“The Mania Among Our Citizens Caused by the California Gold Discoveries”: News from the “Golden Land” in “Scientific American,” 16 December 1848

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

At 175 years and running, Scientific American is the oldest continuously published magazine in America and reaches some 10 million readers through print and digital editions, as well as its website and millions in addition via its social media platforms. It was established by inventor Rufus Porter in New York, with the first issue appearing in late August 1845, though it was quickly sold to another inventor Alfred Ely Beach and a friend, Orson D. Munn, who operated under the moniker of Munn and Company.

As noted by Britannica, “the era was rife with invention” and the paper’s publishers were particularly knowledgeable about patents, which were being registered in exponentially growing numbers, so that Scientific American proved influential on such major figures as Samuel F.B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph and Thomas Edison, whose inventions were legion. The weekly journal grew in readership and respectability quickly.

Tonight’s higlighted object from the Homestead’s collection is the 16 December 1848 issue of the magazine and, while there are some notable contents related to scientific endeabor, the chief interest for us is an article on “The Golden Land,” concerning the recent discovery of gold in California, which was only recently, with the second seizure of Los Angeles in early January 1847, taken by the United States.

As for other features, the front page featured a “New Meat Chopper” for mincing into sausage and other products, as well as “a very simple arrangement for turning short curves” by railroads. Speaking of the latter, there was also news about the Hudson River Railroad being built from New York City to Albany, with the first fifty miles expected to be completed by July 1849 and the competition from boats playing that river expected to end very quickly after the roughly 150-mile project, slated to cost some $7.5 million, was finished, which took place in 1851.

In other transportation news, it was reprinted from a Boston newspaper that American shipbuilding in fiscal year 1847-1848 yielded some 1,840 craft, more than in any prior year, with an aggregate tonnage of over 316,000. From 1815 to 1848, more than 31,600 vessels were constructed in the country, totaling nearly 4 million tons. A related bit of news was that the Department of the Navy was fitting up an expedition “to proceed to the coast of California and Oregon,” the latter becoming part of the United States in 1846, just prior to the former’s conquest.

The journal reported that two vessels were to be ready to sail in the early spring and “six sets of Meteorological Instruments have been sent from the Smithsonian Institution [founded in 1846] to the coast of Oregon and California for the purpose of establishing a series of meterological observations on the western side of the [Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges] mountains.” After concluding that important material was to be gathered about “atmospheric disturbance over the continent,” the paper added that the last session of Congress brought a $2,000 appropriation for this work.

Ohter material concerned the history of the rotary engine; a “great telegraph feat” in which outgoing President James K. Polk’s 50,000-word message was sent from Baltimore to St. Louis a day after it was begun; a dispute over a patent for a planing machine; a patent for an “Electro Chemical Telegraph” by Alexander Bain of England, who attempt to get an American patent two years earlier was contested by Morse; and features on raspberries, silk-worms and oak trees.

A page devoted to new inventions discussed an improved iron bedstead by a man from the Boston area in which the device “can be taken down and put up again in a few minutes” and the principle of which could be applied to all manner of household furniture. A combined door latch and lock system was considered “very ingenious and simple” and offered by a New York firm. New Hampshire inventory Hiram Munger improved his Water Turbine Wheel, driven “according to the supply of water, from three to one hundred horse power.”

The Rev. Charles Brooks of Boston sent the American Academy of Arts and Sciences three plans for an instantaneous alarm, including one by which the hour may be struck at all public bells, including private ones, in a city, another for fire alarms at all engine houses at the same time, and the third for lighting or extinguishing all lamps in a city at once.

Painter John Banvard was widely known for his images of the Mississippi River Valley and his new device was for a mechanical panorama in which the canvas moved along a vertical roller without sagging thanks to a cross beam and pulley system. The machinery was causing a sensation in London, both for the technology as well as for its artistry.

Finally, J.O. Lewis of Worcester, Massachusetts was the invention of “a very neat and useful tool” for those “who are obliged to carry a wrench always in the pocket,” this being a combined wrench and screwdriver. Observing that “there is nothing that facilitates work more than a good handy tool,” the paper believed “that this tool will soon be universally introduced as its very simplicity proclaims its utility.”

One of the many scourges of the world at the time was cholera and the magazine noted that “the Cholera has at length reached our shores,” though it was considered mild at that stage. There was an epidemic in 1832, but the one that ravaged much of America in the latter half of 1849 was terrible, even as this article claimed “there is nothing to fear—it is of a less deadly form and there will not be so many victims as there was by the ship [typhoid] fever last year.”

Emigrants on the California, Mormon and Oregon trails, including gold-seekers were hit hard by the disease and up to 12,000 of them died between 1849 and 1855. Finally, by that later date, an awareness that improved sanitation was needed because cholera generally arose from contaminated water and exposure to raw sewage. By the end of the century, effective vaccines were available, as well.

With respect to gold seekers, the feature on the astounding discovery of the precious metal in California is particularly interesting. It began by noting that “a short time ago, the most flattering accounts were received in this city from California about the mountains of gold and the valleys flowing with silver.” It went on that some though the accounts to be a joke or the fanciful flights of hucksters and speculators, with Scientific American believing the latter to be the case.

It acknowledged that it thought the stories of “vessels being deserted by their crews and houses by their inhabitants” to be “a hoax or something worse.” Alas, the article contnued, “Madam Rumor sometimes tells true tales” and “the golden hills of California it seems are not imaginary elevations, but real bona fide treasure houses” so that “chaps that go there can jink out the yellow dust almost by saying ‘open sesame.'”

The verification came from the highest official source, as President Polk’s message to Congress (the one that got from Baltimore to St. Louis in a day) “has confirmed the extraordinary fugitive accounts heretofore received.” For the magazine,

To the United States of America now belongs the most valuable metal regions and the most fertile lands in the whole world. We have all the natural advantages to make our nation the richest and most powerful on the globe. But with all these natural advantages what would we be as a nation, if our citizens were not intelligent and enterprising?

It observed that Polk claimed that the recent war with México was a stellar example of America’s institutions, but the journal asserted that “it is the people who make the Institutionsthe Institutions do not make them.” Consequently, it added, “we hope that the gold and silver that is about to flow into the treasury of our nation, will not be the means of corrupting or enervating our poople,” citing the example of the fall of the Roman Empire.

With this in mind, Scientific American was sure to proclaim that “we therefore wish better fortune to our potatoe diggers than our gold diggers, as we consider that land to be the Golden Land, which presents the greatest number of fields waving with golden harvests.” In fact, California did become an agricultural powerhouse by the end of the century, while gold production gradually diminished, even as it did enrich the nation’s coffers (as did Nevada silver during the Civil War—which is why it became a state in 1864 despite not meeting general population requirements.)

Still, the magazine admitted “it is really wonderful to behold the mania among our citizens caused by the California gold discoveries” and it stated that one in twenty people met in the streets of the Big Apple was heading to the west to try their fortune in the placers. That week, seven ships left New York with hundreds of passengers, as well. Moreover, “the passion for going to California is not confined to a few reckless young men,” as well-off men were “going off in droves” and Wall Street speculators were heavily investing.

With a deposit that previous weekend at the national mint in Philadelphia (in 1842 and afterward, F.P.F. Temple sent gold dust from a much smaller gold discovery north of Los Angeles at Placerita Canyon to his brother Abraham in Massachusetts to take to the City of Brothely Love for conversaion of gold dust into cash) amounting to more than $30,000 and as “bags of the dust are pouring in from all quarters,” the article concluded that “it is said there is as much gold in California as will enrich al the inhabitants of the United States [the 1850 census counted 23.2 million Americans].”

Fewer than two months prior to the publication of this issue of Scientific American, F.P.F. Temple wrote his brother about the recent discovery of gold and what the results would be if the reports were true. Obviously, by the end of the year, the President’s message and other accounts demonstrated the essential reality of the situation and 1849 brought the onset of the Gold Rush.

In 1849, F.P.F.’s much-older half-brother Jonathan penned a letter to Abraham stating that F.P.F. was going to try his hand in the mines. It is not known if that venture was successful, but where the Temples and William Workman, among other greater Los Angeles area ranchers, found their bonanza was not in prospecting, but in supplying the miners and others with fresh beef from the hordes of cattle they sent to the gold mining regions. Times were flush in Gold Rush Los Angeles before production of the precious metal dropped off considerably by the mid-Fifties. Increasingly, the Workman and Temple families expanded their agricultural pursuits as cattle ranching was severely curtailed during the years of flood and drought that marked most of the first half of the subsequent decade.

This issue of Scientific American is, beyond its interesting content about a whole range of topics at a time when scientific enterprise was dramatically expanding, a notable early document of the nascent Gold Rush just ready to explode into full force the following spring.

Leave a Reply