Read All About It: California Gold Rush Coverage in the New York Weekly Tribune, 13 October 1849, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This second and final part of a post looking at coverage of the California Gold Rush in the pages of the 13 October 1849 edition of the New York Weekly Tribune, from the Homestead’s collection, includes reprinted material from newspapers like the Alta California, Placer Times, and Pacific News, all of which recently were launched in the possession seized by the United States in its war upon México.

From the first of these came a general description of the region, by someone subscribed as “F.P.W.” in which the precious metal was being feverishly mined, with the Sierra Nevada Mountains including, the piece stated, two main rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, which ran “as if purposely, to the apex of the triangle they inclose [sic], there to meet and make a common and united irruption upon the waters of San Francisco Bay.” Within this formation were many watercourse, all considered tributaries to the pair.

The mountains went from ridges at the highest elevations descending to hills and then to plains, which “generally speaking, are covered with luxuriant grass, skirted along the rivers with oak timber.” it was continued that “the range of mountains in which hold is found is distinguished by a uniformity of its vegetable kingdom, which is neither meager nor very abundant,” with oak trees predominating while several types of pines were found, though at higher elevations, the latter were in the majority “and granite extends.”

Further, it was observed, “the depositaries of gold look universally more smiling to the beholder than their barren neighbors; the former always have the figure described by the line of beauty, viz; the curved line, be they ever so precipitous, as they frequently are—a distinction never to be lost sight of.” Moreover, the piece went on, “the extent of these auriferous hills is great than the public know or imagine, but not in the direction it is supposed.”

This is because it was believed that the gold-bearing sections went beyond the two main rivers and were “bending toward the sea coast” and it was even claimed that “the same formation, with more or less difference, runs along the whole Pacific shore till it is lost in the southern portion of the Chilian [Chilean] Republic.” It was allowed, though, that “gold has not been, nor probably will be, found anywhere in such abundance as in Upper California.”

Despite this fantastic statement, there was the caution that “this abundance . . . is much exaggerated in the heated imagination of the public” and “it is not in the nature of placer gold to be durable long” because “a very few years, where there will be many arms are at work, will exhaust it.” The location of gold was a “lines running north and south from forty to sixty miles from the ridge of the Sierra Nevada; and on the west, as the hills begin to soften into the plains.”

There was some speculation as to the establishment, “at some remote period in the history of the globe” of the geologic structure that led to gold being brought to the surface within the range among the “atmospheric conditions” that also formed the oaks and other vegetation, so that “the freed particles of hold thus became covered by the soil and mixed up with it.” How gold became deposited in quartz “is more than we can say, but the fact that it was in a liquid state, is beyond question . . . as is the case with all melting substances.”

Due to “external friction,” there was the variety in which flakes were found in rivers and streams, but elsewhere in “a platelike appearance, as if it were hammered out by the hands of an artisan.” There was the crushing weight of the “stone under which it is deposited” as well as the fact that “water . . . washing the sides of the hills, brought the gold from their surface into the ravines and rivers.” The unknown amount of time involved meant that “lighter particles of course [were] floating away the furthest from their original bed” while others were “covered with greater or smaller depth of soil, sand, gravel and stones” and “strictly speaking, gold does not belong to the rivers, [as] it was washed into them from the adjoining hill.”

Prices of some goods and remarks by San Francisco merchants Jewett & Melhado.

Stating the obvious that not every section of the gold region had large deposits of the precious metal, the account noted that “the first comers had the best chances to hit upon large deposits; but as diggers multiply, the chances of falling upon virgin deposits grow smaller.” It was going to take much more work to make the endeavor profitable as it was reported that “the labor is much harder this year than it was last.” Consequently,

At present there are not so many of those happy hits as formerly, although we yet hear now and then of a lucky haul, which, however, when it reaches the ears of the public becomes extremely distorted, and particularly so when companies that have dammed some spots of some of the rivers wish to dispose advantageously of their shares; these easily find letter-writers who communicate the lucky event to the public through the press.

The problem was that such accounts were not usually matched by the reality that many came up empty or did not make enough money to either pay expenses or prove all that profitable and it was added that “there is no harder labor than that of gold digging and washing; this species of labor, required the strongest sinews, inured to fatigue.” In fact, in some areas, the work was such that “gold digging [was] particularly irksome,” even if “all this can be borne and one’s labor may sometimes be crowned with a brilliant success.”

The purpose for this detailed account was for the greenhorn miner and, while “we are far from discouraging the new aspirants after the favors of dame Fortune,” the paper warned that, while there may be opportunities for striking it rich:

Those from distant parts who, on a mere sound of the discovery of gold in California, rush headline, sometimes leaving very good business and comfortable living, cannot but rue the day if they put their sole dependence upon success in the mines . . . we have already plenty of miners; a larger number of them only diminishes the profits of all.

“F.P.W.” went on to say that “when this gold mania ceases to rage, individuals will abandon the mines; and then there will be a good opportunity for companies with heavy capital to step in,” and this became more manifest as the placer diggings played out and shaft mining and then the intensive and environmentally more destructive hydraulic mining were to take over. Corporate mining would more efficiently canvass the gold regions and “the country will enter on a career of real progress, and not till then.”

The writer opined that the best way to handle the future of prospecting would be for lots to be created and sold to mining companies “at a very moderate price,” while adjacent properties in the plains would be set out for farmers, with the mining lots established by proximity to streams and the adjacent steep sections to the ridges of the Sierra. These would necessarily be very large to make the effort and expense of prospecting worthwhile and, somewhat similarly, other lots near watercourses needed to be substantial when in areas only suitable for raising livestock, yet having access to water, including locations for houses.

In the Pacific News of 1 September, “Gold News” was a report that was said to be “from the most authentic sources, from men who are recently from the diggings, and from those who have been engaged prospecting over the whole of that interesting region.” In the Sacramento region, there were still examples of “a good dividend of something like ten to fifteen dollars a day to all industrious laborers.” One area passed by when the first gold-seekers came through “has been wrought with great success, something like an average of two hundred dollars each, to a party of three, for some two weeks past.”

A very popular method was diverting a watercourse and working the channel, but “it requires a union of some twenty to sixty to build the same.” A new hot spot was along the Feather River “where the finest gold has been found” and “it yields the average of an ounce per man, if he works well.” It was added that “the lazy and inactive in this country do not fare any better here than in any other, and the dissipated are often the earliest victims to the diseases of the climate.” Of some 3,000 toilers, “hard labor is well rewarded by the bountiful hand of Nature.”

The “Ayuba,” or Yuba, River “is said to be the surest place for making money by those who stick to one spot” and it was added that “the Indian trade is brisk.” Some blankets fetched from four to ten ounces of gold each and one man “has already realized a few thousands by his mercantile shrewdness.” The north fork of the American River “has now a majority of miners” with much silver found in addition to gold, and many left the middle fork for that locale, though report were that these were not doing as well as hoped and it was stated “the Oregon men seem to be the luckiest diggers” in the section.

As to method, it was noted that “the old-fashioned rocker is the only and the simplest way yet invented to separate the dirt from the ore,” though it was thought that quicksilver (mercury) would later be used, though “gold is yet too plenty and too easily procured to need to aid of” such material. The weather was also noted, with morning and evenings “cool and delightful,” while midday could be anywhere from 90 to 115 degrees. It was stated that there were about 15,000 men working the Sacramento and its tributaries and through January 1850 it was anticipated that “they will doubtless relieve the earth of little less than $20,000,000, and this we consider a moderate estimate.”

After briefly noting work on the San Joaquin, which had about an equal number of miners even if areas were “wrought and re-wrought,” and the Stanislaus River, where some of the large gold nuggets (one said to be 15 pounds) were found, with thousands “waiting the low water to excavate the virgin bars of this wealthy river,” the account turned to Wood’s Creek in what became Jamestown, near where F.P.F. Temple long owned land in that area of Tuolumne County where Columbia (a state park today) and Sonora were situated.”

There, “the dry diggings . . . have yielded thousands of ounces, and the Mexicans located at the Sonorian camp [Sonora] have reaped a rich harvest,” though the account continued that “these diggings are nearly deserted for a lack of water to wash the gold.” Nearby, “on the Stanislaus [River,] the shores are filled with springs, and pumps are necessary to keep the water out while digging.”

To the south, on either side of Yosemite, “the Tuolumne and the Mercedes [Merced] Rivers have been merely skimmed over, yet with brilliant success,” while to the north, “many feet are now turned toward the ravines of the Calaveres [Calaveras River], where a fortunate miner earned $20,000 in two weeks.” It was added that “we had the pleasure of seeing some of this windfall of gold,” while further news awaited the return of miners from the upper reaches of the mountains.

With regard to the San Joaquin and its tributary courses, it was reported that 20,000 men were engaged in mining that was expected, by January, to yield the same $20 million figure reported above for the Sacramento River region, though the piece continued that it was expected that “this country will yield not less than $40,000,000 annually—and income unprecedented in the annals of the world.” Advice was proffered, as well:

A word to those about starting for this region: Stout, hard-working men are those who acquire the most gold. Boarding-tents are plenty all over the mineral country, and board varies from $3 to $5 per day. Parties of from three to five, are the most successful. All large parties break up from a want of unity of feeling, after reaching here; in fact, they are unprofitable. Machinery is of no use, and does not sell for the freight it costs.

Beyond the blinding allure of mining, however, it was noted that “the flourishing Cities of Sacramento, Stockton, Benecia [Benicia], and others, are the best evidence of the immense value of this wealth, in populating a land that only needs laborers to make it one of the finest grazing and agricultural countries in the world.”

Finally, the article concluded with the report that “new and valuable gold mines have been discovered upon the Turkee [Truckee] River just the other side of the Sierra Nevada, and several parties from the northern forks [American River?] were on their way thither” because of news that between $500 and $1,000 per day was being unearthed in the region north of Lake Tahoe. The last word was “if this report is true, the real diggings are just being discovered.”

Other articles concerned affairs at booming San Francisco, including “an original view,” purportedly from “James Pipes” and dated “Jooly 27” with the entertaining letter filled with strange spellings and accounts of gold-hungry doctors and dentists, the high cost of eating out and lodging, and affairs at the theater. This latter, in fact, was the haunt of Stephen C. Massett (1820-1898) a British actor, composer and writer who created the “James Pipes of Pipesville” character and who was lured by gold fever to California and was said to be the professional entertainer in San Francisco.

There is also a short biographical sketch of John Sutter, whose mill at Coloma east of San Francisco was the site of the discovery of gold and a “Miscellaneous” digest of news from the Alta California of 16 August and the Pacific News of 1 September. Among the items in this section were several references to outbreaks of cholera, dysentery and diarrhea, including about the “Kanakas of Happy Valley,” meaning the native people near Redding, as well as in Sacramento and San Francisco, though, with this latter, it was said that “the general health of the 5,000 inhabitants . . . is good.”

With respect to arrivals in California, it was reported that “the whole world seems to be represented by its shipping” including those from America, England, France, Germany, Argentina, Chile, Peru, the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii,) Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), China, the Philippines, and more. Not only were passengers attracted by “the magnetic influence of the yellow ore,” but “about all these vessels have been deserted by their crews” and, in some cases, the captains, to boot. So crowded was the wharf with ships that “whenever one leaves, it is apt to get a foul [sic] of its nearest neighbor before getting a breeze and ample sea-room.”

As for crime, there was a report that “Red Davis,” known also as “Old Red, was caught in Santa Clara and sent to Stockton to face some sort of tribunal leading to a hanging for an unnamed offense, though he supposedly confessed to five murders for which innocent men were executed. In San Francisco, the “Hounds,” mentioned in the first part of this post, were being hunted and punished, with the paper calling this a balm to law and order, though it requested round-the-clock policing so the city “will never again witness such outrages.”

Meantime, a militia called the “California Guards” was formed, with one of its leaders being Myron Norton, a Harvard graduate and member of the New York Volunteers, from which the Hounds were purportedly formed. Norton was said to have been a defense attorney for Hounds members and was also a delegate to the constitutional convention, also mentioned in part one and which created the document at the end of 1849.

Norton moved to Los Angeles by 1851 and served as a “Judge Advocate” in the trial, staged by a state-chartered militia and its general Joshua Bean (brother of the infamous Judge Roy Bean, the “Law West of the Pecos” in Texas, but who resided with his sibling in San Gabriel in the early Fifties and remained there for almost a decade following Joshua’s mysterious 1852 murder in the mission town) of Indian chief Antonio Garra, who was crudely executed at San Diego, and ten other natives whose revolt stirred the indigenous people to try to stem the onrush of Americans and Europeans in their lands in southern California. Norton remained in Los Angeles for about thirty-five years and was a prominent attorney and county judge.

In a summary, the paper noted the “copious details from our Pacific files” and that these were “of a highly interesting character.” It accounted that the reports on gold mining “are as favorable as could be expected” and better than the previous ones, as water levels dropped in rivers “and the hard labor of the miners appears to be well rewarded,” while “the mist of exaggeration is being gradually cleared away, and the true position of affairs in California can now be more easily ascertained.”

Also noted was the movement toward the convening of the constitutional convention and it was stated that “a decidedly Anti-Slavery spirit is manifested throughout,” though this was hardly about equality so much as it was about helping white labor. It was added that “the troubles anticipated with the Chilians and other foreigners do not seem to have been experienced,” though “the removal of these ‘outside barbarians’ from the diggings have been, partially at least, accomplished without resort to actual violence,” as if this was somehow a satisfactory state of affairs. Finally, it was reported that “the indications of a high regard for law and order among the respectable portion of the citizens of California” was helped by new arrivals by sea and that “those dissolute characters who have flocked to the Pacific expecting immunity for all their crimest [sic], meet a more stringent justice than they left at home.”

In all, this issue of the Tribune is a wealth of Gold Rush-related material and the Museum’s holdings contain other newspapers with accounts of that era, which we’ll look to share in future “Read All About It” posts.

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