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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Adventures on the Isthmus of Panama

December 09. 2013 10:00PM

An engraving of John B. Clarke, circa 1870. MANCHESTER HISTORIC ASSOCIATION

In 1848 John B. Clarke was a 28-year-old attorney in Manchester. When he learned the thrilling news that gold had been discovered in California he joined up with 40 other local men who had decided to try their luck in the gold fields.

Since last week's Looking Back article was published, documents were discovered in the archives of the Manchester Historic Association that shed more light on the group's trip to the West. Today's installment contains a few corrections to the previous article.

It took a great deal of money for a man to travel from New England to California in 1849, and then to outfit himself with the required gear for prospecting. Only men of means could afford to make the trip, so many of the "gold rushers" were older than a person would expect from today's perspective. The Manchester group was made up of tradesmen and professionals, including gunsmiths, lawyers, a banker, a constable, and a medical doctor. The oldest traveler was likely 57-year-old Daniel Haines, the Deacon of the First Freewill Baptist Church in Manchester. He was originally from Deerfield, New Hampshire, where he had been a justice of the peace and a selectman.

The Manchester contingent departed from Boston on February 2, 1849, aboard the ship Corsair. They arrived at Portobello on the Isthmus of Panama on February 23, and landed in Chagres harbor the next day. The group had decided against taking the sea route around the tip of South America, which would have taken five to eight arduous months. Instead, they made their way to the Pacific coast of the Isthmus, about 40 miles away.

To start the journey, the group boarded the steamboat Oris and headed up the Chagres River. When the water became too shallow, they took small boats to a place called Gorgona, arriving on February 28. Here they pitched their tents and camped out for two weeks until they were able to arrange for overland travel through the steamy, mosquito-filled jungle. They finally arrived on the Pacific coast at Panama (now Panama City) on March 22.

John Clarke wrote to his mother on March 23. A steamship captain had agreed to take his and several bushels of other letters across the Isthmus to Chagres where his ship, the Northerner, was anchored. His ship was bound for New York, where the mail would be forwarded on. The cost for a letter was $.75, with an additional $.06 cents for the forwarding. John thought the captain's scheme to make money by carrying mail back to the U.S. "Quite a speculation."

No one was allowed to pitch a tent within the city walls. John wrote that he, "…with a few friends hired a room costing us about a dime a day & board (fed) ourselves." The city was crowded with desperate would-be travelers. Around 300 people held tickets on the overdue steamer California, and were anxious for its arrival, plus at least 800 people were stranded without tickets. Passage to California cost at least $200, a large sum of money in those days. Speculators were snapping up tickets and selling them for as high as $1,200 each. The American consul was accused of inflating prices, and pocketed some of the money. Some would-be gold seekers returned home, despondent.

On March 23 John wrote, "Now I have never been the least discouraged. I expected when I first came that not many vessels would be in before the first of April. I had determined to go in the first ship bound for San Francisco even if it cost $200. True I have but $170.00 all told — and I never should have had that if I had not speculated some. But I calculated to raise $30 or $40 on the various things in my trunk."

The weeks passed, and the Manchester men remained marooned. Their living expenses were weighing them down, and they needed to find a way out. John Clarke came to the rescue when he partnered with Mr. Chenery of Maine who was traveling with a group of 20 men. Together they collected enough money from fellow travelers to buy their own ship, the brig Copiapo.


Next Week: A Valley Cemetery Story — The Copiapo arrives in California..

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at

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