by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The California Gold Rush was truly an epochal event for the recently-seized American possession, for the country, and the world. Not long after word leaked out that James Marshall found the precious metal at Sutter’s Mill deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on 24 January 1848—this just nine days before the Mexican Congress ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican-American War—gold-seekers began flocking to California.
First, obviously, were those closest to the point of discovery with others coming quickly from northern Mexico and other points in Latin and South America, followed by the Chinese looking for “Gold Mountain,” as well as Americans and Europeans. How many parallels in world history could there be to this motley assemblage of mostly young males from many parts of the world coming to a place with virtually no effective government or legal system, though the Yukon Gold Rush a half-century later is one that comes to mind?
One of those in California who tried their hand at gold mining during the early stages of the rush was F.P.F. Temple, who left employment in the Los Angeles store of his brother Jonathan, according to a letter written by the latter to a sibling in their native Massachusetts. There is documentation that F.P.F. purchased property in the southern mining region in Tuolumne County, near Columbia (now a state historic park) and Sonora, and where he retained land and other interests for about a quarter century.
So, the featured object from the Museum’s holdings for this post has a connection to the larger phenomenon of the Gold Rush and to the Workman and Temple family, which also benefitted from the surge of people, estimates are that roughly a quarter million people migrated to California in the several years after Marshall’s astounding find, through the sale of cattle for fresh meet to the teeming masses in the gold regions.
The 13 October 1849 edition of the New York Weekly Tribune, owned by Horace Greeley (often attributed as the creator of the saying “Go west, young man!” concerning overland migration and who was the 1872 Democratic Party candidate for president and Thomas McElrath, has a good deal of interesting content in its coverage of Gold Rush activities, with a headline comprised of fully two-dozen sub-headings, including $10,000 per gold per day shipped out from the mines, new placer mines being worked, news from several diggings, botanical reports, topography of the gold region, and news of the upcoming territorial convention.
One ship, the Empire City, was said to have more than $1 million in gold when it left Panama for the East Coast and there were reports of other craft, as well as a list of several dozen ships arriving in San Francisco from April to August. One interesting short piece noted that eighteen sailors and a coxswain (responsible for steering and navigation) from the Ohio escaped on a smaller craft attached to the vessel.
The report noted that “when some forty yards off, [the men] were fired upon by the marines,” though to no effect. As the group made it way to shore and passed a Naval vessel and two store ships, more shooting took place, “but without success,” so that the 19 men “fled on reaching the shore, and are doubtless now on the ‘diggings.” In fact, there were many military personnel who went AWOL to search for gold during that period.
Another short note concerned the election of the Superior Court judge for a district including San Jose and San Francisco with Peter H. Burnett, who went to be the first governor of the State of California, significantly outpolling Kimball H. Dimmick. The latter, who became a delegate from San Jose for the constitutional convention later in the year, later migrated to Los Angeles, where he became a well-known attorney and federal judge until his death in 1861.
From a report in the Pacific News came word that, from diggings along the Mariposa River, really a creek, there was “a lump of egg-shaped gold” that “was a perfect boulder of virgin ore.” That paper also stated that San Francisco was growing so quickly that “an absence of a week and one scarcely knows where he is on his return” as stores replaced tents and poorly-built dwellings, “beautiful goods are arriving daily from China and elsewhere,” and women were few and far between, though more were arriving over time.
Another note was that $100,000 was approved by government officials for the aid of overland migrants, while military personnel were sent with supplies and horses three days east of Sacramento at what was called the “Salmon Trout River,” but which is known to us as the Truckee River which empties from the north into Lake Tahoe (once called Lake Bigler after California Governor John Bigler.) Speaking of fish, an account from the paper on 1 September reported that thousands of fish were dying on the Sacramento River and its tributaries because of “the constant agitation and muddying of the waters by the gold-diggers.” A report referred to rheumatism and fever in the gold regions and it was recommended that new arrivals take care when dealing with these matters.
There was also an interesting short note about the possibility of increased agriculture in California, especially through irrigation, and it was advised that “those who have not met with the success they expected at the mines,” which was the vast majority of gold-seekers, “act upon our suggestions, and they would not only benefit the community at large, but enrich themselves.” A major problem was the lack of farm produce in markets, but with plenty of fertile soil in California, there was no reason why the massive importation of food from México, South America and Hawaii had to continue at current levels.
With respect to the constitutional convention, it was held almost a year before Congress, in the Compromise of 1850 to deal with the alternating admission of free and slave states, admitted California as the 31st state in the Union. The San Francisco Alta California of 31 August reported that delegates from five districts (Monterey, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and Sonoma) were elected, while some names from Sacramento were reported as likely to be chosen and San Diego chose three “supernumeraries” beyond two regular delegates even though military governor Bennet Riley only asked for two total.
As for the districts of Los Angeles, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, no returns were yet received, though the Los Angeles delegates were José Antonio Carillo, Manuel Dominguez (whose dark skin led some white representatives to demand his removal because he was thought to be Black), Stephen C. Foster, Hugo Reid and Abel Stearns. While Riley called for 37 delegates, increased population was such that “supernumeraries” were needed to account for rapidly growing numbers of residents, and it was expected that the final total would be 51—the actual number who were signatories to the constitution passed in December proved to be 48.
With the absence of effective law enforcement or courts, the resort of residents of the ultra-violent mining regions to take the law into their own hands was typical. At Stockton, Bill Lyon was lynched on suspicion of burglary and theft by a “popular tribunal,” which mimicked a trial with a jury. It was said that Lyon was a member of “the fraternity of ‘Hounds,” a loosely-affiliated gang of ruffians, said to have emanated from New Yorkers (many said to be escaping a prison sentence through an alternative) who joined a volunteer regiment of soldiers, commanded by Colonel Jonathan R. Stevenson, that went to California during the late war and was, for a time, stationed in Los Angeles when hostilities ended. The Hounds were notorious for attacking Latino and Chinese miners as well as committing crimes of all manner.
The Placer Times of 18 August reported that “the month of August has multiplied the number of gold washers on the principle streams of the Sierra Nevada; but the prospects for the mass crowding on [them] are but imperceptibly lessening.” As water levels dropped along courses between the Sacramento and Mariposa rivers during the heat of the summer, “new washings are discovered, and old ones abandoned” as hordes of miners sought to make the most of the opportunity.
After discussing an expedition north to the Trinity River and the good fortune of a 30-man company that collected some $15,000 of gold in just three days, the paper went on to discussing that,
The Peruvians and Chilians [Chileans] have been pretty thoroughly routed in every section of the Middle and North Forks [likely of the San Joaquin River], and the disposition to expel them seems to be extending throughout the whole mining community.
Another interesting account from the Pacific News discussed the “Sonorian camp” in the Sacramento Valley and it was stated that it was “situated at the foot of the mountains, where the water is fine and easy of access.” The place was “the resort of Mexicans, Chilians, and divers[e] others for trading, gambling, and game purposes” and that “the monte bank [for the card game called monte], which is the favorite pastime of the Mexicans, is always open.” Also recorded were bullfights, bear-baiting with dogs and others that “afford amusement to the thousands who flock here from the various diggings” in the mountains.
The writer noted that “frequently the earnings of months are lost on the turn of a card or the failure of the animals on which a whole bag of gold-dust is staked by its sporting possessor.” The account went on that “life is wild and curious, and reminds me more of the Spanish gipseys [sic] than any other class of people I have ever met with.” Echoing what was said above, the correspondent added, “since the strong feeling that has been excited against them many have left for their homes and fields in the south” and asserted “they were harmless, and as a general thing spent all the gold they dug.”
In the conclusion of the reports from the News there was the notable statement that “the channel wrought near Sutter’s sawmill, where some 30 hands had been at work about 25 days, turned out to be a complete failure.” It was speculated that there might have been “a want of judgment and experience in the selecting of a proper place for this mode of mining.” On a general level it was recorded that “we have observed that many who are the most fortunate say the least about it, and many dislike gold-digging as they would any other kind of hard work at home.”
Returning to the Placer Times account, there were reports of some success among mining groups in the area, with one North Fork collective of twenty said to be unearthing about $45 a day each, a second report that there were groups making $3,000 to $5,000 daily, and another claiming that it might be able to yield $10,000 a day when it was fully operational. On the other hand, there were plenty of miners who did not fare well, with the paper suggesting that it took more energy and effort than many were willing to expend and adding that it was commonly suggested “that a man has to ‘suffer some’ in this branch of productive industry.
The paper also quoted from a letter penned from the Middle Fork that suggested “as regards the healthfulness of this locality, I see nothing to prevent it from being one of the most healthy places in the world.” It was added that “the water is falling, and when it gets down so that we can work on the bed of the river the dust will be found more plentifully and in larger pieces.” The correspondent continued, “mining is hard work, but there is nothing unpleasant about it; it gives you a good appetite and sound sleep at night,” while he reported “the miners here average about an ounce per day.”
A very interesting table of “The Golden Emigration” was provided, though the source was not stipulated, for those who arrived in San Francisco by ship during the month preceding 29 August. The total of immigrants was just about 3,800, with 1,160 from New York, 864 from Panama, 363 from Boston, 311 from Valparaiso (Chile), 227 from Mazatlán (México), 171 from Callao (Peru), 105 from Warren, Rhode Island, and the remainder from ports at Hawaii, Liverpool, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Manila, Hong Kong and others. Notably, only 87 were women, with all but a half-dozen unmarried, while only 422 of the entirety of migrants were not from the United States.
There is much more rich content to mine from the pages of the Tribune when it comes to the California Gold regions, so we’ll return tomorrow with part two of this post—please check back then!