Southampton Men Go Mad for Gold

Hardly an able-bodied man was left in Southampton after the news reached the East that gold had been discovered in California.

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.

Mary Welker March 03, 2011 at 05:52 PM
Mary Cummings has a unique talent and superb experience in communicating the history of Southampton. The Historical Museum's Archive offers a treasure to be explored and shared. Mary's Columns provide the perfect avenue for sharing Southampton's rich history. Mary Welker
Hilary Woodward March 03, 2011 at 10:27 PM
This article was full of information I had never heard before about our Southampton Heritage. Thanks, Mary, for your exceptional writing and keeping us all well informed about local events and issues from the past. They always have some relevance to this present moment. Hilary Woodward
Mimi Finger March 05, 2011 at 08:04 PM
Mimi Finger Great job Mary---Keep it up!! Love ya, Mimi
Andrew Botsford March 07, 2011 at 07:39 PM
What a coup for Patch to land the best writer and most knowledgeable historian in the person of Mary Cummings. It is always a joy to read pieces by Mary, all of which convey an incredible amount of information in the most entertaining and engaging way. Thank you, Patch, for sharing Mary with all your readers. Andrew Botsford
M. Acquino July 14, 2011 at 07:26 PM
Sorry,I just looked into Patch....What a wonderful job Mary, I guess better late than never. Looking forward to more. Marilyn


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