In March, 1849, Augustus F. Unger of Buffalo, N.Y., caught the California fever. Joining one of the early companies to leave for the gold fields, Unger appointed Harmanus H. Bridges to tend to his affairs and to his wife, Sylvia, in his absence and boarded a steamer for Texas. After a passage of 22 sea-tossed days and a brief stay in Galveston, Unger and his associates, mostly New Englanders, struck out overland across the harsh deserts of northern New Mexico and Arizona for the tiny Pueblo de Los Angeles. Nothing, it seems, ever went smoothly for Unger. During the desert crossing he narrowly avoided being bitten by a rattlesnake and managed to shoot himself painfully in the side with his own rifle. Still, he considered himself luckier than many, judging by the bleached bones of mules and men that littered the route.
Unger arrived in San Francisco ragged and broke, but nevertheless cooing that he felt "gloriously independent." His mood rose further when he ran into old friends who offered to pay his passage to the mines near Stockton in exchange for services, and the new partners worked with modest success until the onset of the rainy season early in December made mining unprofitable. Returning to San Francisco, Unger survived the winter by working at a variety of odd jobs, mostly manual labor, and sharing a tiny shack with six men stacked in a series of bunks built like those found in a ships' steerage.
In February, 1850, his enthusiasm yet undampened, Unger and a friend left the city for the reputedly lucrative mines along the banks of the American River high in the Sierras. After an arduous trek through snow and despite having to pack in all of their provisions, Unger found even the remotest areas already staked with claims, and while the bars and banks of the rivers had been said to be very productive, most miners he encountered fell well short of expectations, many not even recovering expenses. Unger settled on working a claim with several other men near Rector's Bar on the north fork of the middle fork of the American River, yet again, he was to be disappointed. After laboriously fashioning a canvas and wooden raceway to divert to river and allow working the bed, the miners found they could extract only a dollar a day in average times. "When or after I wrote to you last," he wrote to his wife, "I had as good a Prospect of macking a little Fortune as most any Miner on this or any other River; and now half of it is absolutely a failure and the other half at best but uncertain" (1850 August 26). The uncertainty turned into disappointment and failure. Late in the summer of 1850, Unger decided that he had had enough and began the long, slow journey home, selling off his claims at a loss and working at manual labor to earn the passage. Disappointed, but surely the wiser, he said, he left California in June, 1851.