The Beginning of the California Gold Rush – 1848
At the beginning of 1848, the newly-named town of San Francisco — previously Yerba Buena — was a hamlet community of about 750 persons up from Yerba Buena Cove, huddled up around Portsmouth Square. California was not yet a state of the Union, nor was it officially a territory of the United States; therefore, bureaucratically, though led by U. S.-appointed military leaders since July 1846 and throughout the Mexican-American War, by 1848 San Francisco, and other towns about California, were still organized under the Mexican system. In the summer of 1847, setting out from the settlement of Sacramento — then known as New Helvetia — James Wilson Marshall, at the request of John Augustus Sutter, had wandered into the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in search of a location for building a saw mill. Marshall chose a small valley on the South Fork of the American River which Indians called Culluma (later Coloma), and in the fall set to the work of constructing said mill with his manpower, a group of Mormons that instead of returning to Utah, had stayed on in California after involvement in the Mexican-American War. On Jan. 19, 1848, still finalizing the mill, Marshall noticed something glistening in the tailrace. Obtaining a sample of the glittering substance, he took it to Sutter’s Fort at New Helvetia, and after numerous tests, in late-January 1848, he and Sutter were fairly convinced it was gold, and casual mining by all workers took place around the saw mill. It was on Feb. 2, 1848 that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, officially ceding California territory to the United States.
It appears news of the gold first reached San Francisco when Charles Bennett, one of those in contract with Marshall to build the mill for Sutter, arrived in town with some of the gold. Meeting Isaac Humphrey, a man that had mined gold in northern Georgia in the 1830s, in what was the closest thing to a gold rush the United States had yet seen, was a turning point as well, for seeing Bennett’s sample, Humphrey declared it the “pure stuff.” On March 7, 1848, Bennett arrived back at Coloma with Humphrey who showed them how to build and work a “rocker.”-^- Much success was had, and seeing this, while work on the mill resumed, the mining pursuits became more of a priority, and before long, the Mormon Battalion had built their own rocker and were finding substantial gold as well. But as the Mormon Battalion’s success increased, Sutter, Marshall and Co. wanted 10% of the yield. Therefore, the Mormons left Coloma and formed their own mining camp down river at the fork of the American River. The camp became known as Mormon Island (later Natoma); it was the first mining camp outside of Coloma.–> Due to damming, today Mormon Island is submerged beneath Folsom Lake.
The first public report of the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill was published in San Francisco by the Californian on March 15, 1848: “GOLD MINE FOUND. — In the newly made raceway of the Saw Mill recently erected by Captain Sutter, on the American Fork, gold has been found in considerable quantities. One person brought thirty dollars worth to New Helvetia [roughly $800 today], gathered there in a short time. California, no doubt, is rich in mineral wealth; great chances here for scientific capitalists. Gold has been found in almost every part of the country.”^ While many histories of this era tell that folks in San Francisco didn’t pay the news in the Californian much mind, a report in the California Star just three days later, on March 18, 1848, seems to tell a different story: “The Philosopher’s Stone never called into the field, and away from honest labor such a host of diligent bodies, as have the recent discoveries in the mineral kingdom, in California.”< While it is indeed possible that the Star was referring to the Mormons at Mormon Island, given that the publisher of the Star was Samuel Brannan, local Mormon leader and co-proprietor of a store at Sutter’s Fort (which had furnished supplies for building Sutter’s Mill), given that Brannan was in San Francisco, it may suggest an already noticeable migration of laborers to the gold mines, whether by way of word-of-mouth, news articles, &c. Likewise, just a week later, the Star reported, “So great is the quantity of gold taken from the mine recently found at New Helvetia, that it has become an article of traffic in that vicinity.”> And then in April a more thorough report of the goings-on: “The Rio Sacramento is navigable to the head of the main valley. It has a mine of gold and a probable estimate of its magnitude cannot be derived from any information we have received. It was discovered . . . on the south branch of the American Fork, in a range of low hills forming the base of Sierra Nevada, distant 30 miles from New Helvetia. It is found at a depth of three feet below the surface, and in a strata of soft sand rock. Explorations made southward, the distance of twelve miles, and to the north five miles, report the continuance of this strata, and the mineral equally abundant. The vein is from twelve to eighteen feet in thickness. Most advantageously to this new mine, a stream of water flows in its immediate neighborhood, and the washing will be attended with comparative ease.”< It was during this time that Samuel Brannan traveled to New Helvetia, Mormon Island, and Coloma, to see the mining for himself, and utterly convinced of the magnitude of the findings, started additional stores at both additional locations, which he stocked with mining equipment and other necessary goods. Getting a hold of some of the placer gold in the process, the story goes that he placed a good-sized sample in an empty quinine bottle, and on his return to San Francisco on May 10, 1848, walked down Montgomery Street shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold on the American River!” and then presented the gold sample at Portsmouth Square to an enthralled crowd. Therefore, the skeptics caught the gold fever, and over the next month or so San Francisco became a ghost town as families dropped everything and traveled to the mines, many of which bought their mining equipment at one of Brannan’s stores.
To the north of the gold country was Bidwell’s Bar, a camp started by John Bidwell, founder of Chico, Calif., who at one time worked at Sutter’s Fort, and was the one that drew up the contract between Sutter and Marshall to build the saw mill.-*- After visiting Sutter’s Fort in early-1848 and learning the news, Bidwell checked out Coloma, returned to Chico, got together a prospecting party, and headed down to the fork in the Feather River, of similar appearance to the American, took a stab, and hit pay-dirt. Before long, Bidwell’s Bar turned into a boisterous mining camp and town, but as such went, by late-1849 it was no longer center of the best mining, though it was a base for those venturing further into new diggings, to come back to in the winter, &c., as a man related to the Alta in December 1849: “We are located at precisely the same grounds occupied by your [I think this should be our] company sixteen months ago. There is now a large settlement on this (Bidwell’s) bar, but the success of its population at gold digging this year has not been of the most flattering nature. About nine miles above this place, are the diggings discovered by the Oregonians on a bar similar to this, and by all accounts there has been some tall operations by its settlers. The washings are said to hold out well, and the gold, is generally much coarser than that found at this place, pieces weighing less than a dollar not being frequently met with, while many lumps are taken out which are worth one and two hundred dollars [$2750-5500]. You thought the country above Bidwell’s far too mountainous to permit of exploration. It has been traversed by large and small parties, and a stream flowing into the South Fork discovered to contain gold.”^^ Similar to the fate of Mormon Island, due to damming, the location of Bidwell’s Bar is today submerged beneath Lake Oroville. [Note: Mining camps designated bars noted the mining of a sandy or rocky bed that was higher than the water of the stream; however, during the rainy season, the bar would possibly become submerged beneath the river — Bars were also referred to as the wet diggings and were generally located in deeper canyons of the foothills and mountains.]
Around the same time, in May 1848, with around 800 folks working the area around Coloma, one of the richest strikes to that point was found at a place south of the South Fork of the American River, along a number of creeks; they called it Dry Diggins, due to the fact that one only had to have a sheath-knife to pick the gold from the rocks.@ In 1849, due to the settlement’s turning to lynch law in response to crime during the gold rush, Dry Diggins became known as Hangtown. In 1850, it was renamed Placerville, as it remains today.<< A report from the Sacramento region in April 1848 informed the Californian that “Seven men, with picks and spades, gather[ed] $1600 [$44,000] worth in fifteen days. Many persons are settling upon the lands with the view of holding pre-emptions, but as yet every person takes the right to gather all they can, without any regard to claims.”>> Come August 1848, Dry Diggins was still the place to be: “I find these ‘dry diggins,’ far exceed any thing that has ever been discovered. At the lower mines, the miners count the success of the day in dollars, at the upper mines near the Mill in ounces, and here in pounds! The pieces found here are of an astonishing size; the largest piece which I shall inform you of (for you would not believe me if I told the whole truth) weighs about 13 pounds. The only instrument used at first was a butcher’s knife, and the demand for the article was so great that $40 has been refused for one; now a pick and spoon or shovel is used. . . . News has just arrived that new ‘diggins’ have been discovered on the Stanislaus river, and about 200 persons leave this morning for the new prospect.”+=
Off the North Fork of the American you had other “dry diggins” located as well, these by Claude Chana, a native of Burgundy, France, who’d come to California in 1846 and like Bidwell worked at Sutter’s Fort for a time. After news of the gold and visiting Coloma, also similar to Bidwell, Chana headed back home (Yuba County, four leagues on Bear Creek, rancho of Nemehas),*^ organized a mining party of his friends and countrymen, with plans to return to the South Fork of the American River; but heading south, while camping near the North Fork, on May 16, 1848, Chana and company mined a bit and hit a strike. The camp became known as the North Fork Dry Diggins, and when Chana eventually moved on, it became known as Wood’s Dry Diggins (apparently after John S. Wood who’d been a member of Col. J. D. Stevenson’s regiment during the Mexican-American War). In 1849, it became the town of Auburn. Though these areas tended to draw the majority of the mining population during the rush in 1848, many other mining camps were established throughout the gold country during 1848 as well, moving all the way south to the Calaveras, Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Mercedes rivers. For instance, on the Yuba there was Foster’s Bar, Parks’ Bar and Rose’s Bar; on the Middle Fork of the American there was Ford’s Bar and Kelsey’s Bar or Kelsey’s Diggins; on the Mokelumne was Big Bar, and nearby the settlement of Jackson; near the Stanislaus was Angel’s Camp, Spanish Bar, Drytown, and Mormon Gulch (later Tuttletown); on Woods Creek between the Stanislaus and the Tuolumne was Woods Crossing, Jamestown, and the Sonorian Camp (later Sonora); and on the North Fork of the Mokelumne, there was Mokelumne Hill, and north of that, on Sutter’s Creek, was Soldier’s Gulch (later Volcano), &c.
How The California Mines Are Worked
With the gold rush now fully on, and feeling the chaotic effects, in early-June 1848, the Star wrote: “It is an exciting work — that of gold gathering — and it will be morally impossible for a large a body composed of such opposite natures to avoid collision and tumult. — Reports reach us by every arrival from the section of country to which all eyes are turned, of every day’s increased addition to the number already actively employed.”+ A week or so later, the Star summed up the activity: “Every seaport as far south as San Diego, and every interior town, and nearly every rancho from the base of the mountains in which the gold has been found, to the Mission of San Luis, south, has become suddenly drained of human beings. Americans, Californians, Indians and Sandwich Islanders; men, women and children, indiscriminately. . . . There are at this time over one thousand souls busied in washing gold, and the yield per diem may be safely estimated at from fifteen to twenty dollars [$400-525], each individual. . . . The probable amount taken from these mountains since the first of May last, we are informed is $100,000 [over $2.5M], and which is at this time principally in the hands of the mechanical, agricultural and laboring classes.”= Just a few days following this report, the Star announced it was halting publication: “A paper cannot be made by magic, and the labor of mechanism is as essential to its existence as to all other arts. . . . The cry of GOLD had hardly diminished the number of paper takers, but had we the means of continuing the paper, and they the literary palate of late, we could hardly furnish them regularly with the news. Our agencies are broken up, the methods of conveyance destroyed, and no one can define the locus in quo of his neighbor.”~
In mid-July 1848, the Californian reported on the extent of California’s gold country: “The country from the [Yuba] to the San Joaquin rivers, a distance of about 120 miles, and from the base towards the summit of the mountains, as far as Snow Hill, about 70 miles, has been explored, and gold found on every part. There are now probably 3000 people, including Indians, engaged collecting gold. . . . The publisher of this paper [J. D. Hoppe], while on a tour along to the mining district, collected, with the aid of a shovel, pick and tin pan, about 20 inches in diameter, from $44 to $128 a day — averaging $100 [$1160-3400 a day, averaging $2650].”++ A correspondent to the Californian, writing from Sutter’s Fort, added: “at the base of the great Sierra Nevada . . . One of our party dipped up a cup full of sand from the bed of the creek, washed it and found five pieces of gold. This was our first attempt at gold digging. . . . I could fill your columns with the most astonishing tales concerning the mines here far exceling [sic] the Arabian Nights, and all true to the letter.”== On July 15th, the Californian suspended operations as well: “The suspension of this paper has not occurred for want of materials or pecuniary means, but alone from the sudden, exciting change which has occurred since the discovery of the extensive gold mines in the Sierra Nevada. Many of our subscribers and agents have left their usual places of abode, and the means of conveyance has been cut off from many parts of California, and wishing to collect a little of that which ‘glistens’ ourselves, renders the suspension obvious to all.”~~ When the Californian resumed publication two months later, they reflected on the scene in May and June 1848: “Then commenced the grand rush! The inhabitants throughout the territory were in commotion. Large companies of men, women and children could be seen on every road leading to the mines, their wagons loaded down with tools for digging, provisions, &c. Launch after launch left the wharves of our city, crowded with passengers and freight for the Sacramento. Mechanical operations of every kind ceased, whole streets, that were but a short week before alive with a busy population, were entirely deserted, and the place wore the appearance of a city that had been suddenly visited by a devastating plague.”<<>
Also within the Californian‘s return edition of Aug. 14, 1848 was printed a proclamation written by the military governor of California, Col. Richard Barnes Mason, relating that even the Army and Navy were unable to keep folks from racing to the gold fields: “Persons employed at the mines are reminded that up to this time, they have enjoyed the high priviledge [sic] of digging gold on government land, without charge and without hindrance. In return for this priviledge [sic], they are bound to assist in apprehending deserters, and in giving notice to the nearest Military Officer where any are concealed. A Dragoon force will soon be at the Mining District, and will traverse it in every direction, to arrest deserters from the Army and Navy, and to apprehend such citizens as harbor or employ them.”^^^ Similarly incensed, commercial ship masters were flummoxed in regard to maintaining a crew after harboring at San Francisco: “The case now is that every ship which arrives here loses the majority of her crew, within eight and forty hours after her arrival. In many instances the vessels are plundered and their captains have to apply in vain for assistance to the authorities. In a case recently occurred, a part of the crew went into the cabin armed, and threatened death to the officers if they offered resistance, while others loaded the boat with the cargo from the hold, with which they all escaped up the Sacramento unpunished.”#
The Californian declared it a “revolution”: “in less than four months, a total revolution has been effected in the prospects and the fate of Alta California. Then, the capital was in the hands of a few individuals engaged in trade and speculation, now labor has got the upper hands of capital, and the laboring men hold the great mass of the wealth of the country — the gold. There are now about four thousand white persons, besides a number of Indians engaged in the mines, and from the fact that no capital is required, they are working in companies on equal shares or alone with their basket. . . . a fair competition in labor without the influence of capital, men who were only able to procure one month’s provisions, have now thousands of dollars of the precious metal. The laboring class have now become the capitalists of the country. . . . As to the future hopes of California, her course is onward, with a rapidity which will astonish the world. Her unparalleled gold mines, silver mines, iron ore and lead, with the best climate in the world, and the richest soil, will make it the garden spot of creation.”<<< While indeed the last four months was generally prosperous in regard to what was happening in the territory, the Californian did report some negatives as well.
First there was the issue of sickness which was beginning to overrun some of the camps: “the sickly season has set in, and the gold hunters are in consequence, leaving in great numbers. The sickness does not operate on each individual in the same manner, but is in all cases very severe and sometimes fatal. . . . much sickness prevails there.” In August 1848, John Faust, 26, and Squire Williams, 24, both died at John S. Williams’ camp on the Yuba River, of what the Californian reported as “billious [sic] fever.”>>> Secondly, sick or not, many of those that made it back from the mines to settlements like New Helvetia or San Francisco, found that because of all the gold flooding into the local marketplace, their blood-and-sweat was almost for naught: “How long is gold to remain at the extremely low value which it now maintains,” asked a letter to the editor of the Californian, “This is an inquiry which is not only propounded to us daily but presents itself in the forms of many debilitated holders of this pure material — men who have wasted their strength and lost their health in obtaining this commodity, so valuable abroad, but now of so little value here.”## To address this issue, a meeting of the townsfolk was held in San Francisco at Portsmouth Square on Saturday, Sept. 9, 1848, where the town’s leaders — Samuel Brannan, Hon. T. M. Leavenworth, E. P. Jones, George Hyde, Dr. John Townsend, Capt. J. L. Folsom, &c. — passed various resolutions for merchants to honor the gold standard of $16 per ounce. In addition, a letter was drawn up to federal authorities praying for the establishment of a Branch Mint at San Francisco: “Unless . . . prompt measures are taken to establish a Branch Mint in California, your Memorialists are of the opinion that for some years to come the greatest portion of the gold taken from American soil on the Pacific will be coined in foreign countries. At the same time, it is within the knowledge of your Memorialists that Oregon and California are left almost entirely without a circulating medium for the transaction of business, and that United States coin may be said to be nearly unknown in these Territories. Trade is greatly embarrassed in consequence, and the scarcity of coin and the abundance of gold dust has already caused the latter to be sold at about one half its intrinsic value.”<>
In late-September 1848, the Californian estimated that over 6000 persons, including Indians, were now engaged in mining California’s gold country,<<> and by the end of the month it reported that Oregon newspapers had now suspended publication due to “gold fever.” <>> Tellingly, due to the many San Francisco residents still occupied in the mining region, when an election was held that fall, only 158 votes were polled for Alcalde (“Chief Magistrate” of the town, basically a combination of mayor and judge under the Mexican political system). T. M. Leavenworth was elected. The Californian commented: “San Francisco is now in many respects like a railroad depot; hundreds are continually going and coming, while but a few remain permanently.”<<^ By the beginning of November, however, folks started to flood back into the towns as the weather started to chill in the gold regions, and as well, the rainy season was expected to begin any day: “We have heard several rumors of trouble and violence,” reported the Californian further, “but cannot state anything certain. Digging continued as good, if not better, than ever. Immense quantities of ore had been discovered in the region of the North Fork. One man dug twelve thousand dollars in six days, and three other obtained in one day thirty-six pounds of the pure metal. Two months ago these stories would have been looked upon as ludicrous, but they are now common occurrences. The sickly season was over on the Sacramento, but every arrival brings more or less unfortunate victims of exposure and exhaustion combined with fever. The change from the climate of the interior to that of the sea coast seems to operate unfavorably upon these cases.”<<<> By mid-November, the Californian went as far as saying that the amount of sickness striking the gold country would “appear astounding abroad and intimidating to the adventurer from other parts. . . . Our records show mortality to a degree never before known in the country. In the town of San Francisco, during the past summer season, eight deaths have taken place from Fever contracted at the North; and in and about the Mines, sickness and death have frightfully prevailed.”>><
In mid-November, the Californian reported one of the most impressive stories yet: “One man, we are informed by sufficient authority, laboring in the mines, took single-handed, with common pick and spade, in the space of twenty days, nearly thirty pounds of gold, from a piece of ground not measuring four feet square. — Zimri thinks he must have been the ace of spades.”+++ As San Francisco started to settle in for winter, on Nov. 18, 1848, after a suspension of five-months or so, the Star resumed publication; however, it was no longer Samuel Brannan’s Star, in fact, it wasn’t just the Star, it was also the Californian: the California Star & Californian, published by proprietor and editor Edward C. Kemble.==+ Soon within said paper, many current concerns were voiced, one of which was the issue of the sick and having a hospital accessible to the public: “The unsheltered sick have been inhumanly neglected during the excitement created by gold discoveries, and many have died who with proper attention bestowed upon them might have recovered health. We think the demand for a public hospital at San Francisco is urgent. It is one of the first measures — if we would retrieve our crippled character as a christian community — that should receive attention.”===+ In early-December, a correspondent in Sacramento to the Star & Californian reported the amount of Oregonians now at the mines: “About 2000 Oregonians have recently arrived in this country — a goodly number of whom are here on [the Yuba River]. We have Mr. P. H. Burnett, ex-Judge of the Supreme Court [on Nov. 13, 1849, Peter H. Burnett was elected first governor of California], a gentleman of much intellectual stamina and private worth. We have also Mr. Joel Palmer, Commissary General of the Territory, a gentleman who wrote and published a Journal of his travels from the States of Oregon, which has acquired considerable celebrity for its faithfulness as a guide to emigrants. The Adjutant General is somewhere in the mines, and (Lord save us) we have had the son of the Governor to boot, and a host of lawyers, physicians, mechanics, and agriculturalists, are now actively engaged in digging. We are fearful to travel 20 yards beyond the limits of our location, lest we should tread on the toe of some great man.”* Reflecting on the year, on December 16th, the Star & Californian reported: “Six thousand are already engaged in digging. . . . and up to the 12th of October, it was estimated that $4,000,000 had been taken from the earth [over $106M]. Thousands are flocking there, and probably in the course of twelve months there will be 50,000 people in the country.”**
On Dec. 23, 1848, the Star & Californian ceased publication. It wasn’t over for Edward C. Kemble, however. Instead, like many others in San Francisco, he was bracing for the new year, 1849, when he would start publication of a new paper, the Alta California (first published on Jan. 4, 1849). While there was little doubt given the steady news throughout 1848 from California’s gold country that more folks would be arriving in San Francisco and California in 1849 — many already in route — the ultimate catalyzer came on Dec. 5, 1848, when President James K. Polk gave his State of the Union address to Congress: “the accounts of the abundance of gold in [California] are of such an extraordinary character,” said Polk, “as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in public service [Mason, Sherman, &c.] . . . The explorations already made warrant the belief that the supply is very large and that gold is found at various places in an extensive district of country.” From that point on, gold fever took hold in all corners of the world.