On January 24th, 1848, James Marshall, an American carpenter employed building a sawmill for John A. Sutter, noticed a metallic glitter at the bottom of a creek-bed near a place that the local Indians referred to as Cull-u-mah. Marshall, excited, immediately rode down to the Sacramento valley to present a sample to his employer at Sutter's fort. After consulting the Encyclopedia Americana Sutter performed a series of tests on the substance, including dipping it in lye. Following his amateur chemical assay, Sutter concluded that this substance was indeed gold and pure gold at that: he estimated 23 carats.
At the time of Marshall's discovery, California was still technically a Mexican province, although it was occupied and governed by U.S. troops. Nine days after Marshall plucked the first nugget out of the sand at Coloma, a vanquished Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, selling California, along Nevada, Utah, and Arizona to the United States for a paltry 15 million dollars.
Both Sutter and Marshall agreed to keep the discovery a secret for the time being. Sutter wished for the sawmill to be completed before word got out: he expected a gold rush to occur, but hoped that he could manipulate the timing until he was in a position to maximize his profits from the anticipated sale of lumber. To prevent workers at the mill-site from deserting (they soon made the same discovery as Marshall), prospecting on weekends and off-hours was permitted, so long as the work continued uninterrupted. However, word slowly filtered down the river to San Francisco.
When Mormon leader and merchant Sam Brannan heard the murmured rumors of gold in the foothills, he decided to create a gold rush for himself. Brannan, then the co-owner of a dry goods store located in Sutter's fort, became aware of the discovery when a man visiting from Coloma paid for his purchases with gold dust. Brannan bought every shovel and pick ax he could get his hands on, and then obtained a small vile of gold. He proceeded to walk up and down the muddy streets of San Francisco yelling "gold! Gold! Gold in the Sierra foothills!" San Franciscans responded with enthusiasm, leaving the town half-deserted as they dashed for the foothills. The San Francisco newspaper Californian suspended production, leaving behind the final editorial:
"The whole country, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and from the sea shore to the base of the Sierra Nevada resounds with the sordid cry of 'gold, GOLD, GOLD!' while the field is left half planted, the house half-built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pickaxes."
The news spread across the Pacific trade routes, and gold-seekers trickled in from Hawaii, China, Mexico, and South America. Californian miners along with these Pacific-coast immigrants constituted the "48ers," a small group of about 7000 miners (including some 2000 Indians working either as laborers or freelance prospectors) who essentially had California all to themselves, enjoying the first and easiest pickings. They mined in a leisurely fashion, often using only spoons and knives to sift through the sand looking for nuggets or pockets of dust that built up in crevices in the streambed. There was little competition, for much of the rest of the world remained oblivious to the discovery.
The military governor of California, George Mason, felt obliged to inform his superiors back East of the unexpected development, and thus sent a courier via Panama, bearing a tea caddy full of gold as proof. President Polk was delighted. The Mexican-American war had been unpopular, exposing latent tensions over slavery, but now gold from conquered California could justify the war's violence and expense. Polk no doubt hoped he could provoke a mass migration to California. He had gone to war coveting California's Pacific ports, but his Pacific outpost would not be useful until it was sufficiently populated with Americans.
In his State of the Union Address on December 5th, 1848, Polk broke the news:
"It is known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of her acquisition. Recent discoveries render it probably that these mines are more extensive and valuable than anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service, who have visited the mineral district, and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation."
The speech was rather self-serving, falsely suggesting Polk's foresight in acquiring the state. In truth mines of precious metals did not exist to "considerable extent" in California at the time of her acquisition, with the exception of some modest gold production around Los Angeles. The Spanish, whose avarice had led them tromping across two continents in search of El Dorado, missed the riches that lay in the eastern foothills of their marginal northernmost province. But the gist of the speech was indeed true, and the impact was electric.
Thousands dropped everything, leaving jobs, farms, and families to try their luck in the newly opened gold fields of California.
The Gold Rush promised fulfillment of the American dream of economic opportunity: anyone in California could find great wealth and raise his social and economic standing overnight. For many Americans, such a dream increasingly seemed a myth: workers in the new industrial plants found themselves selling half their day in return for marginal wages, while frequently enduring appalling industrial conditions. While millions of Americans owned modest farm plots and made their living as subsistence farmers, such a life was often unpredictable and seldom truly profitable. When word reached the East Coast that miners in California were making in a single day sums that might take the average farmer or worker years of hard work and savings to accumulate, many Americans didn't think twice. Newspapers reported that "gold fever" was sweeping the country, as people desperately tried to obtain passage for the gold fields—before the riches would dry up. Yet while many were maddened by greed, many others, approached leaving for California in a deliberate way. They sought the approval of their parents, borrowed money from relatives, and said earnest good byes to their loved ones.
Many family men justified their decision to reluctant wives by telling them they had a duty as the provider for the family. Some New Englanders shrouded their motives of greed under the noble banner of bringing the pious virtues of New England Calvinism to heathen California. Other men went hoping to escape dubious pasts; a popular Gold Rush song ran:
What was your name in the states?
Was to Thompson or Johnson or Bates?
Did you murder your wife
And Run for your life
O what was your name in the states?
Few planned to settle in California. Most hoped to make their fortune and return back East, to live a life of wealth and luxury from the proceeds of their prospecting. Ever mindful of classical references, they dubbed themselves "Argonauts," a tribute to the mythical followers of Jason in search of the Golden Fleece.
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