Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

On January 24, 1848, James Marshall was overseeing some workers digging a millrace for a sawmill for his employer, John Sutter, along a tributary in the American River in the hills near Yerba Buena (modern San Francisco). While he was inspecting the project, the morning sun reflected off shiny pieces of yellow metal. Curious, he gathered a few pieces to examine them and showed the workers.

The group ran some tests on the metal to determine if it were gold. They hammered the malleable metal into thin sheets and then cooked it in boiling lye that cleaned it. Marshall was sure that he found gold but kept his composure as he rode his horse to share the news with Sutter. They tested it again with nitric acid and then its density. He smiled and told the group (which included a female cook), “Boys, I believe I have found a gold mine.”

Marshall and Sutter began hunting for gold but shockingly did not attempt to hide the discovery. Sam Brannan owned a general store near Sutter’s fort (modern Sacramento) and developed a scheme to get rich by selling provisions to miners. He filled a large jar with gold dust and nuggets and traveled to San Francisco.

Brannan went about the village showing its residents the contents of the jar and enticing them to become miners by yelling, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” They did not need much encouragement. In the words of one person: “A frenzy seized my soul; unbidden my legs performed some entirely new movements of polka steps—I took several….Piles of gold rose up before me at every step; castles of marble, dazzling the eye….In short, I had a very violent attack of the gold fever.” The village emptied as people dropped everything and raced for the river.

Eight days after Marshall’s discovery, representatives of the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The treaty ended the Mexican-American War and delivered the West including California to the United States in exchange for $15 million. Because of American property rights, the miners need only work the land to lay a claim to the property including its valuable minerals.

The miners used a variety of methods for finding gold. Most were inexperienced and initially used the simple method of panning for gold. Others used a cradle that was similar and could sift through more material. They soon built sluices and ran water over dirt and collected the dense gold at the bottom of grates. Later, enterprising individuals with the means introduced hydraulic mining using pressurized water cannons to blast hills into slurry that ran through sluices. Miners became amateur geologists and searched for ancient streambeds that might hold massive gold deposits.

Gold fever induced a gold rush that gripped Americans as well as thousands of others from around the world. The telegraph, letter writers, and travelers spread the news quickly. The New York Herald announced the discovery of gold to readers with the astonishing news that, “There are cases of over a hundred dollars being obtained in a day from the work of one man” (at a time when workers made perhaps $500 a year).

In his December Annual Message to Congress, President James Polk added his voice to the frenzy when he stated, “The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers.”

Gold seekers known as Argonauts traveled to the American River from all over the world. They came from such distant places as Mexico, Chile, France, Hawaii, China, and Australia. In many cases, they risked everything they had voyaging thousands of miles for the chance to become fabulously wealthy. Ship captains had to find ways to prevent their crews from joining the passengers rushing to the mining camps.

More than 80,000 Americans of diverse backgrounds but with the same goal in mind headed west as part of the gold rush. They traveled overland for months along the Oregon Trail and other well-beaten paths where they hunted buffalo, traded with Native Americans, and risked cholera and starvation. Others of greater means selected travel aboard a Yankee clipper or other ships that sailed 15,000 miles around Cape Horn with its treacherous waters and storms. Others sailed to Panama, where they crossed the isthmus where tropical diseases claimed many, and then booked passage for the Pacific.

Besides the obsession with gold, the one thing that the Argonauts had was that almost all of them planned to get rich and return home. Very few planned to stay and build a permanent settlement. Almost 90 percent of the Argonauts were men.

The reality of the gold camps rarely matched people’s dreams. Many found only modest amounts of gold or had to settle for manual labor.  Any wealth was rapidly consumed by goods sold for astronomically inflated prices. Tensions between Americans and foreigners rose to a fever pitch due to nativism.

San Francisco grew rapidly though it had neither the government nor civil institutions to handle such growth. Saloons and gambling houses were ubiquitous where gold that was easily acquired was easily lost. Crime, ethnic gangs, and vice dominated the streets of the city. Justice was handled by vigilance committees that could order summary executions of frontier justice that was little more than mob rule and with the slightest pretense of due process.

California grew so rapidly due to the gold rush that it skipped the territorial stage and immediately applied for statehood. In September 1849, 48 delegates attended a constitutional convention in Monterey and drafted a state constitution and a bill of rights that banned slavery. The Pathfinder of the West, John Fremont, brought the constitution to Washington, D.C. where Congress considered it. Former Vice President and current U.S. Senator John C. Calhoun led the southern opposition to it because it banned slavery. He argued only Congress could decide the question.

The contentious issue was resolved only by the fragile Compromise of 1850 that included making California a free state and passing the Fugitive Slave Act. The gold rush thereby indirectly contributed to the growing sectionalism of the 1850s that led to the Civil War. The gold rush also helped create the American West and today’s prosperous sunbelt.

Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. He is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.

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