Coming of the Argonauts to California

By Zoeth Skinner Eldredge in 1912

California Gold Miners

California Gold Miners

Years before the discovery of gold on the American River, gold placers had been worked in California with varying degrees of success. But little attention was paid to this industry and it was not considered of much importance by either the Californians or the foreigners residing in their midst. The priests discouraged mining, the rancheros were indifferent to it, and neither class wished to see the country filled with a mining population. On March 2, 1844, the deputy for California to the Mexican Congress, Don Manuel Castañares, reported to his government the discovery of gold in the vicinity of Los Angeles the previous year. These mines had produced from about the middle of the year to December 1843, 2,000 ounces, most of which had been sent to the United States.

He said the placers extended a distance of nearly thirty leagues (78 miles). William H. Thomes, writing from San Pedro where the ship Admittance was taking cargo on June 30, 1843, says: “Here we also received 10 iron flasks of gold dust, although where the latter came from no one knew, but it was reported that the merchants of the Pueblo Los Angeles traded for it with the Indians and the latter would not reveal the source whence it came. When Alfred Robinson went to the United States in 1843, he carried to the mint in Philadelphia a package of gold dust from Abel Stearns of Los Angeles, the assay of which showed it to be .906 fine.

The placers from which this gold came were on the San Francisco rancho, near the mission of San Fernando. The rancho had formerly belonged to the mission, but at this time was in possession of the Del Valle family. The discovery was made in March 1842 and in the following May, Ignacio Del Valle was appointed encargo de justicias to preserve order in the mining district. William H. Davis says that from eighty to one hundred thousand dollars of gold was taken from these places in two years. Colonel Mason in his report of August 17, 1848, on the gold fields of California says: “The gold placer near the mission of San Fernando has long been known but has been but little wrought for want of water.”

James Marshall at Sutter's Sawmill, Coloma, California, 1851.

James Marshall at Sutter’s Sawmill, Coloma, California, 1851.

But the event that was to set the world ablaze and create an empire on the shores of the Pacific was the discovery by James W. Marshall of gold on the American River January 24, 1848. It may seem strange that in a community where the somewhat extensive placers of the San Fernando Valley received so little attention a discovery of gold placers in the Sacramento valley should have created such intense excitement. It may be that the reason for this was that the discovery on the American River was so quickly followed by reports of the great extent of the gold region and the astonishing richness of the placers. The gold deposits were on or near the surface, no capital was required to work them, and a laboring man with nothing but his pick, shovel, and pan could obtain from one to two or more ounces per day, with the possibility, always, of acquiring a fortune in a few weeks.

In the foothills of the Sierras about 45 miles northeast of the Embarcadero of the Sacramento, on the south fork of the American River, Captain John Sutter was building a sawmill in the fall and winter of 1847 and employed James W. Marshall to superintend the work. In digging a tailrace for the mill, Marshall was in the habit of turning the water into the ditch at night to wash out the dirt loosened by the workmen during the day.

John Sutter

John Sutter

On the morning of January 24, 1848, Marshall saw and picked up in the mill race a glittering piece of gold weighing about half an ounce. The men picked up other particles and, satisfied with the importance of the find, Marshall went to Sutter with it. Sutter was anxious to complete his mill and also a grist mill he was erecting on the American River, and he and Marshall agreed to keep the discovery quiet. The attempt was useless; the men soon quit work and went to digging gold. Sutter, who was a sub-Indian agent for the Sacramento Valley, obtained from the Indians of the Yalesumi tribe a lease of twelve square miles on the American fork and sent it to Governor Mason for confirmation. This Mason refused, saying that the United States did not recognize the right of Indians to sell or lease to private individuals land on which they resided.

The news of the discovery spread like magic. Remarkable success attended the labors of the first explorers and in a few weeks, hundreds were engaged in the placers. By August 1st it was estimated that four thousand men were working in the gold district, of whom more than one-half were Indians, and that from 30,000 to 50,000 dollars worth of gold was daily obtained. Colonel Mason reported that no thefts or robberies had been committed in the gold region, and it was a matter of surprise to him that so peaceful and quiet state of things should continue to exist.

The discovery changed the whole character of California. Its people, before engaged in agriculture and in cattle raising, had gone to the mines or were on their way there. Laborers left their workbenches and tradesmen their shops; sailors deserted their ships as fast as they arrived on the coast. Mason reported that 76 soldiers had deserted from the posts of Sonoma, San Francisco, and Monterey, and for a few days. he feared that garrisons would desert in a body. As a laborer, a soldier could earn in one day at the mines double a soldier’s pay and allowances for a month; while a carpenter or mechanic would not listen to an offer of less than $15 or $20 a day.

“Could any combination of affairs try a man’s fidelity more than this?” writes the governor, “I really think some extraordinary mark of favor should be given to those soldiers who remain faithful to their flag throughout this tempting crisis.”

In July 1848 Colonel Mason made a tour of the mining region. “Many private letters have gone to the United States,” he says, “giving accounts of the vast quantity of gold recently discovered, and it may be a matter of surprise why I have made no report on this subject at an earlier date. The reason is that I could not bring myself to believe the reports that I heard of the wealth of the gold district until I visited it myself. I have no hesitation now in saying that there is more gold in the country drained by the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers than will pay the cost of the present war with Mexico a hundred times over.” In November he writes: “Gold continues to be found in increased quantities and over an increased extent of country. I stated to you in my letter, No. 37, that there was more gold in the country drained by the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers than would pay all the cost of the war with Mexico one hundred times over; if I had said five hundred times over, I should have been nearer the mark. Any reports that may reach you of the vast quantities of gold in California can scarcely be too exaggerated for belief.”

San Francisco was not inclined to accept the reports of gold discoveries. However, a few men slipped out of town to investigate for themselves, keeping their movements quiet as if fearing ridicule. Presently, several well-laden diggers arrived bringing bottles, tin cans, and buckskin bags filled with the precious metal. “Sam Brannan, holding in one hand a bottle of gold dust and swinging his hat with the other, passed along the street shouting: “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River.” The excitement was prodigious and in a few days, the exodus had begun. By boat, by mule and horse, or on foot they went, all eager to reach the mines, fearful that the gold would be gone before they could get there and receive their share. Business houses closed their doors.

San Francisco, California by Frank Marry, about 1850.

San Francisco, California by Frank Marry, about 1850.

There was no service in the little church on the plaza and a padlock was on the door of the alcalde’s office. The ships in the harbor were deserted alike by masters and sailors. Soldiers deserted their posts and fled, taking their arms, horses, blankets, etc., with them; others were sent after them to force them back to duty and all, pursuers and pursued, went to the mines together. General Sherman, then lieutenant of 3d artillery, tells how he organized a force of seven officers to pursue and bring back 28 men of the 2d Infantry who had deserted in a body taking their arms and accouterments. They captured and brought in 27 of them.

On July 25, 1848, Governor Mason issued a proclamation which recited the fact that many citizens had gone to the gold mines without making proper provision for the families they had left behind; that many soldiers, tempted by the flattering prospects of sudden wealth had deserted their colors to go to the same region, regardless of their oaths and obligations to the government, thus endangering the safety of the garrison; and he declared that unless families were guarded and provided for by their natural protectors, and unless citizens lent their aid to prevent desertions, the military force in California would concentrate in the gold region, take military possession of the mining district, and exclude therefrom all unlicensed persons. All citizens employing or harboring deserters would be arrested, tried by military commissions, and punished according to the articles of war.

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