Read All About It: Early Gold Rush California Reports in the New-York Tribune, 31 March 1849

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

While James Marshall’s earth-shaking discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill on the American River in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Sacramento took place at the end of January 1848, news of it did not reach New York City until mid-September, followed by confirmation by President James K. Polk in his State of the Union message to Congress, dated 5 December. Meanwhile, by the onset of summer, most of the men in the small town of San Francisco (until recently known as Yerba Buena) left for the mines and over that season and into the fall, migrants from México, Central and South America, Hawai’i, China and other locales along the Pacific Rim were pouring in and prospecting.

The great rush of the ’49ers began soon after Polk’s message and the non-indigenous population of California, seized by the United States two years earlier during the Mexican-American War, surged from under 10,000 to about 100,000. The mass migration was perhaps unprecedented in human history in terms of an array of people (almost exclusively men) of varied ethnicities going to a newly taken territory without an official status and, so, without much of a functional government and, therefore, little to stop conflict and violence among people not disposed to get along together even in the best of circumstances.

F.P.F. Temple was one of those who left Los Angeles to investigate the mines in 1849 and purchased the first property in Tuolumne County in the “southern mines” that led him to invest heavily in grazing land, slaughterhouses and butcher shops so he could import and process cattle owned by him, his father-in-law William Workman and others (such as Temple’s brother, Jonathan) as a more reliable means of making money during the Gold Rush.

For several years, the economic results were stunning. One estimate is that $10 million in gold was unearthed in 1849 and, over the next three years, the figures were said to be: 1850: $41 million; 1851: $75 million; 1852: $81 million. While the vast majority of miners realized little or nothing from their sedulous efforts, though some found success and a few wound up with fortunes, the cattle ranchers of greater Los Angeles generally found 1849 to 1855 period one of salad days with respect to income in the beef trade. The rush, naturally, receded, though Temple continued his ownership of real estate in Columbia, Sonora and Springfield into the 1870s.

An artifact from the Museum’s collection that, for this post, helps us better understand the ferment of the Gold Rush is the 31 March 1849 edition of the New-York Weekly Tribune, which was founded eight years earlier by Thomas McElrath and Horace Greeley, the latter being by far the better-known of the partners and who was credited with coining the phrase “Go West, young man!” (an Indiana newspaper first used the term, however) while also being the Democratic Party candidate for president in 1872—dying shortly after losing the campaign.

The paper’s contents include a good deal of interesting material, including the horrifying conditions of famine in Ireland (which drove many Irish emigrants to America); a flood in Chicago; the commemoration in France of the 60th anniversary of the great revolution there; the use of chloroform for a breast cancer operation; and much else. The front page contained a poem reprinted from the abolitionist newspaper, The National Era, which existed from 1847 to 1860, and which was titled “Impromptu: On Receiving an Eagle’s Quill from Lake Superior.” The versifier, an abolitionist Quaker from Massachusetts, was John Greenleaf Whittier, namesake of the local city of that name.

The work was a meditation on the rapidly expanding American empire and a sample includes reference to where the hordes were heading in their pursuit of riches:

I hear the tread of pioneers

Of nations yet to be;

The first low wash of waves where soon

Shall roll a human sea.

The rudiments of empire here

Are plastic yet, and warm;

The chaos of a mighty world

Is rounding into form!

Each rude and jostling fragment soon

Its fitting place shall find—

The raw material of a State

Its muscle and its mind!

And, westering still, the Star which leads

The New-World in its train

Has tipped with fire the icy spears

Of many a mountain chain.

The snowy cones of Oregon

Are kindling on its way;

And California’s golden sands

Gleam brighter in its ray!

Among the reports related to California and the rush were two brief notices on both sides of the gold trade. One was that a steamship, the California, was reported to have taken $1 million in coin at the Mexican port of San Blas in the state of Nayarit “to be shipped to San Francisco for the purchase of gold dust.” The other was from the American ship Lexington, with the craft’s purser writing to New York that “he had $178,000 in gold dust under his charge” and that this cargo was to go to Valparaiso, Chile and then to Panama for transport over the isthmus for a steamer to carry it to the Big Apple. Separately, it was stated that a merchant in New York was awaiting shipment of $30,000 in gold dust then at Panama.

A continuing series of reports under the heading of “The Golden Chronicles” provided listings of the many immigrants heading to California, with some going solo but a good number part of organized companies. One left the New York state capital of Albany and styled itself as “The Albany and Sacramento Mining Association” and was to sail from New York City “furnished with a year’s provisions, two years’ clothing, wagons, boats, and mining equipments [sic] in profusion.” Its secretary was Leonard Kip, who quickly soured on California and returned to New York, authoring California Sketches With Recollections of the Gold Mines, in which he was critical of the chaos at San Francisco and predicted the rush would quickly go bust and most gold-seekers would return to their homes. His older brother, William, came out to California and became the bishop of the Episcopalian Church and is the great-great grandfather of the well-known Koch brothers of Koch Industries.

Another confederation from Binghamton, New York adopted a constitution for its organization limited to 50 members, which was to make its gold rush journey “by the most feasible overland route” and which “is to have both a civil and military organization.” As part of its founding document,

all games of chance are strictly prohibited under a penalty of $50 fine for the first offence, and $100 for the second, with expulsion for the third; while various good arrangements are made for the peace and comfort of the brethren who shall be united therein.

From Massachusetts, the New-Bedford and California Mining Association left that port city while the Nantucket Mining Company, with 47 members, was to leave from there with the report commenting that “this Company comprises some of the most respectable citizens of Nantucket, who have a capital of several thousand dollars invested in merchandise for the California market, and will combine both trading and mining operations.” Long lists of migrants were provided, including those going overland and others by sea, and there were brief notices of parties at Rio de Janeiro and Brownsville, Texas as they were en route.

A reprint from the Baltimore American concerned a letter, dated the day after Christmas 1848, from San Francisco, and which observed that the prices of goods there were mostly unchanged since a previous missive, though flour did drop by half, while beer and lumber went up. The latter was anticipated to continue to rise “as the demand is great to build houses for emigrants pouring in from all parts, where the information has reached of the richness of the gold region.” The correspondent added that “I suppose you are all convinced by this time, by the arrival of large sums of dust in the United States and England,” including a ship that was said to be carrying $400,000, upon the arrival of which “all farther doubts will be at an end.”

It was reported that “the rainy season has commenced, and the snow on the California Ridge [Sierra Nevada Mountains] will interrupt the diggings to a considerable extent for two or three months, when the miners will go at it again with increased vigor.” The writer went on to observe that “all the foreign population in the neighboring islands are coming, and many of the natives” and, while dwellings were being built quickly, there were so many arrivals “that they cannot find a place to sleep in,” while rooms of 12 feet square were renting for $50 a month.

This informative letter noted that with incessant demand for transportation, the wages for sailors was up to $60 per month, while American day laborers earned up to $6 daily and carpenters fetched $10. While the unnamed writer noted that most San Francisco residents were well-behaved, “except when a large party come in from the mines with plenty of gold, and even then they conduct themselves as well as could be expected.” Yet, he warned, the federal government needed to “send out a strong government to keep the loose population in order,” as “murders are becoming rather frequent at the mines.” This included a family of eight killed by a quintet of AWOL sailors who “were lynched by hanging, a few hours after.”

The correspondent concluded with:

I think the emigration will be so great from all parts of the world, that their wants will keep prices up, and unless shipments are very large, no material change will take place for a year or two in articles of necessity, and even of fancy, because with the accumulation of wealth rapidly acquired, people become extravagant and spend their money freely.

A letter from Panama dated 24 January and published in the National Intelligencer recorded that the writer say several missives from San Francisco, with one reporting that five loads of earth from dry diggings yielded $16,000 when washed, while there were purportedly examples of men realizing $800 and $1,500 daily. It was noted that “these may be but traveller’s stories,” but a man named Phelps attested to them and added “there is no romance attached to them; that they are facts.”

A piece of correspondence from Acapulco bearing the date of 11 February averred that “we get all the good news from the gold diggings” and that “authentic accounts” from the prior November stated “that some persons were averaging from $30 to $40 per day,” though most miners working two to three months were lucky to get $15 daily from their exertions. As to the down time with the onset of the winter rains, it was passed along that “some two or three thousand miners had arrived at San Francisco and Monterey, and such a scene of gambling, dissipation and fighting was never witnessed before.”

Reports from migrants in transit and at Veracruz, on the eastern coast along the Gulf of México, were that a caravan of merchants would travel across the country to Guadalajara and the rate was $40 for the trip of up to 45 days. From that point, it was unclear how the traveler was to get to California and it was added that “there are, I should think, some two or three hundred persons here on their way” to the gold fields, though “some who came in the vessel with us are going back.” Those giving up on their dreams of wealth when confronted with the rigors of travel were not minuscule in number.

Another correspondent from that area, advised, in a note from 10 February, that “in the first place, this is the route” to California, but cautioned that travelers should go directly by sea to Veracruz as “it saves time and money” given that going overland to New Orleans from the east and northeast “is expensive, and subjects one to so many delays,” particularly at the Crescent City. The sea route, however, was about $35 and up to 20 days, where the land route could cost near triple. Obtaining passports at Veracruz cost about $1 and “the officers at the Custom-House are very gentlemanly, and render all necessary assistance,” with a basic inspection of luggage and no confiscation of weapons—this not long after the war upon which México was shorn of 55% of its territory by the United States.

A 24 February letter from “T.P.E.” in Panama went into some detail about the partial crossing at that isthmus (something done not quite two years later by Andrew A. Boyle, later a Los Angeles resident and father-in-law of William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste.) The writer indicated that the journey of some 23 miles and taking 28 hours included a fandango before the company took to their tents to sleep. Upon arrival at what was said to be “Panama,” but was actually Colón, the correspondent noted there were 300 migrants there and another 700 on the way.

After putting up at a French hotel, the writer was lodging at the Washington House, where room and board was 90 cents daily and the room substantial and well-ventilated with good beds so that “everything is better than I ever anticipated.” He went so far as to say that the warnings he’d heard back home were “humbugs” and “I would never go any other way than this.” He adjudged that “Panama is a splendid place and I never enjoyed myself more than I have here” while the Pacific remined him of Coney Island and he and his companions enjoyed a sea bath amid “lovely weather.” Had the writer been there in the summer (January to May is the dry season and the rest of the year is the humid wet period), the story would have been very different!

Finally, an editorial queried, “Why is not California Organized?” addressing the ongoing limbo concerning the possession since it, along with New Mexico (and other future states) was wrested by the United States from México in January 1847. The piece began by asserting, “The People are asking this questions—it is natural and right that they should ask it” and noted that it “is rapidly filling up with our own people, and also with adventurers from the four quarters of the earth, many of whom are the most abandoned desperadoes and miscreants.” Then, it turned to obligations of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which formally ended the war, and observed that it mandated “protection and security to the Mexican population” and “we are bound by considerations of justice, policy, affection and humanity” to also assist “our brethren who have migrated thither or are now on their way, reposing implicit faith in the shelter of the starry flag.”

Congress, however, had not yet determined the status of California, other than applying revenue laws, so that “there is a kind of Military Conqueror’s rule,” while “there is likely to be established—no thanks to Congress—a spontaneous, indigenous [not Indian, of course], impromptu civil organization, founded in pure necessity.” Such an administration, though, is not one “demanded by the exigencies of the case and suggested by all the parallels in history.” The House of Representatives, the piece went on, was not to blame, as “a comprehensive and efficient Territorial bill” was approved early on, but, upon being sent to the Senate, it languished “though nearly every Senator from the Free States voted to consider it.” A few, however, “voted with the South or dodged, and the bill sleeps the sleep of death on the Senate’s table.”

There was a Senate bill sponsored by a member from Wisconsin, but it was tied to an appropriations bill and the House refused to consider it because of the conditions imposed before it decided to amend the upper chamber’s legislation “so as to continue in force the Mexica laws not inconsistent with the rights and liberties of American citizens” including one that “abolished and prohibited Slavery in that Territory.” This maneuver, in turn, was opposed by the Senate. Given this, the Tribune opined

Such are the facts, and we submit that it is in no manner the fault of the House, nor of the advocates of Free Soil that California has not been organized. They were ready and anxious to do it on any terms which should not open the country to the inroads of Slavery. That they could not consent to, and nothing less would satisfy the Senate . . . We submit to the People of the States and the People of the Territories that it is not Freedom but Slavery which has temporarily denied to California the blessings of Civil Government.

As noted in the editorial, citizens, many of whom were new Gold Rush arrivals, formed a convention which met at Monterey late in 1849 and wrote and approved a constitution, followed by elections and the establishment of a civil government. That document prohibited slavery, though not for reasons of equality and concern about African-Americans and their living conditions in California; in fact, it was the general position that Blacks should be kept out so as not to depress wages, though there were plenty of men who brought slaves here and kept them in bondage.

An important case heard in the district court in Los Angeles early in 1856 involved Biddy Mason, who, with her family and others, was brought to the Angel City several years prior from Utah by a Mormon slaveholder. While she was successful in securing freedom for herself and family, the question of de facto slavery was one hardly settled by the 1849 constitution or the admission of California as a free state in September 1850.

There are a number of Gold Rush-era newspapers in the Museum’s holdings and, while some have been shared on this blog, we’ll continue to feature these in upcoming posts in the “Read All About It” series, so keep an eye out for those.

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