Gold Mining in America


By Albert Bolles, 1879

Old Prospector

Old Prospector

Although some specimens of gold were collected in North Carolina and Virginia previous to the American Revolution, no excitement about the subject arose until the discovery in California in 1848. Before then, the gold-miner had pursued his occupation quietly, and without ever dreaming of enormous riches suddenly acquired; but, with the discovery on the Pacific Coast, all was changed. Gold had been found in California prior to this time; for Hakluyt, in his account of the voyage of Sir Francis Drake’s expedition along the Pacific Coast in 1579, said, “There is no part of the earth to be taken up wherein there is not a reasonable quantity of gold and silver.”

Although this statement was highly overdrawn, it probably contained a basis of truth, for the Mexicans found placer-gold near the Colorado River at various intervals between 1775 and 1828. Still, these discoveries were regarded as unimportant; and even so late as 1835, when Forbes wrote his History of California, he said, “No minerals of any particular importance have yet been found in Upper California, nor any ores of metals.” Three years later, the placers of San Francisco, 45 miles northwest of Los Angeles, were discovered. The deposit of gold was neither extensive nor rich, but it was worked steadily for 20 years.

In 1841, the exploring expedition of Commodore Wilkes visited the coast and its mineralogist, James D. Dana, made a trip overland from the Columbia River, by way of Willamette and Sacramento Valleys, to San Francisco Bay. The next year, he published a work on mineralogy, in which was mentioned the discovery of gold in Sacramento Valley, and of auriferous rocks in Southern Oregon. Dana did not regard his discovery as of any practical value; and, if he said anything about it in California, no one heeded his words. Nevertheless, many people believed the country was rich in minerals; and on May 4, 1841, Thomas O. Larkin, at that time United States consul in Monterey, wrote in an official letter to James Buchanan, who was then Secretary of State, saying: “There is no doubt but that gold, silver, quicksilver, copper, lead, sulfur, and coal mines are to be found all over California; and it is equally doubtful whether, under their present owners, they will ever be worked.”

James Marshall

James Marshall

Seven years later, on January 19, 1848, James W. Marshall, while engaged in digging a race for a sawmill at Coloma, California about 35 miles eastward from Sutter’s Fort, found some pieces of yellow metal in the mill-race which he and the half-dozen men working with him imagined were gold. Feeling confident that he had made a discovery of great importance, he went to the mill race every morning to look for gold. As his specimens continued to accumulate, his associates began to think there might be something in his gold mine, after all. About the middle of February, one of the men employed at the mill went to San Francisco to determine if this metal was precious, and was there introduced to Isaac Humphrey, who had washed for gold in Georgia. The experienced miner saw at a glance that the true stuff was before him, and, after a few inquiries, was satisfied as to the richness of the deposits and made immediate preparations to go to the mill.

Arriving at Coloma on March 7th, Humphrey found that work at the mill going on as though no gold existed in the neighborhood. The next day he took a pan and spade and washed some of the dirt from the bottom of washing the mill-race in places where Marshall had found his specimens, for gold and in a few hours declared the mines to be far richer than any he had seen or heard of in Georgia.

He now made a rocker and went to work earnestly washing for gold and every day he found an ounce or more of metal. The men at the mill made rockers for themselves, and all were soon busy in search efforts of the shining stuff.

Everything else was abandoned, yet the rumor of the discovery spread slowly. In the middle of March, Pearson B. Reading, the owner of a large ranch at the head of the Sacramento Valley, happened to visit other Sutter’s Fort; and, hearing of the mining at Coloma, he went there to see it. He said, that, if similarity of formation could be regarded as proof, there must be gold mines near his ranch so, after observing the method of washing, he went away, and in a few weeks was at work on the bars of Clear Creek, nearly 200 .miles in a northwesterly direction from Coloma.

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

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

A few days after Reading left, John Bidwell, formerly a California congressional representative, came to Coloma; and the result of his visit was the organization of a party of Indians belonging to his ranch to wash for gold on the bars of Feather River, 75 miles from Coloma. Thus, the mines were opened at several distant points.

The following was the first printed notice, in a California newspaper published in San Francisco, of the discovery: “In the newly-made raceway of the sawmill erected by Captain Sutter on the American Fork, gold has been found in considerable quantities. One discovery person brought thirty dollars to New Helvetia, gathered there in a short time.”

On May 20th, the same paper, announcing that its publication would be suspended, said, “The whole country, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and from the seashore to the base of Sierra Nevada, resounds with the sordid cry of ‘Gold, gold, gold!’ while the field is left half planted, the house half-built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of picks and shovels, and the means of transportation to the spot where one man obtained a 128 dollars worth of the real stuff in one day’s washing; and the average for all concerned is 20 dollars per day.”

Towns and farms were deserted, or left to the care of women and children, while rancheros, wood-choppers, mechanics, vaqueros, and soldiers and sailors who had deserted or obtained leave of absence, devoted all their energies to washing the auriferous gravel of the Sacramento River. Never satisfied, however great their profits, they were continually looking for new places which might yield them two or three times as much as they had made before. Thus the area of their labors gradually extended; and, at the end of 1848, miners were at work in every large stream on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, from the Feather River to the Tuolumne River, a distance of a 150 miles, and also at Reading’s diggings in the northwestern corner of the Sacramento Valley.

Eldorado County, CA Miners

Miners were always quick to “pick up” their homes and move to the next big mining strike

The news of the gold discovery was received in the Atlantic States and in foreign countries with incredulity and ridicule, but soon the receipts of the precious metal in large quantities, and the enthusiastic letters of army officers and of men whose word was unquestioned changed the current of belief and created a wonderful excitement.

Oregon, the Hawaiian Islands, and Sonora sent their thousands to share in the auriferous harvest of the first year; and in the following spring, all the adventurous young Americans east of the Rocky Mountains wanted to go to the new Eldorado, where, as they imagined, everybody was rich, and gold could be dug by the shovelful from the bed of every stream.

The year 1850, two years after Marshall’s discovery, was marked by a multitude of “rushes,” or sudden migrations in search of imaginary rich diggings. The miners, although generally men of rare intelligence, compared ideas with the laborers in other countries, had vague ideas of the geological distribution of gold; and the marvelous amounts dug out by them (sometimes a single miner extracting thousands of dollars per day) excited their imagination so highly as to prevent the formation of sound judgment, even if they had possessed the requisite information upon which to act. Many believed that there must be some volcanic source from which the gold had been thrown up and scattered over the hills; and they thought, that, if they could only find that place, they would have nothing to do except to shovel up the precious metal, and load their mules with it. More than once, long trains of pack animals were sent out with the confident expectation of getting loads of gold within a few days.