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1 In January 1848, life in California changed beyond imagining. From Coloma, a quiet vale in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, stories spread of men finding gold–and more gold. Week by week the can-it-be-believed news proved to be wonderfully true. From coastal villages and vast ranchos and family farms the people of California rushed to Sutter’s fort and on to Coloma and the goldfields.

2 Everyone who shouldered a pick or a shovel felt the gambler’s thrill of fortune at hand, without fear of violating some law or being threatened by some authority–though in fact every gold seeker was trespassing on U.S. government land and taking U.S. government mineral assets. The freedom to find and keep California’s gold flourished throughout 1848, that year of plenty for all, and through the years thereafter, when the world rushed in. Ships and printing presses carried the news around the globe–that the abundance of California’s gold was free to everyone. The wonder of it spread through the fall of 1848 and the year 1849 to seaports and into newspaper columns, to be debated in saloons and discussed around kitchen tables.

3 Could it be true, even half of what they read? That nuggets of gold-pocketsful–could be easily found and freely brought home? In family deliberations, fathers and sons, husbands and brothers were eager to believe. Maybe California did offer the means to escape from the toil of fields, the drudgery of factories, from life as lived by fathers and grandfathers, from famine in Ireland, conscription in German duchies, boredom in Buffalo.

4 Newspaper reports appeared during the summer of 1848 in Honolulu, Oregon City, Valparaiso, and Callao. From these ports hundreds of men boarded ships bound for San Francisco. From villages in the Mexican state of Sonora thousands walked north to la abundancia. A deluge followed in 1849; from Liverpool and Dublin, Le Havre and Bordeaux, Sydney and Hobart, scores of ships carried at least seventeen thousand gold seekers. From the United States the westward trails were crowded with more than forty-two thousand forty-niners, while another twenty-five thousand reached El Dorado by sea. In April 1850, the overwhelmed harbor master at San Francisco estimated the number who had landed during the previous twelve months at more than sixty-two thousand, from ports around the globe. For years thereafter, gold

seekers by the hard-to-count thousands pushed ashore at California’s suddenly famous city.

5 After a few weeks’ digging, or a few months’ profiteering in San Francisco’s booming economy, one’s hoard, exempt from taxes or other inconveniences, could be safely stowed on board ship and carried home to finance a new life. Never had there been such an opportunity–for Cantonese peasants and New York City lawyers alike.

6 Letters home by the tens of thousands (forty thousand in one month brimmed with description of the wonders and contrasts of California-the canvas walls of gambling palaces decorated with palatial mirrors and “Frenchie” paintings; the streets hip-deep in mud; the river steamboat races that killed scores when overheated boilers exploded; the rough justice of vigilantism, lynchings, and ear-clippings; the riots, fires, and floods; the cities crowded with thousands of men, among whom could be found only a few women, many of them prostitutes. And children? So few that when seen on the street or in a store they were heralded as reminders of home.

7 Where else in the all the world could be found cities through which circulated millions of dollars in gold but having not a single cathedral or museum or marbled mansion, a uniformed police force or a public fire department? Canvas and boards, bricks and iron graced San Francisco and Sacramento, Marysville and Sonora. With shocking frequency conflagrations swept away city blocks, even entire towns and mining camps, cleansing by destroying, reinvigorating the economy by rebuilding and by eliminating vast quantities of stored and excess imports. Losses today would be swiftly regained, and more, tomorrow.

8 Gold paid for everything: new methods of mining, new inventions, more daring investments, increased production. The numbers would have astonished the most boastful forty-niner, the most promotional newspaper editor in 1850: $75 million in 1851, $81 million in 1852. By the end of the decade, the total came to $594 million — more than $10 billion in today’s dollars. California, in truth, had become the Land of Gold, a country of prodigious projects, transformed from a simple, pastoral backwater in just thirty-six months.

9 Neither local nor federal government contributed to the astounding progress, not even by providing traditional frontier law and order. In cities the merchants established “vigilance committees” to protect property from thieves and arsonists; at the diggings the miners established their own forms of justice to remove murderers and claim- jumpers. As makeshift laws were judged good enough for now, so were other improvisations in California’s wildly free and rough capitalism: private fire-fighting companies, private mints turning out public currency, private mail delivery, and private toll roads and bridges–expedient solutions, all for profits.

10 The price of everything from meat and champagne to shovels and explosives depended on the needs and the successes of the miners and their ever more complex operations. Through the booms and busts of the 1850s, newspapers and magazines

reported fortunes being made not in gold mining alone but in more familiar endeavors as well. A hotel, restaurant, or billiard hall back home in New York or Kentucky could provide a living, but in California such enterprises gushed profits of $8,000, $10,000 a year, even more. Farmers in Ohio and Europe, laboring as had their grandfathers, could read of a German near Sacramento who sold his crop of melons for $30,000. And women, too, could strike it rich. In June of 1852 Hunt’s Merchant’s Magazine published news of a widow in Downieville who made $18,000 selling her home-baked pies to hungry miners. Where else could so much money be made from a taken-for-granted female task? Where else could a man find a job as a waiter, drayman, deckhand, or carpenter that paid $6, $8, even $12 a day? At home these jobs were paying $1.50 for a twelve-hour day, six days a week; $1 a day for farm workers.

11 When claims failed, the merchants who were supplying customers on credit went broke along with the mining companies. Chaotic and volatile, life in California was a great lottery. Failure was so much a part of everyday experience that it carried no shame. But the prospect of returning home without one’s share kept thousands in the mines and cities for months and even years longer than expected.

12 Frustrated miners were quick to grasp a real estate deal or an opportunity in a new steamboat company. They pondered about the new money in farming, a living many remembered with nostalgia. Growing numbers did return to planting when they heard of massive, one-season profits. Get-rich quick melon and potato growers simply planted a likely plot near a town or city and claimed the land as squatters, not bothering to buy or lease while tending their crops. One season might fulfill expectations. So it went, unguided by old rules and practices but energized by California prices.

13 Whatever other enterprises made money, the quest for gold–on small claims, in riverbeds, at hydraulic operations, down in tunnels–constituted the muscle and heart that powered California’s economy. As the producer of gold and, no less important, the great consumer, the miner ruled the land, his ambitions and needs prevailing over all else. No law, no competing interest constrained his right to mine for gold, wherever and however.

14 As depots for supplies and base camps for new gold seekers preparing to set out, Sacramento City and Stockton boomed through the summer and winter of 1849. With their temptations and comforts these instant cities became resorts for thousands of shaggy, bronzed miners not so fresh from mining camps like Steep Hollow, Fleatown, Yankee Slide, Cut Eye, Sucker Flat, Humbug Canyon, Port Wine, and Rich Gulch. Eager for a bath, a shave, a good meal, a spree in one of the gambling palaces, and a friendly woman, these many visitors spent their gold dust with a careless abandon that inspired merchants and speculators to build at an ever faster pace. Sacramento City’s first historian reported, “. . . every material that could be used in building tents, houses, and stores became of immense value, commanding almost instant sale at any

price which might be suggested by the unscrupulous spirit of speculation.” A visiting clergyman from New York City was appalled: “Quarreling and cheating form the employments, drinking and gambling the amusements, making the largest pile of gold the only ambition of the inhabitants.”

15 Late in 1849, when the rains came, the miners had to choose between staying on their claims for several weeks and hoping for the best or heading for town and accepting a job until spring. A miner’s log for November 29, 1849, reports: “The ground is so soft that it mires teams so deep it is impossible to get them out, and they had to be left to die or to be shot.” In Sacramento City the streets became almost as impassable. “The city is one great cesspool of mud, offal, garbage, dead animals, and that worst of nuisances consequent upon the entire absences of outhouses,” one miner reported. In San Francisco the rain produced such quagmires in the streets that the New York Tribune’s Bavard Taylor judged the mud to be “little short of fathomless.” “Not infrequently,” wrote a resident, “men were in danger of sinking out of sight in the mire, and it was a common occurrence to see them in up to their waists. Two horses sank so deep in the mud in Montgomery Street . . . that they were left to die; and die they did of starvation, while hundreds of merciful men would have been glad to relieve them, but could not. . . . Three men got into the mud of Montgomery Street at night, probably in a state of intoxication and were suffocated.”

16 The merchants of San Francisco responded with inventiveness. By sinking hundreds of boxes of Virginia tobacco they made several blocks of Montgomery Street passable. At one intersection barrels of salt beef provided solid footing for several weeks. All these imports served as fillage because they arrived when they were in excess supply. No buyers–so, into the streets.

17 That careless confidence–tomorrow’s profits will save us–was the source of both San Francisco’s robust growth and its blindness to warnings of danger. Slapdash construction on crowded hillsides made fires, not floods, the great menace. On December 24, 1849, the first of a series of conflagrations swept through canvas hovels and elaborate gambling halls. The ubiquitous Taylor, as usual more vivid in his descriptions than other eyewitnesses, watched as “the blaze increased with fearful rapidity. . . . The roar and tumult swelled and above the clang of gongs and the cries of the populace I could hear the crackling of timbers and the smothered sound of falling roofs. . . . The canvas partitions of rooms shriveled away like paper in the breath of the flames. . . . For more than an hour there was no apparent check to the flames. A very few persons out of the thousands present did the work of arresting the flames. At the time of most extreme danger, hundreds of idle spectators refused to lend a hand unless they were paid enormous wages. One of the principal merchants . . . offered a dollar a bucket for water and made use of several thousand buckets in saving his property.”

18 Before the embers had cooled, merchants and landlords sent in workmen to clear away the charred ruins and prepare to rebuild, while the unaffected returned to gambling, buying and selling, and new moneymaking schemes. “All over the burnt area sounded one incessant tumult of hammers, axes, and saws.” The first to be rebuilt were the gambling palaces at Portsmouth Square. The Parker House would rise again as a brick eminence, while the exchange was finished for an extravagant sum in two weeks, under the penalty of $150 for every additional day. In that city even the contractors thought like gamblers.

19 A gold seeker newly arrived from France immediately caught the spirit of San Francisco. Watching the city’s frantic rebuilding with the same materials that had fed the flames, he confided to his diary: “One calamity more or less seems to make no difference to these Californians.”

20 The year 1849 encompassed California’s adolescence, a rambunctious, hormonal moment that would forever remain separate and legendary, more than a prologue to the get-ahead years of the 1850s. Invaded by young men to be known as forty-niners, California in that year came to the end of its Spanish and Mexican eras and the beginning of its American history, with those bearded miners the founding fathers of a revolutionary society on the Pacific shore with San Francisco its mother city, more extravagant–better yet, more sinful–than Philadelphia or Boston.

21 In their reckless, roll-the-dice crusade for profit and wealth, the forty-niners pushed America beyond its entwined traditions of European pedigree and New England morality toward a new ethos, unconstrained by privilege or principle and measured only by the democracy of the dollar.

22 A sesquicentennial exhibition, “Gold Fever!,” opens January 24 at the Oakland Museum of California and later goes to Los Angeles. The Oakland exhibition received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities; two panel versions have been funded by the California Council for the Humanities and will travel throughout other parts of the state.



J. S. Holliday is the author of THE WORLD RUSHED IN, THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH EXPERIENCE. This article is adapted from chapters two through five of his forthcoming book, GOLD FEVER! THE QUEST FOR CALIFORNIA’S RICHES, to be published this fall by the University of California Press, in association with the Oakland Museum of California. (C) 1998 J. S. Holliday.

Question for Essay:

Analyze the motivations of the early 49’ers and how these goals were changed once they met the reality of California gold fields.

Essay should all come based on the two sources linked, and the essay must use quotations as support form the sources and only from the sources.

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