Gold Rush Histories


I’m sure you have all heard the stories of the California Gold Rush of 1849; how from 1848 to 1858, a mere ten years, 24.3 million ounces of gold was found. At today’s prices, that’s about 31 BILLION dollars.

We’ve all heard about James Marshall finding a few pebbles in the water below Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848; of how his find launched the first Gold Rush in American history. We’ve heard how thousands braved long dangerous ocean voyages, or treacherous overland treks, to reach the land of GOLD. About the colorful life of the gold fields teaming with hard-scrabbled bearded Sourdough Sam’s. The gold just littered the land, shining in the California sun, waiting for people to become rich picking it up. That is, until the late 1850’s, when the majority of California’s gold was gone.

Okay, so that’s what some people think, especially if they aren’t from California. There are so many falsehoods about the California Gold Rush that they could fill an ore cart, starting with the 1848 rush was the first in America.

The first “rush” was in North Carolina in 1799. A young man with the last name of Reed found a yellow rock. He was a little boy at the time, so he took the yellow rock home to play with it. It soon became just a door stop and was used as one for years until someone finally really looked at it and realized, “Wait a minute! That’s actually GOLD!” That “door stop’ weighed out at 22 pounds.

Yes, many people did make a lot of money during the California Gold Rush, but not everyone in the position to make millions, did so.

There is no dispute that the California Gold Rush made many transformations to the territory, and America itself. In January 1848, James Marshall was standing in about 3 inches of water when he looked down and saw pieces of gold. Thousands of people and billions of dollars later, this act becomes known as the start of the California Gold Rush.

The Gold Rush transformed America. It brought about the largest migration of people in U. S, history, bringing some 300,000 from over a dozen countries, built cities such as San Francisco and Sacramento, and thrust California into the Union. The West became a place where you could change your life, IF you were up to the challenge.

As I said, the discovery of gold in California sparked mass migration west, and made many people very rich. But it surprised me to find that one man responsible in part for the discovery never profited and let opportunity pass him by.

The Marshall Gold Discovery State Historical Park is located in Coloma, California, where there is a replica of the original Sutter Saw Mill. James Marshall was hired by John Sutter as a carpenter, and together they built and ran the mill in 1847 and 1848.

John Sutter came to California in 1839 in a round-about way. Originally from Germany where he was pursued by the police for debt, he came to America via New York, and then St. Louis. When the bar he started there failed, he migrated west by way of Santa Fe, New Mexico. In his travels he met and was befriended by many prominent and influential people. From these people he asked for and received letters of introduction. Eventually, John reached California, where all his many letters of introduction impressed the Mexican government. They gave him a whopping 11 leagues of California land, some 44,000 acres. Although leagues are no longer used as units of measure, the measure was approximately how far a healthy man could briskly walk in an hour. Or so I’m told.

John Sutter picked his spot to build his saw mill, and he hired James Marshall to do the majority of the carpentry work. On January 24, 1848, with the mill almost complete, the two men decided to do a test to make sure everything was working thus far. They opened the flood gate and this allowed the water to rush through a ditch they had just completed. That morning, January 24, John Sutter was at the flood gate and Marshall was standing in the water ditch when he happened to look down and there were small particles of gold shining up at him. He reached down and picked some of them up, and as the saying goes, “that’s all she wrote, folks!” They started mining for gold.

Although John Sutter demanded that they tell no one, he immediately wrote to General Vallejo, boasting of his find. He then started boasting to all his acquaintances, writing glowing letters. Soon people were flocking to the area, squatting on his land, over-running his 44,000 acres. This first wave of miners was not known as the 49r’s but the 48er’s. Sutter is literally watching his dreams disappear due to his big mouth.

In 1849, John Sutter realized he couldn’t keep all his property, so he started selling some of it. But just as often, people were sweet-talking him, telling him what a great guy he was, and patting him on the back, then presenting him with deeds to sign over to them, or receiving ‘gifts’ from him of land. Suddenly, he only had 600 acres left. But, instead of using it, or selling it, he packed up his family and moved to Pennsylvania. He had so many opportunities to prosper and to get rich, but sadly he blew all of them.

In the1840’s and 1850’s when everyone was risking everything, including their lives, moving Heaven and Hell to get to California, they could have saved a lot of trouble, if only they knew where to stop on the way.

When the California Gold Rush Fever began to fade, many miners feared they would have to return home empty-handed, but as it turned out, they had passed even bigger riches on their rush to the West. One square mile in Colorado held BILLIONS in gold.

The Colorado Gold Rush began in 1858, almost ten years after the California Rush. As the gold in California became hard to find, miners with “the fever” needed some place else to go. Independent miners went back to the Rockies, and they moved fast considering that most had to walk and carry their gear. But in approximately one year, claims went from 1000 to 5000 in 1858. And in 1860, there are journal entries reporting upward to 10,000 people crowded in Gregory Gulch, Colorado, which bore the name of the Richest Square Mile on Earth.

This little region, which is approximately one square mile, was incredibly rich with gold bearing veins. The veins were found in rapid succession and the caliber of the gold was remarkable. In monetary value today, in the period between 1858 and 1859, eight to ten BILLION dollars was pulled out of just this small, almost one square mile area.

Today, this area in Colorado is mined by the Hidee Gold Mine. It is co-owned and is an extremely profitable, active mine. They grant some visits, and are proud to show the geology and history of our earth, as well as the gold rich veins lining some of the tunnels.

This is where I’ll stop on this installation of some of the history of gold and mining in America, along with some of the side stories we don’t always hear about. If you enjoyed this presentation, I will do another one for next month.