The discovery of gold in California early in 1848 had a pronounced effect upon travel past Fort Kearny in 1849. News of the discovery did not reach the Atlantic coast until the fall of 1848, too late for travel that year. But by June 1 of 1849 4,400 wagons, averaging four men and ten animals to a wagon, had passed Fort Kearny, according to actual count made at the fort.
Fort Kearny rendered many services to the emigrants. The troops provided protection against Indian attack. Most of the wagon trains camped a few days in the vicinity of the fort before going on. The necessary shoeing of draft animals and wagon repairing usually took several days, and nearly every train had a number of animals which had to be rested before continuing the journey. Here also letters were written to relatives and friends.
By the time emigrants got to Fort Kearny most of them found that their wagons were too heavily loaded and they began discarding supplies and equipment. A number of them doubled teams and left part of their wagons. Other travelers found themselves in need of food and other supplies by the time Fort Kearny was reached. Most of these had undertaken the journey without enough money to buy the necessary equipment, and some had bought unwisely.
The halt at Fort Kearny also afforded opportunity for the trains to reorganize their governments. Some of the smaller parties combined, and this necessitated the political organization of the new larger group. Often disputes between emigrants were heard and settled during the halt at Fort Kearny, and sometimes the officers of the garrison were called upon to assist in the settlement.
Nearly every emigrant diary of 1849 tells of the great cholera scourge of that year. The fort could offer little help to the afflicted, however, because the person suffering from the disease usually died or recovered within one or two days. A four-room frame hospital was built at the fort during the summer of 1849. Additional officers’ and soldiers’ quarters were not completed until the following year. Emigration continued through the 1850s, with Fort Kearny remaining an established point on the Overland Trail.