When word reached Southampton in 1849 that gold had been discovered in California, there followed “a general exodus” of the village’s able-bodied young men, all “bent upon reaching the land of gold and sunshine and continual pleasure as quick as a ship could take them.” That, according to historian James Truslow Adams, who went on to note that more than 250 men from the town made the long journey, abandoning the still viable but arduous whaling industry in pursuit of the quick easy fortune of an adventurer’s dreams.
Overfishing and the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania are frequently put forth as causes of the whaling industry’s demise, but Adams maintains that the primary reason the local whale fishery came to a standstill was that after the mass exodus to California, “men to man the ships could not be secured.” Wives and sweethearts kissed the cream of local manhood goodbye, leaving “but a few determined spirits” to pursue whales.
In the craze, joint stock companies were hastily formed, among them the Southampton and California Mining and Trading Company whose stockholders included no fewer than 19 whaling captains. Capitalized at $30,000 (60 shares of $500 each), the company bought the ship “Sabina,” which sailed from Gardiner’s Bay on Feb. 7, 1849, captained by Henry Green. On board was Albert Jagger whose letters home chronicling the voyage and subsequent experiences in California were found many years later in the attic of the Jagger home, carefully wrapped in the canvas bag that Jagger had used to send his gold dust home. Adams sought and received permission to reprint excerpts from the letters in his “History of the Town of Southampton.”
A long voyage — from six to eight months — was to be expected and, as Jagger wrote home on April 11, “a rough passage around the Cape” was anticipated. This was all the more alarming in light of Jagger’s observation that the Sabina was “by no means fit for the sea when we sailed.” She was apparently made more seaworthy en route by the crew but the discomfort level must have been high indeed. Strange as it seems, seasickness was not uncommon even among sailors of longstanding, a condition not helped by a cook who favored “seasons altogether too high for weak stomachs.” Another concern that worried Jagger: the presence on board of “some wild boys.”
July 4, Sabina’s target arrival date, found the ship still at sea but Independence Day festivities brightened the mood with feasting, speeches, drink and dancing. “I was surprised,” wrote Jagger, “to see some of our oldest men dance so well…”
Finally, on Aug. 9, the Sabina arrived in San Francisco and Jagger’s letter reflects a more realistic outlook for the prospectors. “Gold is not as abundant, it is said, as 5 or 9 months ago,” he writes, but by close application it is made profitable.”
By January 1850 he is writing that he is “sorry to hear of the anticipated departure of so many from our town for California. I fear if they do not lose their lives or health, they will [nevertheless] regret it.”
In a 1924 article in The County Review, historian Harry L. Sleight states a devastating truth with regard to the speculative companies that had formed with such heady hopes. “Not one of these enterprises succeeded,” he asserts. Instead, the high-spirited participants had experienced “that first bitter taste of the pleasures (?) of gold gathering: the fierce California sun, the steady pouring rain dripping through canvas houses and mud walls, the horrors and indigestion of badly baked flour and pork, the back-breaking, rheumatic-breeding labor of digging gold on the banks of the mountain streams, fleas, flies, etc.”
It was “madness,” Sleight concludes, adding that it was many years before eastern Long Island recovered from this costly episode of “romantic speculation.”
Sources from the Archives: “History of the Town of Southampton” and “Memorials of Old Bridgehampton” by James Truslow Adams; The County Review, Aug. 15, 1924, “Gold Seekers Endured Danger and Hardship” by Harry D. Sleight.