In 1848, James Marshall, a wheelwright in the employ of John Sutter, discovered gold at Sutter Mill on the American River in California. The news spread like wildfire across the land. Competition was intense between cities vying to outfit the pioneers. Because the trip from St. Joseph west involved fording fewer rivers and streams, the city became the most used point of departure, the jumping off place.
Searching For Gold
Immigrants were outfitted with wagons, oxen, food stuffs, and other provisions for the long journey. Wagon trains were lined up for miles on Francis Street waiting their turn to be ferried across the Missouri River. The trip to California was about 2,000 miles and took four to five months. Many hardships were encountered along the way and, of those who made it, few of them actually struck gold.
The forty-niners who passed through here, traveling to that vast area known as the Great American West, were part of the most massive migration of people that the world has ever known. It took only twenty years to settle the vast west, not two hundred as some had predicted.
Most who made the journey were disappointed in their lust for gold, and didn't realize that the land over which they had traveled would ultimately produce more wealth than all the gold pulled out of those California hills. Many great fortunes were made in St. Joseph from the lucrative business of outfitting the pioneers with the items necessary for the journey west.
The quest for gold abated somewhat until the 1850s when Colorado became the destination for precious metals, gold and silver. Pike's Peak or bust was the rallying cry for another migration of wagon trains heading west. St. Joseph was again a player in the arena of westward migration.