The Year Was 1852

The Oregon Trail in South Pass, 1852The year was 1852 and it marked the beginning of the Second French Empire, with Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew, Louis-Napoleon (Napoleon III) ruling as Emperor. The Second Empire would last until, following the Franco-Prussian War, there was an uprising in Paris and the government of Napoleon III was overthrown.

One of the new empire’s creations of 1852 was the infamous prison in French Guiana known as “Devil’s Island.” French Guiana was brutal territory and some of the previous attempts at settlement proved disastrous in the hostile environment. In 1852, Napoleon began deporting political prisoners to the newly formed penal colony and between 1852 and 1946 when the penal camp was closed, more than 56,000 prisoners were sent there. Prisoners were forced into hard labor in horrific conditions in timber camps, so brutal that many attempted dangerous escapes. Most of the penal camps were actually on the mainland, but other than a dangerous sea escape, the only escape routes through the mainland were fraught with peril. A popular route to Dutch Guiana meant crossing the piranha-infested Moroni River and then through a dense jungle through which there was one road. Devil’s Island is perhaps best known now through the movie “Papillon,” which was based on the book by Henri Charriere, who managed to escape the prison after several attempts.

In the United States, movement was decidedly westward. According to “Oregon Trail Statistics,” by William E. Hill, immigration hit an all-time high on the Oregon Trail with around 10,000 people making the overland trip.

With people still flocking to California in search of gold, every available means of transportation was employed and many chose to make the trip by sea, rather than face the long trek across the United States. But the voyage by sea had its perils as well. The sea voyage could mean a trip around Cape Horn, where ships were tossed in turbulent, windy waters, and iceberg inhabited waters, often being blown near Antarctica.

Skilled captains might be able to shorten the trip by traveling the Straits of Magellan, a sea passage around the tip of South America, but this too was considered a dangerous trip, because the narrowness of the passage at certain points made it difficult to navigate. The trip could take up to eight months and onboard conditions were horrid. Food spoiled quickly with the heat of the equator, and worms and rodents got into whatever supplies they had.

A shorter trip took passengers to Panama where they embarked on canoes to navigate the Chagres River. From there things were more difficult as the remainder of the passage to the Pacific meant a fifty-mile hike through the Panamanian jungle where some fell prey to cholera, malaria, and yellow fever. Those who survived this leg of the journey often arrived in Panama City to find a shortage of ships, which meant that they would have to wait for sometimes weeks to obtain passage on a northbound ship to California.

There was also an influx of immigrants into California from China at this time. The Chinese population of California was three (two men and a woman), but by 1852 an article in the Daily Alta California estimated the Chinese population to be at around 12,000. The Chinese weren’t welcomed in a land where the gold fields weren’t producing the riches expected and where the industrious Chinese were seen as a threat.

For more on the journey westward, there are many great websites, some with narratives by those who made the trek. Here are a few I found:

1852 also marked the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book was an anti-slavery statement which she later revealed was largely based on the memoirs of Rev. Josiah Henson. Originally produced in serial format, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a sensation and by 1857 had sold half a million copies in the United States–breaking book sales records for that time and stirring anti-slavery sentiment.

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Image: The Oregon Trail in South Pass, 1852. From the Library of Congress Photo Collection at Ancestry. Click on the image to enlarge it.

One thought on “The Year Was 1852

  1. My grandfather, Littleton Kinder was born in 1852 to slave parents in Georgia.

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