1848: To Strike it Rich

Madison Reinschmidt, writer

My hands trembled and tears rolled down my cheeks as I looked down the shaft of the gun to my terrified husband. For a moment, guilt washed over me. The memories we made together flooded my mind, and I remembered the love I once had for him. But then I remembered what he did. So I pulled the trigger.
* * *
The wagon jostles as our caravan travels along a bumpy dirt road in the middle of unorganized territory. Because I haven’t seen my sister in four months, I eagerly open her letter.
August 2, 1848
Dear Evelyn,
Life in Virginia ain’t the same without my big sister around to guide me. Ever since you left for California, people been going bonkers! News of the gold discovery circulate the cities like a rampant case of influenza. Folks got gold fever! I sure hope you and Jameson know what you’re doin’ by leaving all you know for a chance at striking it rich. I know it’s been a few months since the Mexican war ended, but I’m still worried about you and the children—countless dangers thrive there.
But, you’re a good mother and an even better wife for trusting Jameson through it all. I hope as you start this new chapter of your life, you’ll remember to trust in God too.
Joshua 1:9 says, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
I fold the letter and sigh. I had never envisioned myself being one of the thousands traveling the Oregon trail on the Gold Rush. Ethel’s right—California is “so remote and hazardous a destination” (Dolnick, 47). Disease, starvation, natives, and greed include only a few risks taken on this barren journey. But through it all, I find safety in the arms of my husband.
I met Jameson at sixteen. One day while walking home from school, I saw him forging metal at the blacksmith, and instantly fell for him. While I was the sweet, shy girl who always followed her parents orders, he was the rugged, charming man with adventure in his smile. After several long conversations, and even though he was four years my senior, he asked me out. Two short years later, we were married and with a child on the way.
I escape from my thoughts, and sit next to Jameson at the front of the wagon. “About how much longer till we stop for the night?” I ask.
“Looks like a couple more hours. How are the children?”
“They’re asleep in the back. Poor little Charlotte has been crying all afternoon. She misses playing dolls with her cousin Thelma.”
“She’ll make more friends when we get to San Francisco. Besides, this decision is best for us. We’ll be rich, Evie!”
“I suppose you’re right….” I agree. Suddenly, wind whips through my hair, and I sputter as dust fills my nose and mouth.
“Evie, go in the back and wake the children. We need to stop the caravan now. This is one of the infamous western dust storms they warned us of.”
I hurry to shake the children. “Louise, Peter, Charlotte! Get up, dears. There’s a terrible dust storm.”
“Oh no, Momma, will we be alright?” Asks four-year old Charlotte.
“Yes, don’t be afraid. Your father will protect us.”
Within moments, the caravan stops and we all huddle in the back of the wagon. “Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth. Try not to breathe in any dust,” Jameson instructs.
As I struggle to breathe, I wonder if this is what life will be like… if I’ll have to fight for my life everyday, and still not be satisfied. Jameson seems to sense my anxiety, and he places his hand on mine. “Evie, ‘the worst is yet to come…but never mind. Gold lies ahead'” ( Dolnick 168).
I smile, but ponder if we made a huge mistake.
* * *
A few hours later, after the dust storm calmed down, we decide to set up camp on the prairie. All of the wagons stop in a circle and create a barrier from the wind. The men build a fire, while the women cook a frugal meal of beef jerky, bread, and lemon tea. When the meal is ready and the fire roaring, all of the families gather around to hear a story. Uncle Jimmy, a jolly old man with a gray beard and crazy eyes, tells a tall tale every night— mostly to keep the children entertained, but also to keep us prepared for anything that could happen out in the Wild West.
“Once upon a time, a strong, muscular man named Jimmy was travelin’ along a dirt road to sunny California. But on his way, he met up with savages! They all attacked him with arrows, and they were a screamin’ at Jimmy, but he did not back down. No, sir, he did not! Strong, muscular, Jimmy, fought them off with his bare hands, and then they went a runnin’ away. They was terrified of strong, muscular Jimmy. Yes, sir, they was.”
Most of his stories go like that. But tonight, as I look around the campfire, I notice that Jameson is nowhere to be found. I get up from the circle and search for him around the wagons. I begin to hear a voice whispering, and I creep closer to listen.
“We’ve still got three more weeks of traveling, and our boss wants our deadline in four weeks! Jameson, we’re not going to make it. And then what do we do? If our boss doesn’t get his pay, then we’re done for!”
“Hush up, Travis. We can’t have anyone else hear this. You know this job is important for us. If we screw up, then we moved to California for no reason. Just relax and do what I say from now on.”
The voices stop talking, and I quickly make my way back to the campfire. I lay in the wagon and think all night long. Why are we going to California?
* * *
September 27, 1848
Dear Ethel,
We’ve finally made it to California! I’m sorry I haven’t written in a while; everything is chaotic in our new home. San Francisco’s “very air is pregnant with the magnetism of bold, spirited, unwearied action… People seem to be very near crazy…There never was a place where money is spent so lavishly as here” (Dolnick 212, 213).
If you think that Virginia is full of gold fever, then you should meet the folks here. You either talk about gold, mine for gold, pan for gold, or buy gold in California.
According to Jameson, we are doing well. The other day, he bought a new dress for Louise, a hatchet for Peter, a doll for Charlotte, and gorgeous hair pins for me. Although I haven’t seen even one gold nugget, Jameson says that he’s mined quite a bit of them with Travis.
I miss you so much dear sister. I hope all is well on the farm.
I put the pen down, and go find Louise. “Louise, darling, can you watch your siblings while I take a letter to the post office?”
“Of course, Mother.”
“Thank you; I’ll be back soon.”
After dropping off the letter, I pass by the saloon. While going by, a man walks out of the saloon, slams into me, and nearly knocks me over. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Miss! Didn’t see ya there.”
“Jameson?” I look at the man in front of me, puzzled. Jameson has disheveled hair, dirt all over his face, blood oozing from his forehead, and a large bag draped over his shoulder. Oddly, he isn’t dressed in his typical “miners’ garb—cracked boots, ragged trousers, faded flannel shirts, and greasy broad-brimmed hats”— but rather in a suit with dress shoes (Time-Life).
“Oh, Evie. What are you doing here?”
“I dropped a letter off at the post office. But, what were you doing in the saloon?”
“Just business. I was making a deal with someone interested in gold. Let’s just go home, love.” He grabs my hand and walks home with me. An uneasy feeling settles over me, and this time, I can’t shake it.
* * *
The following day, I march into the saloon. My eyes scan the bar, and I approach one of the waitresses. “I’m here to see Jameson Meyer. Is he available?”
“Who might you be? Mr. Jameson has requested that I keep his whereabouts private. So, I suggest you leave, Miss.” The waitress rudely replies.
“I’m his wife. So I suggest that you tell me where he is now.”
The waitress glances both ways and then whispers, “Alright, give me a minute. Don’t cause a scene.” I watch as she whispers to another waitress and disappears into the back of the saloon. When she doesn’t return, I follow her into the back.
“I told you to wait out there,” the waitress hisses, and shoves me back into the main room of the saloon. “Your husband is doing business upstairs.”
This time, I ignore her and venture up the stairs. Pressing my ear to the door, I hear voices. “Travis, give me the bag. It doesn’t have to go like this.”
“Jameson, I thought we were friends….how could you do this to me and my family? What about our boss?”
“There was no boss, you imbecile!” Then, I hear a gun click. “Now, give me the bag!”
I kick open the door. “What’s going on?”
“Evie, it’s not what you think. I can explain.”
I pull the revolver out of my coat. “Put your hands up.” I demand as I look at my husband. He looks at me with shock, and Travis drops the bag he had been holding. Gold nuggets spill out.
“What is all that? People don’t find that many gold nuggets!! You must’ve stole all the gold from the bank, and now you’re cutting Travis out of the deal. What have you been selling to all your investors? Fool’s gold?”
Jameson stops pointing the gun at Travis and puts his hands up. “Evie, stop.”
“Then what…? Was I just supposed to blindly follow you to another part of the country?”
“Evie, put down the gun.”
“No, Jameson, I won’t! All these years….all this time, I thought you loved me! We made a family together. I trusted you when I was sixteen, I trusted you when you wanted to move to California, but I can’t trust you now.” I scream and sob while my hands shake. “I loved you. But you’ve left me no choice.”
I pull the trigger, and the revolver makes a loud bang as the bullet tears into Jameson’s leg. Tears stream down my face, and I hover over Jameson when he crumples to the ground. I lean down, kiss his forehead, and say, “I never thought the biggest danger in California was greed. Goodbye, Jameson.” Then, I grab the bag of gold off the floor and leave him.
* * *
October 12, 1848
Dear Evie,
When we first met, I fell head over heels for you. You were perfect— I thought I’d never have you. But then you chose, trusted, and loved me. None of it was a lie…never with you.
When you confronted me that day, you were right about a lot. I was a liar, a con, and a thief. I cared more about money than I cared for my family and friends. But then you sent that bullet through my leg, and I’m a better man because of it.
I apologized to Travis, and we’re still not on the best of terms, but he has forgiven me.
I don’t know where you and the children are, but if you give me another chance, I promise to be a better father and husband than before. I’m sending this to your sister in hopes that she knows where to find you.
It took a bullet and a broken leg for me to realize that I struck it rich years ago—on the day that I met you. You’re the only gold worth searching for, Evie. I won’t stop looking until I find you.
Forgive me, darling.

Works Cited
Dolnick, Edward. The Rush: America’s Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853. Little, Brown and Company, 2014. Print.
Time-Life Books and William Weber Johnson. The Forty-Niners. Time Inc., 1974. Print.
“Facts and Fun Information About the California Gold Rush.” Apmex. n.d. Web. Accessed 27 Jan. 2018.
Shi, David and George Tindall. America: The Essential Learning Edition. W W Norton & Company Incorporated, 2015. Web. 7 Feb. 2018.
“The Gold Rush of 1849.” History. 2010. Web. 23 Jan. 2018.
Williams, Jacqueline. “Food on the Oregon Trail” Oregon-California Trails Association Overland Journal. 1993. Web. 27 Jan. 2018.