That one word in bold print caught my eye in a ship’s library while we were on vacation about three years ago. I don’t own gold and I don’t think I would have been a gold seeker if I was around in the mid 1800’s, but I regard the California Gold Rush as one of the most fascinating events in American history. People have always treasured gold–some have been obsessed with acquiring it. Still, one cannot understate the pull that California gold exerted on hundreds of thousands of people when it became known that it was there for the taking, just by digging in the ground or streambeds. In just a few years, the lightly populated Mexican territory of California became a booming U. S. state.
The book “GOLD!” was written by Fred Rosen and provides much of the background material for this article.
In 1848 the two-year Mexican War was winding down. Some considered the war a trumped-up affair that justified the U.S. acquisition of a large territory from Mexico. At that time, many people believed in “manifest destiny.” It was thought that the novel experiment in governing that was the Union of States would become the greatest and most powerful nation in the world. Its land mass should extend across the continent, sea to sea, and be bounded by the Rio Grande River and the 45th parallel of latitude. A treaty signed in March 1848 called for Mexico to cede one half million square miles of territory to the U. S. for $18million.The land represented most of what was to become the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Ironically, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill on the American River on Jan. 24, 1848. Word of the discovery did not travel very fast, as that was such a sparsely populated area.
John Sutter was the head of a group of emigrants that established an agricultural and trading community on the site of present-day Sacramento in 1839. With the end of the Mexica War nearing, he thought more pioneers would be arriving and they would need building material. Sutter hired James Marshall to build a sawmill. Marshall was from New Jersey and of the restless type. He had made his way clear across the continent, trying his hand at farming, ranching, and various jobs. He was ranching in the area before he joined the fight against Mexico. Marshall had worked as a wheelwright, carpenter, and blacksmith, so he was a good man to take charge of building a water-powered sawmill.
On that January day, he was inspecting the tailrace where the water leaves the mill. He saw a nugget that he thought was gold. He showed it to the workers and someone hammered it. It did not break apart; it was malleable. They thought it must be gold. There was not too much excitement at first; it was considered a rare lucky find. Marshall allowed the laborers, consisting of Mexicans, Native Americans, and members of the recently disbanded Mormon Battalion, to prospect on their own time. When they started finding gold, a local rush was on. Work on the sawmill ceased and it was never finished. San Francisco was a small town, a tent city with a few structures, but it was where ships arrived from back East. San Francisco became abandoned; what few ships arrived were abandoned as whole crews and any passengers headed for the hills. Soldiers at military posts around California deserted en masse.
Eventually word did reach the East as rumors and wild speculation. Once the government could confirm that prospectors were indeed recovering a quantity of high-purity gold, President Polk announced that the rumors were true, that people were finding gold and lots of it. People trusted the President and assumed he was telling the truth.
The President made the confirmation on Dec. 5, 1848, so it took over ten months from the discovery until gold fever infected hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The announcement absolutely opened the
floodgates; men walked away from their factory machines, left their farms, saying farewell to their families. They had to find a way to get to the land of gold.
It wasn’t easy; most people in the U. S. lived in the eastern third of the country, 2000 miles or more from the gold. There were three main routes. The shortest was the overland route: Take the train to Missouri, then follow the trails established by the early pioneers, cross the Great Plains, go over the Rockies, then across the Great American Desert and finally over the Sierras. Hostile Indians could be encountered along the way and this route was considered the most dangerous.
It was easier to take a train to a New England port or New York, then travel to Panama and walk across the Isthmus. The danger here was contracting a life-threatening disease in Panama, especially if one had to wait weeks on the Pacific side for a ship to San Francisco. The many ships abandoned in San Fran-cisco harbor did not return for more passengers. A few years ago, while I was walking in the Hartland cemetery to my grandparents’ graves near the little brick building, a gravestone caught my eye. A young man had died in Juan Dalsud. I thought that was an exotic sounding place for a Vermont boy to die. After researching it at the Hartland Historical Society, I learned that it was the Pacific port at the end of the overland trail taken by gold seekers on the way to California. Orsan Gill died there April 24, 1852.
Surprising to me was that the longest route—17,000 miles around Cape Horn at the tip of South America—was the safest. It took 150-180 days, but one could leave from New England. I suppose those New England sea captains and crews had plenty of experience rounding the Horn on the way to the Orient for trade or for whaling in the Pacific.
About half the gold seekers traveled overland and half by sea.
Some prospectors did strike it rich. Most did not, especially if they were not up to working with a pick and shovel or standing in icy water all day. Some returned home, but many found well-paying jobs servicing the needs of the prospectors. Many enterprising individuals who went to California had no plans to dig for gold. They intended to acquire wealth as merchants, manufacturers, bankers, doctors, lawyers, and so on. This element of the gold rush made San Francisco into a great city.
Unfortunately, we at HHS do not have a lot of details about how those who went from Hartland traveled to California, what they did there, how long they stayed, nor how successful they were. It would be great if readers have information about “49ers” in their family that you can share with us.
Here is a list of Hartland men mentioned in Hartland records as going to California:
Arnold Bagley _______French Thomas Richardson Charles Bagley Orsan Gill Eben Stocker Fred Bagley Dennison Harlow James Sturtevant Jefferson Bagley S. Hoisington E. S. Taylor _______ Burgett John Lamb P. Taylor A.J. Dunbar Julius Lamb R. Taylor Joseph Dunbar, Jr. Ralph Larabee
This is quite a list, and it is surprising that we have so little information about their adventures. It must have been a big event in their lives.
What we know: Orsan Gill died April 24, 1852 on the Pacific coast of Panama. We have a letter from California inquiring about James Sturtevant who left his pregnant wife in 1849. Thomas Richardson came back to Hartland only once or twice, and townspeople remembered he contracted yellow fever on the ship home. He was confined to the Richardson house during his stay. He was the younger brother of Paul who built a Greek revival style house and store in the Three Corners in 1851. The Richardson House is now the Post Office. The store was moved from the corner and is now
BG’s Market. We have a very good picture of Mr. Richardson taken in a studio in Nevada City, CA (in gold country). He appears to be a distinguished gentleman. He died in 1906.
The best we have is a letter John Q. Lamb wrote home after arriving in San Francisco on May 8, 1850, on the steamship “Carolina,” accompanied by his brother Julius. The “Carolina” made the voyage from Panama to San Francisco in only 19 days, stopping in Acapulco, Mexico, and Monterey, California, for two days to take on coal.
Excerpts from John’s letter:
Sacramento, California Dear Father [Harvey Lamb], Here we are in the golden land at last. We had a very good passage and have been in good health since leaving Panama. A number were sick on board and a man from Maine died after we arrived. San Francisco is the meanest place out-of-doors; one can hardly get his breath the sand flies so. We do not know what mines we shall stop at, but think we shall go to the Yuba River. Wages are not as high as they have been. Carpenters get $12 a day, laborers $5. We have got here full early, they say, to make much in the mines, but they say there is no trouble to make our living there now, so we think it best to go and be there when the water goes down. Board is $25 a week or a dollar a meal. There is plenty of snow on the mountains yet. They say it does not go off until the month of August. If I were to start again, I would not take half as much baggage as I have now. We are not going to take much to the mines now, so we are storing it on a ship for $1 a month. Hoisington is now here with us. He is going to the mines today also but not with us. Taylor has not found his father and I don’t think he will. Tell Mother not to worry about us as it is as healthy in the mines as in Vermont. All the sickness they have here is the fevers and ague and there is not much of that. I should like to be at home to sleep in a bed once more, but a hard board or the ground goes very well now when one is tired and sleepy. We are going to start soon, I cannot write much more so good-bye. John Q. Lamb
John included a short note to his sister:
Clarissa, You must write to me as you get this and you must get Hatch to write too. I would write to her if I could, but it is not here as it is at home. I do not know when I shall have another chance to write, so you need not worry if you do not hear from us for two or three months. Write about every living critter in Hartland, where they are and what they are doing. Direct your letters to Sacramento City. I should like to see some folks in Hartland, I tell you, but I must wait some time but I hope not over a year. Here comes Jule and Taylor so I must finish so good-bye. JQL
According to family lore, John and Julius were successful in California. When they returned to Hartland, they wisely invested their money in land. That has benefitted later generations to this day. I don’t know what happened with Hatch, but John married Lucy Damon from a neighboring farm. [The farms are now separated by the I-91 Interchange.] John died in 1856 at the age of 29. Lucy returned to the Damon Farm with their two young children and she and daughter Lizzie never left.
In order to get a sense of what the local response to the Gold Rush was, I went to the Windsor Library. They have the weekly Vermont Journals that go back before that time. I started with January 5, 1849. At the top of the first page in bold letters was “El Dorado” heading a lengthy article. Here are excerpts:
“After making all due allowance for the exaggerations of traders and speculators in California, we cannot doubt gold has been found in the valley of the Sacramento River and in the spurs of the Sierra Nevada. Some thousands of Yankees, Sandwich Islanders, Mexicans and Indians are hard at work in the intervals of
fever and ague, sifting sand and washing gravel. According to Government documents, they are actually acquiring gold at the rate of $15 to $40 a day per laborer. There is getting to be a general rush towards the Paradise of Gold. We hear sixty to seventy vessels advertised in our principle ports for California and Chagres. A mere boat of 30 tons manned by adventurers has just sailed from New Bedford for San Francisco to encounter the ice bergs of Cape Horn and the dangerous billows of that mighty ocean.”
The article continues with a description of how, starting in the 1500s, Spanish explorers came to the New World in search of gold. Even Sir Walter Raleigh hoped to find El Dorado, a place of fabulous riches, in the Carolinas. The article concludes that El Dorado has been found and it’s in California.
Each of the four January 1849 weekly Vermont Journals included news of the growing rush to get to California:
“We hear of young and middle-aged men starting in every direction in this [Windsor] county, heading for California.
“California fever continues to increase and every day we hear of new adventurers starting for the Gold Mines.
“It’s been about a week or two since a party of ten from Vergennes and about thirty from Rutland left for California.”
The third edition of the month reprints a very long speech by Senator Colonel Benton “on the difficult subject of regulating the disposition of the lands in California. People are going to California to dig and dig they will. Wise legislation would regulate, not frustrate, their enterprise.”
The fourth edition of the month describes “The Woodstock party for California,” which was made of some prominent residents and included some wives: “The party is not of gold hunters; probably none will go to the diggings. Capt. Simmons and Mr. Hutchinson will establish a brokerage and commission business. Capt. Simmons is the owner of large real estate in or near San Francisco, which he purchased on an earlier trip. Dr. White has gone with Mrs. White to practice medicine, Mr. F. Billings to establish himself in the practice of law.”
Frederick Billings was born in Royalton, VT in 1823. He became a lawyer in 1848 and headed to San Francisco where he became the city’s first land claims lawyer. He also was a successful real estate developer and became one of the wealthiest and most prominent men in California. After the Civil War, he sold most of his property and returned to Woodstock, VT and purchased the George Perkins Marsh estate. Today the Billings Farm and Museum is a working dairy farm.
Susan and I have visited Gold Country twice. It covers a large area in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range. Many boomtowns were established and then abandoned. Coloma, site of the discovery, attracted two thousand prospectors in 1848. By the end of 1849, there were ten thousand placer miners working there. A couple of years later, it was nearly deserted as richer diggings were found elsewhere.
Initially, the Gold Rush symbolized the American Dream. No matter an individual’s status, if they had the stamina and determination to go to California and dig, they might greatly improve their lot in life. Eventually, companies were formed to mine the gold. Prospectors noticed gold flakes embedded in quartz rocks, but breaking the rock to dust by hand was too much work. Mining companies tunneled into the hillsides thousands of feet, following quartz veins. The environmental impact of hard rock mining was great, but even worse was hydraulic mining. This method required enormous amounts of water brought in by a network of flumes and directed into something like a fire hose. The resulting jet stream was used to erode hillsides, directing the runoff to sluice boxes where the gold could be collected. Of course, the silt and gravel continued on downstream, eventually impeding steamboat ravel on the Sacramento River. I believe it was the basis for some of the first environmental regulation the country.
The towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City grew to support hard rock mining. The wealth form the mines led to the creation of nice little towns. The professional class of merchants, bankers, doctors, and lawyers built fine Victorian-style homes. The highlight of one of our trips was staying in Nevada City’s National Hotel, built in 1854. I wish I had known that Thomas Richardson, a Hartland man, had probably spent most of his adult life there.
Today, most of Gold Country is encompassed by National Forest. State parks preserve and interpret historic sites.