by Paul R. Spitzzeri
James Marshall’s stunning discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on 24 January 1848 was followed by a pact between Marshall and his boss, John Sutter, to keep the discovery as secret as possible to maximize their claims to the discovery site.
In May, however, merchant Sam Brannan ran through the streets of San Francisco yelling that gold had been found on the American River and hordes of gold seekers descended upon Marshall and Sutter’s holdings. By late summer, the news reached the east coast and also quickly spread to China, Europe, and Central and South America.
The Gold Rush was on and it was in the following year, 1849, that the major push took place. Tens of thousands of migrants came by sea and land to a territory that just two years before had been wrenched by the United States from Mexico. In the small frontier town of Los Angeles, F.P.F. Temple, working as a clerk in the store of his half-brother, Jonathan, joined many of his fellow residents to go to the gold fields and prospect.
Success, as was far more often the case than not, was elusive for Temple and he returned home, though his investments in the southern mining towns of Columbia, Sonora and Springfield were far better when it came to the money made in importing cattle from the south and selling fresh beef to miners and others.
A great early document from the Homestead’s collection about the early Gold Rush is the 24 February 1849 issue of the New York Tribune, which has a lot of fascinating material about the discovery of the precious metal and the mass movement of gold seekers to California. The editor of the paper was Horace Greeley (1811-1872), a native of New Hampshire, who launched the Tribune in 1841 and had lawyer Thomas McElrath take over the publishing and business side of the paper.
Greeley was in an appointed position as a member of the House of Representatives and a couple of weeks from leaving office when this issue was published. With his success and renown as a newspaper editor, Greeley became famous for his alleged coining of the phrase “Go West, young man,” which he used in the mid-1860s, though its origins were apparently from an Indiana journalist nearly fifteen years earlier.
In 1872, he was the Democratic Party candidate for president, but was swamped by incumbent Republican Ulysses S. Grant. Broken by the death of his wife just five days before the election and by the incessant attacks on him, Greeley died just a few weeks after his defeat and before the electoral college allotted its ballots.
Among the items in the paper are letters from Commodore Thomas Ap Catesby Jones of the United States Navy concerning the gold discovery and rush. Jones, notorious for his seizure of Monterey, the capital of Mexican Alta California, in 1842 when he mistakenly thought war between Mexico and the U.S. had been declared, wrote on 22 December 1848 of desertions of sailors because of the hysteria over gold, adding:
Incredible quantities of gold are even yet daily collected; and scarcely a week elapses without some new discovery of the precious metal more startling than the previous one. It is said that a small party of five or six persons, a few days past, struck upon a pocket, as they term certain deposits, from which, in two days, they obtained $30,000 of pure gold.
Yet, Jones noted the problem with “the want of certain and energetic administration of justice” in writing that there were fifteen murders in three weeks, including the murder of ten persons on a rancho near Santa Barbara, the owner of which had been returning with a significant amount of gold earned from the mines. The other five homicides involved highway robbery of others leaving the fields with the fruits of their labors. Not only that, but Jones was sorry to report that “in all cases of outrage and violence . . . disbanded volunteers, runaway sailors and deserters from the army and navy are believed to be the perpetrators.” In a Christmas Day postscript, the commodore reported on two more murders in California.
A correspondent identified as “J.B.” wrote to the [San Francisco] Californian, published on 15 August 1848 and reprinted in the Tribune, with his observations of mining in the dry diggings and wrote that the output “far exceed anything that has ever been discovered.” With some finds of “an astonishing size,” the writer observed that the largest piece of gold found that he knew of was an immense 13 pounds. With picks, shovels, knives and spoons, “the earth is taken out of the ravines . . . and is carried in wagons and packed on horses from one to three miles to the water, where it is washed.”
J.B. claimed that $400 was an average sifted out from a cartload, with one yielding as astounding $16,000. He went on that “instances have occurred here where men have carried the earth on their backs and collected $800 to $1,500 in a day.” Yet, he claimed that “the fountain-head” was yet to be unearthed.
Meanwhile, a man named Atherton (Faxon Atherton, for whom the town south of San Francisco is named and who made his fortune in shipping with imports and exports during the Gold Rush), recently returned from California, spoke to a crowd of some 800 at a New York hall, and regaled them with tales of the gold mines. He stated, for example
I may very safely tell you that the accounts you have in the papers, from California, are not exaggerated, however well they may be calculated to stagger belief in them. Gold is found in great abundance over an extent of country 300 miles by 1,000. I have explored only a small portion of this vast area, and new discoveries are constantly being made.
Atherton’s claim as to the size of the region being grossly excessive aside, he went on to note that the news of the discovery by Marshall was not heeded initially and “it was not till April or May that the whole population became fully awakened to the subject” and large numbers headed to the mountains. He went to on write that, in the six weeks after the rush started, some $600,000 of gold was extracted and “the supply of gold is absolutely inexhaustible.” Atherton’s excesses went on, as he claimed “one hundred thousand people could not exhaust the supply in ten or twenty years.”
From the initial sum above, Atherton estimated that about $4 million had been realized in the year since Marshall’s discovery, though he made pointed comments about the hazards of the labor involved. Still, he added that, if a person had a home, worked reasonable hours, ate properly, and got enough sleep “he may be sure of retaining his health and amassing a fortune.” The problem was
The difficulty is that everybody is crazy, frantic with the excitement for gold. Each fears that his neighbor will get more than himself.
Like Commodore Jones, Atherton talked about massive nuggets and impressive returns, but also referred to “the absence of all law but ‘Lynch law'” in the mining regions. In fact, Atherton alluded to Jones’ statements, noting that “I have no more doubt of the truth of the statement by Commodore Jones [quoted above about incredible amounts and new discoveries] than I have of the fact of my existence.”
A lengthy reproduction of questions posed to Atherton and his responses were also published and these ranged from the length and mode of travel, to the purchase of necessary materials, to how gold was extracted. It was observed, however, that because of the great excitement at the meeting, “a number of the answers were lost.”
There were many listings, under the heading of “The Golden Chronicles” of the companies, some organized by stockholding and others in different arrangements, and name of members from many areas of the eastern states, including those going overland and those taking to the sea to get to California.
One, from Wisconsin, was headed by a member of the state Assembly, J. R. Vineyard, who wound up being a resident of Los Angeles and with the perfect surname for the area, given its predominance as the grape-growing and wine-making area of California. Also mentioned was James Kirker “of New Mexico and Chihuahua celebrity” who was planning to lead a group of Cincinatti miners through the southern route. Kirker was a merchant and well-known to William Workman, when Workman was in that line of work in New Mexico before his 1841 migration to California.
Another article by W. Gilpin (William Gilpin, formerly of the U.S. Army, a member of John C. Frémont’s second expedition to the Pacific, and later first territorial governor of Colorado) gave a great deal of information about the routes west and the necessary items to take, as well as their costs. This included wagons and carts, animals, food, cooking equipment, bedding and other supplies. Gilpin concluded his article by stating
The whole region, therefore, abounds with the same mineral productions as Spanish America; while it has its own grand excellencies for commerce, agriculture, both arable and pastoral, infinite fisheries, forests, internal navigation, and position between the Valley of the Mississippi and China. A delicious and tranquil climate, and sublime scenery, make this incontestably the finest new country of which the human race has yet anywhere possessed itself.
Prescient, if grandiose, as this sentiment was, it had an interesting complement in a short article concerning a proposal (one of many) for a transcontinental railroad by “D.J.B.” from Little Rock, Arkansas. He wrote of a line to go from Charleston, South Carolina “through Arkansas to the Pacific,” though where the terminus would be was not specified. The reasons cited for the route were that it was “South of snow and ice;” shorter and “through better country;” and that it would “chain the free, far West, the pacific West, to the choleric South.”
In the context of the growing divide between the North and South and the threat of secession, “D.J.B.” opined that “‘Disunion‘ would be impossible : it would hold the continent in the bonds of steel, and what is far better, the bonds of brotherly love.” Warming to the stirring idealism of his proposal, the writer concluded
The number of Northern men in the South country now almost would prevent rupture; but give a railway, mix the people of all the states together, as that would, from one end to the other, and you cut the throat of nullification, treason, disunion, and the morbid appetite for notoriety that would endanger the nation.
Finally, there is an interesting table that provided statistical information for the United States, including the population in 1846 (just over 17 million), the estimate for the end of 1848 (21.7 million) and bushels and tons of agricultural products like hay, wheat, oats, barley, and potatoes as well as quantities of cotton, tobacco, rice and sugar. The material was gleaned from the federal commissioner of patents for his forthcoming report and provides some notable context for the period.