Sierra history: The Gold Rush winter of 1850 (part 2) |

Sierra history: The Gold Rush winter of 1850 (part 2)

Heavy rain flooded the Sacramento Valley, putting lives at risk and men out of work. This illustration was published in 1863.
Courtesy Harper’s Weekly |

Editor’s note

This is the second in a two-part series. Click here to read Part 1.

TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — The first big wave of Gold Rush Argonauts swarmed into California via ship or overland trails in 1849. Besides the stories of instant wealth, many forty-niners had also heard or read about California’s gentle, healthful Mediterranean climate.

“Health and wealth for all!” went a popular slogan of the era. Unfortunately for the miners and everyone else whose personal economics relied solely on the gold industry, soaking storms in November and December 1849 washed away most of the flumes that were used to facilitate gold production.

Heavy rain quickly filled streams and riverbeds and soon put men out of work. Some found luck in the dry diggings away from the swollen watercourses, but roads of mud made travel difficult. Others headed for San Francisco to wait out the winter.

The early storms were also a problem for forty-niners crossing the Northern Sierra that year. By 1849, everyone using Donner Pass or the nearby alternatives had been warned about reaching the mountains too late.

When T.H. Jefferson published his California Trail map in early 1849, he advised pioneers who arrived late and found snow on Donner Pass should return back to the desert (future site of Reno).

He warned, “The most difficult portion of the whole journey is the passage of the Californian Mountains, and particularly the descent of the western side. The only serious difficulty, however, is when you arrive late in the season, with a short supply of breadstuff, and encounter snow ten or fifteen feet deep.

“Those who expect to cross in safety must reach the Truckey Pass by the 1st of October. The snow does not usually begin falling till November, and remains upon the ground more or less till May.

“If you arrive late, however, and encounter snow, scatter at once into small parties and retreat to the eastern base of the mountains, where you will find fertile valleys free from snow, which afford game, salmon, and roots, enough for small parties. You can winter there, and cross at the Truckey Pass when the snow is gone.”


Jefferson gave sage advice, but it was unlikely to be heeded by the hordes of gold-crazed young men who comprised the bulk of the forty-niners on the California Trail.

Fortunately, most crossed the Sierra in late summer and early fall when the weather was pleasant and safe. But when winter storms started in late October 1849, the heavy rain and high elevation snow threatened the lives of gold seekers still struggling on the trail, pushing wagons and wheelbarrows over the Sierra.

The late arriving Donner-led wagon company had spent the winter snowbound there, and many in the group died. After that the citizens and government of California had made a commitment that no one would ever be left behind to starve in the mountains again.

Philadelphia-born William Gambel was headed back to California during the gold rush of ’49, this time as a medically trained doctor.

He had first reached California by foot in 1842 as a 19-yeard old after traveling with a group of traders overland. His mission was to collect museum samples of life from beyond the 100th meridian for the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences.

Gambel had been the first naturalist to collect plant and bird samples from Catalina Island and the mainland (others had remained with their ships), and he was the first to make detailed ornithological descriptions of several species of California birds.


In his letters, Gambel professed his joy of travel: “I have got through with safety, not even with a cold from laying on the ground, with nothing but the sky above and earth below.”

He returned east in 1845 to scientific acclaim and marriage, but then caught gold fever, which drew him west again. On the California Trail, Dr. Gambel treated ill travelers, some of whom were showing symptoms of cholera.

In late October 1849, Gambel’s party struggled in deep snow crossing the Sierra and was low on provisions. Several members of the party died. Gambel’s luck held, however, at least until he made it over the pass.

In December, while treating sick miners on the Feather River, Gambel contracted typhoid fever and died before his 27th birthday. Today, Dr. Gambel is considered California’s pioneering ornithologist, with plants and animals named after him.

The winter of 1850 produced incessant rains with record and near record precipitation totals in the months of November, December, January and March.

The storms generated Sacramento’s first major flood, with great loss of livestock and property. After 165 years, the winter of 1850 still ranks as the 15th wettest in San Francisco since records began, with a total 33.10 inches of rain.

It also proved once and for all that California’s well-deserved reputation for a mild, sunny climate also has a dark and stormy side.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at stores or at Mark can be reached at Check out Marks blog:

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