The Isthmus In The Days of '49
The discovery of gold in California, and the lack of a safe and rapid transcontinental means of getting to the desired goal, induced many thousands of treasure hunters to seek the Isthmian transit. During the seven or eight years succeeding the first find of gold on Sutter's Creek, it is estimated that not less than $40,000,000 in gold, $12,000,000 in silver, and 25000 passengers were annually transported across the Isthmus on pack-mule trains. By 1853 the rush was on in earnest, and according to official figures the output of gold in California for that reached the highest mark in its history, namely, $66,000,000.
The sudden development of the pack-mule train business on the isthmus by reason of the discovery, attracted to the country a large number of Chileans, Peruvians, Indians and mixed breeds, many of whom came not to engage in an honest business, but to plunder, rob and murder. A rich field was at once opened to them on account of the demand for pack-mule trains, a business in which the majority of them were expert. The Panama newspapers of those days are filled with stirring accounts of assault and robbery, and many pathetic incidents of people who had reached Panama successful and happy only to be robbed and frequently murdered in making the transit to the other side.
Often ships would arrive from California with from one to two millions of dust and bullion on board, and with half as much again probably secreted about the person, or in the baggage of passengers who trusted nobody but themselves, not even the ship's strong box. On one occasion several boxes of gold arrived at New York, apparently intact, but when opened it was discovered that from forty to fifty percent had been stolen. The rifling was accomplished by the aid of a certain shaped boring apparatus that would bring out as much as desired of the contents of the boxes, and fill in again with sand, until the original weight was reached. The holes in the boxes were then plugged and sealed so neatly that they could not be detected, except upon close examination.
As a usual thing however, this method was too laborious, and bands of armed men made open attacks on pack trains, assisted by confederates acting as guards, or drivers. In January, 1851, the SS Northerner arrived from San Francisco with $2,600,000 in gold dust and treasure on board, and carrying 500 passengers. Many of the latter had their newly gained wealth concealed in their baggage. Immediately after the steamer's arrival, preparations began for the pack across. The start was made, and at a place called Cardenas, about one day's journey from Panama by mule back, the passengers were attacked in broad daylight by a large body of armed men. In the fight that followed some few of the passengers succeeded in withdrawing with their pack trains unobserved, but the robbers managed to capture two mule loads of treasure, amounting to about $120,000.
During the fight, the leader of the band, a Chilean, was shot and killed. The affair had hardly terminated when reinforcements arrived to the aid of the passengers. The robbers thereupon fled into the woods, but were promptly pursued. Some were killed, others taken prisoners, while several boxes of gold were recovered in the nick of time, the thieves being come upon just as they were about to bury the treasure in the ground.
One of the pathetic incidents of the period was the case of seven men returning from California, who started across the Isthmus in company, to take ship on the other side. They were not heard of again until one day a man came across some bodies half-devoured by the buzzards. An investigation was started, and it was conclusively proven that the seven had been waylaid and murdered. The men were artisans on their way home, and had with them a chest of tools. The chest from its weight and appearance led one of the numerous gangs of robbers to believe that it contained treasure. They offered themselves as pack-train men, were accepted, and at a certain point on the road the travelers were set upon and killed. Among the effects of the dead men were found a master mason's apron, and other emblems of the order, which increased the desire to run the guilty parties to earth. This was shortly accomplished. The pack-train men were arrested, confronted with the evidence, and confessed. Subsequently they were all taken to Panama and shot.
These and similar occurrences aroused the authorities to take some decisive action toward putting down the outrages. All that were caught in robberies were given short shrift. Usually, if found guilty, they were immediately shot. Then too, the returning Californians, being previously advised of the insecurity of the transit, provided themselves against these emergencies, as the robber bands found out to their cost. In one case, a pack-train carrying British bullion from South America was attacked on the trail. The party put up so stiff a defense that several of the thieves were killed, and the remainder put to rout.
The record of those times go to show that many a returning treasure seeker never reached home and loved ones again, but left his bones to bleach on the Cruces trail. A couple of years ago, a native living near the trail ran across a quantity of coins, discolored with age. He brought them into Panama and showed them at the local bank. Many of the coins were gold, and all bore dates of the period when the Cruces trail was the main traveled road of the gold hunters of California. They had evidently formed a part of some robber's hoard.
From: The Canal Zone Pilot
The Star & Herald Company, 1908
August 7, 2000
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