The California Gold Rush
The California Gold Rush was the biggest and the richest of them all,
but it was no different from any of those that followed in providing
the majority of its participants with much rushing and little gold.
When forty-niners reminisced through beards grown longer and whiter,
the strikes of the past became richer and the nuggets bigger, but the
mournful truth is that most gold hunters would have done better
financially staying at home and been considerably more comfortable.
Let there be no misunderstanding, though the gold across the Sierra
Nevada was rich beyond belief, and many miners made strikes that
deserve the adjective "fabulous." It was just that there was not
enough gold in the streams to make everyone rich. Hubert Howe
Bancroft, historian of the West, estimated that during the peak years
of 1849 and 1850 the gold taken out averaged about $600 per miner.
Averages are usually misleading: this one, on examination, can mean
only that for every miner who struck it rich, there must have been a
platoon who hardly got to see what gold looked like.
It all began, as every schoolchild is taught, at the sawmill of John
Sutter one January day in 1848. A Swiss immigrant, Sutter at the time
ruled, benevolently and graciously, over an estate of 49,000 acres,
which he had received from the Mexican government and had built into
what, amounted to a self-sustaining kingdom. It lay in the valley of
the Sacramento, still almost empty of settlers, and his settlement,
called Sutter's Fort, was situated where Sacramento now stands.
In the summer of 1847 he sent a carpenter named James Marshall, in
charge of a crew of men, up the South Branch of the American River to
build a sawmill. Work proceeded through the next several months until
January, when Marshall turned water into the millrace for the first
time. He let it run all night to wash the race clean of debris; the
next morning, January 24, 1848, he saw yellow specks glinting through
the running water, and the famous discovery was made.
Sutter was deeply disturbed by the finding of the metal; gold and the
pastoral serenity oh his pleasant empire were incompatible, and he had
a foreboding of things to come---although the results were to be more
devastating than he could possibly have imagined: his cattle
butchered, his fields trampled and untended, his land taken by
squatters, until he had not a thing left. At the moment all he could
do was ask the men at the mill to keep the secret for another six
weeks, so that his ranch workers would not desert him to dig gold
before spring planting was done. The men at the mill did not leave,
but continued to work as before, panning for gold only on Sunday,
until the sawmill was finished in March.
So far, the discovery had produced no gold fever at the scene, nor did