The discovery of gold–made, as everyone knows, by James Marshall, a foreman of Sutter’s, engaged in building a sawmill for the Captain–came at a psychological time. 1)January 24, 1848, is the date usually given. The Mexican War was just over and the adventurous spirits, unwilling to settle down, were looking for new excitement. Furthermore, the hard times of the Forties had blanketed the East with mortgages. Many sober communities were ready, deliberately and without excitement, to send their young men westward in the hope of finding a way out of their financial difficulties. The Oregon question, as has been already indicated, had aroused patriotism to such an extent that westward migration had become a sort of mental contagion.

It took some time for the first discoveries to leak out, and to be believed after they had gained currency. Even in California itself interest was rather tepid at first. Gold had been found in small quantities many years before, and only the actual sight of the metal in considerable weight could rouse men’s imaginations to the blazing point.

Among the most enthusiastic protagonists was one Sam Brannan, who often appeared afterwards in the pages of Californian history. Brannan was a Mormon who had set out from New York with two hundred and fifty Mormons to try out the land of California as a possible refuge for the persecuted sect. That the westward migration of Mormons stopped at Salt Lake may well be due to the fact that on entering San Francisco Bay, Brannan found himself just too late. The American flag was already floating over the Presidio. Eye-witnesses say that Brannan dashed his hat to the deck, exclaiming, “There is that damned rag again.” However, he proved an adaptable creature, for he and his Mormons landed nevertheless, and took up the industries of the country.

Brannan collected the usual tithes from these men, with the ostensible purpose of sending them on to the Church at Salt Lake. This, however, he consistently failed to do. One of the Mormons, on asking Sutter how long they should be expected to pay these tithes, received the answer, “As long as you are fools enough to do so.” But they did not remain fools very much longer, and Brannan found himself deprived of this source of revenue. On being dunned by Brigham Young for the tithes already collected, Brannan blandly resigned from the Church, still retaining the assets. With this auspicious beginning, aided by a burly, engaging personality, a coarse, direct manner that appealed to men, and an instinct for the limelight, he went far. Though there were a great many admirable traits in his character, people were forced to like him in spite of rather than because of them. His enthusiasm for any public agitation was always on tap.

In the present instance he rode down from Sutter’s Fort, where he then had a store, bringing with him gold-dust and nuggets from the new placers. “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” shouted Brannan, as he strode down the street, swinging his hat in one hand and holding aloft the bottle of gold-dust in the other. This he displayed to the crowd that immediately gathered. With such a start, this new interest brought about a stampede that nearly depopulated the city.

The fever spread. People scrambled to the mines from all parts of the State. Practically every able-bodied man in the community, except the Spanish Californians, who as usual did not join this new enterprise with any unanimity, took at least a try at the diggings. Not only did they desert almost every sort of industry, but soldiers left the ranks and sailors the ships, so that often a ship was left in sole charge of its captain. All of American and foreign California moved to the foothills.

Then ensued the brief period so affectionately described in all literalness as the Arcadian Age. Men drank and gambled and enjoyed themselves in the rough manner of mining camps; but they were hardly ever drunken and in no instance dishonest. In all literalness the miners kept their gold-dust in tin cans and similar receptacles, on shelves, unguarded in tents or open cabins. Even quarrels and disorder were practically unknown. The communities were individualistic in the extreme, and yet, with the Anglo-Saxon love of order, they adopted rules and regulations and simple forms of government that proved entirely adequate to their needs. When the “good old days” are mentioned with the lingering regret associated with that phrase, the reference is to this brief period that came between the actual discovery and appreciation of gold and the influx from abroad that came in the following years.

This condition was principally due to the class of men concerned. The earliest miners were a very different lot from the majority of those who arrived in the next few years. They were mostly the original population, who had come out either as pioneers or in the government service. They included the discharged soldiers of Stevenson’s regiment of New York Volunteers, who had been detailed for the war but who had arrived a little late, the so-called Mormon Battalion, Sam Brannan’s immigrants, and those who had come as settlers since 1842. They were a rough lot with both the virtues and the defects of the pioneer. Nevertheless among their most marked characteristics were their honesty and their kindness. Hittell gives an incident that illustrates the latter trait very well. “It was a little camp, the name of which is not given and perhaps is not important. The day was a hot one when a youth of sixteen came limping along, footsore, weary, hungry, and penniless. There were at least thirty robust miners at work in the ravine and it may well be believed they were cheerful, probably now and then joining in a chorus or laughing at a joke. The lad as he saw and heard them sat down upon the bank, his face telling the sad story of his misfortunes. Though he said nothing he was not unobserved. At length one of the miners, a stalwart fellow, pointing up to the poor fellow on the bank, exclaimed to his companions, ‘Boys, I’ll work an hour for that chap if you will.’ All answered in the affirmative and picks and shovels were plied with even more activity than before. At the end of an hour a hundred dollars’ worth of gold-dust was poured into his handkerchief. As this was done the miners who had crowded around the grateful boy made out a list of tools and said to him: ‘You go now and buy these tools and come back. We’ll have a good claim staked out for you; then you’ve got to paddle for yourself.'”

Another reason for this distinguished honesty was the extent and incredible richness of the diggings, combined with the firm belief that this richness would last forever and possibly increase. The first gold was often found actually at the roots of bushes, or could be picked out from the veins in the rocks by the aid of an ordinary hunting-knife. Such pockets were, to be sure, by no means numerous; but the miners did not know that. To them it seemed extremely possible that gold in such quantities was to be found almost anywhere for the mere seeking. Authenticated instances are known of men getting ten, fifteen, twenty, and thirty thousand dollars within a week or ten days, without particularly hard work. Gold was so abundant it was much easier to dig it than to steal it, considering the risks attendant on the latter course. A story is told of a miner, while paying for something, dropping a small lump of gold worth perhaps two or three dollars. A bystander picked it up and offered it to him. The miner, without taking it, looked at the man with amazement, exclaiming: “Well, stranger, you are a curiosity. I guess you haven’t been in the diggings long. You had better keep that lump for a sample.”

These were the days of the red-shirted miner, of romance, of Arcadian simplicity, of clean, honest working under blue skies and beneath the warm California sun, of immense fortunes made quickly, of faithful “pardners,” and all the rest. This life was so complete in all its elements that, as we look back upon it, we unconsciously give it a longer period than it actually occupied. It seems to be an epoch, as indeed it was; but it was an epoch of less than a single year, and it ended when the immigration from the world at large began.

The first news of the gold discovery filtered to the east in a roundabout fashion through vessels from the Sandwich Islands. A Baltimore paper published a short item. Everybody laughed at the rumor, for people were already beginning to discount California stories. But they remembered it. Romance, as ever, increases with the square of the distance; and this was a remote land. But soon there came an official letter written by Governor Mason to the War Department wherein he said that in his opinion, “There is more gold in the country drained by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers than would pay the cost of the late war with Mexico a hundred times over.” The public immediately was alert. And then, strangely enough, to give direction to the restless spirit seething beneath the surface of society, came a silly popular song. As has happened many times before and since, a great movement was set to the lilt of a commonplace melody. Minstrels started it; the public caught it up. Soon in every quarter of the world were heard the strains of Oh, Susannah! or rather the modification of it made to fit this case:

“I’ll scrape the mountains clean, old girl, I’ll drain the rivers dry. I’m off for California, Susannah, don’t you cry. Oh, Susannah, don’t you cry for me, I’m off to California with my wash bowl on my knee!”

The public mind already prepared for excitement by the stirring events of the past few years, but now falling into the doldrums of both monotonous and hard times, responded eagerly. Every man with a drop of red blood in his veins wanted to go to California. But the journey was a long one, and it cost a great deal of money, and there were such things as ties of family or business impossible to shake off. However, those who saw no immediate prospect of going often joined the curious clubs formed for the purpose of getting at least one or more of their members to the El Dorado. These clubs met once in so often, talked over details, worked upon each other’s excitement even occasionally and officially sent some one of their members to the point of running amuck. Then he usually broke off all responsibilities and rushed headlong to the gold coast.

The most absurd ideas obtained currency. Stories did not lose in travel. A work entitled Three Weeks in the Gold Mines, written by a mendacious individual who signed himself H.I. Simpson, had a wide vogue. It is doubtful if the author had ever been ten miles from New York; but he wrote a marvelous and at the time convincing tale. According to his account, Simpson had only three weeks for a tour of the gold-fields, and considered ten days of the period was all he could spare the unimportant job of picking up gold. In the ten days, however, with no other implements than a pocket-knife, he accumulated fifty thousand dollars. The rest of the time he really preferred to travel about viewing the country! He condescended, however, to pick up incidental nuggets that happened to lie under his very footstep. Said one man to his friend: “I believe I’ll go. I know most of this talk is wildly exaggerated, but I am sensible enough to discount all that sort of thing and to disbelieve absurd stories. I shan’t go with the slightest notion of finding the thing true, but will be satisfied if I do reasonably well. In fact, if I don’t pick up more than a hatful of gold a day I shall be perfectly satisfied.”

Men’s minds were full of strange positive knowledge, not only as to the extent of the goldmines, but also as to theory and practice of the actual mining. Contemporary writers tell us of the hundreds and hundreds of different strange machines invented for washing out the gold and actually carried around the Horn or over the Isthmus of Panama to San Francisco. They were of all types, from little pocket-sized affairs up to huge arrangements with windmill arms and wings. Their destination was inevitably the beach below the San Francisco settlement, where, half buried in the sand, torn by the trade winds, and looted for whatever of value might inhere in the metal parts, they rusted and disintegrated, a pathetic and grisly reminder of the futile greed of men.

Nor was this excitement confined to the eastern United States. In France itself lotteries were held, called, I believe, the Lotteries of the Golden Ingot. The holders of the winning tickets were given a trip to the gold-fields. A considerable number of French came over in that manner, so that life in California was then, as now, considerably leavened by Gallicism. Their ignorance of English together with their national clannishness caused them to stick together in communities. They soon became known as Keskydees. Very few people knew why. It was merely the frontiersmen’s understanding of the invariable French phrase “Qu’est-ce qu’il dit?” In Great Britain, Norway, to a certain extent in Germany, South America, and even distant Australia, the adventurous and impecunious were pricking up their ears and laying their plans.

There were offered three distinct channels for this immigration. The first of these was by sailing around Cape Horn. This was a slow but fairly comfortable and reasonably safe route. It was never subject to the extreme overcrowding of the Isthmus route, and it may be dismissed in this paragraph. The second was by the overland route, of which there were several trails. The third was by the Isthmus of Panama. Each of these two is worth a chapter, and we shall take up the overland migration first.

References   [ + ]

1.January 24, 1848, is the date usually given.