Early Chicago, 1833–1871
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives
DOCUMENT 20PETITION FOR A LICENSE TO EXHIBIT A PANORAMA OF THE OVERLAND ROUTE TO CALIFORNIA
March 27, 1851
California was ceded to the United States in 1848 as part of the spoils of the war with Mexico. In that year gold was first discovered and by February of 1849 the rush was on. Chicago was a stopover for many who were on their way to the fields by way of the overland route. This route was dangerous as it stretched across the unsettled plains and over mountains. Disease, starvation, and hostile Indians were the chief threats. In 1850, the only railroad in the whole Midwest consisted of a few miles laid out from Chicago. The transcontinental railroad was not completed until 1869. Alternate routes from the East Coast were 1) by ship around Tierra del Fuego to San Francisco, and 2) by ship to Panama, railroad across the isthmus, continuation by ship to San Francisco. The former took three months and the latter, five weeks or less. Those who chose the isthmus crossing risked yellow fever.
A license was granted the petitioner, D. Whitney, for five dollars a day.
Points to Consider
What would a trip overland from Chicago to San Francisco have been like in 1851?
Other than the overland route, by what means could one have reached California from the East Coast?
In which other cities in the West might this panorama have been exhibited?
How much could Mr. Wilkins have truly known about the overland route to California in 1851?