Early on the morning of of today’s date, January 24 in 1848, millwright James Marshall made a discovery which would change the lives of uncounted thousands of people and which would also change the course of the history of the United States. Marshall was supervising the excavation of a shallow millrace on Sutter’s Creek near Caloma when he noticed a sparkle of light in the dark earth. When he examined the earth more closely, he discovered that much of it was speckled with what appeared to be small flakes of …..GOLD. He dashed off to tell the owner of the land, Mr. Sutter, and the find was soon confirmed. Sutter tried to quietly gather up as much as he could, hoping to keep the find a secret. But word soon got out, and the largest gold rush in world history was on.
“Mining the Miners…”
Sutter’s Creek was a tributary of the America River in the Sacramento Valley east of San Francisco, and it was named for the Swiss immigrant John Augustus Sutter. Sutter had settled in California in 1839, and utilizing the labor of local Indians whom he treated little better than slaves he had built farms and ranches as the center of what he hoped would be a thriving agricultural colony which he named “New Helvetia”. But employees of Sutter’s went to purchase goods in a store owned by Samuel Brannan a leader in the local Later Day
Saints church. These men paid for their purchase with gold which they had found at Sutters. Brannan (above) went to Sutters Mill and as a representative of the LDS church received the tithes of some of the men in the form of the gold which they had found. Rumors began circulating from other sources as well. Brannan saw a way to riches here. Not by mining for gold himself, but by “mining the miners” in the selling to them of all the supplies that they would need for their operations. As word of the find spread to other lands around the world via merchant ships, and letters home by men who began to flock to the area, Brannan fanned the flames of gold fever even more. He printed up 2,000 copies of a special edition of the local newspaper which he published, The California Star. In this he announced the gold find in huge letters. He then packed these papers on east-bound mule trains. When these editions showed up in St. Louis in August of 1848, they caused an immediate sensation. Papers from around the United States picked up the story:
“The Fort Wayne Times, Fort Wayne, Indiana, U.S.A. Thursday, January 4, 1849
From California — the Latest Yet.
The Gold fever besets the Press, as well as the Public. All the newspaper columns glitter with “Gold, Gold, Gold.” The “Boston Herald” (and no other paper has the news) thus discourses:
“Highly important from California! — great excitement among the people!! — Gold region inexhaustible!!! — a new people, and a gold forest!!!!
“By the arrival of the bark Ariel, Capt Tudacher, we are placed in possession of dispatches from California to the very latest date, and a little later. The Ariel sailed from Provincetown on a whaling voyage, but has returned with a cargo of gold dust, valued at $7,300,000, besides a quantity of hide and tallow.
“When Capt. Tudacher left San Francisco the people were returning from the gold washings.
“Not finding vacant store-houses in which to place the precious metal, the people were piling it up in the public streets as cods used to be of yore, in the streets of Watertown, Mass. Barricades erected of solid ingots of gold actually impeded the travel.”
Gold There for the Taking!!!
There were tales of gold there to be picked up, of men working a few days and walking away with thousands of dollars after just scooping it from under a few rocks or right out of a creek bed. These tales of fabulous riches there for the taking were not so far form the truth in these early days of the summer of and autumn of 1848. The gold was in fact that easy to pocket at that time. But by 1849 and beyond, these days of easy pickings were over, and it became much harder work. But thousands upon thousands of men packed up from all corners of the U.S. to head for the gold fields. In his Memoirs, published in 1875, William Tecumseh Sherman, then a young Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in California recalled the effect that gold fever had on everyone:
“Not only did soldiers and sailors desert, but captains and masters of ships actually abandoned their vessels and cargoes to try their luck at the mines. Preachers and professors forgot their creeds and took to trade, and even to keeping gambling-houses….. Soldiers and sailors who could reach the mines were universally shielded by the miners, so that it was next to useless to attempt their recapture.”
Those Who Struck it Rich, and Those Who Didn’t
This truly international rush for gold transformed California in general and San Francisco in particular from sleepy and sparsely populated frontier places into major population centers dense with an incredible mix of people from all over the world. Men from all walks of life and from all parts of the U.S. and elsewhere pulled up their roots in other places to rush to California and get in on what they thought would be easy riches. Many did strike it rich. Sam Brannan did indeed get rich selling to the miners. But many more did not. Sadly, It would all prove to be a disaster for Mr. Sutter, whose mill started the whole thing. Thousands of prospectors swarmed to California and soon overran Sutter’s property, slaughtering his herds of livestock for food, and trampling his fields. By 1852, his “New Helvetia” was ruined. He died in 1880 after years of futile efforts to gain governmental compensation for his losses. BUT… the term for all of these prospectors: “49ers” was coined and thus, the name of the football team (of some note)!!
“The Memoirs of General W. T Sherman” by William T. Sherman, Penguin Putnam Inc., New York, 2000