How did the "Forty Niners" get to California in 1849?

In 1849, the Panama Canal would not have been built for over 50 years, meaning that ships from the U.S. east coast would have had to sail all the way around South America, through Cape Horn, and up the west coast of South and North America.

And the overland route was fraught with dangers; the travails of the Donner party are too horrible to describe.

Did people actually use these routes? Are there ones that I overlooked? And are there any statistical breakdowns of percentages that used Cape Horn, overland, or other routes?

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    What exactly are you looking for in an answer? There are only three possible answers: 1) over land, via the California Trail or another western trail; 2) by water, by sailing ship around the Cape or across the Pacific for Asians and Latin Americans; or 3) by a combination of the two, sailing to Mexico or Panama, crossing the continent by land, then sailing to San Francisco from the Pacific side. If you mean "how" as in "how was it humanly possible," there were assuredly worse human experiences in 1849 than a 6-month journey to California. I think they could manage.
    – choster
    Feb 19, 2013 at 23:43
  • @choster: Maybe the best way to state my question is, what was the statistical breakdown. What percentage used the overland route versus Cape Horn. And I didn't even think about the combination, overland to Mexico or Central America, then a shorter Pacific route.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 20, 2013 at 0:11
  • A significant amount went via Nicaragua, which is a longer but flatter land passage.
    – Oldcat
    May 5, 2015 at 17:46

1 Answer 1


The numbers can only be estimated, and that is especially difficult for the overland arrivals. There is some basis for the arrivals by sea in that the only major port, San Francisco, did try to keep records.

Clay and Jones (2008) estimate that in 1848-50 there were over 101,000 overland immigrants and likely over 75,000 by sea, or perhaps 60% by land.

Wright (1940) agrees that in that early period the majority arrived overland. She points out that while in 1849 about 70% of the arrivals by sea came via Cape Horn, just the next year only 45% did, the majority going via the Isthmus of Panana. In following years arrivals by sea dominated over those by land (until the transcontinental railroad was completed), and the route across Panama was more popular than the Horn for travel (but not freight).

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    I had entirely overlooked the "isthmus of Panama" route.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 20, 2013 at 13:27
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    @Tom Au - As a matter of fact, the Cali Gold Rush was the impetus behind the building of the Panama Railway. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panama_Canal_Railway#1855_Panama_Railroad. However, I seriously doubt Wright's claim that any significant amount of people traveled that route before the Railway's completion in 1855. The land between was impassible mountainous jungle, infested with malaria and yellow-fever mosquitoes. 5-10,000 people died building the railroad. For a while, the area's cheif export was medical cadavers.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 20, 2013 at 15:02
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    @T.E.D. Actually there was significant passage through the Canal road, which was not all impassible jungle. The Chagres River road up to Panama City was a well known and used road, that the Fourty Niners used as an alternate path. Henry Morgan even used it in his supposed sacking of Panama City, which is where I saw the reference to the Forty Niners as they used the same path later on.
    – MichaelF
    Feb 23, 2013 at 12:55
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    More on the Chagres River route and the Forty Niners - trail2.com/embera/history3.htm
    – MichaelF
    Feb 23, 2013 at 12:59

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