Gold Rush: West with the Forty-Niners. New York: Franklin Watts, 1991.