Nicaragua: Expressway to California Gold

previous post, featuring a deleted scene from THE RELENTLESS HARVEST, had young Jarod Walsh traveling from St. Louis to San Francisco via Nicaragua in 1854. This post provides the history behind that journey, a story of two imperial powers, the most sparsely populated country in Central America, and an ambitious American tycoon with a plan.

When I started plotting my 19th century historical novel, I knew one of my main characters would be a young man in his teens, who would set out for the California gold fields from somewhere in the east. I eventually settled on St. Louis as his home town. Missouri had been the western edge of the American frontier in the early 1800s, it was the focal point of many important political issues of the day, and it was a complicated place, both a slave state and and one that often resisted slavery. It was a fitting place for my young, complex character to grow up. But how would a fourteen year old, with limited funds, make his way from St. Louis to San Francisco?

Johnson's Map of Central America 1862 by Alvin Jewett Johnson [Public domain]

Johnson’s Map of Central America 1862 by Alvin Jewett Johnson [Public domain]

The Scramble for A Central America Crossing

By the time news of the California gold rush reached the eastern states in 1848, American steam ship companies were already developing better routes to the new territory. The overland crossing was grueling and expensive. The sea route around Cape Horn was a better bet, but not much. Roiling waters at the tip of the continent often proved treacherous and the journey could take eight or nine months by clipper ship. Ships frequently encountered mishaps and harsh weather; passengers often suffered life-threatening illnesses.

Panama: An Old Spanish Crossing

The first route considered was one that had been used 300 years earlier, one discovered by Spanish conquistadors seeking a route to the Pacific. The Isthmus of Panama was a mere 75 miles wide and the village of Chagres offered an acceptable if somewhat dismal port for ships to land. The problem with the Panama crossing was the lack of reliable transportation to the Pacific Coast. By the time gold seekers from the east began arriving, there was talk of a railroad, but it would be years before one materialized.

Crossing Panama Via the Chagres River by Charles Christian Nahl [Public domain]

Crossing Panama Via the Chagres River by Charles Christian Nahl [Public domain]

Nicaragua: Under Constant Siege

The other Central American option was through Nicaragua, along the country’s southern border. The San Juan River sliced through dense jungle to the immense Lake Nicaragua, 100 miles of freshwater stretching westward to within a dozen miles of the Pacific. Unike the Chagres River in Panama, the San Juan could accommodate larger boats and the bulk of the journey could be completed by steamer. Nicaragua, however, presented its own challenges.

The country’s indigenous population was annihilated by the Spanish in the 16th century and, by 1849,  numerous European and American incursions had resulted in a fractionalized government with tenuous allegiances. The British strong-armed Nicaragua into granting them rights to the eastern coast, by that time known as the Mosquito Coast after the local Miskito indians. Britain subsequently assumed control of the port of San Juan del Norte at the mouth of the San Juan River.

Crossing the Bar of the Harbour of San Juan del Norte by George Chambers [Public Domain]

Crossing the Bar of the Harbour of San Juan del Norte by George Chambers [Public Domain]

Cornelius Vanderbilt’s Exclusive Opportunity

Cornelius Vanderbilt by Howell & Meyer [Public Domain]The United States, playing upon Nicaragua’s fears of British domination, negotiated a treaty that gave the U.S. exclusive rights to a transit route across the country. Enter Cornelius Vanderbilt, an American businessman, and his Accessory Transit Company to provide a combination of water and land transportation services. Vanderbilt anticipated that travelers would also require places to sleep and eat, so included plans for hotels and restaurants along the way.

In 1867, Mark Twain made the crossing while traveling from San Francisco to New York and published a series of dispatches about his adventure in San Francisco’s newspaper, the Alta California. Commenting on the epicurean delights and sleeping accommodations provided both en route and in the eastern terminus of Greytown (San Juan del Norte), Twain wrote:

On the lake boat they fed us on coffee and tea, and on sandwiches composed of two pieces of bread enclosing one piece of ham. On this boat they gave us tea, coffee, and sandwiches composed of one piece of ham between two pieces of bread. There is nothing like variety.

The transit business has made every other house a lodging camp, and you can get a good bed anywhere for a dollar. It does not cost much to keep a Greytown bed in order; there is nothing to it but a mattress, two sheets and a mosquito bar.

British Bother and a New Treaty

All this Yankee enterprise didn’t sit well with Britain, who believed their economic interests in the area were under attack. After numerous skirmishes to disrupt Vanderbilt’s operation in 1850, the U.S. and Britain signed a treaty without Nicaragua’s involvement, agreeing to non-exclusive use of the crossing and giving Britain control of the the eastern port while the U.S. retained ownership of the western land route to San Juan del Sur and all boats, hotels, and restaurants across the isthmus.

Epilogue

The British had their port and a toehold in Nicaragua. Cornelius Vanderbilt  had his lucrative hotel and steamship operation. The U.S. controlled most of southern Nicaragua and wielded vast influence in the country. And gold seekers were passing through the country like ants at a Sunday picnic. Everyone lived happily ever after, right?

Not quite. Nicaragua was still fractionalized, with numerous political forces at work, usually in opposition to each other. The country had negotiated a treaty with the U.S. hoping that Vanderbilt’s enterprises would benefit them and thwart British domination. By the time gold seekers were routinely traveling to and from San Francisco, Nicaraguans had seen little profit and their land had been usurped by two imperial forces. Like magma swelling within Lake Nicaragua’s twin volcanos, turbulence was building among the natives.

Next time, hired guns try to take control.

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