Weather Window: California’s climate magnet
October 26, 2011
TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. – After word got out James Marshall discovered gold in the American River in January 1848, it was no surprise hordes of immigrants from around the world rushed to California for their chance at instant wealth and opportunity. But what about the Americans who migrated overland to the sparsely populated Mexican province before the Gold Rush, long before anyone realized it was blessed with such abundant mineral wealth? What could have possibly driven these individuals to give up their farms, friends and sometimes their families, to make the long and hazardous 2,000 mile journey from the United States’ frontier along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers?
Historians often mention Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism to explain why Americans in the 1840s rolled their wagons west to the Pacific. The belief Americans were destined to expand across the continent was strong and compelling, and also a concept that led to the demise of native peoples and the unpopular Mexican American War. Politicians also appealed to patriotism to lure Americans west to secure the Pacific Coast from foreign powers.
Geographers use push and pull factors to explain voluntary migrations where people take on extreme challenges in order to better their lives or escape persistent poverty. One of the push factors that drove people out of the Midwest in the early 1840s was the so-called Panic of 1837, a financial crisis partly caused by a rapidly expanding economy based on overextended credit and rampant real estate speculation. In 1837 the bubble burst, which led to five years of economic depression, bank failures, and record high unemployment. The consequences of the extended economic crisis wiped out personal wealth and gripped every region of the county for years to come.
Against that gloomy backdrop, California promoters like John Sutter, John Marsh, and Lansford Hastings exhorted Americans to head west to “paradise” where “crops grew twice as fast and twice as high.” Sutter, a naturalized Mexican citizen originally from Switzerland, had built a fort on his land grant near the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers (present-day Sacramento). Sutter had land to sell and needed settlers to establish his own republic called New Switzerland. Marsh was a United States citizen who reached northern California in 1837 and acquired a Mexican land grant near Mount Diablo where he began agitating for American statehood. Lansford Hastings was an attorney from Ohio who visited California in 1843 and returned to the United States to publish “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California: The 1845 Pioneer’s Guide for the Westward Traveler.” Hastings had also acquired some land near present-day Stockton, which he called Montezuma.
This public relations campaign to pitch Oregon and California as new “Promised Lands” had begun as early as 1818 when Oregon missionaries disseminated enthusiastic reports about the soil and climate of the Pacific Northwest. During the 1820s and 1830s, New England merchants and sailors who had reached California spread their own claims about the salubrious Pacific Coast weather. These stories enticed and motivated American families along the western frontier.
Lansford Hastings spent months in the east selling his book and promoting California as a biblical Garden of Eden. He painted a picture of an idyllic landscape blessed by perfect weather. He promised, “There will be no land on earth that can compare with California with respect to its wonderful climate, the excellent health of its inhabitants.” For many of the early emigrants, a common reason for heading west was to improve their health. For people sick and tired of the high mortality rates in the Mississippi Valley caused by malaria and life-sapping fevers, California was touted as a land free of major disease where an aging person could add 10 youthful years to their lifespan. According to many west coast boosters, even the arduous overland trip itself was a virtual cure-all for most illnesses. Stay tuned for part two.
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– Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at http://www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org