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Elusive Eden: A New History of California, fourth edition. CHAPTER ELEVEN: THE NEW EL DORADO. May 12, 1848, Sam Brannan announced gold discovery --Emptied San Francisco . The Great Discovery 1847 Sutter, James Marshall began building sawmill

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The Great Discovery
  • 1847 Sutter, James Marshall began building sawmill

--1844 Marshall joined wagon train Ohio to Oregon

--Came to California, worked for Sutter

--Joined Bear Flag revolt, California Battalion

Sited mill at South Fork American River

--30 miles from New Helvetia

--Near Maidu village Cullumah

--Crew Maidu, Mormon Mexican War veterans

--Let river clear millrace

January 24, 1848, Marshall found gold in millrace

--Tests proved gold

--Swore workers to secrecy

--Rumors surfaced, few believed

Disaster for Sutter

--Died broke in 1880

--Squatters, speculators stole land

Disaster for Marshall

--Lost investment, land claims

--State refused pension

--1885 died broke

Sam Brannan gained, lost fortune
  • 1846 brought 200 Mormons to Yerba Buena
  • Brigham Young planned to relocate church to Cal
  • Brannan started 1st newspaper, California Star
  • Made fortune in SF real estate with church money, labor
  • 1847 started store at Sutter's Fort
  • 1848 workers paid in gold
  • Confirmed strike, stockpiled goods
  • May 1848 announced discovery in SF
  • Daily gross $5,000
  • 1861 bought land in Napa, called Calistoga
  • Divorce, bad debts, speculation consumed fortune
  • 1889 died broke
Sources of La Bonanza
  • Most California gold "placer"

--Placed by water

  • Formed in Mesozoic Era (200 to 70 million years ago)
  • Rivers redistributed gold
  • 70 to 3 million years ago beds shifted
  • Created band 100 miles long, +20 miles wide on western slope of Sierras, Feather-Yuba River, Trinity-Shasta-Siskiyou
Spaniards looking for gold since 1519
  • 1841 Francisco Lopez found gold near Mission San Fernando

--Minor gold rush

--Quickly ran out

  • Missionaries downplayed
The Gold Rush of 1848
  • Word leaked out when Sutter registered claim in Monterey

--Employees used gold nuggets as currency

--Sutter told John Bidwell, Mariano Vallejo

  • Newspapers discounted

--March 15 1848 small news item Californian

--California Star compared to earlier small strike

Visitors to Sutter's mill investigated, went home to look for similar features

--Mill worker found gold, told friends in Mormon Battalion

--Searched near Mariposa, found gold

--John Bidwell found gold near home in Chico, set off Feather River rush

--Pierson B. Reading found gold on Trinity River, Mt. Shasta

--Charles M. Weber prospected on Stanislaus, Mokelumne rivers

Sutter's mill barely finished

--By April, mill workers gone

--Logging crews prospecting

--Flour mill, tannery abandoned

--Lost clerks, teamsters, carpenters

  • Local miners dominated January to May
Brannan emptied SF in May

--Businesses shuttered

--Soldiers left posts

--Same in LA, San Diego

Spreading the News
  • Word out by end of 1848
  • Closest arrived first: Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Mexico, Hawaii, China

--Most from Hawaii, Mexico

--December 1848 non-Indian population 20,000

Few Americans from East Coast
  • Eastern newspapers discounted

--September 1848 New Orleans Picayune published interview Lt. Edward F. Beale

--Bringing confirmation, gold samples to Washington DC

December 7, 1848, messenger delivered report from Col. Richard B. Mason, 230 ounces of gold

--President James K. Polk sent report to Congress

--Displayed sample in War Office

--Convinced Americans discovery real

  • By December 1849 non-Indian population 100,000

--1852 census: + 200,000

By Sea to California
  • East Coast miners traveled by sea
  • Two routes: around Horn, across Isthmus of Panama
  • Horn journey 5 months, 17,000 miles
  • Isthmus shorter, open year round

--40 miles up Chagres River, 20 overland to Pacific

--Passengers easily reached eastern side

--Too few ships available on western side

February 1849 1000s stranded
  • More ships available 1850
  • Isthmus rr completed 1855

--1855 to 1869, easterner's preferred route to California

  • Many east-coast groups formed joint-stock companies

--Bought ships, merch to sell in SF

--Abandoned in SF Bay

Horn travelers disappointed

--Seasickness, bad weather, spoiled water, food

--Often arrived sick

--Opportunity to write about adventure

  • 1849 about 40,000 traveled by sea
Crossing the Plains
  • Smart overland miners joined large groups, waited until spring
  • Journeyed to "jumping off points" in Missouri
  • Assembled wagons, provisions, hired guides

--Always took too much

--Trails littered with supplies, furniture, graves

Fatalities on trail common

--cholera from New Orleans, infected water holes

--accidents with weapons, wagons



1849 25,000 to 30,000 crossed Great Plains

--Stopped at govn posts, Salt Lake City

--3000-4000 more from Mexico, Southwest

  • 1850s, +200,000 traveled overland
  • Created diverse society

--Most young (-30)

--Male (+90%)

--Expected brief stay, great wealth

Searching for La Bonanza
  • Few professional miners
  • Most professionals back home

--Too expensive for working poor

--Transportation, equipment $750 to $1,000 ($20K-$25K in 2010 dollars)

--most unused to manual labor

learned from experienced miners

--gold miners from Mexico, Georgia, Carolinas

--coal miners from Pennsylvania and Britain

  • Easy to find 1849

--Equipment simple: pan, pick

--Process simple but uncomfortable

Georgians, Carolinians introduced "rockers"
  • By 1852, surface deposits gone
  • Long-toms, teams of men processed tons of dirt

--Organized companies

--Investors supplied capital

  • Built dams, flumes, sluices
Mechanized Mining
  • 1852, Anthony Chabot attached cloth hose to flume

--water pressure removed topsoil

  • 1853 Edward E. Matteson added tin nozzle
  • Result: Hydraulic mining

--Washed away mountainsides

--Revealed buried ore

Tunnel or quartz mining too expensive

--Sunk shafts into hillsides

--Used Mexican arrastra to crush ore

--Mercury, quicksilver extracted gold

Required machinery stimulated iron works

--San Francisco's Risdon, Union, Vulcan plants sold drilling, tunneling equipment

--More important when silver discovered in Nevada

Life in the Mines
  • Mining hard on newcomers
  • Camps boring, crude
  • Miners tried to reproduce familiar society

--Drafted mining camp codes

--Created rules for staking, protecting claims

--Elected judges, officials

  • Extra legal punishments: fines, banishment, flogging, hanging
Crime, competition increased miner demands for justice

--January 1849 Dry Diggings (Placerville) mob flogged 5 French, Hispanic men for theft, then lynched 2

--July 4 1851 Downieville mob hanged Josefa

  • 1850-1855 similar episodes in San Francisco, Los Angeles

--Most frequent targets people of color

Bonanza to Borrasca
  • 19th c gold worth $16 an ounce
  • Men in mines steadily increased:

--5,000 in 1848

--40,000 in 1849

--50,000 in 1850

--100,000 in 1852

  • 1852 to 1860, number of miners stabilized, but gold production fell
Best discoveries 1848-1850
  • Gold mining comparable to eastern wages

-- $1.00 - $1.25 / day for skilled worker

--Living costs 10x higher in California

  • Individual prospectors replaced by wage-earning employees
  • Frustrated Argonauts blamed Californios, Chinese, Indians
Californios in the Mines
  • Americans brought "Manifest Destiny" to California
  • Many veterans of US-Mexican War

--Considered land in California theirs

--Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo said different

1848 about 1,300 Hispanic miners at work

--Coronel, Sepulveda, and Carrillo families prospected on Stanislaus River

-- Antonio Coronel found 45 ounces in one day

--Sold claim, new owner found 52 pounds in one week

--Went home for winter

-- A third owner of the site also became rich

By 1849, Americans controlled gold fields

--Bear Flagger attacked Coronel party, injured one

--Americans threatened "foreigners"

--Coronel observed Placerville lynching

--Gave up mining

  • Hispanics who stayed employees of Americans
  • Mining camp codes forbade mining by "foreigners"
The Foreign Miners' Tax Law of 1850
  • Miners convinced first state legislature to exclude "foreigners"
  • 1850 law charged $20 license fee
  • Selectively enforced

--non-English speakers common targets

--Spanish-speakers refused to pay

--Hispanic workers, restaurant, hotel, store patrons left gold fields

Merchants, mine owners petitioned legislature to repeal

--Late 1850 governor reduced fee

--Early 1851 law repealed

--Too late

--Failed to bring back Hispanics

"Diggers" in the Mines
  • 1848 Col. Mason reported 5,000 men digging for gold

--Half were Indians

--Most worked for Marshall, Sutter, Californios

  • Early settlers employed most Indian miners

--Charles M. Weber had 1,000 Indians workers

--John M. Murphy put 600 Indians to work on Stanislaus

--John Bidwell's Indians worked his Feather River claim

  • Some Indians mined for themselves

--Exchanges usually favored Europeans

Solving the "Indian Problem"
  • Americans objected to Indians in the mines
  • Oregonians among early arrivals

--Familiar with 1847 Whitman massacre at Walla Walla, Cayuse wars

--March 1849 attacked Maidu village on American River

--Maidu killed 5 Oregonians

--Oregonians attacked another village, killed residents, took 7 captives to Coloma for execution

  • Many Americans genuinely feared Indians

--1850 Governor Peter Burnett claimed 100,000 armed braves preparing to exterminate whites

--Whole native population fewer than 100,000

Indian resistance exacerbated fears

--Bear Flagger beat Suisun man with a cat-of-nine-tails

--Sinao lassoed him, dragged him out of town

--Two whites killed in assault on Clear Lake Pomo

  • In Napa American shot Manuel Vera, he returned fire
Americans responded forcefully

--Clear Lake killing brought U.S. Army, killed + 500 Pomo men, women, children

--Americans in Napa lynched Manuel Vera

  • Lost cattle provoked raids

--In Napa, settlers attacked Wappo-, Patwin-, and Pomo-speaking villages, rancherías

--Killed entire communities of men, women, children

--Napa newspapers commended white hunters

1850, state legislature adopted Law for the Protection and Government of the Indians

--Solved ranchers' labor/cattle thieving problem

--All Indians must prove local employment

--Those who couldn't arrested, fined as vagrants

--White settlers could pay fines, indefinitely indenturing Indians

--White settlers could "adopt" minors, hold to age 21 or older
  • Federal govn, state legislature raised militias to control Indians

--By 1860s militias killed + 15,000 Indians

--Paid $5 per head, $0.50 per scalp

1850 U.S. Indian Bureau sent treaty commission to California

--Commissioners to meet with leaders of main tribes

--Negotiate treaties exchanging valuable land for lands elsewhere

--Dozen + tribes accepted treaties

Californians protested

--Gave too much land (12,000 sq. miles) to Indians

--exchange lands too valuable

--Indians only available labor force

--Preferred system of missions to assimilate Indians!

--convinced Congress to leave Indians to California

1852 U.S. Senate rejected treaties
  • 1853 Congress approved plan by Edward F. Beale

--U.S. Indian Superintendent for California

--established series of small reservations

--most successful Fort Tejón in San Joaquin Valley

--abandoned 1868

--System mismanaged, underfunded, looted

Some Natives resisted reservations

--1872-1873 Modocs refused relocation

--Chief Kientepoos (Captain Jack) led 50 warriors and families into lava beds near Tule Lake

--US Army sent 400 soldiers to deliver to Klamath reservation

--Modocs held out for months, 75 soldiers, 5 Indian men, dozens of Indian women, children killed

--Jack captured, executed

  • By 1870, Indian population reduced to 30,000

John Sutter

Sutter and Marshall were, quite unexpectedly, among the losers in “Nature’s great lottery scheme.” Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.


James Marshall

Sutter and Marshall were, quite unexpectedly, among the losers in “Nature’s great lottery scheme.” Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.


Sam Brannan

Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.


Wells Fargo & Company Express Office, Columbia

Beginning in 1852, Wells Fargo & Company offices such as this one in Columbia provided residents of remote mining communities with banking, transportation, and mail services to keep them in touch with the outside world. Photograph by William A. Bullough.


A Fight with the Indians

An engraving from a Sacramento newspaper depicts a Trinity County incident in which residents reportedly avenged the murder of a local butcher by slaughtering more than a hundred local Indians. It also illustrates the attitudes of most settlers in California during the Gold Rush era. Collection of Peter E. Palmquist.