“No Humbug About This”: News from Los Angeles in “Scientific American,” 30 December 1848

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Launched by Munn and Company of New York in 1845, Scientific American is the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States and came along at a time when scientific endeavor was rapidly increasing, as was literacy and the reading of newspapers, magazines and other material in mid-19th century America.

Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is the 30 December 1848 edition of the then-weekly publication with specific interest in a trio of articles.  The first, appearing on the front page, was titled “Rail Road News” with a subheading of “Railroad to the Pacific.”

The piece noted that a French company secured, a decade prior, a charter for the construction of a rail line across the Isthmus of Panama, a desired point because of its narrowness for linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for trade and military purposes.  The franchise was transferred to a trio of Americans and it was reported that they surveyed a route and petitioned Congress for a contract to transport troops and other items across the isthmus.


It was noted that other entrepreneurs proposed building rival lines, but it was anticipated that, while the American government had “no right to confer power on any company to construct a railroad on that route,” it was expected the government would protect and patronize those who completed a line.

It was then observed that the New York Sun proposed “the construction of a railroad through our newly acquired territories in California direct.”  Acknowledging that such a project would mean “a long road and an expensive one,” Scientific American argued that this was better than supporting a rail line through a foreign country, adding “a Railroad through New Mexico would be the means of developing the resources of a country but little known to ourselves yet.”

An interesting sidenote was the proposal of the Sun for “employing of all the stout convicts in the State Prisons in the construction of [the] Pacific Railroad.”  Scientific American threw its support behind the idea, arguing that “this would be a much better way to employ the convicts, than to have their labor competing with that of honest mechanics, as it now is, in every market.”


It was another two decades before a transcontinental railroad was built to the Pacific, but not through the southern route as advocated here and recommended by federal surveyors who conducted studies in 1853-54.  The politics of the Civil War meant the line was moved further north at greater cost and time, but, in 1869, the epochal project was completed.  Nearly a half century after that, the Panama Canal was completed in an American controlled zone, so the concerns mentioned here about federal control of an isthmian crossing were alleviated (in 1999, the Canal Zone was transferred to Panama.)

On page two, an article titled “Gold and Gold Washing” discussed the staggering discovery and early stages of prospecting for the precious metal in California.  The discovery was made on 24 January 1848 with news reaching the east coast of America by the summer.  Early gold seekers soon made their way west, though the massive migrations came in 1849.

The piece began by stating that “the gold region of California is said to extend on both sides of the Sierre Neuvada [sic] . . . a distance of 400 miles in length and 100 in breadth.”  It was added that gold “is generally found from immediately beneath the surface to a distance of four feet” and its presence was attributed to ancient volcanic activity.


The article noted, “there are two kinds of diggins [original italics and spelling] in the gold region[,] the wet and the dry.  There is more gold found in the wet than in the dry diggins.”  With pickaxes, small spades, and a wash pan, prospectors were more likely to find good results by washing sand through agitation so that gold would subside, while sand and other material were poured out, albeit extremely carefully.  It was noted that “were we to go to California we would take one, not very large, copper wired seive [sic] and two strong tin pans, a small pickaxe and a spade.”

In concluding the article, the journal reported

The gold fever is as strong as ever and companies are formed and forming in a great number of places throughout the various states.  The specimens of ore that have been tested at the Mint in Philadelphia, have yielded a very high per centage.

It was observed, however, that iron pyrite could be mistaken for gold and that chemical testing was needed to discern the difference.


Finally, there is the curiously titled “Diamonds in California,” which consisted of portions of a letter written by Edward Gould Buffum to his father, Arnold, a New York hat manufacturer and inventor (perhaps this last is what led him to publish in Scientific American.)  The letter was “dated Pueb[lo] de los Angelos, Upper California, July 21 [1848.]

Known commonly as E. Gould Buffum, he was born in Springfield, Rhode Island in 1820, 1822 or 1823, according to various sources.  In 1839, he left the family home and went alone to New York, where he was hired by the well-known New York Herald newspaper, founded a few years prior.  Buffum remained a reporter for seven years until, after the outbreak of war between the United States and Mexico, he heeded a call for volunteers and enlisted with what was known as the First Regiment of New York Volunteers, led by Captain Jonathan D. Stevenson.

Buffum was made a second lieutenant in Company B and was mustered into the Army on the first day of August 1846.  After some basic training, the regiment boarded ship at New York in late September for the long voyage to California, with the three ships landing at San Francisco on different dates in March 1847.  By then, however, the fighting was over, with hostilities ceasing in early January with the second capture of Los Angeles, during which William Workman played an important role as a negotiator and carrier of the flag of truce.

New Orleans Crescent, quoting from the New York Herald, 30 June 1849.  The Crescent does seem to have a healthy doze of skepticism about the reporting of fabulous sums derived from gold digging.  Note the reference to there being room for 100,000 people in 50 years prospecting in California, which is similar to Buffum’s letter from the previous summer about 50,000 miners in a half-century.

After arrival, Buffum’s company was sent to Santa Barbara, but, in the summer, he and his fellow soldiers were shipped to Baja California and landed at La Paz, expecting a placid period of service.  Violence, however, broke out nearby as some Mexicans resisted the American seizure of the peninsula.  Buffum’s company actively engaged in fighting through the following spring, by which time the news of the end of the war and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on 2 February 1848 was received.

Buffum, however, was not part of much the conflict in Baja, as on or before Christmas Day 1847, he was found to be gambling with cards in the barracks at La Paz with fellow soldiers and did so even after he was ordered to desist.  He was arrested on the 28th and confined until he was shipped out on a voyage that went first to Hawaii and ended in mid-June at Monterey.

On 16 June 1848, Buffum was reassigned to Los Angeles with another accused soldier pending a court-martial and a member of the Volunteers recorded their arrival in his diary, adding “they are worthless fellows.”  Fortunately for Buffum, the Volunteers were ordered to be discharged two months later and he was soon a civilian without having to face a trial.

Detroit Free Press, 9 August 1849.

So, the letter to his father of 21 July 1848 was written while he was in service at Los Angeles but under the threat of a court-martial.  Naturally, the excerpt published by Scientific American made no reference to his difficulties, but rather focused on the gold discovery and aftermath.  Buffum wrote his father:

Persons who have been at the “placers” say there is ample room for 50,000 people to work fifty years.  It is doubtless the richest place in the world.  Within a week or two past, diamonds and platina [an alloy of gold, silver, platinum, and palladium] have also been found.  These stories, strange as they may seem, are strictly true.  I know them to be so.

Of course, Buffum was still in the service and did not yet go to the gold fields, but he, presumably, was visited by some who had and related this information to him.  He noted, “there will probably to be [sic] a great emigration to the country as soon as news gets spread at home” and added “there is no humbug about this.”

He reported that new diggings were found daily and prophesied that “Peru and Mexico will ere long sink into insignificance compared with California.”  Buffum also observed that “goods and provisions are selling in the mining region at most exorbitant prices” and gave a few examples.  Pickaxes cost $50, shovels $25, and hoes went for $10—astronomical all.  Flour was being sold at a staggering $100 per barrel with “every thing else in proportion.”

The_London England Morning_Chronicle_Fri__May_31__1850_
[London, England] Morning Chronicle, 15 May 1850.
Two months after the letter, Buffum was discharged and promptly made his way to the mines, where he spent months digging for his fortune.  An article from the New York Herald reprinted in the New Orleans Crescent of 30 June 1849 and giving some examples of gold prospecting success stories included the statement that “E. Gould Buffum spent the winter in the placers and realized $70,000, mostly by digging.”  Given that he was a former long-time reporter for the Herald, it is tempting to assume the account was from him, especially the statement that 100,000 miners working for 50 years could not exhaust the supply of gold.

Yet, the 9 August edition of the Detroit Free Press reprinted a letter from Buffum and dated 17 June, in which he, then serving as a member of the San Francisco Legislative Assembly (a short-lived body), wrote:

You people at home are altogether mistaken in regard to the gold mines of California.  Gold is not be shoveled up here by the pailfull, but the most severe and arduous labor is required to procure it, and then there is as much luck in it as there is in speculating in lottery-tickets.

Buffum went on to report that his proceeds from a day’s work was generally just $5 the first week he was there, while, afterwards, he was often lucky to make a dollar.  His banner day was a whopping $56, a far cry from the $70,000 he was said to have realized over the winter!  He did state that a man working next to him hit on a $1,000 pile and ended by affirming “the inexhaustibility of the gold is not to be doubted.  It is everywhere.”

Whatever his actual returns for his labors, Buffum, who suffered from a form of scurvy and left the gold region in February 1849, remained in San Francisco for several years.  He was active in local politics, supporting the growing call for a constitution for California despite Congress’ inaction as to the region’s status.  He ran to be a delegate to the constitutional convention that yielded a governing document at the end of 1849, though was not elected.

After two of his fellow New York Volunteers launched the Alta California newspaper, Buffum was hired as a reporter, though he spent much of his free time writing what became the first book published about the Gold Rush.  Completed on the first day of 1850 and published by a Philadelphia firm that May, his Six Months in the Gold Mines was quickly followed by Bayard Taylor’s Eldorado and both volumes were very soon sold overseas, including, for example, in London by the end of that month.  Buffum’s book was mainly about the Gold Rush, but also had material on older pueblos, newer settlements and about Baja California.

[London, England] Pall Mall Gazette, 17 March 1866.
From late 1850 and into the following year, the owners of the Alta California contemplated launching a newspaper in Los Angeles, but, when that prospect went unrealized, Buffum and John A. Lewis announced, in spring 1851, that they were readying to premiere that pueblo’s first paper, to be known as the Los Angeles Star and Southern Pioneer.  When it did make its debut as simply the Los Angeles Star, Lewis found another partner, John McElroy, while Buffum elected to remain in San Francisco.

After a lengthy trip back east, Buffum returned to San Francisco and won a seat in the California State Assembly as a member of the nationalist and anti-immigrant American Party, or Know-Nothings (for their denial of membership in the party and its tenets).  He was a co-editor of a San Francisco newspaper that was an organ of the Know-Nothings, who had a short tenure as the dominant party in state politics.

Upon completion of his term, Buffum once again decamped to San Francisco and became editor of the Alta California until he resigned in November 1857 and went back east.  It appears he immediately was hired by his old employer, the New York Herald as a correspondent in Europe, though information is scarce about his activities for the last decade of his life.

In 1859, he published a travel guide for Americans sightseeing in Europe and worked on another book about his travels France, Germany and Switzerland.  He also authored several articles, including one in 1866 in the British journal The Fortnightly Review about a railway tunnel in the planning process and which was completed in 1871 through the Alps between France and Italy.

Baltimore Sun, 27 December 1867.

At the end of 1867, the news was relayed by cable of Buffum’s death, at the age of 44-47, in Paris.  The dispatch was short and one reprinting in the Baltimore Sun of 27 December reported

Mr. E. Gould Buffum, an old American journalist, committed suicide here day before yesterday [Christmas Eve], by taking opium.  Mr. B. had been connected with a number of American journals, chiefly on the Pacific coast, and had written several books.  At the time of his death, he was the Paris correspondent of the New York Herald [italics added.]

Nothing else was reported about the circumstances of Buffum’s sudden death and his biographer, the late Doyce B. Nunis, professor of history at the University of Southern California and editor for many years of the Southern California Quarterly, wondered in a 1994 article in the journal California History if “Buffum had unwittingly become a drug addict.  Nunis noted that a San Francisco paper wrote that the tragic journalist was a “good fellow and thriftless” and that “the sea of trouble swamps a worthy craft.”

Buffum’s importance as the first to publish a book about the California Gold Rush remains his legacy, but it is notable that this reprinted letter in Scientific American may be his first published account and early one generally of the phenomenon that made California known worldwide.



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