As I said last time, the remaining columns of 2000 would be brand new. September of that year marked the 150th anniversary of California's entry into the Union - a landmark that seemed to get less attention than I would have thought.

I decided to pay a tribute of my own via this long overdue gaze at the various "gold rushes" of the state.

This column did not see print at the time, though it was due for inclusion in the May 2002 newsletter. As you may know by now, I was retired by then, and so a shortened version of this did not see print until May of 2003.

This, however, is the full piece.


First of all, Happy Admission Day!

What's that - you're asking what is "Admission Day"?

Oh dear.

I must remember that most current California residents seem to hail from Somewhere Else. Additionally, I should be cognizant of the fact that, this being the online edition of our Newsletter, I am (at least potentially) speaking to a global audience.

I apologize. And must hasten to instruct.

For it is this month, September of 2000, that California celebrates its 150th Anniversary as a State of the Union. You may have noticed the grand celebrations, the fireworks, the displays, the -

You didn't? Actually, neither did I. It seems, sadly enough, to be a non-event. Perhaps people were just not aware, perhaps so many of us are simply from Other Places. Still, one yearns for earlier days, when every year around September 9th folks would git theirselves duded up in old prospectin' duds, and whoop and holler like it was 1850 again . . .

Ah, the old days, when gold could be casually picked out of the American River, when life was cheap and women were almost nonexistent, when miners went broke while pick and shovel salesmen got rich enough to build railroads . . .

And then, of course, there's the almost mythical source of all that early gold: the famed "motherlode".

Naturally, what else could I do but devote this month's column the Early Days of California?

Gold in the Hills


Now, the story's been told again and again, and I don't want to jabber on about stuff all and sundry are probably pretty well aware of, but just in case I'll give you folks a little encapsulation of what went on in those fabled times.

First of all, the land that now constitutes the State of California has changed hands a mind-numbing number of times. It is difficult to believe, but at the time the first Europeans set foot on California soil (the Spanish soldiers and missionaries, headed by Father Junipero Serra), at least one third of the entire Native American population of what is now the United States lived in California! There were many, many tribes, and at least sixty completely different languages at the time. The tragic tale of the incredible decimation and almost complete annihilation of these tribes is sadly all too typical of the Europization of the United States, and outside the scope of this particular narrative. Suffice it to say that very few survived.

California, with the coming of the Spanish missionaries, became part of the Spanish Empire, and then, with the Mexican Revolution, found itself part of the independent nation of Mexico. Then, in May of 1846, the Mexican-American War erupted, and the Yankees that had moved in increasing numbers to this fair land banded together, taking advantage of the situation, and fought their own war against Mexico.

So it was, in January of 1847, over a year before the rest of the War was over, that California became a free and independent state: the "Bear Flag Republic". A month or so later, the ill-fated Donner Party survivors were rescued (and if you don't know that story we'll get to it in an upcoming column), and by mid-year a fellow named John Sutter is developing what he hopes will be an Agricultural Empire in Northern California.

Heh heh . . .

Well, some of you may know where this is heading. James Marshall arrives to assist Sutter, heading down to the nearby American River to built a sawmill, as Sutter was expanding his farmland holdings rapidly and needed more and more wood, and then . . .

On January 24, 1848, Marshall notices something shiny in the river.

Yep, it's gold, folks.

Five days later Marshall shows Sutter his findings. Now, you must realize that neither of them had any use for gold at the time. They had a shared dream to build a mighty farming empire in this fertile region, to make their fortune from the production and selling of food. Gold would only entice outsiders to come trampling into their domain, and drive up the real estate prices before they could buy it all up (as was their intention).

They elected to keep the discovery a secret.

There was one small problem.

You see, Marshall wasn't exactly building a sawmill all by himself. There were workers, many of them, and you will recall that Marshall had just seen that first gold nugget floating in the river.

Yes, the American River at that time was flowing with gold. Nuggets small and large were constantly pouring downstream, hitherto unnoticed by the wildlife denizens who had previously been the sole witnesses to this mineral miracle.

Suffice it to say, one or two workers soon noticed the stuff.

Four days after Marshall shared his discovery with Sutter, Mexico surrendered to the United States, and, among other things, ceded California to the States. Four days after that, the first rumor of gold leaked out of the sawmill site.

Sutter immediately realized he had a potential problem, and quickly sent an employee, Charlie Bennett, to the current seat of California government, Monterey, to buy up the surrounding land.

Bennett evidently blabbed about the gold findings to just about everyone he met on his journey. It was mid February. Within a month, the first account of the discovery was published in the port town of Yerba Buena, which had newly renamed itself "San Francisco". By the end of the month most of Sutter's employees had deserted, and were busy up and down the river, panning for gold nuggets - which, in those plentiful times, most of them found.

By the beginning of May, there were already 800 miners at work, even though no one in the nearest real city (the aforementioned San Francisco) had paid any attention to the rumors.

Actually, almost no one. A fellow named Sam Brannan took notice, and acquired a bottle full of freshly panned gold dust. He hid it away, and quickly and quietly proceeded to buy every pick, shovel and pan (as well as other mining accessories) in San Francisco. On May 12, having cornered the market, he made a great show of running through the city streets crying "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!", waving his bottle of dust as proof.

The fever was instantaneous. In weeks, Brannan made over 35,000 dollars from his suddenly in demand store of mining equipment, and by June 12 the city of San Francisco was so deserted that its last remaining newspaper folded. Everyone had gone to the River.

Anyway, word spread up and down the state (and even to Hawaii) by the end of July, in August reports hit the East Coast, and by December the President himself confirmed the rumors as indeed based in fact.

The Gold Rush was on.

The following year saw the first International wave of gold seekers hit California. They were the lucky ones, as throughout '49 (hence the term "Forty Niners") you could still pick the nuggets up from the very riverbed! However, by early 1850 this initial easy source of riches had been picked clean.

This, of course, deterred no one, as more fanciful means of acquiring the stuff came into play, and dams and trenches were set up, and large companies formed, and began to dominate the proceedings. So it was, as California became a state in September of that year, that the glory days of the individual miner were already at an end.

Amazingly, the stream of humanity seeking riches in the West would continue for another 24 years! Some ten years after statehood Mark Twain, then a mere journalist, would arrive, and gain his first fame with a fanciful documentation of a local frog jumping contest. His boss would find a bit of literary success down the line as well - his boss being the legendary Bret Harte, the great Western writer.

California in those days, before, during, and after the Civil War, had become a dream, a magnet, a promise of Wealth, Fame and Fortune. A new Eden.

And that's the story.

Well, almost.

In the early part of the twentieth century Edison was trying to dominate the film industry, then almost entirely operating out of New York City. As a result, a lot of independent companies moved West, and by the mid 1910's word had spread across the nation that Los Angeles, California was the ideal spot for making movies.

A new Rush was on. Aspiring actors and actresses, directors, etc. pawned everything they could to catch the next train to L.A.

In the 1930's, the midwest was decimated, in the heart of the Great Depression, by dust storms that wiped out countless farms and towns. Tales of California as the ultimate agricultural paradise soon sent multitudes packing for the West Coast (shades of Sutter's original dream).

In the 1960's, the city of San Francisco, having recovered from its desolation a century before, became host to a new breed of artistic free-thinkers, who had evolved a new anti-culture derived from the Beat movement that now embraced Pop Art and Rock and Roll.

In that time, every kid in America (or so it seemed) pawned everything they could to thumb the next ride to California, and become a part of the new Utopian Hippie movement.

More recently, a little thing called Silicon Valley came into being, and countless eggheads, hackers, etc. pawned everything they owned to get to San Jose and make their fortune in the new Computer spawned Information Age.

And many of them, as I write, have.

So the tale of California has, seemingly, been one of Gold Rush upon Gold Rush.

Ah, you're wondering about our early characters, the ones that got the whole thing started?

Funnily enough, Sutter, Marshall and Brannan all died penniless.

Others, Huntington among them (as in Huntington Park, Huntington Beach, etc), continued to sell shovels to subsequent miners and made a fortune.

Actually, Huntington went on to bring the first surfer to California, in the early 1900's.

What's that? Oh yes - the motherlode? That grand source where all this gold originated?

Well, my friends, to this day, it has never been found. It sits, undiscovered, somewhere in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, somewhere near an area now known forever as "Gold Country".

Would any of you care to buy a shovel?