Tag Archives: California Gold Rush

Putting the History in the Historical Novel: The California Gold Rush

This is the seventh in a series of articles in which I share my methodology for crafting a story, which I hope is both interesting and informative. Last week, I wrote about kutsavi, an important trade good among the tribes east and west of the Sierra Nevada. This week, I turn to the California Gold Rush.

In my research of the Gold Rush, I consulted many historical texts: The Age of Gold, by H.W. Brands; The World Rushed In, by J.S. Holiday; Roaring Camp – The Social World of the California Gold Rush, by Samuel Lee Johnson; They Saw the Elephant – Women in the California Gold Rush, by Jo Ann Levy.

I immersed myself in the material to put myself in a position to give the reader a flavor of the period in the context of a story. New Garden’s main character, Jack Grier, marries the daughter of a wealthy Mexican after the Mexican War. Jack’s father-in-law funds a miners’ supply company, Sierra Dry Goods, which Jack operates in California. Very few miners prospered during the Gold Rush; a number of suppliers became very wealthy. Thus, the story sets up Jack for success. When he arrives in Monterey, California, he finds most of the locals have left to search for gold (New Garden, p. 93):

“All of the men have left for the gold fields.”

Father Jesus only slightly overstated the truth. The old men and young boys had remained in Monterey. Any able-bodied man with a horse or a mule headed northeast toward the Sierra Nevada. Others walked or rode with friends. The Presidio’s enlisted men, with no legal authority and under no legal obligation to serve in California, abandoned their posts. Their officers soon joined the gold rush.

Ship captains were warned to avoid the port of San Francisco for fear of losing their crews. It happened so often that many abandoned ships were converted to lodging or warehouses. Jack and his partner Eli worry about how gold fever will affect their prospects (New Garden, p. 99):

Jack and Eli could not manage the supply venture by themselves. Before leaving Mexico, Jack had recruited thirty-two American army veterans to work for Sierra Dry Goods in California. **** Cortes warned Jack that he might lose his men to gold fever. It was this fear, not the usual seasickness, that rocked Jack’s stomach as the ship docked in San Francisco.

Suppliers’ costs were high and their profits even higher. Once Jack’s venture gets underway, the story illustrates the miners’ desperation and begrudging acceptance of the suppliers’ high prices (New Garden, p. 103):

“That’s highway robbery, mister. I ain’t buyin’ what I don’t need.”

Delmar Reed, the same age as Jack, looked ten years older after a summer in the diggings. He wore the pale blue wool britches and matching shirt Jack recognized as a United States infantry uniform, with the private’s stripe removed. He had replaced his blue forage cap with a wide-brim straw hat after baking his neck half the summer under the California sun. Summer temperatures frequently hit one hundred degrees in the diggings. His hair and beard, coal black and gritty, reeked from dirt, grit, and sweat. The loose soles of his army-issue boots flapped whenever he walked.

“Suit yourself,” said Jack. “You don’t have to buy and I don’t have to sell. The prices will only go up the closer I get to Sonora.” ****

“I reckon I don’t have much choice, do I?”

Many miners gave up after losing everything, often relying on a loan or passage paid from a relative back home. In the story Jack recruits a skilled carpenter to come to work for him at his hacienda in Carmel Valley, but only after the man has exhausted all hope of gaining his fortune (New Garden, p. 107):

He had tired of living in squalor, chasing the whisper of the Gold Siren’s song: Just a little longer, Miguel. Just down the river, Miguel. Just up the creek, Miguel. Just over the hill. Others have found me and become rich. Why not you?

Please consider a longer read. New Garden is available on line from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble. Each website includes a “look-in” feature with the first few chapters of the novel. In Greensboro, NC, the novel is available at Scuppernong Books and the Greensboro Historical Museum Bookshop.

The stand-alone sequel, Trouble at Mono Pass, is available at the same locations. It is also available at the Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (Lee Vining) gift shop, the Mono Lake Committee Bookstore (Lee Vining), and the Donner Memorial State Park Bookstore (Truckee, California).

 

 

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The Union Pacific Railroad’s Oakes and Oliver Ames

When Collis P. Huntington, Eastern Agent and Vice President of the Central Pacific, found himself at a very low point in 1863 – when he could not raise funds to buy iron and other railroad hardware because the money men saw easier money to be made in war profiteering – a prior business relationship during the Gold Rush proved to be his salvation. Huntington & Hopkins Hardware had bought thousands of shovels from the Ames family’s New England factory for California gold prospectors and had always paid on time. After some consideration, Oliver Ames, Jr. agreed to make the loan on the condition that Huntington guarantee the interest payments. He also provided letters of introduction to eastern manufacturers of rails and locomotives. Huntington leveraged the loan to buy the rolling stock, rails, and other hardware the Central Pacific needed to get started.

The Ames brothers had pulled Huntington’s fat out of the fire, not as an act of charity, but because Oliver Ames could see additional demand coming from a successful railroad. Ames could not have foreseen, however, that he ultimately would become Huntington’s competitor in the race across the continent. And, in that race, the era of good feelings sometimes turned acrimonious.

Oliver and Oakes Ames had made a fortune during the California Gold Rush and added to that fortune supplying materials to the Union Army during the Civil War. With their cups running over, they made the unfortunate decision of joining Thomas Durant’s Union Pacific railroad enterprise. Republican Oakes won a seat in the House of Representatives and an all-important appointment to the House Committee on Railroads. Oliver secured a seat on the Union Pacific’s board of directors and ultimately served as president pro tempore from 1866 to 1868. He was formally elected as the company’s president in 1868 and continued in that role until 1871.

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Oliver Ames

They should have known better. But just as investors have pursued every venture related to computers and the internet in the past 25 years, investors wanted everything related to railroads in mid-19th century America. And what siren song beckoned more loudly than building the country’s first transcontinental railroad? Had the Ames brothers done their due diligence, they would have known Thomas Durant was a man from whom they should keep their distance.

Unlike the Associates of the Central Pacific, who largely cooperated in their venture and by all accounts appeared to endeavor to build a solid railroad from Sacramento to Promontory Point, company vice president Durant continuously created controversy. For him, the building of the railroad was the thing. Through his construction contracting company, Credit Mobilier, he sought to extract as much money as possible from the building of the railroad. Credit Mobilier, obstensibly an entity separate and apart from the Union Pacific but in reality a different shell with the same owners, overstated expenses. The bills were passed on to the U.S. Treasury and to Union Pacific shareholders. Of course, the entire enterprise included Oakes Ames bribing Congressmen and Senators with Credit Mobilier stock, selling to them well below market. (The Central Pacific was equally guilty of lining legislators’ pockets.) Sucked into Durant’s scheme (perhaps as much by greed as by exasperation), the Ames brothers came to regret their association with him. The New York newspaper, The Sun, broke the story during the 1872 Presidential campaign. Congress later censured Oakes Ames and one Democrat. The Union Pacific slid into bankruptcy.

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Oakes Ames

Back to that much needed loan. As the competing railroad companies crossed the Utah line, each wanted to extend its line as far as possible. This inevitably led to confrontation, with Huntington having no regard for prior good feelings. In one instance, Oakes Ames offered to split the difference between the two railroads’ progress. Huntington blared “I’ll see you damned first.” (Lavender, The Great Persuader, p. 238). Each man threatened to sue the other. Their minions in Congress leveled charges against their masters’ opponents. In the end, the threat of Congressional investigation brought both Huntington and Ames to their senses, thereby paving the way for the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory Point. Thomas Durant certainly made the journey an interesting one.

SOURCES:

  • Bain, David Haward. Empire Express. New York, New York: Viking, 1999.
  • Lavender, David. The Great Persuader. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970.
  • American Experience, www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/tcrr-ames

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Financing America’s First Transcontinental Railroad

The roles of the Associates and the Central Pacific’s construction of the western leg of America’s first transcontinental railroad are laid out in detail in the past three articles. While the Associates risked their personal wealth in accomplishing their task, the project required far more in resources than they could muster from individual investors. The same was true of the Union Pacific’s principal owners.

In this painting, a rail official drives the golden spike in Promontory, Utah (Source: Politico.com)

In this painting, a rail official drives the golden spike in Promontory, Utah (Source: Politico.com)

The Associates obtained substantial amounts of funding from California and from municipalities, but the greatest source for the national project was the federal government. It seems only fitting that President Lincoln, a former railroad lawyer, signed the first two major pieces of legislation, the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 and a significant amendment to the Act in 1864.

The 1862 legislation provided for 30-year federal loans at 6% interest, in amounts that depended upon the difficulty of the grade. The “easy grades” generated bonds in the amount of $16,000 per mile. The track in the extremely difficult mountainous regions generated bonds in the amount of $48,000 per mile. Bonds in the amount of $32,000 per mile were issued for track over the high plains. A portion of the funds were withheld until the entire line was in working order. Failure to complete the entire line by January 1, 1874, would result in forfeiture of all rights, including the entire rail line completed as of that date.

In addition, the companies were granted 6,400 acres of land per mile of line completed. The companies were not entitled to mineral rights, but they were entitled to timber and stone on either side of a 400-foot right-of-way.

The 1864 legislation allowed the companies to float their own 30-year bonds at 6% interest, on which the federal government paid the interest the first year and guaranteed the interest payment for the next nineteen years. Authorized amounts ranged from $24,000 to $96,000 per mile. To enhance the marketability of the companies’ bonds the 1864 legislation gave the company bonds first-mortgage status over the government-issued bonds. The legislation also allowed the Central Pacific to extend its track 150 miles across the Nevada line, assuming the Union Pacific did not get ahead of them. Important to both companies, the forfeiture provision was removed.

It is one of four ceremonial spikes driven at the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad (but is not the final golden spike). (Source: Wikipedia)

This is one of four ceremonial spikes driven at the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad (but is not the final golden spike). (Source: Wikipedia)

An 1865 amendment, signed by President Andrew Johnson on July 3, 1866, dropped the restriction against the Central Pacific going 150 miles beyond the Nevada border, allowing the companies to lay track as far as they could until the two tracks met. The race was on and would not end until the driving of the ceremonial golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869, well before the 1874 deadline set in the 1862 Act (but removed in the 1864 amendment).

One may argue whether the legislation was too generous to the railroad companies, but there is little doubt that few investors would have taken on the task without the government subsidies. Much of the West would have remained isolated without the railroad. Before the railroad, goods were shipped either around the southern tip of South America or across Panama. To put matters in perspective, it took upwards of three weeks just to ship mail between New York and San Francisco. Completion of the transcontinental railroad reduced the time to ten days.

Sources: Bain, Empire Express; Lavender, The Great Persuader; Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum, www.cprr.org.

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Edwin B. Crocker, Railroad Lawyer

Born in upstate New York, E.B. Crocker set out for California in 1852, not to dig for gold or to sell to the miners, but to hang his lawyer’s shingle in Sacramento. His brother, Charles, soon followed, not to practice law but to sell to the miners.

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E.B. Crocker (PBS.org)

The two brothers made up two of the five “Associates,” the men who guided the Central Pacific’s construction of the western leg of the transcontinental railroad, from Sacramento, California, to Promontory Point, Utah. In my prior article, I provided a brief biography of one of the Associates, Collis Huntington, the most successful railroad man of the Gilded Age. The other Associates were Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins.

As I stated in an earlier article, the Associates largely got along well, each contributing his talents in a collaborative manner, in stark contrast to the men who headed up the Union Pacific, responsible for completing the eastern leg of the transcontinental railroad. I say largely, because Huntington constantly complained about Stanford’s work ethic.

All five men were instrumental in founding California’s Republican Party, not necessarily a popular position in 1856 Sacramento. Stanford later served as California’s governor and appointed E.B. Crocker to the California Supreme Court. E.B. in later years often was referred to as Judge Crocker.

Ultimately, E.B. Crocker served as the Central Pacific’s legal counsel. In that role, he resolved the company’s many legal issues, including the legal details involved in the acquisition of other railroads. But he was much more than that. He regularly exchanged lengthy correspondence with Huntington, who served the company’s needs in the East (purchasing iron and rolling stock; securing financing; lobbying politicians in Washington).

The pressure was enormous. The Central had the onerous task of almost immediately having to drill through the Sierra Nevada granite. The price of Central Pacific bonds rose and fell with the latest rumor. Government subsidies depended upon laying as much track as possible. It was critical that the railroad “end” in a town or city, not in the middle of the Nevada desert or the Utah salt flats. Judge Crocker had to withstand Huntington’s demands to lay off Chinese and Irish workmen when weather prevented work; he knew that doing so might mean he would never get the workers back.

Huntington’s correspondence often chided his western partners when he thought progress was too slow. In turn, Judge Crocker expressed his exasperation with his Eastern Associate, letting Huntington know when he failed to timely arrange for the shipping of rails and other materials required to move forward.

As much as Huntington relished the railroad business, Judge Crocker often expressed his desire to be done with it. His health suffered from the long hours and the stress. He suffered a minor stroke in the spring of 1868. In June, 1869, only one month after officers from the competing railroads drove the golden spike at Promontory Point, he suffered a second stroke, which left him paralyzed. He was done with the railroad. In August, 1869, he and his family set out for a two-year vacation to Europe, where they went on an art buying spree.

Judge Crocker died in 1875. As one of the Associates, he helped to build the wonder of his age, a network of railroads spanning the continent. His widow, Margaret, contributed to his legacy, in the form of many charitable causes. On May 6, 1885, Margaret presented the Crocker art gallery building, grounds, and the E.B. Crocker art collection to the City of Sacramento and the California Association of Museums. The museum was the first public art gallery west of the Mississippi. It remains a vibrant world-class gallery and is located in historic Sacramento.

crocker-art-museum-photo

Crocker Art Museum (Source: TripAdvisor.com)

Judge Crocker’s most colorful child was Aimee, whose autobiography is titled And I’d Do It Again. She married five times and lived an extravagant lifestyle. Among her marriages was one to a European prince. The marriage of American money to European royalty, as portrayed in Downton Abbey, was not uncommon during the Gilded Age. Huntington’s adopted child Clara also married European royalty.

Sources: Bain, Empire Express; Lavender, The Great Persuader. You can learn more about the Crocker family at http://crockerartmuseum.org.

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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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