Coming of the Argonauts to California

California Gold Miners

California Gold Miners

By Zoeth Skinner Eldredge in 1912

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.”

Sutter's Sawmill 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.

San Francisco, Broadway Wharf, by Lawrence and Houseworth

Twelve days after issuing the foregoing proclamation the governor received notice of the ratification of the treaty of peace between the United States and Mexico and he at once ordered the New York volunteers — Stevenson’s regiment — mustered out, their term of service ending with the war. The Mormon Battalion had been previously mustered out on expiration of their term of service. This left the commander but two companies of regular troops — F company, 3d artillery, numbering 62 officers and men, and C company, 1st dragoons comprised of 83 men, a total in California of 145 soldiers, with the ranks being depleted daily by desertions, and not a warship on the coast of the province. The governor, without the machinery of civil government, with no civil officers, save the few alcades he had appointed, and unsustained by adequate military force, was compelled to exercise control and maintain order in a country extending over 600 miles in length by 200 in width, over a community composed of about equal numbers of Californians and foreigners, the latter largely made up of runaway sailors and men accustomed to a lawless life, jealous of each other and of the Californians, all wrought up to an intensity of excitement by the gold discoveries, and now increased by a thousand soldiers discharged without pay.

It was a case requiring skill, judgment, and determination. All the complex responsibilities of a civil administration thrust upon a military commander, without council or legislative support, were to be met and the honor of the United States government maintained. The trial of criminals, the establishment of port duties, the registration of vessels, the making of custom-house regulations, the examination of ship’s papers, the collection of duties, the appointment of collectors, alcades, judges, etc., the prevention of smuggling, represent a few of the responsibilities of the governor.

On August 14, 1848, Major Hardie wrote the governor from San Francisco that the deficiency of force to support the civil organization at that place was likely to be productive of the most serious consequences. That the lower classes of the community were of the most lawless kind, and when their ranks were swelled by disbanded volunteers, freed from the restraints of discipline, there would be no security for life or property.

Captain Folsom, assistant quartermaster, wrote the same day that acts of disgraceful violence were of almost daily occurrence on board the shipping in the harbor and the officials had no power to preserve order; that his “office is left with a large amount of money and gold dust in it, and the volunteers are discharged without pay.” “We collect port charges, etc.,” he writes, “from both foreign and American vessels, and in return, we are under the most imperative obligation to protect trade.” It is not to be wondered at that Mason, as colonel of 1st dragoons, applied to the War Department November 24, 1848, to be ordered home, having been absent from the United States for two years.

In addition to the outrages committed by lawless men, the disbanding of the Mormon Battalion and the Stevenson regiment, together with the absence at the mines of a large portion of the citizens, left the country defenseless against inroads of hostile Indians.

In the attempt to stay the desertion of his men Colonel Mason granted furloughs permitting them to go to the goldfields for periods of two or three months. These soldiers met with varying degrees of success. One of them, private John K. Haggerty, of F Company, 3d artillery, came back from the mines with 60 pounds of gold ($15,000).

Throughout the Americas and Europe, the most astonishing reports were received from the goldfields of California. General Smith writing from Panama January 7, 1849, says that none of the accounts received were exaggerated; that there had been brought to Valparaiso and Lima before the end of 1848, gold valued at $1,800,000; that the British consul at Panama had forwarded 15,000 ounces. ($240,000) across the isthmus, and that the commander of the Pandora, Royal Navy, informed him that the truth was beyond the accounts he had heard. General Smith was also informed that hundreds of people from the west coast of South America were embarking for the goldfields. In a subsequent letter, he says that he has learned from many sources that there was a great emigration of people of all nations to California and that many are going off with large quantities of gold. He says that on his arrival there he shall consider everyone, not a citizen of the United States, who enters on public land and digs for gold, as a trespasser and shall so treat him.

On April 12, 1848, the Pacific Mail was incorporated with a capital of $500,000, and contracts were entered into for the building of three steamers; the California, the Oregon, and the Panama. The California was completed first and sailed from New York on October 6, 1848, under command of Cleveland Forbes.

Meanwhile, the reports from California of the extent of the goldfields, and the marvelous quantities of the metal obtained by men unskilled in mining and without capital were received in the eastern states and in Europe. In November 1848 came Lieutenant Loeser of the 3d artillery, with dispatches from the military governor of California, confirming the most extravagant reports from the goldfields, and bringing tangible evidence in the shape of a box filled with gold dust.

The gold was placed on exhibition at the war office and the president embodied Mason’s report in his message to Congress on December 5th. The entire community went wild with excitement. Mason’s report with the president’s endorsement was published in the principal newspapers throughout the world. The “gold fever” was on and from all parts of the world companies were fitting out for California. From Sonora in Mexico, thousands of men came overland, while from the coasts of Chile and Peru as many more came by sea.

Thousands started from the Atlantic ports of the United States for Panama, for Vera Cruz, and for Nicaragua. The steamer Falcon from New Orleans landed at Chagres the first adventurers for California, several hundred in number, all determined to board the steamer California at Panama, if possible. The route across the isthmus was a fearful one; by canoe up the Chagres River to Cruces, the head of navigation, then by mule, if one was to be had, or on foot to Panama.

There was an insufficient number of boats to carry the adventurers up the river — a journey of several days — and consequently, people had to wait at Chagres. From Cruces to Panama the baggage had to be carried on the backs of men. The excessive rains, the trouble, vexation, and exposure caused a vast amount of sickness and few escaped the “Chagres fever.” To augment their troubles, cholera made its appearance followed by a number of deaths. This caused a stampede when all baggage and property of every description was abandoned and left on the route while the panic-stricken emigrants fled to Panama. Their belongings were afterward brought in by natives who were satisfied with reasonable compensation for their faithful services. The Falcon brought to Chagres Major-general Persifer F. Smith appointed to command the Third (Pacific) Division. Captain Elliott and Major Fitzgerald of his staff were taken with cholera, and Elliott died and was buried in the churchyard at Cruces. Arriving at Panama there was a long wait for the steamer, while the numbers of emigrants increased daily and the inhabitants of the city became alarmed at the prospect of pestilence and famine. Provisions rose to famine prices and there was much distress and suffering among the emigrants. At length, the long looked for steamer was sighted and anchored in the harbor on January 17th. All was excitement and many hurried off to the ship thinking to secure passage, but they were not permitted to board and were obliged to return. The ship had accommodation for seventy-five, cabin and steerage, and fifteen hundred clamored for passage. She had stopped at Callao and had taken on fifty passengers for San Francisco, although it was understood that none were to be accepted until Panama was reached. It was decided that the New York passengers holding through tickets should be first provided for; afterward those from South America, and finally as many as possible from among the first applicants for passage at the office in Panama. On February 1st, the California sailed for San Francisco with 350 passengers. The ship was so crowded it was difficult to move about, either on deck or in the cabin.

On February 28,  the California steamed past the rugged cliffs of the Golden Gate into the warm sunshine of a California spring, past the green slopes of Marin and the purple heights of Tamalpais, past the islands of the bay and Alta Loma, and cast anchor before a most disreputable collection of adobe houses, wooden shacks, and tents — the outpost of this new Colchis — with its background of windswept dunes, bleak and desolate. The weary Argonauts were joyfully welcomed. The ships in the harbor donned their gayest bunting; the guns of the Pacific squadron boomed while the yards of the warships were manned with blue jackets. The rains of winter had driven the miners to cover and the town was full. Gold dust was plenty and the gambling houses ran day and night. The people were rough and uncouth but they gave the newcomers a hearty welcome and celebrated with ardor the establishment of steam communication with the world.

San Francisco, California by Henry Firks, 1849.

San Francisco, California by Henry Firks, 1849.

There was nothing lofty in the motive that brought this band of adventurers to these shores and nothing particularly remarkable about the men who composed it. They were strong, courageous, undaunted. They came to make a fortune and return; they remained to create an empire. It was the part the Argonauts played in the founding and building a great commonwealth on the Pacific coast that gives significance to their coming.

When the California sailed away from Panama, she left behind a multitude of emigrants, all disappointed, some filled with rage, some with despair. A few sailing vessels were chartered to carry the adventurers to California and it is said that a few tried in log canoes to follow the coast only to perish or be driven back after futile struggles with winds and currents. The Oregon, second steamer of the Pacific Mail, arrived at Panama about the middle of March. The crowd had doubled. The Oregon took on about 500 and reached San Francisco on April 1st. Profiting by the experience of the California, the captain took the precaution to anchor his ship under the guns of a man-of-war and placed the most rebellious of his crew under arrest. With barely enough coal to carry him to San Blas, he sailed April 12th, carrying back the first mail, treasure, and passengers. On May 1st, the California, having obtained a crew sailed for Panama. The Panama, the third steamer of the Pacific Mail, arrived at San Francisco on June 4th, 16 days from Panama. The Oregon brought several other important men, some of whom would leave their mark on the Golden State.

Ships now began to arrive from all parts of the world, crowded with treasure seekers, and by the middle of November upwards of six hundred vessels had entered the harbor and the larger part of these were left swinging at their anchors while their crews rushed to the gold mines. Colonel Mason advises the adjutant general of the arrival of a ship at Monterey loaded with ordnance stores and says that it will cost more to unload the ship than the total freight from New York to Monterey.

Death on the Trail

Death on the Trail

The sufferings of the emigrants who came by sea, great as they were, were as nothing compared with those who came by land. Not since the crusades of the Middle Ages, has there been anything approaching the overland emigration in magnitude, peril, and endurance. It is estimated that during the year 1849, 42,000 emigrants came overland to California, of whom 9,000 were from Mexico. Eight thousand Americans came by the Santa Fé Route and 25,000 by the South pass and the Humboldt River. Bayard Taylor wrote: “The emigrants we took on board at San Diego were objects of general interest. The stories of adventures, by the way, sounded more marvelous than anything I had heard or read since my boyish acquaintance with Robinson Crusoe, Captain Cook, and John Ledyard. The emigrants by the Gila route gave a terrible account of the crossing of the great desert lying west of the Colorado River. They describe this region as scorching and sterile — a country of burning salt plains and shifting hills of sand, whose only signs of human visitation are the bones of animals and men scattered along the trails that cross it. The corpses of several emigrants, out of companies who passed before them, lay half-buried in sand, and the hot air was made stifling by the effluvia that rose from the dry carcasses of hundreds of mules. There, if a man faltered, he was gone; no one could stop to lend him a hand without a likelihood of sharing his fate.”

The rendezvous for overland emigrants was usually IndependenceMissouri for both the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails. Throughout the eastern states, the winter of 1848-49 was one of preparation. Emigration parties were formed in almost every town, each member contributing a fixed amount for the outfit. These were as elaborate as the taste of the members suggested or their means permitted. Provisions for the journey and for one or two years in California with every known implement for digging and washing gold, arms, ammunition, large supplies of clothing, blankets, etc., and in some cases, goods for barter or sale, characterized the equipment of the emigration of 1849. Vehicles of every conceivable kind and quality were seen, from the ponderous “prairie schooner” drawn by three yokes of oxen to the light spring wagon; riding horses and pack mules; together with relays of animals for heavy hauls.

Albert Bierstadt's Oregon Trail, 1869

Albert Bierstadt’s Oregon Trail, 1869

Arriving at the rendezvous the small parties were joined in a large party together with such individuals and families as came in singly, a captain was selected and the caravan set out on its two thousand mile journey. The northern route was by the so-called Oregon Trail, up the north fork of the Platte to the Sweetwater, up the Sweetwater, through the South pass, to the Green River, down the Bear to Soda Springs, to Fort Hall on the Snake River, to the Humboldt, down the Humboldt to the sink, across the desert to the Truckee River, over the Sierra Nevada to the headwaters of the Bear River, then down the river to the Sacramento and to Sutter’s Fort. From the sink of the Humboldt, three routes offered themselves: northerly to the Pitt River pass; west, across the desert to the Truckee, and southerly to Carson Valley, where grass and water were, and then over the Sierra to the south fork of the American River.

It is estimated that by the end of April 1849, twenty thousand emigrants were in camp on the Missouri River waiting for the grass on the plains to be high enough to feed. Many companies had started earlier and by the middle of May, the trail from the Missouri River to Fort Laramie presented a continuous line of wagons and pack trains. Through the valley of the Platte, cholera broke out, claiming many victims and spreading terror through the ranks of the emigrants. This began to disappear as they approached the Rocky mountains. At last, after some days of travel through a rugged and broken country where high bluffs force them from the river to make long detours, Fort Laramie is reached and the first stage of the journey is completed.

South Pass, Wyoming

South Pass, Wyoming

For the next 300 miles the country is a desert, with little grass and less water, through the forbidding Black Hills, up the Sweetwater River, across the continental divide by the South Pass, at an elevation of 7,085 feet; then through a somewhat better country, the Green River Valley, to Bear River, which here flows northward, making a horseshoe around the mountains. Down the Bear River, they traveled for a distance of about 90 miles to Soda Springs. Here, the Bear turns southward and the emigrants proceed westerly to the Portneuf River down which they travel to Fort Hall, Idaho on the Snake River. The route is now down the Snake to Raft River, then over the hills to Goose Creek and up Goose Creek to the headwaters of the Mary, or Humboldt, as the river now began to be called. This was the regular route. There were a number of short cuts which saved the travelers from one to two hundred miles of distance, but cost them weeks of extra time to get through; short cuts which were all right for pack-trains, but all wrong for wagons.

On reaching the Humboldt the traveler has two-thirds of the whole distance behind him and is on the last stage of his journey. And what a journey it has been, and how changed he is from the one who set out so blithely from Independence three months ago. How bright the anticipations then! how cozy the snug family retreat within the great canvas-covered “prairie schooner!” how jolly the conversation and the stories around the campfire! the song and music after the day’s toil was over.