Born near Sullivan, Missouri on September 3, 1820, to William and Elizabeth Collins Hearst, George was the oldest of three children. Two years later, his sister Martha (nicknamed Patsy,) was born and later a younger brother Philip arrived, who was unfortunately crippled from birth. From a young age, George worked on the family farm and received very little formal schooling.
Though Hearst was said to have had a lifelong interest in books, he had only rudimentary reading abilities. However, even without a formal education, Hearst was no dummy, as the world would soon see.
When George was 26, his father William Hearst died owing some $10,000 to his creditors. George immediately took on the responsibility for caring for his mother, younger sister, and crippled brother.
Before long, George had improved on the farm’s profitability, opened a small store and leased a couple of prospective lead mines. The oldest economic endeavor in Missouri, lead had been mined in the area since 1715. Hearst had been interested in the mines since he was a child and once he bought the lead mines, he began to studying the mining business in earnest. His mines prospered, producing both lead and copper and within two years he was able to pay off his father’s debt.
By 1850, he had earned enough money to take care of his family and announced that he was going to California to look into gold mining By this time, his crippled brother had passed away and though his mother and sister opposed his decision to go west, Hearst was determined and soon organized a wagon train that included his cousins, Jacob and Joseph Clark, and headed to California in May, 1850.
They finally reached Placerville in October and established a winter camp in Jackass Gulch. Placer mining throughout the winter, their results were minimal and in the spring they decided to move on to Grass Valley, California, where a rich lode of gold bearing quartz had been found at Gold Hill.
Having much better luck, Hearst soon found a rich gold bearing quartz ledge between Grass Valley and Nevada City. Naming his new mine Merrimac Hill after a river in Missouri, the claim was exceptionally rich and with his former lead mining experience, Hearst quickly developed new and better ways to extract the gold. When the Merrimack hit water, it temporarily halted the mining, but the lucky Hearst had already found another rich claim that he named the Potisi. By the end of the year, Hearst had used his mining proceeds to become a part owner in the first theater in nearby Nevada City and later, established a general store in Sacramento.
However, the store didn’t do so well and after Sacramento flooded that winter, Hearst sold the store in the spring of 1852 and went back to the mountains. He then sold both the Merrimac and Potisi Mines, making a considerable profit. For the next five years, he and the Clarks continued to prospect; however, as soon as they would find an ore bearing claim, they would quickly turn around and sell it, a venture that worked over and over again. In 1857, Hearst located the extremely rich LeCompton Mine near Nevada City.
Always on the look out for the rich finds, when word came about the rich silver finds in Nevada, Hearst went to investigate in 1859. Obviously impressed, he sold his share of the LeCompton Mine and bought a one-sixth interest in the Ophir Mine in what is now Washoe County. The mining camp that sprang up around the mine was first called Ophir, before being changed to Silver City, then Virginia City. Moving to Virginia City, he focused on solving the problem of separating silver and gold from the ore. In March of the next year, when the first silver was smelted from the Ophir, it touched of the “Washoe Rush” as thousands of miners flocked from California to Nevada. Soon, the entire region was referred to as the “Comstock Lode.”
It seemed that everything Hearst touched literally turned to gold. Though he didn’t fit the mold of a millionaire industrialist very well, there was no doubt that he was well on his way to becoming an even more powerful and successful man. Remembered as “almost illiterate” and having a taste for poker, bourbon and tobacco, these traits obviously didn’t hold him back. His manner and dress were often described as rough, disheveled, and crude, as he appeared in dirty and wrinkled clothes at board and miners’ meetings alike. In addition to his many mining activities, Hearst had been continuously acquiring land in the west, especially in California, and also substantial ranching and livestock interests.
As his career was peaking, Hearst received word that his mother was ill and returned to Missouri in June, 1860. Spending most of his time with her until she died in early, 1861, he met a young neighbor and school teacher named Phoebe Elizabeth Apperson. Enchanted with the 19 year-old girl, her parents were not so happy, believing that he was much too old for her. However, the two eloped on June 15, 1862 and the two soon headed to California, where they lived at the Lick House in San Francisco, a famous hotel of the time. A year later, the couple had a son on April 29, 1863 – William Randolph Hearst. As George continued to deal with his various mining interests, Phoebe remained in San Francisco.
Though Hearst had no political experience, he was nominated to the State Assembly and won a seat representing San Francisco as a Democrat in 1865. During his two years in office, he acquired the 48,000 acre Piedra Blanca Ranch at San Simeon, California and later bought several adjoining ranches that would later become the site of the famed Hearst Castle.
Two years later the prosperous Ophir Mine began to decline and it was thought by some that the Comstock Lode had finally been exhausted. Hearst returned to San Francisco to look after his real estate investments and began to apply his mining expertise to assessing the value of prospective mining ventures. Traveling all over the American West, he received high fees for his services and sometimes invested his money if the prospects looked bright enough. Hearst frequently invested with a man named James B. Haggin and eventually the pair formed a mining partnership.