On January 24th of 1848, a foreman named James Marshall was working on a sawmill along the American River, which flows across northern California. When he looked down at the streambed, a glint caught his eye, so he reached into the water and picked up gold. His discovery would change California and the United States forever. The Gold Rush would draw people from around the world: speculators, prospectors, gamblers, barkeeps, merchants and even prostitutes. It would intensify the slaughter of Natives. It would bring out the worst in people craving riches. Yet in one case, a guy who likely deserved a good killing never got what he had coming.
Marshall was working for the Swiss immigrant John Sutter, who had already built up a California empire that included fifty thousand acres of land and diverse enterprises. Constructing the sawmill was on Sutter’s to-do list, but Marshall’s find put a new wrinkle in things. Sutter and Marshall determined that the mineral was indeed gold. So, they did what they could to keep things quiet. Sutter owned the land but needed to establish clear title, which was easier said than done with the minimal government in the West. In fact, the Mexican War settlement terms were still being worked out. An influx of gold speculators would threaten his holdings. What Sutter needed was time and quiet.
Instead, he got screwed over. Sam Brannan was a Mormon merchant, sent to California to spread the Mormon message. Brannan heard rumours about the gold and realized the big money was in selling goods to prospectors. He soon gathered together some gold dust then headed down to San Francisco, where he promptly went around proclaiming the discovery of abundant gold in the American and Sacramento rivers.
San Francisco emptied out. Businesses closed up shop as their employees raced inland. Crowds swarmed over Sutter’s land as he quickly lost control of the situation and the possibilities he’d envisioned. This was only the beginning. Newspapers in the East and beyond rapidly publicized exaggerated findings of gold. The early prospectors in California were just the calm before the storm.
Driven by tales of surefire wealth, desperados came from every corner of the world to prospect in California. The stampede was on. California quickly went from a remote territory to a crowded one. If they weren’t coming by ship, they came overland from eastern states. Such trips took months over harsh and unforgiving lands and seas, crammed together with thousands of other men pursuing the same dream. Many weren’t prepared. Many had hostile disagreements and even violent clashes with fellow journeyers. Many pushed themselves too far, too fast, consumed by greed. Many of the Forty-niners reached the gold fields in the fall of 1849 and found it covered with prospectors - three hundred thousand in all.
Local indigenous people were often marginalized, harassed, pressed into service, or even killed by prospectors. Their living and fishing habitats were damaged and contaminated by prospecting practices. Diseases borne by the newcomers swept through Native populations. California was estimated to be home to 150,000 Natives before the Gold Rush. Within a few short years, that number was reduced to a mere 30,000.
Hispanics who had lived in California for generations were treated like foreigners in their own land or sometimes pushed out. The prospectors themselves panned in freezing-cold mountain-streams and lived in crowded dirty conditions. Then doubt set in: the gold just didn’t seem to be there in the quantities promoted and expected.
Merchants who set up shop during the stampede of 1849 or expanded on the existing businesses definitely had the right idea. Prospectors needed many supplies and selling goods to them offered more predictable profits than trying one's luck at gold panning. Less-reputable services were also in high demand. Ramshackle bars sprouted up in the gold fields, pouring liquor for those who wanted to celebrate success or drown frustrations. Prostitution was readily available to separate prospectors from whatever gold they did find, mostly enriching brothel owners, rather than those who did the grimy work of panning or pandering. Plus, gambling halls enticed prospectors to turn around bad luck on the flip of a card or the roll of a die.
All of this must have been frustration personified - to have heard the wild tales of riches, then to see a much different reality. Yes, there were prospectors who struck it rich, but they were mostly in the summer of 1848, long before the tens of thousands descended on the territory. For the Forty-niners, little wealth was there to be found. Instead, there was the angst, the doubt, and the fearful question: how do I go home a failure?
Soon, the Gold Rush was over. The surface gold was gone and prospectors headed home. A lot of gold had been lifted from the fields: tens of billions of dollars in today’s funds. California was made by the Gold Rush and San Francisco went from a sleepy village to a world emporium. Sam Brannan raked in the money selling goods and became the first Gold Rush millionaire. His fortune was mostly at the expense of John Sutter, who lost it all to squatting prospectors. He sought some government restitution for his losses, but to no avail. Today, his name is all over the map. Yet, John Sutter didn't rest in peace.
I’ve often thought about these two men. Sam Brannan was a no-good sneak, who cheated John Sutter out of a fortune. How many times did Sutter look back on all he had lost? How many times did it all come down to that one guy blabbing for everyone to hear? Brannan may even have expected a knife in the heart, a gun emptied into his chest, or a simple hanging. Just strangling the bastard would have been satisfying. I’d have done it. I’ve always wondered why Sutter didn’t.
William Kendall is a writer, photographer and rock climber from the Ottawa Valley. When he's not working on his world domination scheme (no golfers allowed), he can be found writing the forthcoming Heaven & Hell, plus his personal blog Speak Of The Devil.