“There Is No Government and No Law in California”: Early News from Gold Rush California in the “New York Tribune,” 14 April 1849

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Coming on the heels of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican-American War, the stunning discovery of gold by James Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the news of which was not believed by most for quite some time, engendered far more immediate and wide-reaching consequences on California than the war.

While the earliest arrivals to the gold fields were residents of the newly seized American possession, experienced miners from northern Mexican states like Sonora and Sinaloa were not far behind. Those who knew the mines of western South America, as in Chile and Peru, quickly made their way north and it was not long before gold-seekers arrived from Australia and China. The bulk of Americans and Europeans were among the mass migrants called “the ’49ers” and who headed to California once winter subsided and spring arose.

Tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection is from that period, being the 14 April 1849 edition of the New York Tribune, a major daily newspaper co-owned by Horace Greeley, attributed to have uttered the once-famous saying of “Go west, young man” and who was the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in the 1872 election. The issue is filled with interesting material related to Gold Rush California, including a couple of examples of how treacherous the trip could be by land or sea.

With the former, the expedition led by Colonel Henry L. Webb, whose brother James was editor of the New York Herald, a main competitor of the Tribune, left New York for New Orleans, where the party purchased its provisions and equipment, and then took a steamer to the mouth of the Río Grande at the Texas/México border for their overland trip to California. The party, however, had only proceeded a couple of days into their travels when cholera, a frequent overland scourge, broke out in the camp and claimed several lives.

In addition, the association’s business manager was John W. Audubon, son of the famous ornithologist John James Audubon, and there was $12,000, a princely sum, taken from him. Elsewhere in the paper was reprinted a letter from Webb to his brother and penned from a camp along the Río Grande in what is now Tamaulipas state across from Rio Grande City, Texas. Webb wrote that he actually preferred being on the Mexican side because he was ordered by an American Army officer to go to a ranch at Rio Grande City where “the cholera is now.” Still, he expressed appreciation for the help rendered to the expedition by American military personnel and civilians and it was expected the party would continue on their journey within two weeks.

Meanwhile, the Christoval Colon, which left New York for San Francisco just after the start of 1849, but just a few days into the voyage and off Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, “a most awful hurricane” struck, as a passenger wrote in a letter about a month later. As passengers huddled in fear below deck, “the Captain [Francis C. Coffin] and crew were lashed on the quarter-deck, to prevent them being washed overboard, and with their axes ready to cut away the masts, as the ship was several times on her beam ends,” though this drastic step was avoided.

The correspondent continued that the Captain later came below “completely worn out, drenched with the rain and sea, and benumbed with cold, having been on duty for more than thirty hours, and with nothing to eat.” Having apparently gotten somewhat warm and likely had some sustenance, Coffin then told the letter-writer “no more could be done and nothing but the merciful interposition of Providence could save us from perishing.” The sick were confined to their beds, while those who could stand were holding on for dear life during the storm, which abated several hours later, allowing for the ship to be bailed of water and the decks cleared by crew and passengers.

A letter from Coffin to his employers and dated two days after the above missive and he vividly described the terrible nature of the hurricane, the damage done to the ship and the efforts of the crew to save the craft. He informed his bosses that, as he was lashed to the weather-rail, the dire situation “made me despair of her [the ship] ever coming up again” and, he added, “in fact I could not see how she was ever to come out of it.” He commended the passengers for displaying “as much coolness as sailors” while it was four hours before the gale passed through “and I now began to hope to save the ship.” The Christoval Colon, badly damaged, limped its way, with a full wind at its sails, to Rio de Janeiro, while eveyone lived on coffee and fried ham. Passengers heading on to California then found passage on a steamer.

Other correspondence published in the issue inclued one that did not have identification of the writer, even with initials, though it was said he was a representative of a New York business and was dated 7 February from San Francisco. The missive relayed that there was little being done in the gold fields because of the heavy winter snows in the Sierras. It was added that “there are at present two thousand persons at the Mines” with some residing in log cabins and others in tents, though “many have perished from exposure to cold, fevers, &c.”

Despite this, “such is the excitement and rage for gold that they undergo the most unhead-of hardships” to be ready “to avail themselves of the first opening of Spring” and a chance at choice diggings. Regarding the mines, he added:

I can only say that the most exaggerated accounts may be believed. A few days ago a gentleman came down from the Mines bringing with him $12,000, in gold dust, which he dug out in the space of six days. This is a fact that you may rely upon. I have it from persons, eye-witnesses, whose veracity cannot be doubted.

I myself saw a piece this morning weighing seven pounds, the most curious specimen that has yet made its appearance. The extraordinary richness of this place, or placers, for there are many, surpasses anything that the world has ever seen. I can hardly realize it myself.

[After stating that some $5 million was exported through San Francisco by sea, aside from that taken to Oregon or east by land, he added . . .] Al who go to the Mines do well, which is the most convincing proof I can give you of its great richness.

Another letter, from a Boston newspaper, and subscribed by “W.H.,” said to be a former American consul in Hawaii then working for a business house in San Francisco, was dated 20 January, was described by the Tribune as one that “confirms all the wildest accounts we have yet had of the abundance of gold, of the high price of labor and provisions, and the extraordinary rise in land.” It was added that the account could be trusted as accurate “as the probity and sagacity of the writer are unquestionable.”

W.H. noted that he and his partner arrived in San Francisco the prior November to open their business and had sales of a half-million dollars to date. He added that the gold fever was leading all the Europeans of Chile and Peru to decamp to California, while ships were constantly arriving with hordes of passengers disembarking “to join in the rush.” While more goods were coming with vessels and bringing prices down, he added that “still, everything is, compared to the original cost, very high.”

In buying food for his larder, W.H. reported that he paid $1 for butter; $1 per pound for sausages; 25 cents per pound for pork; $2 per dozen for eggs; milk at $1 per bottle; and raisins at $1 per pound, among others. When it came to his residence, a “little unfurnished one story building in which we stay—dining and sleeping in the same room—we pay $100 per month.” They paid the cook the same amount and “my washwoman has condescended to do my washing for $6 per dozen” articles. Carpenters in their warehouse demanded more than $8 per day and a cartman (teamster or hauler) charged $72 for two days of work.

When it came to the extraction of gold, “every day adds to the surprise created by previous reports of the quantity to be had.” He continued,

Yesterday morning an Indian showed me a specimen of ore intermixed with a stone, weighing five pounds. He sold it for five hundred dollars! To-day some Oregon farmers, who came down to obtain gold, and remained a month at the mines, offered to sell me 150 pounds of gold, which they had collected. Mr. Brannon [Sam Brannan, who first brought word of the discovery at Sutter’s Mill almost a year before], who has the establishments for storing and selling goods at the mines, told me to-day that seven men took from the earth, within one hundred yards of his upper store, thirty-three thousand dollars’ worth of gold in four days; and the gold was weighed by a man in his employment.

It was added that the expectation that up to $20 million in gold was expected to be extracted during the summer, but W.H. noted “it would not surprise me at all were it to be ten times that amount. The fact is, that it comes down from the mines by the peck, pure gold!” He also talked about some of the high prices for property in San Francisco before turning to the weather, noting that those who came from tropical areas felt it was quite cold, “but it is infinitely superior to New England.”

The writer, for one, went from “a sallow looking skeleton (but not ill)” to displaying a healthy weight and noted that, with lumber scarce and expensive, many lived in tents. While he wanted to send for his family, still living in Hawaii, he could not provide a comfortable home for them, “though I am satisfied they would enjoy better health.”

A “California Emigrants” column provided passenger and ship names, ports of depature, destinations and dates of disembarcation for those headed to seek their fortunes in the gold fields and many of these listings included the names of organized associations and companies and their members.

Finally, there is a lengthy and very informative and fascinating letter from Joseph L. Folsom, a native of New Hampshire who went to West Point at age 18 and, upon graduation, was commissioned a second lieutenant in an Army infantry unit which fought in the Seminole war in Florida. He spent two years as a West Point instructor before enlisting in fall 1846 with the First Regiment of New York Volunteers, which was sent to California as the Mexican-American War was ending there. He became a captain in the Quartermaster’s department, responsible for supplying Army units, and was sent to San Francisco to find a site for a military depot, also serving as the first port collector there.

Folsom’s letter of 23 January was to Major General Thomas S. Jesup, whose over half century of Army service included his being Quartermaster General for forty-two years, and the missive began with the report that “within the last few weeks much has been said and done in regard to the organization of a Provisional Government for this Territory.” A convention was proposed to be held in San José on 4 March, though Folsom added “I believe it will be found impossible to assemble all the Delegates at that time.” He observed that it would also be better to see if Congress would take action on what to do with California during its current session. In fact, Congress debated the difficult question of what to do, given the possession’s unusual north-south orientation with respect to the allowance of slavery per the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Yet, Folsom continued, “life and property are, and will continue to be, unsafe in this territory until Congress gives us a stable Government.” With the unsettled state of affairs “a general feeling of insecurity depresses the whole population and operates most injuriously upon all classes of society.” The Gold Rush, even in this early stage before the really large numbers of migrants arrived, meant that there were “many persons of bad character and desperate fortunes” in California. With these questionable characters there was “a reasonable assurance that every kind of villainy may be practiced with impunity throughout the territory.”

The only means to combat crime were ad hoc tribunals at which proceedings took place “amid the frenzy of popular excitement, when the guilty and innocent may be victims together,” but “offenders generally escape.” Folsom added that there were some extralegal executions and observed that “it is supposed that several others will be announced by the next mail from the South,” including, presumably, Los Angeles. Meanwhile,”outrages are occurring in all quarters of the country” including one murder after another, along with burglaries and robberies “of almost hourly occurrence.” He continued,

The fact is brought feelingly home to the apprehension of every intelligent man that there is no government and no law in California . . .

This state of things must continue until we have the firm and steady rein of Government extended over the Territory by Congress.

Folsom did not feel that a provisional government, as was being discussed internally, was going to be successful as the most able men were tied to their business interests and would not serve in political office. Another problem in his mind was that “the natives and foreigners have been accustomed to different institutions and religions; and a strong antipathy exists among the former for those whom they look upon as their conquerors and enemies.”

With gold fever, people of different ethnicities “are brought into contact under circumstances which have more than once threatened to break into open hostilities” and the problem would grow by a hundred times in the summer when the expected mass migration took place by those “who are more reckless, adventurous and dissolute than their predecessors.”

Folsom noted that the prior winter was the coldest, it was said, in a quarter century, since that of 1823-24 (though 1846-47 brought massive blizzards to the Sierra that ensnared the Donner Party, to tragic consequences.) He expected there would be reports of widespread suffering from those who were in the mining regions during the brutal weather. He went on to note that “those who are now in the mountains are almost exlusively Indians (indigenous population) an foreigners, or emigrants.” The Spanish-speaking Californios, on the other hand, “have retired to their ranchos, or to the various towns” and would return once the weather improved.

Because of the situation with the winter, business was stagnant, though ships were arriving from Mexico and the western nations of South America, including some 3,000 immigrants. Folsom estimated that, to date, about $3 million was extracted from the mines and about two-thirds was taken “mostly to foreign countries,” with about half of the total shipped out from San Francisco by sea.

With this in mind, he urged that a mint be established by the federal government in that city “to coin the gold produced by the mines, thereby protecting its own interests and those of American citizens residing in this territory.” Reports from Chile were that “spurious coin” was to be imported from Peru and Bolivia and, exchanged for gold, put into local circulation.” Gold dust commanded some $13.50 per ounce, but such a manipulation might drive the price artificially to $17.

Other reports from Mazatlán, on the west coast of México, were “that there will be 30,000 people starting in the Spring across the Rocky Mountains for California,” though Folsom thought this is an exaggeration because that would require the use of four times that many animals. That number meant that “it would be impossible to subsist more than one-third of that number on the route usually traveled” because of the paucity of vegetation, especially with prior migrations denuding the landscape.

As it was, a great many animals were abandoned on overland journeys and he did make reference to what happened to the Donner Party amid “scenes of starvation and cannibalism.” He did allow that those coming by the southern route through New Mexico and Arizona in the fall or winter could do so “when that route is practicable for large parties having many animals in their train.” He added that there were reports of large migrations from New Mexico and northern México, with one group of 2,000 coming from Sonora.

Folsom opined that “the steamers via Panama will afford a more certain, expeditious and comfortable way of reaching California than any other; and for emigrants in the Eastern, Middle and Southern States it will probably be the cheapest.” This was especially the case for families, though those who very rare among the largely young, single male demographic that made the trip to the coast.

With respect to trade, he noted that it “is rapidly increasing in consequence of the mines and the great influx of population” and, as port collector, he used the amount of duties collected as a means of determining that some $1 million of revenue, 80% through San Francisco, would be generated in 1849. As noted elsewhere in this blog, that level of income without a government to manage and distribute it was causing concern about those agitating for the formation of a territorial administration.

If something were not done, Folsom went on, “it will create still more violent comment, and might lead to some measures on the part of the people of the country which would bring lasting disgrace upon our flag.” As he wrapped up, her urged that, as San Francisco already handled the vast majority of trade, it be officially established as the only port in California. He also called for dealing with the likelihood of smuggling along the coast, adding that Navy Commodore Thomas Ap Catesby Jones agreed with the recommendations espoused by Folsom.

Ending with the note that the first steamship to reach California was expected by the end of February, Folsom ended his remarkable letter. The officer wound up acquiring valuable property in San Francisco, where a major street is named for him, as well as land near Sacramento where he established Granite City and worked on railroad projects. Suffering from a number of serious ailments, however, he died in summer 1855 at just age 38 and the executors of his estate changed the name of his town to Folsom.

Finally, there are a few advertisements of note, including one from a New York hardware merchant advertising the great utility of his wares for Gold Rush California; another from a notary public offering passports proving American citizenship because of an order that none but citizens could seek for gold in California without proof, as per an order of General Persifor F. Smith, commander of the Army’s Pacific Division—an order that was honored in the breach; and a remarkable ad by the “California Association of American Women,” an organization established by Eliza Farnham (whose husband Thomas explored and wrote about the West) specifically for women migrants to the coast and which reported that “the occupations that await women going to California are as numerous as the multiplied wants of the people who are congregated there, and the compensation will be almost such as they choose to demand.”

Filled as it is with remarkable material, this issue of the Tribune is a great source of information about early Gold Rush California and helps establish more of the context for what was happening in that era as the Workman and Temple families experienced benefit through their highly valuable cattle.

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