Skip to main content



May 2024
6min read

Asked how he had managed to acquire his vast fortune, Commodore Vanderbilt is supposed to have replied, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.” As always, Vanderbilt’s perspicacity was far ahead of his grammar, and he had put his finger directly on capitalism’s secret weapon. In capitalist economies, whenever a new opportunity appears, entrepreneurs quickly find means to profit from it. But because they are free to pursue their self-interests as they see them, they profit as well from myriad ancillary opportunities initially undreamed of by most.

Consider the personal-computer industry, which did not even exist fifteen years ago. Steven Jobs and Stephen Wozniak got the ball rolling in 1976 when they developed the Apple 1 computer, and they have both profited handsomely from their seminal concept. But so have tens of thousands of others, often in ways far removed from the manufacture of computers.

Today computer word processing is slowly squeezing the life out of the typewriter business. Desktop publishing is profoundly changing the printing and publishing industries. Companies making computer games are thriving. Companies manufacturing modems, scanners, backup and storage devices, monitors, and other hardware have appeared in the hundreds. Software companies have proliferated. Informationretrieval services profitably provide their subscribers with information on everything from stock prices to genealogy to astrological forecasts.

Often the greatest fortunes are created not by exploiting the basic technology but from the endeavors that are derived from it. The country’s youngest billionaire, William H. Gates, never designed a personal computer; he designed the basic software that allows most of them to work.


Earlier industries have had similar success stories. Television made such visionaries as David Sarnoff and William S. Paley immensely rich, but nowhere near as rich as Walter Annenberg became. Annenberg was not even in the television industry, for he was a publisher. But his idea to put out a weekly magazine that listed TV programs soon became the largest-circulation magazine in the world, TV Guide. Annenberg recently sold his company for $3.2 billion, mostly thanks to its flagship magazine. Likewise, A. C. Nielsen gave his name to the language—and greatly affected the history of both television and advertising—by developing a way to measure just who was watching what on the tube.

An early example of an American ancillary fortune is that made by Darius Ogden Mills in the California gold rush. Mills arrived in the first wave of forty-niners, and while very, very few of those who rushed to California to moil for gold died rich, Mills died very rich indeed. But he never panned a single ounce of the precious metal.

D. O. Mills (as he was known to family and friends) was born in 1825 in North Salem, New York, then deep in the countryside but now on the outer edge of New York’s suburbs. The Millses were a locally prominent family (his father was North Salem’s town supervisor in 1835), but poor investments reduced the family circumstances, and when his father died in 1841, Mills had to seek employment.

He became a clerk in New York City, and five years later his older cousin E. J. Townsend, who was impressed with Mills’s energy and competence, invited him to become the cashier of his Merchants’ Bank of Erie County in Buffalo, giving him a one-third interest in the enterprise. The bank prospered, and Mills with it. The cousins soon enjoyed excellent credit with the local Buffalo banks and even with the big New York City banks.

The news of gold in California first reached the East in the late summer of 1848. Almost immediately two of Mills’s brothers, James and Edgar, set out for San Francisco with a cargo of merchandise, sailing the twelve-thousand-mile route around the Horn. D.O. at first was not interested in joining them. He was making very good money in Buffalo and saw no reason to abandon a promising and lucrative banking career in order to pursue a will-o’-the-wisp in far-off California.

Then on December 5, 1848, President James K. Polk delivered a message to Congress declaring the gold find to be authentic. Along with the message, the President sent a very impressive bit of proof, a twenty-pound gold nugget that had been found in a stream by an assistant to Col. R. B. Mason, military governor of California.

At once gold fever swept up and down the eastern seaboard, and Mills changed his mind about making the trek to California. His cousin readily assented to Mills’s journey. In fact, he promised to look after their interests in Buffalo, cover any drafts Mills made on the bank, and take a partnership interest in any enterprises Mills might establish in California. Having decided to go, Mills acted with all the quickness and determination that would characterize him throughout the journey and indeed his life. When the friends who were planning to accompany him were held up by business, he told them: “I am going, and I shall start in ten days.”

Mills booked a passage to San Francisco via Panama on the steamer Falcon in the Atlantic and, for the Pacific leg of the journey, the new steamer California, which had been sent around the Horn. The virtue of the Panama route was speed. It was thousands of miles shorter than the one around South America. Except for the ghastly trek by dugout and mule back across the rain-soaked and fever-ridden isthmus itself, it was far more comfortable as well. Setting off from New York, Mills expected to be steaming through the Golden Gate in seventy days.

When he reached Panama City, on the Pacific coast of the isthmus, however, he found no California waiting for him, and, in fact, no northbound ships at all. Instead he found three thousand people camped out in the muddy streets of the dismal little provincial capital, all desperate to get to San Francisco by any means available.

Mills realized that he might wait forever if he did not take action himself, so he took passage on a ship headed southward. He hoped to find in one of the ports on South America’s west coast a ship that he could charter. But both Buenaventura, Colombia, and Guayaquil, Ecuador, had been swept clean of shipping. Finally, in Callao, Peru, a full fifteen hundred miles south of Panama, he found the bark Massachusetts. Her captain agreed to transport one hundred people from Panama to San Francisco for one hundred dollars apiece. Mills purchased supplies in CaIlao that he thought would find a market in California and then, never one to sit idle, went off to see the sights of nearby Lima.

After fitting out, the Massachusetts proceeded on her passage to San Francisco. The voyage turned out to be a nightmare. Instead of the normal two or three weeks, the trip took fully two months because of contrary or nonexistent winds. For sixteen straight days the ship was entirely becalmed, her sails flapping idly as she rolled heavily and slowly in the long Pacific swells beneath a merciless equatorial sun.

Even when the Massachusetts finally arrived off San Francisco there was more delay. The captain refused to enter the bay and anchor. Perhaps he was afraid that his crew would immediately desert and rush to the gold fields. Certainly the bay was choked with ships whose crews had done exactly that. Refusing to wait further, Mills had a boat lowered and, helped by a flowing tide, was rowed through the Golden Gate and landed, at last, in California on June 9, 1849. The trip, which had been scheduled to take seventy days, had taken nearly six months. And instead of arriving in the luxury of the spanking new steamer California, Mills had stepped ashore in San Francisco from a rowboat. But he was there and, it turned out, he had beaten his brothers. When they finally arrived after a nine-month passage around the Horn, one of the first people they encountered was the brother they thought they had left behind in Buffalo.

D. O. Mills got hugely rich in the 1849 gold rush without ever finding so much as a single ounce of precious metal.

When the Massachusetts finally docked a few days later, Mills had already purchased a boat to carry his goods to Stockton, at the southern end of the mining area. It turned out that the merchandise he had bought in CaIlao was not what the miners needed, and Mills incurred a small loss on the venture after selling the boat. But he had learned what the miners did want and where they wanted it: Sacramento. Returning to San Francisco, Mills used his last remaining cash to purchase new goods. His new cargo nearly filled a schooner that was heading up the river for Sacramento.

The frenzied atmosphere of the gold rush had driven the price of everything to astronomical heights, including freight charges, and Mills had a five-thousand-dollar freight bill to pay for having his goods moved less than a hundred miles. He had only forty dollars in his pocket but, quite undaunted, Mills ordered the captain to start unloading and to prepare his bill. So great was the demand for merchandise in Sacramento that by the time Mills’s cargo was completely unloaded, he had sold enough to pay his freight bill in gold dust. In the next six months the twenty-four-year-old Mills made a profit of about forty thousand dollars, a moderate fortune by the standards of the mid-nineteenth century, very roughly equivalent to five hundred thousand dollars today.

Mills fell in love with both California and its opportunities. He closed out his interest in the Buffalo bank and used his trading profits to open the Bank of D. O. Mills & Co. in Sacramento, long the city’s leading financial institution. And he was soon instrumental in founding the Bank of California in San Francisco as well, for many years the state’s largest bank.

D. O. Mills, a forty-niner to be sure, but never a miner, had seen his opportunities in the California gold rush. Because he was free to take ‘em, he became one of the richest and most respected men in California long before he was thirty.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.