“Preserved for the Use and Benefit of the American People”: An Early Gold Rush Account from “T. Butler King’s Report on California,” 22 March 1850, Part Three

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

We reach the end of this deep dive into Thomas Butler King’s remarkable report on California, dated 22 March 1850, ordered to be printed in 20,000 copies five days later and with an extra 10,000 copies ordered on 11 April. Appointed by President Zachary Taylor as a special agent to investigate conditions in the American possession, seized three years earlier during the Mexican-American War, King traveled throughout the Bay Area, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Central Valley and adjacent areas, but it does not appear he came to the south or traveled into the far nothern reaches.

The first part of this post examined his summary statement and discussions of population and climate, while the second went into the matters of soil, products, the public domain in terms of land, and commercial resources. This third and final part takes in King’s highly interesting examination of “Metallic and Mineral Wealth,” with a great deal of emphasis on the Gold Rush, then in full ferment. Being one of the earliest and most comprehensive summaries, this concluding portion of the report has great historical interest and value.


The agent began by noting that “the gold region of California is between four and five hundred miles long, and from forty to fifty miles broad” along the Sierra Nevada range, though he added “further discoveries amy, and probably will, increase the area. He continued that there were many streams and rivers, between 10 and 15 principal ones, with their sources in the mountains and which moved west into the great Central Valley.

Noting the formations in the mountains, King wrote, it has come to be the universally-admitted opinion . . . that the gold, whether in detached particles and pieces or in veins, was created in combination with the quartz [original italics] that was the superstratum. Moreover, gold “is found in the bars and shoals of the rivers, in ravines, and in what are called the ‘dry diggings.'”

Through the coursing of the water in the rivers and streams and contact over millenia with the quartz, the liquid “cut the gold into fine flakes and dust; and it is found among the sand and gravel of their beds at those places where the swiftness of the current reduces it, in the dry season, to the narrowest possible limits, and where a wide margin is consequently left on each side, over which the water rushes, during the wet season, with great force.” When the region was dry, “gold is found in the beds and margins of many of [the dry watercourses] in large quantities, but in a much coarser state than in the rivers.”


As for the dry diggings, these “are places where quartz containing gold has cropped out, and been disintegrated, crumbled to fragments, pebbles, and dust . . . the gold has been left as it was made, in all imaginable shapes; in pieces of all sizes, from one grain to several pounds in weight.” These areas are in “valleys of considerable extent . . . formed by washings from the adjoining hills, of decomposed quartz and slate earth and vegetable matter.” The amount of gold veins found in quartz was also significant, “showing the minute connexion [sic] between the gold and the rock,” but the process of creation was presumed the same whether the gold was found in the dry diggings or in rivers.

King erred in reporting that the discovery of the precious metal was made at Sutter’s Mill “late in May or early in June, 1848,” as James Marshall stumbled upon gold nearly a half-year earlier, on 24 January, just nine days before Mexico’s Congress ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe HIdalgo ending the Mexican-American War. It was in May, though, that San Francisco merchant Samuel Brannan, having returned from the mountains to verify that gold was indeed found, spread the word, setting off the obvious enormous excitement. But, King wrote that “information which could be relied on, announcing this discovery, was not received in this city [San Francisco] until late in the following autumn.” Again, this was months later than what actually transpired.


While King was correct in stating that migration from “the old States” in the east could occur in 1848, he stated that those first to the mines were those living in California, “some five hundred men from Oregon; Mexicans and other foreiners, who happened to be in the country, or came into it during the summer and autumn; and the Indians, who were employed by, or sold their gold, to the whites.” He estimated there were about 5,000 miners during that year and that the assumption is that some $5 million of gold was obtained. It was

on the commencement of the dry season in 1849, people came into the Territory from all quarters—from Chili [sic], Peru, and other States on the Pacific coast of South America—from the west coast of Mexico, the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii], China, and New Holland [Australia]. The immigration from the United States cam in last, if we except those who crossed the isthmus of Panama and went up the coast in steamers, and a few who sailed early on the voyage round Cape Horn. The American immigration did not come in by sea in much force until July and August, and that overland did not begin to arrive until the last of August and first of September. The Chilenos and Mexicans were early in the country.

King, who arrived in early June, reported that there were some 15,000 foreigners in the mines a month later, and “a a place called Sonoranian Camp [now Sonora in Tuolumne County], it was believed there were at least ten thousand Mexicans.” Most of these would have come from the northern states of Sonora and Sinaloa, where mining had long been conducted, and King observed that “they had quite a city of tents, booths, and log-cabins; hotels, restaurants, stores, and shops of all descriptions furnished whatever money could procure,” among these ice from the upper reaches of the mountains and ice cream. The agent added that tree trunks and branches created a theater of sorts for bull-fights.

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The foreigners, King went on, “resorted principally to the southern mines, which gave them a great superiority in numerical force over the Americans, and enabled them to take possesion of some of the richest [mines] in that part of the country.” Among those who came from southern California during that time was F.P.F. Temple, son-in-law of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman.

Whether Temple realized any success from his prospecting (he did, incidentally, buy gold from a discovery at Placerita Canyon north of Los Angeles in 1842 and sent it back to be sold at the national mint in Philadelphia,) he did begin acquiring land for pasturing cattle brought up from the ranches he and his father-in-law owned near Los Angeles, as well as slaughter houses and butcher shops to process the fresh meat for sale to the growing population of Sonora, Columbia, Springfield and adjoining areas.

While the Americans began their prospecting further north, it was inevitable that they would make their way to the southern regions “and collisions were threatened between them and the foreigners.” As for these latter, “for some cause, either fear or having satisfied their cupidity, or both, began to leave the mines late in August, and by the end of September many of them were out of the country.” Violence, in fact, was rampant and it was more than this, rather than “cupidity,” basically meaning “greed,” that was at issue.


King estimated that there were about 5-6,000 Americans in the mines by then, making the total some 20,000 during the half-season in which gold could be prospected. He continued that “very particular and extensive inquiries” about how much gold was extracted led to the esimate that it was “an ounce per day” per miner. Over the 65 days that constituted the season, at least up to the first of September, and at a price of $16 per ounce, this would yield, $1,040.

Multiplying that with the number of miners, there would be a rough aggregate of $20 million worth taken out of the fields and King assumed that 75% of that was mined by foreigners, though that number dropped to perhaps 5,000 men by the end of the season. By that point, he continued, rising American migration brought somewhere from 40,000 to 50,000 people to the region, though most were accounted to be very inexperienced. Here, King estimated the “take” was half of what was produced in the first part of the season, so that for the years 1848 and 1849, a grand total of some $40 million in gold was unearthed, half in the rivers, and the amount mined by foreigners was believed to be $20 million.

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King distinguished between the greater amount of mining in the river areas in the northern Sierras and the comparatively untapped sections in the south, while observing that there were “reported recent discoveries” along the Trinity in northwest California that boded well, but, to date, about half of the dozen major rivers were largely responsible for the $20 million in river mining. As far as how much of the precious metal as yet lay undiscovered, all the agent coud say was that “we shall be led to an estimate almost beyond human calculation and belief,” while noting that what remained in quartz veins was likely as valuable as what was being taken “from the decomposed rock.”

With respect to future planning for managing this highly fluid and hotly contested territory, King acknowledgd that “the difficulty in arranging a suitable plan has been the want of accurate information on which a well-considered opinion might be formed” concerning any “legislation necessary for its proper protection and management.” Any attempt to survey and then sell lands in the gold regions “would, undoubtedly, cause very serious discontent among those who have gone, and all who may desire to go there to collect gold” as well as “inequality in the distribution of wealth among the purchasers.”

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With uncertainty as to what lie beneath the surface, King noted that it was very possible that

capitalists would overbid the daring strong-armed day-laborer, who had braved the storm of Cape Horn, or the privations of a journey across the plains, and, by the power and combination of resources, would possess themselves of the most valuable mines which have been discovered, and employ skillful miners to examine the country, which as much secrecy as possible, for the purpose of making such discoveries as would enable them in a great degree to monopolize the most valuable portions of the country.

He wondered about the “discontent, perhaps disorder” which would animate 100,000 angry miners over what was considered “the common property of the people of the whole Union,” while using the military to enforce law would lead to problems, including insubordination and desertion. King even felt that “the people would unite with them in producing anarchy and confusion. Instead, the agent recommended that miners “would willingly pay a reasonable sum to have those privileges [of mining on public land] defined, and to be protected in the enjoyment of them.”


King opined that “the gold in the rivers, the dry diggings, and the ravines, is accessible to any man who has the strength to use a pan or washer, a spade and pickaxe” and that “the employment of machinery may perhaps facilitate its collection, but it is not essential.” When it came to gold in veins deep in the strata, that “will require machinery” and “an expenditure of capital in proportion to the extent of the operations.” This, however, would mean a clear definition of rights and privileges, so that jumping claims could be mitigated.

So, it was paramount “to reserve the entire region where gold is found from the operation of the pre-emption laws [in which higher authorities such as the federal government assumes rights of a lower, such as the state], and from sales, so that it may now be regarded as the common treasure of the American people, and hereafter a rich inheritance to their posterity.” A commissioner of mines, based in Sacramento (not yet the state capital) and assistants (in various sections of the mining region) were required to oversee the management of laws.

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For $16, or the price of an ounce of gold, a prospector could obtain a license to dig for a year anywhere in the defined mining area and this would realize $800,000 for the remainder of 1850 and double that for the next year. Anyone discovering a “vein-mine” would pay to the commissioner “such per cent on the proceeds of the mines as may be a suitable tax on the privileges granted. The commissioner could oversee townsites and the sale of timber and other building materials for residences within the jurisdiction, while town lots “reserving the metals and minerals” would allow miners “the comforts and enjoyments of civilized life,” including gardens and farm-lots.

Revenues realized from other fees and taxes would likely yield some $2 million for 1851 and could be used for paying the commissioners; building infrastructure, such as roads and bridges; establish a school fund; and a university and pay the interest on and establish a sinking fund for the principal on the $15 million paid to Mexico for the cession of California and New Mexico. Obviously, there could be fluctuations on the tax rate, the number of miners, what was generated from the production of vein mining, so the amount collected could be less or much greater.


This scheme, if adopted, King surmised would keep individual miners “secured from the grasping and monopolizing spirit” of capitalists, while “California and the whole Union [would be] preserved from scenes of anarchy and clnfusion, if not bloodshed.” There was, however, an important element to the agent’s proposal, however, concerning those who were not native-born or naturalized (Spanish-speaking Californios were automatically made citizens by operation of the Treaty of Guadalpe Hidalgo).

That is, King continued,

I have proposed to exclude foreigners from the privilege of purchasing permits, and from working as discoverers or purchasers in the vein-mines. My reasons for recommending this policy are, that these mines belong to, and in my judgment should be preserved for the use and benefit of the American people. I mean of course all citizens, native and adopted.

He reported that there were allegedly some 15,000 foreigners, principally from Mexico and Chile, who “came in armed bands into the mining district, bidding defiance to all opposition, and finally carrying out of the country some twenty million of dollars’ worth of gold dust, which belonged by purchase to the people of the United States.” If these were not kept out, “they will return and recommence the work of plunder.”

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Suggesting that allowing foreigners to work the mines would be the same as allowing them to harvest crops in Connecticut, Ohio or Mississippi, King proclaimed that “no other nation . . . would permit its treasure to be thus carried away,” saying they would remove millions of dollars that was “not only a suitable revenue” but which should be kept “for the use of our own fellow-citizens.” While an outright ban was not implemented, a foreign miners’ tax was created which kept many prospective miners from other countries out of the fields. Violence and the threat of it was also used to intimidate and keep foreign-born miners away.

A permit system would make its holders a de facto police force, enforcing the law against interlopers, including “deserters from the army and navy [prevented] from being harbored and protected in the mines” and which would result in “demoralization.” Meanwhile, “the commerce of the country would be protected from the disastrous consequences resulting from the abandonment of ships by their crews.”

As to immigrants from the eastern states, many were expected to “remain and form a resident population,” but the agent added that “there will be thousands and tens of thousands of young and middle-aged working men, from all parts of the Union” coming to work in the mines, but who would do so to earn “the means to purchase a farm, or establish themselves in some favorite pursuit.” Those that did this would be replaced by new miners “who will go and do likewise.” King noted that “many who went out last spring have returned with an ample reward for their labors and privations,” while the market in California, combined with the gold extracted and taken back to the east, “will diffuse a degree of wealth and comfort hitherto unknown among the,.”


The agent ended his report by briefly noting the presence of quicksilver, or liquid mercury, including one “claimed by Mr. Forbes, of Tepic, in Mexico,” this being the Alexander Forbes cited in King’s discussion of the population of California. This mine at New Almaden was located just south of San Jose and, King, reported, “is easily procured, and believed to be remarkable productive.” It was remarkable “that nature, in bestowing on California such vast metallic treasure, has provided, almost in its immediate neighborhood, inexhaustible stores of quicksilver, which is so essential in gold-mining.” These quicksilver mines, though, were recommended to be sold directly for private enterprise, unlike his recommendation for the gold fields.

As to silver, iron and copper, it was believed there were substantial stores of those minerals, but information was lacking in specifics and detail. King also called for the establishing of a mint to develop coinage for currency, instead of the common use of gold dust that lacked a common ascribed value. He added, as well, that “those who purchase and ship gold to the Atlantic States make large profits; but those who dig lose what others make.”

He anticipated some $50 million in gold to be mined in 1850, but stated that, while gold in California was priced at $16 per ounce, it was $18 at the national mint in Philadelphia, which would amount to a variance of over $6 million , to the deficit of the miners who remained in California. A mint would also facilitate trade on the Pacific coast of the Americas and silver mined inthe west coasts of Mexico and South America, amounting to some $20 million annually, could be assayed and minted in San Francisco would essentially “be the means of substituting American and Chinese fabrics for those of Europe . . . and will greatly increase the trade between China and California.”


Being always keen to promote improvements, the agent reiteratd a call for “the construction of a railway across the isthmus of Panama, and perhaps the establishment of other lines of communication between the two oceans,” which would secure trade between California and the eastern states and not lose this market to other nations in the Americas.

This seminal report, giving some interesting information and making some remarkable recommendations, is a document of great historical import. King is not a well-remembered figure 170 years later, though a thoroughfare named for the special agent still exists in San Francisco, being the terminus of Interstate 280 and then ending at The Embarcadero near Mission Bay and South Beach.

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