Fathers of the California Gold Rush

One man owned the land and stream where the gold was found. The second found the gold. The third created a frenzy that emptied San Francisco and filled the Sierra Nevada foothills with men burning with gold fever.

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John Sutter (About.com)

It all began when John Sutter employed James Marshall to build a sawmill for his Mexican land grant of over forty thousand acres. Mexico and the United States were still at war in January, 1848, less than a month from signing a treaty ending the conflict, when Marshall spotted flecks of metal downriver from the incomplete mill. Several days later, Sutter confirmed Marshall’s suspicion that the flakes of metal he had found in the American River were gold.

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James Marshall (Examiner.com)

The news spread like wildfire when Mormon entrepreneur Sam Brannan bought gold dust, put it in a bottle, and walked through the streets of San Francisco shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” [H.W. Brands, The Age of Gold, p. 43] Brannan had no intention of searching for gold himself. He wanted to enrich himself by selling supplies to the miners. His Sacramento store later would sell as much as five thousand dollars of merchandise per day [H.W. Brands, The Age of Gold, p. 276], a fantastic sum at a time eastern farm workers were earning thirty to forty dollars per month.

Ultimately, the gold rush was not kind to these three men. Marshall lived humbly most of his days.

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Sam Brannan (Source: Sierra Foothill Magazine)

Sutter lived to see his inland empire overrun by fortune hunters and squatters. He died in relative poverty in Washington, DC.

Brannan used much of his fortune speculating in real estate, only to lose much of his wealth when his wife divorced him. (Early in its American territorial history when men outnumbered women nineteen to one, California had liberalized its divorce laws in an effort to attract women to its borders. Divorce included the divorcee’s right to fifty percent of the marital property.) While Brannan did remarry, he was never able to regain his old knack for success in business. He died in poverty in 1889 leaving his nephew to finance his burial. [Brands, The Age of Gold, p. 484].

Marshall’s discovery, and the publicity which followed it, brought a torrent of argonauts from around the world.

So, in a sense, these three men, who accelerated California’s transition from a territory to a state, can also be viewed as the fathers of the state of California.

For a well-documented and entertaining account of the California Gold Rush, I highly recommend Professor H.W. Brands’ The Age of Gold, Anchor Books (2003). Also consider J.S. Holliday’s The World Rushed In, Simon and Schuster (1981); Susan Lee Johnson’s Roaring Camp – The Social World of the California Gold Rush, Norton & Co. (2000); and Jo Ann Levy’s They Saw the Elephant – Women in the California Gold Rush, Shoe String Press (1990).

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Filed under 1800s, American history, Civil War, history, Uncategorized

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