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July 2024
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The gold-rush letters and diaries in the margins of this article come from the extraordinary collection of California manuscripts, many hitherto unknown, assembled by Edward Eberstadt & Sons of New York and now owned by the Yale Library.

The California Gold Rush was the biggest and the richest of them all, but it was no different from any of those that followed in providing the majority of its participants with much rushing and little gold. When forty-niners reminisced through beards grown longer and whiter, the strikes of the past became richer and the nuggets bigger, but the mournful truth is that most gold hunters would have done better financially staying at home —anil been considerably more comfortable.

Let there be no misunderstanding, though; the gold across the Sierra Nevada was rich beyond belief, and many miners made strikes that deserve the adjective “fabulous.” It was just that there was not enough gold in the streams to make everyone rich. Hubert Howe Bancroft, historian of the West, estimated that during the peak years of 1849 and 1850 the gold taken out averaged about $600 per miner. Averages are usually misleading: this one, on examination, can mean only that for every miner who struck it rich, there must have been a platoon who hardly got to see what gold looked like.

It all began, as every schoolchild is taught, at the sawmill of John Sutter one January day in 1848. A Swiss immigrant, Sutter at the time ruled, benevolently and graciously, over an estate of 49,000 acres which he had received from the Mexican government and had built into what amounted to a self-sustaining kingdom. It lay in the valley of the Sacramento, still almost empty of settlers, and his settlement, called Sutter’s Fort, was silualed where Sacramenlo now slands.

In the summer of 1847 he sent a carpenter named James Marshall, in charge of a crew of men, up the South Branch of the American River to build a sawmill. Work proceeded through the next several months until January, when Marshall turned water into the millrace for the first time. He let it run all night to wash the race clean of debris; the next morning, January 24, 1848, he saw yellow specks glinting through the running water, and the famous discovery was made.

Sutter was deeply disturbed by the finding of the metal; gold and the pastoral serenity of his pleasant empire were incompatible, and he had a foreboding of things to come—although the results were to be more devastaiing than he could possibly have imagined: his catlle butchered, his fields trampled and untended, his land taken by squatiers, unlil he had nol a thing left. At the moment all he could do was ask the men at the mill Io keep lhe secret for another six weeks, so that his ranch workers would nol desert him to dig gold before spring planting was done. The men at the mill did not leave but continued to work as before, panning for gold only on Sunday, until the sawmill was finished in March.

So far, the discovery had produced no gold fever at the scene, nor did it do so farther afield. The news began trickling into San Francisco within two or three weeks (Sutter’s request for six weeks of secrecy had been ignored), carried by letter and by word of mouth. Both of the town’s two newspapers duly reported the discovery, but no one became excited. The people of San Francisco—there were 850 or 900 of them—were still not convinced that this amounted to anything.

But the reports kept coming in, and with them, samples of gold. Several Mormons were discovered quietly digging about twenty-five miles from the sawmill; their site, which inevitably became known as Mormon Diggings, turned out to be richer than the first. San Francisco was impressed; the gold was more plentiful and widespread than anyone had thought. By the end of April, men who had gone up the American River to see for themselves were returning with fat pouches of gold, replenishing their supplies, and then hurrying back. Now, at last, the town was filled with excitement, though restraint still prevailed. Men talked about gold, but went about their business as usual. It needed a little more to turn the excitement into roaring gold fever, however, and a man named Sam Brannan supplied the extra bit of frenzy.

Brannan was a ubiquitous figure in early California, always on hand when there was a dollar to be made, and shrewd enough to make it. He was in turn a storekeeper, a hotel owner in Sacramento when miners were willing to pay anything for a bed and meal, a merchant in San Francisco so respected that he was elected to head the first Vigilante organisation, a newspaper publisher, and a wealthy landowner. A man of formidable talents, Sam Brannan.

In 1848, he was operating a store in Sutterville, a small settlement near Sutter’s Fort. He was an elder in the Mormon Church and had gone up to Mormon Diggings to look the situation over and talk to his brethren there. Some of the excitement had begun to stir in his own veins, and he felt moved to get his share of the wealth—but not by digging, an activity which had no charm for him. His approach, at first glance, appears completely irrelevant. During the second week of May, he traveled by boat to San Francisco with a bottle of gold dust. It has become folklore that he spent the day walking the streets, waving the vial of gold and shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” It is more likely that he collected groups on corners and in stores and saloons, passing the gold around and telling how he had seen plenty like it being panned out up at Mormon Diggings. Whatever he did, he left them burning with gold fever.

Brannan came to town about May 12; fleets of boats left on the fourteenth and fifteenth for Sutter’s Fort, where all passengers had to disembark and set out on foot for the diggings. Sam Brannan’s store was right at hand as they left the boats, and Brannan had thoughtfully laid in a large stock of provisions and mining supplies. He was one of the first to demonstrate something that would be proved again and again during the gold rush: the surest way to prosper was to leave the mining to others, and concern oneself with selling the miners what they needed.

San Francisco became almost hysterical. More gold arrived, this time from the Fort, about a week after the first exodus, and another large group of citizens dropped everything and left. It is usually estimated that less than one hundred people remained by the end of June. Doctors, lawyers, bakers, blacksmiths, laborers, schoolteachers—all went. There was no government left; the first and second alcaldes were gone (the Americans had adopted from the recently dispossessed Mexicans the alcalde system, a kind of hybrid mayor-magistrate), and so was the sheriff. Women and children also departed; this first gold-rush year was different in many ways from those that followed.

Now the fever spread to other California settlements: Monterey, San Diego, Sonoma, Benicia, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles. Walter Colton, alcalde at Monterey, wrote of the way the people of his village disappeared when the first proof of the gold strike reached them in June, leaving little more than women and soldiers at the army post. A crew of carpenters who were at work on a schoolhouse “threw down their saws and planes, shouldered their picks, and are off for the Yuba. Three seamen ran off from the Warren , forfeiting their four years’ pay; and a whole platoon of soldiers left only their colors behind.”

Ranches were deserted or left with only women to tend them, grain went unharvested, cattle and horses roamed wild. Sailors deserted from the U.S. Pacific Squadron in San Francisco Bay and at Momerey, and the Army lost 716 enlisted men in the eighteen months beginning July i, 1848. Said one soldier: “The struggle between right and six dollars a month and wrong and seventy-five dollars a day is rather a severe one.”

By early June ships had carried the news to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii); by July it reached Oregon; and in August, the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora. In each case there was skepticism at first, then wild-eyed gold mania. In less than four months, nineteen ships left Honolulu with 300 foreigners, most of the Islands’ white colony, and an unknown number of Kanakas, or natives. An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Mexicans headed north. In Oregon many settlers had very recently refused to do military duty against the Indians because they did not want to leave their families without protection; now, as the gold fever seized them, they said a hasty good-by to families, possibly added a few brief words of caution about locking the doors at night, and were off.

Young Mormons returning home carried news of the discovery east across the mountains to Salt Lake City. Once again the first reaction was tepid, but when a second group of young men came, carrying considerable gold, “the cry was raised, ‘To California—To the Gold of Ophir our brethren have discovered! To California!’ ” (Men gave voice to more rousing cries in those days than now.) Brigham Young tried to hold them, without success; gold had more appeal for many of the young Saints than did building the Mormon garden in the desert.

Sometime between August and September the news got back to the Atlantic states and the Mississippi Valley—and once again was ignored. But as later ships brought increasingly sensational accounts, interest mounted. There were tales of men who had dug out thousands of dollars’ worth of gold in a matter of days. Walter Colton, the alcalde of Monterey, and Thomas Larkin, Navy agent in the same town, laid it on with a heavy trowel in their letters and reports, talking of streams “paved with gold,” and claiming that the mines exceeded “all the dreams of romance and all the golden marvels of the wand of Midas.” That sort of thing made pretty heady reading for a New England farm boy after a day of building rock walls. Once again excitement gradually built up to a point where it needed only a spark to touch it off, and that came on December 5 when President James K. Polk, in his annual message, gave olficial recognition to the stories. They were, he said, of such an extraordinary character as “would scarcely command belief” were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public services.

Almost literally overnight, tens of thousands of men were on their way. The overland route, of course, was closed until spring. The Argonauts, as the gold seekers inevitably came to be called, had a choice of two sea routes. One was the all-water route around Cape Horn. The other took the traveler by ship to the Isthmus of Panama, which he crossed; then he boarded another ship on the Pacific side (a small proportion crossed at Nicaragua). In 1849, the Cape Horn passage was by far the most popular; the ratio swung the other way in subsequent years.

The trip around South America was long and expensive, but it was passably comfortable for a man on a good ship with an able skipper and a fair break in the weather. One Franklin Buck who left New York on January 18, 1849, 1^d not reach San Francisco until August 6; but he passed the time without undue tedium: he had included in his baggage a backgammon board, a library of 250 volumes, and a good supply of wine. As the demand for ships grew, all possible vessels were diverted to carrying California-bound passengers. The New England whaling fleet was taken over almost in its entirety. Merchant vessels were, for the most part, only minimally converted for passenger comfort (but this was not vital if these ships were sound and well-handled). What was criminal was the way in which get-rich-quick operators dragged rotten-bottomed ships out of retirement, patched the worst of their leaks, and, as often as not, gave command of them to incompetents or drunks who could no longer hold a berth under normal conditions.

But it made no difference to the clamoring crowds of Argonauts: they would board anything headed for California. Many ships went down, especially in the stormy passage around Cape Horn—how many no one knows—and gold-rush diaries frequently record sighting the wreckage of some unfortunate craft, and speak of the chilling effect it had on those who saw it.

The Panama route was much shorter and, in terms of actual traveling time, faster: six to eight months via Cape Horn, six weeks by way of Panama. The only trouble was that there were often months of waiting mixed in with the six weeks of traveling. The Argonaut landed at Chagres on the Isthmus, crossed the seventy-five-mile stretch of jungle, partly by native boat on the swirling, treacherous Chagres River and partly by mule train along narrow, dripping, insectinfested trails fetid from the rotting carcasses of mules, and finally reached the moribund city of Panama on the Pacific, whence another ship could be had to take him on to California. But there were few ships on the Pacific, especially in 1849, and as fast as they arrived in San Francisco, their crews deserted them to go mining. Argonauts found themselves stranded in Panama for weeks and months while the floating population of the town continued to swell—for passenger agents back East went on selling tickets with bland assurances of connections at Panama. Hundreds died of malaria, cholera, and other diseases as a result of the inevitably unsanitary conditions. Some men, as foolhardy as they were impatient, started up the coast in various small craft. Most were never heard of again.

When a ship did come, four or five times as many men crowded aboard as the vessel was meant to carry. As a result, the passage was usually miserable. Hiram Pierce, a dour, middle-aged blacksmith from Troy, New York, who left a wife and seven children to go after gold, described mealtime as an alfresco affair on deck with sailors carrying food between a double row of passengers while everyone grabbed: “Many behave so swineish that I prefer to stay a way unless driven to it by hunger.” The ship’s doctor was a drunk; one night he got himself entangled in his hammock and was suspended with his head dangling. Another time, “The same worthy took a dose of medecine to a patient 8c haveing a bone in his hand knawing, he took the medecine & gave the bone to the patient.”

Most of those who came by sea arrived at San Francisco. The town had gained back all the population it had lost to the mines, and thousands more. It was an ephemeral place of tents and wooden walls with canvas roofs, changing so fast that the diary-keeping Argonaut, passing through and then returning three or four months later, invariably noted that nothing was as it had been. San Francisco was the great warehouse of the gold fields, the port of debarkation for gold seekers, the place where a miner down from the hills could purchase various pleasures more titillating than anything he had dreamed of back home.

The strange hysteria that gripped men, many of them sober, levelheaded citizens until that moment, was variously known as gold fever, yellow fever, California fever, California mania, and gold mania. The term “fever” seems to fit it best because, like a real fever, its peak or crisis could almost be pinpointed and the period of recovery charted. In the Atlantic coast states it raged at its height from December of 1848 into the following March and then began a slow decline through the rest of 1849. In the Mississippi Valley it was a little later getting started, reaching its peak from February through May of 1849.

To those living in the Mississippi Valley, the natural route was overland (although many gold seekers from seaboard stales also joined the wagon companies). A number took various southern routes, such as the Sonora Trail, which swings down into Mexico, and the Santa Fe Trail and its westward extensions. But by far the overwhelming majority followed the Oregon and Mormon trails, which parallel each other on opposite sides of the Platte River over the Great Plains; once through the Rockies they swung down toward the California passes along various routes and cutoffs, none of them easy.

Travelers began gathering in March at the three Missouri River towns that became the outfitting places for the overland trip: Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri, and Kanesville (now Council Bluffs), Iowa. Accommodations in the towns were quickly filled and tent cities grew up on the outskirts. Steamboats arrived almost daily with men, mules, and supplies to add to the growing chaos; the river front was a continual jam of wagons, herds of oxen and mules, and cursing teamsters. Almost every man wore a gun and a bowie knife, but more as a sort of California Ho! uniform than because he had any thought of using them. This was not a gun-fighting crowd, and there was remarkably little shooting or stabbing.

The trip had a rigid timetable. The wagons could not start before late April, when the grass on the prairie was green and high enough to provide food for teams, and they had to be over the Sierra Nevada in California before snow began to fall in the high passes, which meant the last wagon had to be on its way before June was over.

A great many men on the trail never should have been there. There were carts pulled by a single mule or ox, wagons with a mule and oxen hitched together, and various other makeshift evidences of shoestring ventures. A man with a rifle and bulldog was in Independence in 1849, planning to walk all the way to California; he very well might have, because he had already walked from Maine. Another man was planning to push a wheelbarrow to the gold fields.

The first part of the trip presented no undue difficulties or dangers. The grass was new and plentiful, the ground solid, animals and men fresh, and equipment still new. But the picnic atmosphere soon began to evaporate. The wagons formed an almost continuous line at times, and all but those in the lead drove in a cloud of choking dust. In the western part of present-day Nebraska, sandier ground and the upward-trending trail made pulling difficult, and animals began to show the effects; breakdowns occurred more often as equipment became worn, and more and more of the faint-hearted turned back.

Now the Argonauts began divesting themselves of excess baggage until the trail looked like the line of retreat of a routed army. Alonra Delano, a fortyniner, wrote on June 3, We were compelled to throw away a quantity of iron, steel, trunks, valises, old clothes, and boots, of little value and I may observe here that we subsequently found the road lined with cast-off articles, piles of bacon, flour, wagons, groceries, clothing, and various other articles which had been left, and the waste and destruction of property was enormous. In this the selfish nature of man was plainly exhibited. In many instances the property thus left was rendered useless. We afterwards found sugar on which turpentine had been poured, flour in which salt and dirt had been thrown, and wagons broken in pieces or partially burned, clothing torn to pieces, so that they could not be worn, and a wanton waste made of valuable property, simply because the owners could not use it themselves and were determined that nobody else should.

Besides being marked with debris, wrecked wagons, and animal carcasses, the trail was soon lined with graves, mainly those of cholera victims. The disease had come to New Orleans from Emope late in 1848, had been spread by steamboat up the Mississippi Valley, and was carried onto the plains by the wagon trains. It is a disease spread by human filth, and with the travelers’ lack of concern for sanitation, it rampaged among the gold seekers. Their comrades buried the victims and hurried on—though there were dark stories of stricken men carried out of sight of the trail and left to die.

Travel through the mountains was hard going; there were places where wagons had to be eased down some of the steeper slopes with ropes, and spots on one or two of the cutoffs where they were actually lowered down cliffs. But beyond the Rockies the way really got difficult. In Utah and Nevada water and grass, scarce enough anyhow, were very often bitter, and even poisonous, from the alkali, salt, and sulphur they contained. The worst part of this dry stretch was the final drive over a searing, lifeless desert that had to be crossed in one single .stage, requiring usually about twenty-four hours. Here, a traveler had the option of two routes. One took him to the life-giving water of the Truckee River with Boiling Springs at the midpoint, where unappetizing but drinkable water for the animals could be had by pouring it from the hot springs into troughs and allowing it to cool. The other way led to the Carson River across the Forty-Mile Desert, where there was no water of any kind.

Animals already in poor condition collapsed and were left to die. In many cases, companies tried to save weakening animals by leaving their wagons with a guard and driving their mules or oxen without loads on to the river, hoping that two oi three days of rest, water, and gooil grass would revive them so that they could go back into the desert and haul the wagons the rest of the way. Forty-niner Joshua Breyfogle spent more than three days on the Forty-Mile Desert guarding his company’s wagons while waiting for the nude teams to be brought back. “From twelve o’clock till sunrise the emigrants are passing in crowds, nearly perishing for water,” he wrote in his diary while he waited, “and are leaving mules, horses and oxen to starve on the plains for they can’t drive them on. I don’t know what will become of the back trains.” At the end of his last night on the desert he noted: “This is the most horrid night 1 ever passed. The road was strewd with the carcasses of dead mules, horses and cattle, and most of them with pieces of ilesh cut out by the Indians.…” And two days later, after safely crossing the desert: “There is about four thousand wagons behind that will have to pass about three hundred miles without any grass and very little water. There must hundreds perish on the plains. The forty-five mile stretch is now almost impassable because of the stench of the dead animals along the road which is literally lined with them and there is scarcely a single train or wagon but leaves one or more dead animal, so that it must be getting worse every day.”

That, too, was part of rushing for gold. And having got through the desert, they had the Siena Nevada to cross, once again a land of ups and downs, where wagons had to be worked through boulder-strewn canyons and eased down steep slopes with ropes. Some of the gold seekers no longer had any wagons. After the crossing of the desert, there were groups that salvaged so few animals that they had to give up their wagons and use their remaining beasts as pack animals. Some lost all, and slung packs on their backs, and went on foot with what few miserable possessions they could cany.

And so, finally, they crossed the last mountain barrier and came down the American River to Sutter’s Fort and the new boom town of Sacramento, where potatoes and onions were selling for a dollar each. But what did it matter?—prices meant nothing to a man who would soon be up in the hills where there was gold waiting to be picked up from the ground.

How many miners came to California in 1849 is not known, and estimates differ widely. By the overland trails, at least 35,000 is a plausible guess. The ships around Cape Horn brought 15,000 more; another 6,000 arrived by way of Panama. How many died on the plains or in the jungles or left their bones at the bottom of the sea cannot even be guessed, but it reached tens of thousands before the gold rush ended, late in the 1850’s. The tide of gold seekers continued as high during the next three or four years, but there never was another year quite like 1849, when the gold fever still raged, when hills and streams still lay untouched and waiting, and no disillusion had yet thrown the slightest shadow over the most fantastic visions of great and sudden wealth.

What happened to these gold-fevered men when they finally reached California? Most of them worked harder than they had ever worked before, and suffered a large variety of ailments and injuries which youth and clean living usually helped them to survive. A few found enough gold to make themselves wealthy, but most probably just managed to break even.

For mining involved more than swishing a little gravel and water around in a basin; it was hard, back-straining work. Placer gold, the only kind really known during the gold rush, consists of gold dust and occasional nuggets scattered thinly through sand and gravel (a miner never called it anything but “dirt”). To obtain the gold, it was necessary to wash a great deal of dirt, taking advantage of the fact that gold is about eight times as heavy as sand and will settle to the bottom while the sand is being carried oft by the water. The gold pan, traditional symbol of the miner, was used only in very rich claims or for testing samples of dirt to see whether they were worth working further. In ordinary circumstances, a hopperlike device of wood and perforated sheet iron called a cradle, or rocker, was employed in a two-man operation: while one shoveled in the dirt, the other rocked the device and poured water with a dipper. The dirt was washed through, and the gold was caught in settling pockets.

After 1849, an invention called the long torn was used wherever there was a good supply of running water. It was simply a wooden flume with water running through it; dirt was shoveled in and sluiced through while the gold caught on a slatted bottom. A long torn was worked by several men and could handle four or five times as much dirt per man per day as could a cradle. That meant, of course, that a miner had to shovel four or five times as much dirt into it as he would into a cradle to keep it operating at full efficiency. A man usually had to pay for what he got, even in the gold fields.

The terrain on which the prospectors worked did little to make things easier for them; it was usually difficult. The diggings were chiefly along the tributaries of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, which flowed out of the Sierra Nevada; each river, fork, branch, and creek was eventually followed by prospectors to its source. In the lower foothills the land might be only moderately rocky and hilly at best; near the headwaters rushing streams flowed in the clefts of deep, precipitous gorges whose bottoms were often cluttered with boulders and fallen rocks and choked with jackstraw tangles of dead trees. Even under these conditions, miners persevered at the ever-absorbing task of separating a small amount of gold from a mountain of gravel, and with amazing energy and ingenuity constructed hydraulic works to enable them to move the stream here or there or otherwise exploit it in their search for wealth.

Sometimes these constructions reached the proportions of major engineering works—and were often complete wastes of time and talent. Louise Clappe—“Dame Shirley” she called herself in her letters—who lived with her doctor husband in the mining camps of Indian Bar and Rich Bar on a high fork of the Feather River for a year, wrote of a company of thirteen men who worked from February almost through September on a project to divert a section of the stream so they could mine the bed. It involved building a dam six feet high and three hundred feet long, as well as a flume and other supporting works. Lumber had cost $1,000 and thirty laborers had been hired for nine and a half days; in all, the dam cost $2,000. When the company totaled its take in gold dust at the end of the venture, it amounted to $41.70.

While such experiences were frequent, they were very far from universal, or else a crowd of amateurs would not have been able to take out, between 1848 and 1852, a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of gold, more or less—no one knows exactly how much—before the rich placer deposits began to give out. For a great many men, the gold fields yielded up a very good day’s wage for a day’s work. But a day’s wage was not what started the gold rush and kept it going; the Argonauts came expecting nothing less than a strike that would make them rich overnight. And there were places where the new Eldorado was almost as rich as the wildest stories ever told about it—locations like those at Auburn, where four cart loads of dirt yielded $16,000, and where, during the first delirious days, it was not at all unusual for a man to dig $1,000 to $1,500 worth of gold between dawn and dusk. Even the stories about gold being found at the roots of bushes turned out to be true: a man hunting rabbits near Angel’s Camp jammed his ramrod into the roots of a manzanita bush and turned up a piece of gold-bearing quartz; he scratched out $700 worth of gold the rest of the day using the rod, but with better implements gathered $2,000 the next day and $7,000 the third.

There were stories of men digging gold flakes out of cracks in the rock in stream beds with spoons. Three German prospectors taking a short cut home through unexplored country found just such a situation on a high tributary of the Feather River and were reported to have taken out $36,000 in four days without even having to wash any gravel. The story of the find leaked out—miners seemed able to smell a gold strike—and the location, named Rich Bar, was quickly swarming with men. It was so rich that it was agreed that claims should be limited to ten square feet. Single panfuls of dirt here contained $1,500 to $2,000 in gold often enough to be considered almost commonplace; the record for one panful was said to have been $2,900. One company of four men took out $50,000 in a single day.

Such strikes were largely phenomena of the early part of the gold rush, however, when men were prospecting virgin ground. Even as early as 1850 such surprises had become quite rare, and by the end of 1852 the gold rush was just about over. By that time all the rivers had been prospected, almost all the big strikes made. The gold fields no longer had much place for a man operating on only a dream and a shoestring. Hard-rock mining, beginning to become common, involved tunneling into rock and crushing and treating gold-bearing quartz, and so necessitated tremendous capital outlays. Hydraulic mining, a new development, was making it possible to recover gold from very low-grade placer deposits, but it required tremendous amounts of water under very high pressures, which were obtained from the high Sierra by complex canal and flume systems far too costly for an independent prospector.

But the gold seekers kept coming, though in rapidly diminishing numbers, until 1859. That was the year the great Comstock Lode was discovered in what is now Nevada. Virtually every miner in California dropped what he was doing and headed through the passes of the Sierra Nevada to the new Eldorado. It was a great rush, but it was anticlimax after the one in California. But then, so has been every other gold rush since.

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